Friday, 10 June 2016

First steps in orchestration

I noticed this question recently while scanning around my G+ page,

I can currently write for one or two instruments, but I want to work my way up to writing for orchestra eventually. Do any of you have any tips?

I can currently write for one or two instruments, but I want to work my Having taught a large number of young musicians how to compose with a variety of instruments I am going to take first bite at this matter, though I agree with everything that has been written by Nurtan in his section below.

I will take the tick list approach and offer a few pieces of advice while Nurtan takes you through some vital considerations that need to be kept regularly in mind.

There are a number of individual tasks in learning to orchestrate so the most obvious statement first, don’t attempt to do everything at once.  Ask yourself how many of these skills you are comfortable with:

Reading both treble and bass clef.

Reading the other clefs for viola, cello etc.

Understanding the system of transposing music for certain instruments.

Understanding the terminology used to indicate dynamics, expression, register changes (8va etc).

If you can do these you will have a good chance of following a score and that is your gateway to learning orchestration.

Reading a number of scores is vital to building up your knowledge of what can be done with an orchestra, but jumping in with a large score is not easy. Even as experienced readers Nurtan and I have experienced a few difficulties with the score for the Gothic Symphony by Havergal Brian, and some film scores (noting your interest on your G+ page) are large and complex.  Here is another progressive list:

Read scores for solo instrument (Bach cello suites to learn bass clef).

Read scores for a solo instrument and piano (Poulenc’s sonatas for woodwind instruments).

Read string orchestra works (Holst St. Paul’s Suite or Warlock’s Capriol Suite)

Read chamber works (Nielsen Wind Quintet Op. 43).

Read some early symphonies (Haydn, Mozart and earlier classical composers like Stamitz).

There are many scores available to you through lending libraries including IMSLP, a free online library.

Keep a record of the scores that you have listened to and make a note of particular parts that interest you.  If your aim is to write for film music then study vocal scores which are generally easier to follow than orchestral scores (fewer different clefs, no transposing instruments, words assist the following of the music). You could also purchase or borrow piano reductions of scores like Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms.

There are some details that need learning, the ranges of instruments in particular.  In my student days one had to purchase charts for range and fingering patterns sold as educational posters, thankfully digital copies today are free and plentiful, e.g.

Have it as your desktop picture!

There are also some excellent videos on instrumental technique (and many poor ones)

This is excellent:

and leads to many other sections of great interest, if only I had this type of resource available in my youth.

As this video is on the oboe, that reminds me to say learn near relative instruments and their similarities and differences, oboe / cor anglais etc.

The use of notation packages like Sibelius will assist you with a number of the tasks outlined above if you make a habit of making arrangements of sections of works.

Nurtan’s reply:

Orchestration is not any different than arranging a musical sentence to be played by two or more instruments. If you know how to write music to be played on a piano or any other multi-voice instrument then the orchestration is nothing more than assigning the notes to different instruments in an orchestra. This simple view is a very complex concept in reality.

In one sense, it suggests that an orchestra is an instrument and it plays the music you wrote on a different instrument. Therein lies the complex nature of orchestration. Since it is an instrument, you must know in detail how each part works in the score as a whole. This suggests that you must know how each instrument sounds, how each instrument sounds with another instrument and most importantly what it can and cannot do. This doesn't mean that one has to learn how to play every instrument, but it means that you learn how to listen to each instrument individually while the entire orchestra is playing.

There is only one way you can do this, you must listen with score in hand until you can pick the individual instruments. This sounds daunting; trust me, if you have even a moderately good ear, you can achieve this in a few days and it stays with you all your life as an added bonus. Once you learn to listen or better put, train your ear, you are ready to start to learn orchestration.

There are several requirements.

1. You must listen to at least one or two pieces a week with score in hand.

2. It is important to read a textbook on orchestration. There are several available, I find Walter Piston's book an approachable one - while the book has many detractors – it is a good start.

3. It is very important to read a large number of scores of familiar pieces. At the beginning, it is important to choose simpler and clearer examples. I would recommend baroque and classical periods and staying away from more complicated orchestral writing from Beethoven  to date until you are familiar with the basics. This should not be more than 3 to 6 months of diligent study.

At this point, you're ready to take on more complicated scores. You will find that the skills you will have acquired will stay with you the rest of your life and even if you don't orchestrate a single piece, ever, these skills will increase your enjoyment of music. While you're reading the orchestration book, listening to music perhaps you have not yet heard, and sharpening your understanding of the function of each orchestral section, you should orchestrate one or two simple lines every week. These need be long or complicated.

A 6 to 8 bar melody with or without a counter melody but with a simple harmony would be satisfactory.

During this initial period, one of us will be glad to answer any questions. Also, there are orchestration websites and hints are available; I have not looked at any of them as with any topic I would imagine some of them are good some of them are not. Good luck on your new journey. It is a wonderful skill that will increase your enjoyment of music whether you use it or not. We will be glad to give you any help or encouragement you ask for.

Here are some examples of our work;

Nurtan Esmen

A Day of Wind and Moon Op. 71: The Zen couplet "An eternity of endless space:  A day of wind and moon." (The Golden Age of Zen 246) is the motivating idea for this symphonic poem. It starts with a slow paced duet between two trumpets. The motives presented are further developed in an attempt to create images of endlessness using open structures, unfinished sentences and only brief continuity in any given direction.  Scored for  Woodwinds (2F, 2O/EH, 2C, 4B), Brass (4FH,2TP, 2TB),  timpani, bass drum, cymbals, 3 toms , large  gong, orchestral tubular bells and strings (16, 14, 10, 8, 6) the symphonic poem lasts about  13 minutes

Divertimento for a Woodwind Quartet  Op 74: This is a short, very approachable, happy and easy going piece. Musically, it is poly tonal with each instrument, by and large, playing in its own key (Flute G major, Oboe D major, Clarinet A major and Bassoon E major). A, E, F#, and B are the shared notes. The piece ends in G but throughout it does not establish a tonal centre. IMSLP 398289

Ken Hannaford

As most of my available works use sampling techniques and FM synthesis I will suggest listening to my Purcell arrangement in a version for 4 hands (piano) and synthetic sounds so you can hear how a film score could be built from earlier music.

and an arrangement of a very short piece by Robert Schumann