How do you start to orchestrate?

I all of a sudden feel that I have entered a slightly scary, daunting world (and we’re not talking Wonderland, either).  Whilst it was quite a task to get nearly 20 minutes of music written for my short score, I was within my comfort zone; I was writing for the piano (but mentally ‘hearing’ orchestral sounds as I went along).

However, now that I need to start transcribing this for the small grouping of orchestral instruments that I have selected, it feels like I have been thrown into the wilderness without a map!

Obviously, my second year studies have prepared me for this stage and there are a lot of things that are coming back to me in terms of the arranging, but having opened the new score in Sibelius with all the instruments staring back at me, I wasn’t sure where to start.

And it was then that I stumbled across a really useful article written by Dr. David Brinkman.  The paper was prepared by him for the Instrumentation and Arranging Class at the University of Wyoming back in 2009 (reference below), and I wanted to take note in this blog post the guidance he gives about instrumentation generally, and his advice about transcriptions:

Knowing how each of the instruments sound is critical.  This sounds a little obvious; most people can tell the difference between a violin and a flute.  However, Dr Brinkman talks about really knowing them.

Ranges; what they are capable of, and what these different ranges truly sound like. This will then give me a sound / colour palette to work from.  I intend to write a dedicated blog post for each family of instruments (woodwind, brass, strings) which looks at each instrument in turn and describes them within their upper, middle and lower ranges.  I hope to find suitable examples on YouTube to support my research and provide me with a library of examples to keep referring to as I progress through my orchestrating.

Blend & balance; this is essentially the importance of understanding how to control the sound as one combines different instruments together. To get more blend, use families of instruments together such as strings or brass. To get less blend, use a variety of instruments together, such as a quartet of trumpet, clarinet, viola and bassoon. Avoid masking; this is when the melody gets hidden in the texture of the arrangement. Keeping the melody on top of the voicing is key to a good blend and can be achieved by making sure there is a good spread to the voicing to allow the melody enough space.  Ensure the melody has a different tone quality to the rest of the arrangement, and double the melody voice or make it louder; these can really help to bring it ‘out’.

Effective Orchestration:
Brinkman cites Samuel Adler’s text ‘The Study of Orchestration’ for the following recommendations when orchestrating:
1) Have a thorough knowledge of the instruments and their capabilities and characteristics in different ranges (see above).
2) Have an intimate knowledge of the piece’s structure, including its formal details (I consider myself already intimately involved with my own composition so this shouldn’t be a problem).
3) Have consideration for the orchestral style of the composer’s other works, or if not written for orchestra, understand the orchestral practices of the era in which the composer lives/lived (as this is the first piece that I have orchestrated, I am working with my own selection of instruments, which may not be conventional but is my interpretation).
4) Love the work you are orchestrating (this is pretty much a given for me).
5) A valid reason for orchestrating the work (I am meeting the course requirements by orchestrating this piece).
6) Examine the musical characteristics of the piece; the key, style, dynamics, range, character (pianistic? impressionistic? marchlike?) (my composition has various different keys, styles, ranges, and characters).
7) Make initial thoughts about the kinds of instruments that would be suitable (already done).
8) Determine what is the most important musical element that you want to start with (I’m very much taking this stage of my project from the beginning as I arrange it for the different instruments and I plan on moving through the composition in a very linear, start-to-finish way, aiming to orchestrate a minimum of 5 minutes of music every month between now and the end of January 2016).
9) Try various combinations of instruments for the melody, background, countermelody, rhythms, etc. Whilst melody is important, you may need to consider rhythmic interest that drives the piece first (I will definitely take this advice on board given that I have only got the first 2-3 minutes orchestrated so far).
10) Consider range and tonal effects (this ties in with my plans to analyse each instrument as noted before).
11) Keep ‘starting over’ until the arrangement starts to work. Be open to changing original plans, which instrument voices the melody at any one time, e.g. (I have already found myself re-working different phrases with alternative instruments to get the right sound and balance. I will continue to do this as I progress).
12) Decide how faithful to the original piece you intend being.  Do you need to change the rhythms, the octaves, do you need to stretch the sound or condense it? (I have already started to make small adjustments, i.e. reducing lengthy tied notes. I fully expect to continue adjusting as I continue this process).
13) Articulation – are the instruments able to do what you want them to? (another thing to remember to check)
14) Once completed, look back at the piece and ensure musical effects, dynamic changes, masking problems, balance and blend have all been checked. Look out for any doublings that appear; reduce them to thin the texture out or add more in to make the piece fuller (yes, yes, yes!)
15) Try to create light and shade in the texture; don’t have every instrument playing at the same time. Interpret the music; if the composer wants a change of sound and changes octaves , e.g., can you create a change in sound by adjusting the tone colour or doublings? (very good point and one that I must remember).
16) Orchestrate your dynamics; as the music gets louder, use more instruments and visa versa (such a good piece of advice and makes perfect sense. Just need to remember it).
17) Don’t overlook basic musical sound; chords voiced to the overtone series and voice leading, avoiding parallel octaves and 5ths and awkward jumps (again, yes).

Brinkman, D Dr (2009). How to Orchestrate and Arrange Music. Available: Last accessed 13/10/15.




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