Over the years, I’ve heard the following sentence many times:  ”Orchestration is all about _________.”

The fill-in-the-blank has been filled by many things.  Orchestration is all about color. Orchestration is all about range. Orchestration is all about the variation of sound. And so on and so on…

What I’ve concluded from this is that orchestration is about a lot of things, and it’s hard to include everything in a single sentence.

So I thought I’d offer up my own opinion on how to fill in that blank—but fill it with a 12-point list.

The Twelve Characteristics of Great Orchestral Music

1)  Great orchestral music is practical.

This category includes everything necessary from a logistical standpoint.  All parts stay within the ranges of the instruments to which they are assigned.  The parts are playable on the instruments they are assigned to.  Everything is notated properly, including appropriate clefs, articulations, etc.  All the notation conforms to current conventions of orchestral music and is notated in a manor that the players and conductor expect.  These elements are often considered boring and tedious, but they are vital to a successful performance.

2)  Great orchestral music compositionally adjusts the musical ideas to suit the strengths of each instrument.

This characteristic takes the “practicality” consideration one step further.  Great orchestral music takes into account more than just instrumental range and playability—it takes into account what the instrument is particularly good at doing and changes the underlying musical ideas accordingly.

For instance…  Woodwinds are great at trills and runs.  Great woodwind parts make use of this fact, incorporating trills, grace notes, and fast scales.  So if you have a melody and decide to give it to woodwind instruments, you may also decide to add grace notes and trills that wouldn’t be there had you decided to give that melody to other instrumentation.

Brass players are great at double- and triple-tonguing.  Great brass parts make use of this fact, incorporating fast and repeating rhythms.  So if you have a harmonic accompaniment part and decide to give it to brass instruments, you may add quick rhythms that wouldn’t be there had you decided to give that musical idea to other instrumentation.

And so on…

3)  Great orchestral music utilizes the vast dynamic range of the orchestra.

One of the most powerful characteristics of the orchestra is the vast range of dynamics it is capable of producing.  A low-register flute solo is as quiet as a whisper.  Same with a soft celesta solo or a soft tam-tam hit.  At the other end of the extreme, a full orchestral fortissimo is extremely loud.

This dynamic range is extremely powerful and one of the orchestra’s greatest strengths.  Great orchestral music takes advantage of this strength–incorporating extremely soft moments, extremely loud moments, and everything in between.

4)  Great orchestral music utilizes a wide variety of tone colors.

Another awesome characteristic of the orchestra is the vast array of tone colors that it can produce.  The orchestra contains many different instruments, nearly all of which can be used in a solo or section context.  All of these instruments can be combined with one another, creating additional colors via doublings and groupings.  All of these possibilities produce unique tone colors, which means the orchestra can make many, many different tone colors.

Great orchestral music utilizes this potential, typically by passing material around the ensemble.  The melody is not simply given to the violins for the entire piece.  Rather, the melody (and other musical ideas) moves around the orchestra from instrument to instrument—creating variation in tone color throughout the piece.

5)  Great orchestration uses tone color to enhance the emotions of the music.

All great orchestral music uses the vast tone color options available in the orchestra to enhance the underlying emotions of the music.  For instance, if the music is inherently triumphant, the melody may be placed in mid- to upper-register trumpets, who have a very bright and triumphant tone color.  If the music is somber, the melody may be placed in low-register clarinet, whose tone color is dark and brooding.

Such decisions are often subjective, but they are made via instrument selection, placement within that instrument’s range, and dynamic markings—with the goal of matching the tone color with the underlying emotion of the music.

6)  Great orchestral music uses a wide variety of compositional structures.

There are many possibilities.  Some that come to mind…

  • solos
  • passages of homophonic chords
  • melody with harmonic accompaniment
  • harmonic accompaniment only
  • melody, countermelody, and harmonic accompaniment
  • traditional counterpoint (2-4 coexisting melodies)
  • denser structures (5+ voice counterpoint, or melody/harmony/multiple countermelodies)

All of these structures are useful.  Some work well at introductions, others at climaxes, and others during long dynamic builds.  Regardless, the large instrumentation of the orchestra allows composers to use a wide variety of compositional structures—and great orchestral music uses that capacity to its advantage.

7)  Great orchestral music balances simultaneous ideas in terms of projection power.

In many instances, two or more ideas coexist in an orchestral piece.  In great orchestral music, they are balanced effectively in terms of projection power.  If the melody is intimate (say…a low flute solo), then the accompaniment is equally intimate (perhaps arpeggios in harp).  When the melody is powerful (say…Violin 1, Violin 2, and Viola in octaves), then the accompaniment is equally powerful (say…all low strings, low woodwinds and low brass).

8)  Great orchestral music leads the listener to the melody which characteristics in addition to just volume.

When there are multiple musical ideas existing simultaneously, it’s very common for one to be considered the foreground and others the background.  Most commonly, this takes the form of a melody with background accompaniment.  While orchestrating, it’s common to think, “I want to make sure this melody is in the foreground, so I better make sure that it is louder than everything else.”

However, great orchestral music draws attention to melody with more than just projection power.  Musical characteristics that grab the attention of the listener include variation (repetitious ideas fade to the background, evolving ideas come to the foreground), newly entering instruments and tone colors, active elements, and when all else is equal (like homophonic music and tuttis) the element of highest pitch.

9)  Great orchestral music creates a lot of music out of just a few ideas.

A long time ago, I was a student of Sydney Hodkinson.  Syd was a colorful character and he had a way of getting his point across with engaging stories.  In one lesson, he said to me (in a deep raspy voice), “You know, Ben?  I’m old.  And over the years I’ve heard a lot of theories come and go.  And the one thing that has always remained true throughout each Johnny-come-lately phase is this…  Great composers make a lot of music out of just a few ideas.  I bet that will still be true when you’re as old as me–if you can make it.”

