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Thread: What truly makes a good orchestrator?

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    Senior Member clavichorder's Avatar
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    Default What truly makes a good orchestrator?

    Music theory typically has more of a focus on harmony, but there are subtle harmonics that go into making the different timbres of instruments, so it must underly orchestration to some extent.

    Janacek is one of my favorite orchestrators. I love the clarity of his sound, particularly with the strings. His orchestration seem to perfectly enhance his musical ideas and sense of form. This is something I would really have to look at the score on, but I get the feeling that his orchestration is not the most complex, and yet it really does it for me.

    I don't really know how to penetrate the surface of this topic, but I thought I'd post it in music theory in case anyone has some deeper perspectives.

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    Senior Member arpeggio's Avatar
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    I went rummaging through the internet and found the following which seems to me a good overview of the process.

    "Orchestration

    Now that we are familiar with the different instruments of the orchestra and have a good idea of how to incorporate them into a cohesive ensemble, we begin our life long journey of discovering how to artfully extract the most possible beauty from this collection of versatile sound producing devices. With so many choices of instruments, the task can seem a little daunting at first, but through practice, we can recognize patterns that will help guide our decisions and yield powerful and provocative orchestral textures.

    Before we begin assigning parts to instruments, it is very important that your music makes sense to the ear in an absolute sense. What I mean by absolute sense is that if you were to have one or two pianists play the entire composition, would the music be easily digested by the ear with clearly defined musical lines or would it be difficult to discern the different parts from one another? If the answer is the latter, you probably want to revisit the composition of the music before you attempt to orchestrate it. Well composed music will always translate better to the orchestra, so take the time and make sure you're happy with the notes before you start deciding which instruments should play them.


    Balance

    Balance is arguably the most important factor in successfully orchestrating a piece of music. During orchestra rehearsals, a large percentage of time is spent on adjusting the dynamic levels of individual instrument parts to assure that all parts are audible and an even, balanced texture is achieved. Our goal as orchestrators is to minimize the need for these dynamic adjustments so that every instrument is clearly audible and free of conflicts between instruments with little effort by the performers. The end result will have a greater sense of cohesion, rather than sounding like a pack of misfits all competing to be heard.

    The different factors that affect balance are as follows:

    1.Number of instruments playing the line. The more players that are playing a given line, the louder and more powerful the line becomes. That being said, equal numbers of instruments of equal weight in tone will produce an even balance. For example, two flutes playing a melody line in unison will balance evenly with two bassoons playing a bass line in unison.
    2.Instrument's family. As a general statement, brass and percussion instruments are the strongest members of the orchestra, then the strings, and then the woodwinds. Careful consideration must be taken when balancing parts among the different families. It is often best to balance each family within itself to achieve an even balance in the whole orchestra.
    3.Instrument's register. The quality of tone and degree of weight varies greatly depending on the instrument's register. It is very important to understand these differences to properly balance textures. Refer to the range charts given in the "Overview of Orchestral Groups"
    4.Vertical relationship to the other parts. The top line of a texture is the easiest to hear, the bottom line is the next easiest, and the middle voices are the most difficult.
    5.Space between parts. The farther apart voices are from each other, the easier it is to discern them from one another.
    6.Degree of movement. The more a part moves, the more it sticks out within a texture. The less a part moves, the more it fades into the background.
    7.Dynamics. Although, balance through instrumentation is commonly the best approach, certain instances call for instruments to play at different dynamic levels. Suppose you want to have your first violinist stand up and take a solo. You would likely want to have the orchestra playing two dynamic shades lower than the first violinist so as not to drown him/her out.


    Blending

    One of the most interesting aspects of orchestration is the blending of timbres. Just as an artist mixes paints to produce different shades of color, an orchestrator blends timbres to produce different shades of sound. With the sheer number of instrument and articulation combinations, the possibilities for different timbres are virtually infinite. As an orchestrator, it is your job to experiment with all these different combinations and discover the ones that best suit the music you are orchestrating.

