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    Default Orchestration

    It seems everything talked about on here is about harmony and tone in general, and orchestration and counterpoint are never discussed.

    To the composers here, what individual quirks do you have with orchestration? What instruments do you enjoy combining as to produce unique and beautiful sounds?

    And with counterpoint, what instruments have you found work best together?

    Mahler said that the clarinet, flute, and piccolo combined produce the most clarity which is true, and I've been experimenting with select brasses with woodwinds to produce a powerful yet penetrating and beautiful sound.

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    My great joy is writing idiomatic string technique, the knowledge of which was built up over years of study and professional scoring and recording. The strings are sadly underused in this regard by some composers imv (especially digital composers) which is a shame, because the idiomatic resource has an unlimited wealth of creative options for foreground, background work, intricate rhythmic accompaniments and all manner of figuration and spacing. Added to the fact that they can play whisper quiet through to fff aggression and multiple divisi, the sections potential as a whole in a score is sometimes sadly missed because creativity can be restricted when instrumental potential is not fully assimilated. As a result, aural and musical imagination may be restricted too because of a lack of knowledge. If one can master scoring for strings in an idiomatic way the musical palette is greatly enhanced as is the compositional potential - it can be learnt with sustained study and it's well worth the effort -it's an amazing resource.

    Obviously successful contrapuntal scoring is to a large extent also dependant on register, spacing, rhythmic difference, tempo and the general competence of the writing (which should also be appropriately matched in terms of character to an instrument/section), as much as it is to colour. Colour can of course highlight differences between the lines or unify with similarity. But colour can also be used for effect, eg to partially colour another timbre (line), to add weight for balancing, or it can be a complex multi-timbral colour. Octave doublings, accents, changing, morphing timbres, are all possible with an imaginative approach to colour in line. Stark contrasted colour too, in the right circumstances, is as valid a resource as any other.

    I'd suggest that in one sense it's not always just a question of what works best in contrapuntal or any other scoring - there are obvious, common, well known combinations that work fine. However colour choice is also about the musical intent. This can range from the staid to the bizarre, from the unison to the antiphonal, from the emotional to harsh and imv, the timbral objective should be decided upon at the compositional stage as the creative decisions taken then can obviously greatly enhance the efficacy of the composition/effect because of the synergy inherent when orchestral and instrumental knowhow informs creativity and vice versa.
    Last edited by mikeh375; Nov-19-2019 at 20:47.

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    In view of your comments above, Mikeh375, I think that you'll like this piece !
    (Michael Tippett, Concerto for double string orchestra; I. Allegro con brio.)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9hBY2G4wes
    Last edited by TalkingHead; Nov-19-2019 at 15:13.

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    ahhh Talking H, I've known and loved it for many years thanks. It's a great piece isn't it? Do you know his Fantasia Concertante on a theme by Corelli? Worth checking out too if not, another masterpiece and immensely moving. Both works of course displaying his contrapuntal mastery.
    Last edited by mikeh375; Nov-19-2019 at 15:25.

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    Quote Originally Posted by mikeh375 View Post
    ahhh Talking H, I've known and loved it for many years thanks. It's a great piece isn't it? Do you know his Fantasia Concertante on a theme by Corelli? Worth checking out too if not, another masterpiece and immensely moving. Both works of course displaying his contrapuntal mastery.
    Hello again, Mikeh375. Yes to both questions. I rather prefer the Doube Concerto, but there you go.

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    Quote Originally Posted by mikeh375 View Post
    My great joy is writing idiomatic string technique, the knowledge of which was built up over years of study and professional scoring and recording. The strings are sadly underused in this regard by some composers imv (especially digital composers) which is a shame, because the idiomatic resource has an unlimited wealth of creative options for foreground, background work, intricate rhythmic accompaniments and all manner of figuration and spacing. Added to the fact that they can play whisper quiet through to fff aggression and multiple divisi, the sections potential as a whole in a score is sometimes sadly missed because creativity can be restricted when instrumental potential is not fully assimilated. As a result, aural and musical imagination may be restricted too because of a lack of knowledge. If one can master scoring for strings in an idiomatic way the musical palette is greatly enhanced as is the compositional potential - it can be learnt with sustained study and it's well worth the effort -it's an amazing resource.