Beethoven is often cited as the master of theme and variation.  He wove endless amounts of music out of just a single idea.  This is equally true for his symphonies and other genres like his piano sonatas.  And when you listen to a well-crafted film score (John Williams comes to mind), you’ll hear themes come back in numerous variations–making seemingly endless hours of music out of a single idea.  The same thing is true of a great broadway musical.

So.  Syd…  Yes, it’s still true.  And I’ll do my best to make it…

10)  Great orchestral music has a logical musical form.

There are many musical forms used in orchestral music.  Some pieces use sonata form.  Others use a simple form like ABA.  Or AABA.  Or ABACABA.  Other pieces (Bolero comes to mind—as does Short Ride on a Fast Machine) are single gestures like a crescendo or a cadence that are elongated and take place over a long period of time.  While it is not necessary to use any one specific form in an orchestral piece, it is necessary to use a logical form of some kind.

Logical forms give a piece two things…  First, they give the music direction over a long period of time.  There’s a rationale to it the sequence of musical events, rather than the ideas just wandering around.  This allows you to write pieces that are longer in duration, something that is common in orchestral music.  Second, when you get to the end, it feels like there’s a **reason** for the music to end.  When you’ve reached the end, the music stops because you’ve reached the end of the form—rather than just stopping arbitrarily.  This gives the piece a sense of completion.

11)  Great orchestral music has structural parallels between harmony, melody and key movements.

This characteristic is arguably the most obscure on this list.  Regardless, it is a characteristic of great orchestral music and great compositions in general.  In a given piece of music, the melodic content, harmonic chords, and key movements are built from the same harmonic language—and possibly even containing similar pitch motifs.

For instance…

Suppose a composer in the 20th century wrote a piece using octatonic scales.  One such scale is E, F, G, Ab, Bb, Bn, C#, and D.  This scale uses a lot of minor third relationships, including E>G>Bb>C# and F>Ab>Bn>D.  The composer may choose to emphasize these pitches in the harmony, using many diminished triads and diminished seventh chords.  Likewise, the composer may use these intervals in the key movement, making the first tonal center in the piece E, then G, then Bb, and so on.  Doing so creates parallels between the melody, harmony and key movements—and gives the piece an overall sense of unity.

Suppose a composer in the 19th century wrote a piece using a major scale.  The chords were built out of pitches from this scale, with dominant and tonic being the most important chords.  When it came time to modulate, the composer chose to modulate from the home key to the dominant key.  In this manner, the most important key changes and chord movements are built from the same pitches.

This approach can be used for harmonic language of any kind and creates music with a tangible sense of cohesiveness.

12)  In great orchestral music, all characteristics of the music (orchestration, harmony, counterpoint, etc.) are coordinated to create a single  underlying emotional response.

Let’s suppose that a composer wishes to create a passage that starts softly, builds gradually, and then arrives at a loud climax.  The composer wants it to all be dark emotions, with the beginning being a bit sad and the climax almost a bit painful.

The orchestration could be used to enhance the dynamics.  The beginning would be just a handful of instruments performing softly.  Most likely, the percussion and brass would be left out here.  As the music builds, instruments would enter gradually.  At the climax, everyone is in, marked forte (or more).  Adding the instrumentation in an incremental manner enhances the dynamic.  It’s also effective to gradually transfer the brass (and some woodwinds like flutes and clarinets) to their upper register to enhance a crescendo.

Counterpoint is also very effective at building tension.  In this case, since the music is gradually building to a big climax, we’d want a lot of tension during the build—and then we’d want to release that tension at the climax.  This gesture could be enhanced significantly by using counterpoint in the structure.  During the build, the composer could use dense counterpoint (like a 5-part fugue).  That creates a lot of rhythmic tension and helps the music build.  At the climax, the composer could have all parts resolve to a single chord.  That gesture releases the rhythmic tension built up in the previous passage…and makes the climax particularly huge.

Harmony could also play a significant role here.  Mainly, the composer wishes to create tension during that long build and then release that tension at the climax.  The composer could do this by establishing a key at the beginning (let’s say E minor) and then moving away from it during the build.  This creates an unresolved feeling during the build.  The composer could even come out to a dominant (B) at the end of the build, making the listener desperately want a resolution back to the home key (E minor).  Then at the climax…resolve back to E minor.

The above sequence is one possible example where orchestration, counterpoint and harmony are all working together to create a certain affect.

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    Excellent. These are the types of things I like to read. I’ve looked at several “orchestration” books, but nobody talks about how to create good orchestral music. They typically note range and characteristics of the instruments. Not that those things aren’t important, but what you’ve said in just a few paragraphs helps me more than anything I’ve read in any of the texts that have stood the test of time. Now let’s talk about how to pass that melody from the brass winds, strings, etc. around effectivey. How many different ways are there to get a big sound from an orchestra? There’s so much to learn!

    Truly excellent article, Ben…thanks for all the examples and makes an excellent “checklist” approach to evaluating our own compositions, and areas to improve and work on. Thanks much!

    This is really informative! I am just a person who tends to enjoy Orchestral music on a occasional basis like when I hear a good movie score I really like or I flip through the radio and hear some and don’t feel like searching for other music. I was wondering what makes some of it so enjoyable to listen to and others not. Although some of the terms are Technical and over my head I really enjoyed this blog!

    As an aspiring film composer, I really appreciate articles such as these. Thank you very much for the valuable information!

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