    It is important to understand that the more instruments you have playing a given line, the less colorful the line becomes, but with loss of color comes gain in power. As you begin blending timbres, there are a few different factors that tend to produce better results:

    1.When the instruments are in the same family and even more so in the same subgroup (e.g. single-reeds).
    2.When the instruments are evenly balanced with each other (e.g. 1 trumpet playing f = 2 french horns playing f).
    3.When the instruments play adjacent voices.
    4.When the instruments play parts that are similar to each other, especially in articulation.
    5.When none of the timbres attract more attention than the others.
    6.When the intervals between the instruments remain relatively consistent.


    Function

    A major part of making decisions when it comes to balance and blending is function. It is important to understand how a given line functions in relation to all the other parts. For this purpose, we can break it down into three different functions from greatest to least importance: melody, bass, and accompaniment. The following methods can be used to help maintain a clear function throughout your arrangement:
    •Melody◦Keep line on top of the texture
    ◦Double on the unison or in octaves
    ◦Use instruments with greater strength
    ◦Use the more powerful registers
    ◦Use louder dynamic markings

    •Bass◦Keep line on the bottom of the texture
    ◦Double on the unison or in octaves
    ◦Use instruments with powerful low registers
    ◦Use louder dynamic markings

    •Accompaniment◦Keep lines in the middle of the texture
    ◦Use less doubling
    ◦Use instruments with lesser strength
    ◦Use the weaker registers
    ◦Use instruments of similar timbres
    ◦Use softer dynamic markings


    Closing Thoughts

    Although there are many different techniques to achieve favorable results when it comes to orchestration, there are no rules set in stone. Sometimes the best moments are those when the rules are broken. For example, the opening of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" is a bassoon solo played at the very top of the bassoon's range that has a plaintive, almost piercing quality to it. Most orchestrators would never dare give that part to a bassoon, especially not at the very beginning of the ballet. But that is what makes the music so great and innovative is that he took chances and broke the rules, and it paid off. At the premiere, the music had such a profound effect on the audience that a riot broke out in the concert hall!

    Some other things you can do to become a better orchestrator are:
    •Learn as much as possible about each instrument. The more you know about each of the different instruments, the more comfortable you will feel giving parts to them. Get to know some orchestral musicians. They know more about their instruments than anyone else and can provide you with a wealth of invaluable knowledge.
    •Read books on orchestration. The purpose of this article is to be a crash course in orchestration and was by no means meant to cover all the topics associated with orchestration. Go to your local library and check out some books on orchestration.
    •Practice and experiment. There is no substitute for experience, so don't be afraid to try new things. Even if the results are not as favorable as you had hoped, you're learning. Over time you'll develop an arsenal of techniques that you can use to achieve any hue of expression you desire.
    Stravinsky has been quoted for coining the phrase, "Good composers borrow, great composers steal." Even if you try your hardest to sound exactly like someone else, you'll only end up sounding like yourself trying to sound like that person. No matter what you do, you'll always sound like yourself, so why worry about it? Steal away! They've already done a lot of the hard work for you, so take advantage.

    Furthermore, if you're going to steal, steal from the best. Why would you ever want to steal from an average composer? It's only going to make your music sound average. Steal from the best, and your music will reflect that.

    Orchestration may seem intimidating at first, but the more you do it, the better you will get at it. The orchestra can be the most versatile medium you will ever use, so spend time to get comfortable with it. Leonard Bernstein said it best in his 1958 broadcast of his Young People's Concerts series, "The right music played by the right instruments at the right time in the right combination: that's good orchestration." "

    Source: http://www.gamedev.net/page/resource...stration-r2718
    It is impossible to make anything foolproof because fools are so ingenious. And I am a very ingenious fellow

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    Senior Member arpeggio's Avatar
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    Default Personal observation

    From my experiences playing with an orchestra or band I have found that when performing a well orchestrated piece very rarely are all of the musicians playing at the same time. I know I am doing a poor job of explaining it. Even when in an orchestra one still has the feel of playing chamber music. You may sit around resting for minutes but when you do play, even if it is an accompaniment, you are the only one playing the line. Most of the time the work is a series of segments where different combinations of instruments are playing with each other.

