First and foremost I think it’s very important to give a clear definition of instrumentation vs. orchestration:
Instrumentation - Learning about how the instruments themselves work. Things like timbre, range, playability, how most orchestra sections are laid out, and learning what is (and more importantly isn’t) idiomatic on a specific instrument.
Orchestration - This is the craft of arranging music for an orchestra. Usually when people mention orchestration they are talking about a traditional (romantic-era, usually) orchestra; woodwinds, brass, percussion, and strings. This includes layering techniques (doubling a melody with separate instruments), picking the correct instrument for a melody, accompaniment, and basically what plays what. I would say that instrumentation is an important part of orchestration, but orchestration is not inherently a part of instrumentation. Since I used the word arranging I feel the need to define that too.
Arranging - The craft of taking music from one form (lead sheet, melody and/or chords) and putting the music into a different form and/or instrumentation. For instance, you can arrange something for orchestra, and you can orchestrate something. Arranging is a basic term for saying you changed it somehow, orchestration DIRECTLY relates to the instrumentation being an orchestra.
Now that I have given definitions to some confusing terms, I can start giving some basic tips on solid working orchestration. These tips are meant to be short and self-explanatory and it should be noted that there are a lot more ideas I will talk about later. I will leave things out for the sake of brevity.
Ochestrating for Woodwinds
- Woodwind players need to breathe since air is what is creating the vibrations that make the notes. It’s important to remember than woodwind players can not play forever, and your woodwind parts should give room for the players to breathe.
- Another way to combat breathing problems is in using dovetailing techniques. Basically what this means is that as one part starts to run out of breathe (or before) another instrumentalists picks up the part. Here is an example:
- The basic woodwind section consists of piccolo and flute (the flutes), oboe (double-reed), clarinet (single-reed), and bassoon (double-reed). Reeds are a piece of wood that is used in the instruments mouthpiece to make the instrument produce sound. The single-reeds have one, double-reeds have two reeds that when put together provide the necessary vibrations to make the instrument sound.
- Generally speaking, grouping unlike instruments (pairing flutes with double-reeds) will have the most radical tone color change, while grouping like instruments (flutes [flute and piccolo], double reeds [oboes and bassoons]) will mostly increase volume and presence of the material.
- In contemporary writing woodwinds often provide the function of: melodies, countermelodies, runs to add movement, and accents. This is not to say woodwinds melodies don’t exist anymore because they do. However, I often hear them falling into these categories of writing (John Williams excluded, of course!).
- Woodwinds, as a group, are one of the most tonally versatile instruments in the orchestra and this should be taken advantage of. A flute has many different timbres across its range for instance. Get to know what they sound like.
- Generally speaking the higher a woodwind player plays, the louder they have to play to get the notes out clearly. This means having a flute play in its highest register at pianissimo is really difficult and completely depends on context.
Orchestrating for Brass
- Brass players have to breathe a lot due to the length of the embouchure (the mouthpiece they push air through); especially trumpeters who are playing very high parts consistently. Make sure you give them room to breathe in the music.
- Generally a standard brass section consists of 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones and a tuba.
- At forte dynamics, it's generally understood that 1 trumpet = 2 horns. Trumpets are loud!
- Did I mention that brass players have to breathe?
Orchestrating for Percussion
- The most common functions of orchestral percussion is as followed:
- Creating rhythmic ostinati
- Accenting big moments (think of the huge timpani hitting the dominate and tonic of the piece, or a suspended cymbal part leading to a huge cymbal crash in a climatic moment).
- Harmonic support. Think of a piano or harp playing arpeggios or chordal passages.
- This is not to say percussion can’t be used for melody. It happens all the time (glockenspiel doubling string melodies, piano melodies, etc). I’m just giving very general functions of full orchestral piece’s use of percussion.
- Percussion used too frequently loses it’s spice. I think a lot of composers fall into the trap of using percussion only for ostinati or rhythmics grooves (myself included). Try and keep it sparse and interesting. This is not easy, but it’s possible.
- Percussion players also have to breathe, but it’s not relevant to how long they can play their instrument (I mean it is, but you know what I mean, you silly goose).
Orchestrating for Strings
- A typical strings section consists of 1st violins, 2nd violins, violas, cellos, and contrabasses (double basses).
- There are lots of ways to part-write strings for 4 and 5 voices. I will discuss this further, but a really simple voicing that works all the time (but is very generic) is: violins I = soprano, violins II = alto, violas = tenor, cellos = bass, doublebasses = bass (an octave below cello). In a later article I will be going into lots of common voicings. This article will be extremely helpful for you if you are looking for new and interesting ways to write for strings!
- For the love of god please hear me on this: DIVISI DOES NOT MEAN LOUDER! For those who don’t know, “divisi” is when one section of the strings plays two separate parts. For example, the 1st violins have two notes written for them. Say there are 16 people in the 1st violins section. 8 players take one note while the remaining 8 players take the second note. There seems to be a big misconception that divisi makes things louder. It doesn’t. Divisi gives the part more range and harmonic weight, it does not make the part louder. This is because a note is losing some of its weight. Divisi is extremely useful for filling in harmonies when you want a specific sound, or when all of the other players are unavailable to fill in the harmonies.
- When seeking a big string sound, use doubling. Doubling two or more sections on one part increases the projection power of that part significantly. (Going from 16 players a note, to 28 is a big difference!)
Orchestrating for Full Orchestra
- One of the best methods for getting better at orchestration is score reading. This means looking at full scores of music as you listen, then figuring out what they are doing. Also, I’ve found hand copying an entire orchestral score forces your mind to notice things you might miss. This approach takes a lot of time but it truly is a valuable learning experience.
- Keep lots of space in the lower registers of the piece. In all cases having close harmonies in the lower register creates lots of muddiness and unclarity. More space in the bass clef area range, and less space when you get into the treble range and higher.
- Try and keep each player’s part interesting if you can. Real people are playing this and I feel it’s important that they WANT to play your music. (If you’re only composing for sample libraries, it still can be valuable to think of the piece this way)
- Make sure if you are changing textures that your decision of doing it immediately (bringing in an entire orchestra out of nowhere) or gradually (introducing new textures slowly) is conscious. Not saying which is right or wrong. Just be conscious.
- Try to have your orchestration decisions in service to your intent of the music. If you intend the melody to be dark and low, use a bassoon, tuba, whatever fits your intent. This isn’t a hard and fast rule. Basically make your decisions consciously, don’t use a texture just because you’re comfortable with it and know it will sound okay. It’s okay if you struggle with this (I do it ALL the time), but the only way to combat it is trying to stay aware of yourself.
- Thinking of the way you orchestrate in terms of function is helpful. Background, middleground, and foreground are terms used often to describe how you want that part to function. This can be helpful in making orchestration decisions.
Here is another great resource for quick tips by a fantastic orchestrator: Thomas Goss.
This is a cumulative cultivation of our craft, and will take time. This is perfectly normal.
Good luck orchestrating and thanks for reading!