I’ve been posting a list, “Twelve Characteristics of Great Orchestral Music.”
Time for another addition, which is #12:
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.
For the remainder of the list, click here.