    Most of the time a bad orchestrator has all of the instruments playing together at the same time. One then rarely hears the unique sounds that the various combinations of small groups of instruments can produce.

    Hopefully someone can do a better job of explaining it than I just did.
    Last edited by arpeggio; Oct-07-2015 at 05:53.
    It is impossible to make anything foolproof because fools are so ingenious. And I am a very ingenious fellow

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    Senior Member Gaspard de la Nuit's Avatar
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    What makes a great orchestrator.....well, mostly whether or not they consulted me before writing their piece

    Well, you can buy a book on orchestration for $40-$100 online that will give you a good overview, you can spend time with musicians who play the instruments you want to write for or attempt to learn to play them yourself, and/ or you can start writing and learn from experience (the hard/ only way).

    In the end, I think it takes a deep sensitivity that comes from your gut; if you have enough experience, the spirit of your expression will tell you exactly what it wants.

    my typical handful of cliche/ obvious statements formatted to try and sound like something sophisticated, but this topic interests me so i felt like replying
    Last edited by Gaspard de la Nuit; Oct-06-2015 at 19:38.
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    Senior Member Richannes Wrahms's Avatar
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    Just double everything in octaves, several times in the case of the bass, make everything really loud and beyond the limits of the instrument registers.

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    Senior Member clavichorder's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Richannes Wrahms View Post
    Just double everything in octaves, several times in the case of the bass, make everything really loud and beyond the limits of the instrument registers.
    Is there a particular composer that utilizes this golden template of orchestration?
    Last edited by clavichorder; Oct-07-2015 at 05:33.

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    Senior Member Headphone Hermit's Avatar
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    ^^^ You ask a very good question in the OP

    We have had an example of general advice for beginners in Arpeggio's post, but it hasn't answered the question as it was set. I guess it is because of the difficulties of defining good practice - in my profession, I know that it is really difficult to define what makes good preofessional practice - it is easier to daw attention to weak practice, it is easy to poijt to how a particular example of professional practice may be improved but attempts to identify the characteristics of good professional practice are often unsatisfactory because excellence often goes beyond the sum of the individual components and has a (sometimes large) component of je ne sais quoi that is clearly 'good' even when we cannot define or identify 'good'.
    "Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils." Berlioz, 1856

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    Senior Member EdwardBast's Avatar
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    The term orchestration and the description of the process in some of the material arpeggio has been kind enough to quote above strike me as fundamentally strange and misguided, particularly passages like: "Before we begin assigning parts to instruments, it is very important that your music makes sense to the ear in an absolute sense." The implication here is that the composer has composed a bunch of notes in the abstract or on the piano and then must decide who is going to play them. Why this two-stage process of composing and then orchestrating after the fact? Such a process seems like horrible advice to me and the situation that makes it necessary should be avoided like the plague. Orchestral music, ideally, should be written with the sounds of the instruments playing it in mind from the beginning. Don't write a melody for piano and then debate whether an oboe or a trumpet should play it. Either write a melody for oboe or one for trumpet.
    Last edited by EdwardBast; Oct-09-2015 at 16:00.

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    Quote Originally Posted by EdwardBast View Post
    The term orchestration and the description of the process in some of the material arpeggio has been kind enough to quote above strike me as fundamentally strange and misguided, particularly passages like: "Before we begin assigning parts to instruments, it is very important that your music makes sense to the ear in an absolute sense." The implication here is that the composer has composed a bunch of notes in the abstract or on the piano and then must decide who is going to play them. Why this two-stage process of composing and then orchestrating after the fact? Such a process seems like horrible advice to me and the situation that makes it necessary should be avoided like the plague. Orchestral music, ideally, should be written with the sounds of the instruments playing it in mind from the beginning. Don't write a melody for piano and then debate whether an oboe or a trumpet should play it. Either write a melody for oboe or one for trumpet.
    Several composers considered great orchestrators did in fact use this method, including Ravel.

