Orchestration: Definition, Techniques & Tools

Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

Learn how composers use orchestration to add color and nuance to their music. Using different instruments--and combinations of instruments--allows music to be rich and expressive.

What is Orchestration?

I wanted to think up a great metaphor to help describe orchestration, but the best I could come up with is that it's a bit like cooking a huge Thanksgiving dinner. All the parts need to work together in harmony under coordination and strict timing; otherwise you end up with burnt turkey (or Tofurkey for the vegans!), runny gravy, and floppy green beans. Bad orchestration sounds like floppy green beans.

Philadelphia Orchestra
Philadelphia Orchestra

Dispensing with the metaphor, orchestration is the practice of composing for the symphony orchestra, which in modern times means writing for upwards of 20 to 30 separate instruments. Fortunately, there are some tricks that we'll go over later. In the meantime, suffice it to say, orchestration is grand in scale.

Before we dive in too deep, I would be remiss if I didn't mention some of the seminal texts on the topics of orchestration. Of utmost importance is, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov's text Principles of Orchestration. I consult it frequently while composing. Alfred Blatter's Instrumentation and Orchestration is an incredibly useful tool as well. It is the primary text used at Boston University (and many other institutions) for teaching orchestration.

Techniques of Orchestration

The goal here is to avoid floppy green beans. Let's assume you've studied Johann Joseph Fux's Gradus ad Parnassum and are moderately competent at counterpoint (that's writing note against note - multiple melodic lines sort of stuff). Harmony is relative to the composer and style, so we won't concern ourselves with that. Simplifying the process is crucial - you eat a large salad one bite at a time, and you orchestrate the same way.

First, think of the orchestra as a large choir. There are, in essence, only four parts to the orchestra: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Yes, each of those ranges is comprised of different instruments, but we'll get to that. Let's begin first with the macro view of four-part writing.

Once you have completed your four-part arrangement, it is time to start assigning instruments to each tone. Disregarding harmony for a moment, we're going to focus on timbre, which is essentially the quality or type of sound an instrument makes. For example, the strings have a soft timbre, whereas the trumpet is often considered forceful. Going beyond individual timbres, there are macro timbres: The string section is soft, supportive, lush, and lyric; the woodwinds are soft, playful, and lyric (though less than the strings); the brass are triumphant, forceful, strong, and loud.

Orchestration isn't 30 different instruments playing 30 different solos - we need to consider blend. Blend refers to how instrument timbres sound together. For example, the oboe and viola playing together is a classic way to highlight a lyric melody. The oboe lends a piercing quality to the otherwise reserved tone of the viola. There are other classic examples, including low brass with percussion; low brass and string bass; clarinets and violins. The combinations are endless.

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