    Obviously successful contrapuntal scoring is to a large extent also dependant on register, spacing, rhythmic difference, tempo and the general competence of the writing (which should also be appropriately matched in terms of character to an instrument/section), as much as it is to colour. Colour can of course highlight differences between the lines or unify with similarity. But colour can also be used for effect, eg to partially colour another timbre (line), to add weight for balancing, or it can be a complex multi-timbral colour. Octave doublings, accents, changing, morphing timbres, are all possible with an imaginative approach to colour in line. Stark contrasted colour too, in the right circumstances, is as valid a resource as any other.

    I'd suggest that in one sense it's not always just a question of what works best in contrapuntal or any other scoring - there are obvious, common, well known combinations that work fine. However colour choice is also about the musical intent. This can range from the staid to the bizarre, from the unison to the antiphonal, from the emotional to harsh and imv, the timbral objective should be decided upon at the compositional stage as the creative decisions taken then can obviously greatly enhance the efficacy of the composition/effect because of the synergy inherent when orchestral and instrumental knowhow informs creativity and vice versa.


    John Williams does a lot of lazy layering of instruments as you can see in this video. My guess is he uses a premade orchestration software that already combines instruments for you to produce a specific sound. I don't know if this is the case with most movie and TV composers, but it's not a bad sound, it just has very little counterpoint, and sounds prepackaged at times.

    I've found the feeling of a piece can easily be adjusted by adding polyphonic counterpoint with heavier instruments or conversely by singling out or creating a beautiful melody of an equally beautiful timbre, all on top of what is already written. What interests me about orchestration is its ability to make make even dull melodies and simple passages sound beautiful, as in the case with John Williams, who finds a way to make music palpable to the common man by focusing on the effect and clear beauty of the sound, while keeping the musical content simple. He does this very lazily and time efficiently too which is impressive in the case he is not using a preorchestrated library.

    As far as counterpoint goes, there is no issue in my case but ensuring that everything can be heard. Even Brahms runs into this problem in his symphonies where the counterpoint isn't as clearly heard as in his chamber music. This is an unfortunate part of orchestral writing and I'm still working at solving the conundrum.

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    Williams is of course one of the great orchestrators and does not use samples or software at all for his music. In fact he does not even use a DAW for writing, preferring the traditional way of rubber, pencil and manuscript. His short scores for film are famously around 12 staves wide and I know one orchestrator of his who told me at times he felt like a copyist because of the detail in Williams short score.
    His timbral imagination and classical background is also in evidence in his concert work resulting in vibrant colourful and purposeful music of which the scoring is as technically solid and astute for purpose as any work by a great writer.
    Last edited by mikeh375; Nov-19-2019 at 22:06.

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    Quote Originally Posted by mikeh375 View Post
    Williams is of course one of the great orchestrators and does not use samples or software at all for his music. In fact he does not even use a DAW for writing, preferring the traditional way of rubber, pencil and manuscript. His short scores for film are famously around 12 staves wide and I know one orchestrator of his who told me at times he felt like a copyist because of the detail in Williams short score.
    His timbral imagination and classical background is also in evidence in his classical work resulting in vibrant colourful and purposeful music of which the scoring is as technically solid as any work by a great writer.
    I made it clear that it's a very good sound, I'm taking notes as we speak, it just lacks counterpoint and direction to say something more meaningful, but he's a movie composer, that's not necessarily his job. His writing is extremely efficient, no doubt about that.

    I do think he lacks creativity in his ability to reach deeper musical structures, he's a lot like Dvorak in that sense, very much of the people, for the people. Although Dvorak did make a much greater effort with his counterpoint as did Tchaikovsky (who is also for the people, but a legitimate creative genius), Williams just takes absolutely nothing from Bach, Brahms, or Mahler. Their work is there to be followed and further developed on.

    As far as what made me think he uses software is his curious combinations of glockenspiel + piano or glockenspiel + vibraphone + piano or 2 flutes + clarinet + piano--all playing the exact same thing. I just have never seen a piano used like that, and some of these combinations are undoubtedly to save time on what could be wonderful counterpoint if more effort was put in.
    Last edited by 1996D; Nov-19-2019 at 22:46.

