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Writing for Orchestral Instruments

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Some composers still enjoy the amazing privilege of working with a live orchestra to record their work. Imagine having a 60-piece string orchestra just sitting in front of you, ready to play your latest composition. A full woodwind and brass section right there, waiting to do your bidding! So how do you create your musical ideas in such a way so that each part sounds perfectly tailor made and ‘just right’ for that instrument? 

How does the clarinet actually sound in a particular given octave range? Is this part going to be too low for the oboe? How can my cello part here best accompany that awesome sweeping violin theme tune I’ve just written? And when do I bring in the french horns - how will that alter the overall ‘feel’ of the piece at this particular moment? 

In this introductory article to a what is a highly complex, multifaceted subject, we will be looking at a few of the basics that can point you in the right direction, hopefully with a few interesting musical excerpts by way of illustration.


Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Shostakovitch

First of all, it helps to remember that orchestral writing is a craft that dates back centuries. Quite a few pretty famous people have already been there and done it, some of them rather well! So it’s not a bad idea to see what we can learn from them. 

The size and make-up of the orchestra has evolved over time from the stripped down ‘pre-classical’ and ‘classical’ string and ‘two of each’ woodwind sections, to the much more heavyweight ‘romantic’ period orchestras of Tchaikovsky, Wagner, and Mahler. The kind of romantic period writing that happened during the 19th and early 20th century typically used bigger string and woodwind sections, a large complement of brass, and a full range of orchestral percussion. 

Then there’s the instruments themselves. Some of them evolved in radical ways; trumpets and French horns became valve instruments during this period enabling them to play chromatically, which wasn’t possible before.

So what about the kind of modern day scoring that is often done for blockbuster films and market leading games? I can’t do better than suggest that you begin by studying some of the orchestral scores that have already been written, particularly those from the romantic period, where the orchestra size and type of score writing seems to fit most closely with the modern day approach. 

Studying Orchestral Music

Just recently, I listened to Mahler’s 1st Symphony again, which I know well from my music student days, and was struck by how ‘cinematic’ it actually sounds. The reason for this is not hard to figure out. So many film score writers have copied many times over the idioms and techniques of this and other similar romantic orchestral works, that it seems impossible to hear them now quite as they would have been perceived at the time. 

Here’s a clip from the beginning of the 4th movement; how’s this for a spell-bindingly dramatic opening? Listen at 1:44, notice the muscular counterpoint between the violins and cellos/basses in the string section and the ominous sounding trombones and French horn gesture that follows. (Excerpt below is transcribed from the orchestral score.)

Or, here’s Shostakovitch’s 5th Symphony; a 20th century romantic classic. Note the powerful brass theme that enters at 37:10; preceded by a woodwind flourish and then punctuated throughout by the timpani section. Epic stuff; powerful enough for the dramatic climax of any film!  

But did you spot the pathos of the beautiful harp solo with string accompaniment that precedes it at 35:07? The scoring here is so simple and yet so tender, fragile and endearing. (Excerpt below is transcribed from the orchestral score.)

Most of Us Are MIDI Orchestrators!

The reality is that most of us will never meet our dream orchestra for a studio session. We have to be satisfied with a set of samples, working within the context of our sequencer package. 

These days, the MIDI orchestra can be a pretty impressive and powerful tool, especially with samples at the top end of the market. But using it is actually a very different kind of experience when compared to the real thing. 

Someone has likened it to a computer animation. A talented designer could no doubt make a highly impressive computer animation of any top celebrity. When you see it, you would say that really reminds you of the real person. But meeting the real celebrity would be an entirely different proposition. 

So let’s try to identify some key differences, as this will actually help us write for orchestral instruments more effectively and in a far more impressive way.

How to Make Your Instrument Writing More Realistic

The real orchestra is capable of playing some things that are practically impossible to re-create with MIDI; but equally it is very easy to write parts that can’t be played well by live musicians, if at all.  

Here’s four specific tips that will help you avoid the obvious pitfalls:

  • Live musicians need to breathe. That lyrical flute part you wrote; did you remember to write it in breathable phrases? Even if you didn’t write in any rests, there has to be space somewhere for it to be playable and therefore believable to listen back to. String players have to change bow direction as they play and wind players need to breathe, so for our music arrangements to sound right, we need to write parts that take this into account. 

  • When you divide string parts (i.e. the 1st violins split to play two parts), don’t be tempted to play each part with the same string patch. Doing this will effectively double the size of the orchestra at that point, but in real life you actually only have the same number of 1st violin players to play the two parts. The orchestral score instruction ‘divisi strings’ means just that; half the number of string players will play each part. The result sounds different; less multi-layered.

  • In the real world, any musician can vary their note articulations effortlessly. For example, string players can move from staccato to marcato, tenuto to legato at a moments notice. A good, well rehearsed string section can do this fantastically well, moving as one body. In fact many memorable melodies depend for their effect on varied note articulation within the phrase. Unfortunately this is harder to do in the MIDI world, as it involves selecting a different patch or hitting a key switch to change the length of note or decay envelope. As a result, MIDI writers tend to make the mistake of writing parts in one articulation only for unnaturally long periods of time. 

  • Another thing that is easy to do in the real world is for string groups to play with widely varied dynamics, moving from soft to loud and back again through the phrase. Using samples, this isn’t quite so straightforward. It involves not only programming the part but also adding continuous controller information that can create the overall dynamic shape of the phrase. But that is certainly possible, and that extra work is going to be worth it for the extra realism that it will then create. 

  • Finally, an obvious point perhaps, but every orchestral instrument has a playable range. Writing outside that range might be possible in the MIDI world, but it will certainly sound less realistic.  So, oboe parts that go below Bb, or clarinet parts that go below E, clearly won’t work. Many score writing software packages are capable of informing and warning you of these kind of range limitations. 

  • Beyond instrument range issues, there’s another point to be made. Many orchestral instruments have a slightly different timbre or tonal colouration depending on which part of their range they are playing in. 

Writing well for orchestral instruments therefore means learning about what can work well in the different octave ranges of each instrument; what kind of phrases sounds idiomatic. For example, a high flute part can sound very bright; effervescent, but a legato phrase written in the lowest octave can sound mellifluous, even seductive. 

Here’s a famous example; the opening of Debussy’s ‘Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune’. Note the composer’s instruction ‘sweet and expressive’; the range is the bottom octave; the flute’s lowest note is reached in Bar 9.

Here’s another short excerpt; the opening few bars feature the oboe this time. The lowest note on the instrument is almost reached in Bar 11. This excerpt was recently featured together with a number of others from the orchestral repertory that oboists would be expected to play in order to audition for top orchestral jobs. Notice in the audio clip the clarinet echoes the oboe, also in its lowest octave. 

Conclusion

The abundance of expression markings in most written orchestral scores tell us that professional orchestral musicians are routinely expected to perform with great dexterity and control, as well as coping with a great deal of complexity. So if we do get the chance, let’s really give them something challenging to play! 

String players are also highly versatile and can easily make parts that cross strings sound seamless, but it is still the case that certain types of musical phrase are more suited to particular ranges for each instrument. It’s worth bearing in mind that every orchestral string instrument has four strings, each set to its own tuning; the lower strings tend to have a slightly richer, darker timbre than the higher ones.

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