Today I'll be talking about some very basic orchestration principles and common ideas I think can benefit the beginning orchestrator or composer the most.
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
Orchestrating for Brass
Orchestrating for Percussion
Orchestrating for Strings
Orchestrating for Full Orchestra
I want to state here and now that I am NOT a hugely successful, genius orchestrator. My intent is to try and help others learn the things I already have without going to music school or asking a million composers (who don’t respond) about them. I’m only trying to help you and give you some general advice so writing a piece for full orchestra doesn’t scare the bejesus out of you.
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!
Matthew Harnage is a professional music composer, and arranger who works out of Raleigh, North Carolina.