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    There are 231 references to counterpoint and 252 references to orchestration in the forum index, Some of them can be worth looking up. The difficulty with orchestration as a subject is that some listeners may not be that apt in recognizing and identifying musical instruments, so it can put listeners at a disadvantage in understanding what orchestration is. Recognizing the difference between the Oboe and the English Horn sometimes takes practice. As mentioned in another thread, if I were looking for a starting point on the history or study of orchestration, I'd start with the history, expansion, and development of the orchestra because there cannot be one without the other... There's no orchestration without the appropriate orchestra and they have greatly changed over the centuries, and it’s quite a fascinating subject. Then for orchestration also look to the composers who’ve been best known of it, such Rimsky-Korsakov, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Respighi, Ravel, Richard Strauss, and others, to see how the colors and combination of instruments have changed over the years. Mahler frequently used the sopranino E-flat clarinet in his scores to good effect that was not always available to those who came before him. Both counterpoint and orchestration are fascinating subjects which have been discussed to a certain degree. I believe most listeners are more aware of the counterpoint than orchestration because it’s so evident in the works of Bach and the other Baroque composers, though great counterpoint can also be found in the works of Brahms, Chopin, Max Reger and others.
    Last edited by Larkenfield; Nov-20-2019 at 12:13.
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    Quote Originally Posted by 1996D View Post
    I made it clear that it's a very good sound, I'm taking notes as we speak, it just lacks counterpoint and direction to say something more meaningful, but he's a movie composer, that's not necessarily his job. His writing is extremely efficient, no doubt about that.

    I do think he lacks creativity in his ability to reach deeper musical structures, he's a lot like Dvorak in that sense, very much of the people, for the people. Although Dvorak did make a much greater effort with his counterpoint as did Tchaikovsky (who is also for the people, but a legitimate creative genius), Williams just takes absolutely nothing from Bach, Brahms, or Mahler. Their work is there to be followed and further developed on.

    As far as what made me think he uses software is his curious combinations of glockenspiel + piano or glockenspiel + vibraphone + piano or 2 flutes + clarinet + piano--all playing the exact same thing. I just have never seen a piano used like that, and some of these combinations are undoubtedly to save time on what could be wonderful counterpoint if more effort was put in.


    William's film music is a modern age utility music and does not need to conform or answer to anything other than its obligations as a service to the medium - as you say, that's his job. Counterpoint in the way you talk about, i.e. stemming from academicism, CP and tradition (as opposed to foreground, background and orchestral part writing) is not always necessarily a good foil for dialogue and fx in a soundtrack because clarity and simplicity are preferred more often than not in order to dubb the disparate audio elements together in an intelligible way that mostly favours dialogue. Music in particular is often non-digetic and has a bigger spread of sound (stereo, surround sound etc) than the other audio elements which are mainly digetic. It therefore needs special care and attention in the writing, recording and dubbing in order to make it a logical and cohesive part of the whole. These constraints do favour certain styles of composing and scoring. From my own experience, I found that simple middle to lower range writing, without higher octave doubling or lead lines in the scoring blended better with soft to moderate dialogue and a thinner texture was easier to work. Not a hard and fast rule though because almost anything can be dubbed in to work with dialogue and fx, witness some of William's work which has all the complexity of full concert scoring and still manages to work with the other audio elements because of its emotive input, such is his genius.


    Perhaps you will consider listening to and getting to know some of William's concert music in order to be a little more informed before you consign his work to not being profound or meaningful in any sense. I recommend the cello and violin concertos. His concert work is more contemporary than the 19thC but assuming from what you say about the romantic masters, if your ears are not ready, or are unwilling to accept such music, you should still be able to assess William's contrapuntal acuity to be one of a composer who understands the technique and uses it as he sees fit.

    As to the instrumental combinations you mentioned and the odd conclusion you reached about time saving and missed contrapuntal opportunity, it suggests that do you have a fair way to go with your scoring studies as the combinations are not unusual at all. They are in fact common in film and 20thC scoring and perhaps a study of how a piano is used within an orchestra might be of use at some stage. Remember it is a percussive instrument and so combinations with mallets and percussion are acoustic allies. The piano can also give added bite and brilliance to all combinations of wind and strings and imaginative strokes are always worth exploring.


    As your thread is about orchestration here's a few more thoughts. Scoring obviously has to be considered from the players perspective too. The part has to ideally keep the player engaged enough with the work and be satisfying and practical (even if hard) to play. The composer must be aware of the strengths and weaknesses in sound and technique for the instrument and exploit them appropriately (even the weaknesses are usable for effect). Instruments also have character, especially the wind and so one should also develop a feel for for marrying up a particular line with an instrument that feels well suited in timbre for the expression. Successful scoring that considers all the aspects of music making will always make for good ensemble too, especially when the players are to a good standard.