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    Senior Member Gaspard de la Nuit's Avatar
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    The two-step process makes sense for people learning to orchestrate, especially since orchestrating piano music is a common way to learn...though to me conceiving the timbre (not specific instruments, but the kind of sound approximately) at the same time as the other aspects of any given musical idea seems like it's overall going to be better.
    "Only in being hidden does the Divine reveal itself."

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    Quote Originally Posted by Mahlerian View Post
    Several composers considered great orchestrators did in fact use this method, including Ravel.
    And Stravinsky.

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    Quote Originally Posted by EdwardBast View Post
    The term orchestration and the description of the process in some of the material arpeggio has been kind enough to quote above strike me as fundamentally strange and misguided, particularly passages like: "Before we begin assigning parts to instruments, it is very important that your music makes sense to the ear in an absolute sense." The implication here is that the composer has composed a bunch of notes in the abstract or on the piano and then must decide who is going to play them. Why this two-stage process of composing and then orchestrating after the fact? Such a process seems like horrible advice to me and the situation that makes it necessary should be avoided like the plague. Orchestral music, ideally, should be written with the sounds of the instruments playing it in mind from the beginning. Don't write a melody for piano and then debate whether an oboe or a trumpet should play it. Either write a melody for oboe or one for trumpet.
    It seems to me that the degree to which a composer needs to think directly in terms of orchestral colors depends somewhat on the style of the music. Some styles are more adaptable than others to different orchestrations, and works in those styles (Bach's music is probably the classic case) may be more conceivable as "absolute" constructions. It's also obvious that composers present the same musical ideas in different orchestrations within the same work, according to context. Innumerable fine melodies and harmonic effects are quite adaptable in this way, which is one of the things that makes them useful in creating larger musical structures.

    It would be interesting to know how much use various composers have made of the piano in working out their ideas while composing. There must be a continuum between those who create a full "piano reduction" on two staves before producing an orchestral score and those who compose directly for orchestra. I believe Berlioz, who didn't play the piano, did the latter, while Wagner, who played the piano serviceably, did the former. They are both, of course, masters of the orchestra, but their predominant styles may point to the difference in their method, with Berlioz preferring a transparent texture exhibiting the individuality of the instruments and Wagner often (though not always) creating rich blends in which individual timbres often disappear. Given the impressiveness of what each produced, I'd be hesitant to say that Berlioz's approach was better, particularly as I'm sure Wagner had many of his orchestral effects in mind even as he produced his piano scores. Maybe the centrality of harmony to his style made composing at the piano a necessity for him; I think it's responsible for the fact that much of the "essence" of his music is felt in piano reduction, while Berlioz's reliance on instrumental color makes a lot of his music sound odd and weak when so reduced.
    Last edited by Woodduck; Oct-10-2015 at 02:33.

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    Senior Member Richannes Wrahms's Avatar
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    You can also write in a piano staff while thinking orchestrally, the purpose being practicality and easier reading.

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    Senior Member Gaspard de la Nuit's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Richannes Wrahms View Post
    You can also write in a piano staff while thinking orchestrally, the purpose being practicality and easier reading.
    I read that that's how a lot of movie scores would be done; the composer would write the music on two grand staves and write in what instruments were to play them, then the orchestrators would actually write it.
    "Only in being hidden does the Divine reveal itself."

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    Senior Member Gaspard de la Nuit's Avatar
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    By 'wind instruments' I meant flute, like how you hear in Native American and eastern flute playing.....the western concert flute can bend pitches but I've almost never heard it used.
    "Only in being hidden does the Divine reveal itself."

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