    I should imagine Williams was very happy with his efforts and work rate and probably doesn't regret any (apparently) missed opportunities for counterpoint. It is his music after all, music that served a purpose to the highest standards. I might add that I worked with many players who where also on William's recording sessions at Abbey Rd Studios and not one was disparaging towards his work. In fact they love him and his music for all the reasons stated above and many more including outstanding professionalism, for without that in all its guises, technical, musical and personal, one will be immediately found wanting.
    Last edited by mikeh375; Nov-20-2019 at 15:38.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Larkenfield View Post
    There are 231 references to counterpoint and 252 references to orchestration in the forum index, Some of them can be worth looking up. The difficulty with orchestration as a subject is that some listeners may not be that apt in recognizing and identifying musical instruments, so it can put listeners at a disadvantage in understanding what orchestration is. Recognizing the difference between in the Oboe and the English Horn sometimes takes practice. As mentioned in another thread, if I were looking for a starting point on the history or study of orchestration, I'd start with the history, expansion, and development of the orchestra because there cannot be one without the other... There's no orchestration without the appropriate orchestra and they have greatly changed over the centuries, and it’s quite a fascinating subject. Then for orchestration also look to the composers who’ve been best known of it, such Rimsky-Korsakov, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Respighi, Ravel, Richard Strauss, and others, to see how the colors and combination of instruments have changed over the years. Mahler frequently used the sopranino E-flat clarinet in his scores to good effect that was not always available to those who came before him. Both counterpoint and orchestration are fascinating subjects which have been discussed to a certain degree. I believe most listeners are more aware of the counterpoint than orchestration because it’s so evident in the works of Bach and the other Baroque composers, though great counterpoint can also be found in the works of Brahms, Chopin, Max Reger and others.
    Remember too that the 20thC has seen an incredible expansion of the tonal palette, opening up unlimited potential for new sound. It is an ongoing development today of course, especially with the continuing use of electronics. Thankfully music is not standing still in this regard.
    Last edited by mikeh375; Nov-20-2019 at 12:00.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Larkenfield View Post
    There are 231 references to counterpoint and 252 references to orchestration in the forum index, Some of them can be worth looking up. The difficulty with orchestration as a subject is that some listeners may not be that apt in recognizing and identifying musical instruments, so it can put listeners at a disadvantage in understanding what orchestration is. Recognizing the difference between the Oboe and the English Horn sometimes takes practice. As mentioned in another thread, if I were looking for a starting point on the history or study of orchestration, I'd start with the history, expansion, and development of the orchestra because there cannot be one without the other... There's no orchestration without the appropriate orchestra and they have greatly changed over the centuries, and it’s quite a fascinating subject. Then for orchestration also look to the composers who’ve been best known of it, such Rimsky-Korsakov, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Respighi, Ravel, Richard Strauss, and others, to see how the colors and combination of instruments have changed over the years. Mahler frequently used the sopranino E-flat clarinet in his scores to good effect that was not always available to those who came before him. Both counterpoint and orchestration are fascinating subjects which have been discussed to a certain degree. I believe most listeners are more aware of the counterpoint than orchestration because it’s so evident in the works of Bach and the other Baroque composers, though great counterpoint can also be found in the works of Brahms, Chopin, Max Reger and others.
    Orchestration should be of more interest to listeners, it's much more interesting than anything else in music theory. It actually requires study, unlike harmony and tone which come naturally to many musical people.
    Last edited by 1996D; Nov-21-2019 at 01:08.

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    Quote Originally Posted by mikeh375 View Post
    William's film music is a modern age utility music and does not need to conform or answer to anything other than its obligations as a service to the medium - as you say, that's his job. Counterpoint in the way you talk about, i.e. stemming from academicism, CP and tradition (as opposed to foreground, background and orchestral part writing) is not always necessarily a good foil for dialogue and fx in a soundtrack because clarity and simplicity are preferred more often than not in order to dubb the disparate audio elements together in an intelligible way that mostly favours dialogue. Music in particular is often non-digetic and has a bigger spread of sound (stereo, surround sound etc) than the other audio elements which are mainly digetic. It therefore needs special care and attention in the writing, recording and dubbing in order to make it a logical and cohesive part of the whole. These constraints do favour certain styles of composing and scoring. From my own experience, I found that simple middle to lower range writing, without higher octave doubling or lead lines in the scoring blended better with soft to moderate dialogue and a thinner texture was easier to work. Not a hard and fast rule though because almost anything can be dubbed in to work with dialogue and fx, witness some of William's work which has all the complexity of full concert scoring and still manages to work with the other audio elements because of its emotive input, such is his genius.


    Perhaps you will consider listening to and getting to know some of William's concert music in order to be a little more informed before you consign his work to not being profound or meaningful in any sense. I recommend the cello and violin concertos. His concert work is more contemporary than the 19thC but assuming from what you say about the romantic masters, if your ears are not ready, or are unwilling to accept such music, you should still be able to assess William's contrapuntal acuity to be one of a composer who understands the technique and uses it as he sees fit.

    As to the instrumental combinations you mentioned and the odd conclusion you reached about time saving and missed contrapuntal opportunity, it suggests that do you have a fair way to go with your scoring studies as the combinations are not unusual at all. They are in fact common in film and 20thC scoring and perhaps a study of how a piano is used within an orchestra might be of use at some stage. Remember it is a percussive instrument and so combinations with mallets and percussion are acoustic allies. The piano can also give added bite and brilliance to all combinations of wind and strings and imaginative strokes are always worth exploring.


    As your thread is about orchestration here's a few more thoughts. Scoring obviously has to be considered from the players perspective too. The part has to ideally keep the player engaged enough with the work and be satisfying and practical (even if hard) to play. The composer must be aware of the strengths and weaknesses in sound and technique for the instrument and exploit them appropriately (even the weaknesses are usable for effect). Instruments also have character, especially the wind and so one should also develop a feel for for marrying up a particular line with an instrument that feels well suited in timbre for the expression. Successful scoring that considers all the aspects of music making will always make for good ensemble too, especially when the players are to a good standard.

    I should imagine Williams was very happy with his efforts and work rate and probably doesn't regret any (apparently) missed opportunities for counterpoint. It is his music after all, music that served a purpose to the highest standards. I might add that I worked with many players who where also on William's recording sessions at Abbey Rd Studios and not one was disparaging towards his work. In fact they love him and his music for all the reasons stated above and many more including outstanding professionalism, for without that in all its guises, technical, musical and personal, one will be immediately found wanting.
    Just listened to his cello concerto, the problems are the same, it's simple, has no greater structure or direction whatsoever, it's a huge contrast with Bach's cello suites...and he has a whole orchestra to work with ! -- what a waste of resources. I see now that it's not laziness or the fact that he was working for film, but his own limitations. Counterpoint might require a great deal of effort but individual flair has a strong case going as well, as to what results in mentally stimulating music. I enjoyed his concerto at times, but it should've been a cello sonata with a piano to play the very light work load of the orchestra, and for God's sake they should play together! What is there to dissect if no beautiful melodies are ever played at the same time?



    At 25:45 that orchestral part should've been played at the same time as the preceding cello part. He just has no gift for creating large contrapuntal structures. I would lock him in a room and play him Brahms' chamber music and Mahler's last 4 symphonies on repeat for a month.

    It has nice moments but it's completely naked, it's like a rough draft.

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    Quote Originally Posted by 1996D View Post
    Just listened to his cello concerto, it's simple, has no greater structure or direction whatsoever
    He just has no gift for creating large contrapuntal structures. I would lock him in a room and play him Brahms' chamber music and Mahler's last 4 symphonies on repeat for a month.
    I do not care much for Williams' concert music either, but since the topic is orchestration I think you may be overlooking what Mike said about Williams' orchestra writing skills. I have no doubt the players admire what he wrote for them, even if some of them don't care for the piece. Writing idiomatic parts with occasional challenging moments is just what they relish.
    "Music in any generation is not what the public thinks of it but what the musicians make of it"....Virgil Thomson

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    Quote Originally Posted by Vasks View Post
    I do not care much for Williams' concert music either, but since the topic is orchestration I think you may be overlooking what Mike said about Williams' orchestra writing skills. I have no doubt the players admire what he wrote for them, even if some of them don't care for the piece. Writing idiomatic parts with occasional challenging moments is just what they relish.
    Yeah I get it, he writes purely for the musicians rather than the artistry of the piece itself, but Brahms wrote for his violinist friend as well and his concerto is on a completely different stratosphere. It's simply not a valid excuse, but no doubt Yo-Yo Ma enjoyed playing it.

    I personally never enjoyed playing music all that much, the mindless technical practising was boring as hell, and improvisation came naturally, which quickly transitioned to composing. Can't really relate to what players enjoy in physically technical parts, even though I'm a very competent pianist in terms of interpretation, much like Leonard Bernstein.
    Last edited by 1996D; Nov-21-2019 at 03:52.

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