Making of “The Last Survivor” – Part II

Posted on Nov 21, 2009 in Articles

Welcome to the second part of the tutorial about my little piece “The Last Survivor”. If you want to read the first part of this tutorial, head over to

Making of “The Last Survivor” – Part I

The score sheet for this track as PDF is available HERE

Bar 20 – 27

Last Survivor – Part 4


The most important role of these few bars is to prepare for the middle, softer part of this piece to give it a logical yet not too expectable entrance. I decided to do a strong dominantic buildup there once more followed by a short “free” quasi effect-driven passage which leads to the new part. In order to make this all logical, it was very important to do a plausible transition from the dominant passage to the “effect” section.

Bar 20 starts off with a driving triplet pulse in celli and basses only as I wanted to keep on with the pulse for a while. By entering with a crecendoing Field Drum in bar 22, I tried to raise up the intensity. In the same bar the Celli and Basses move from the Gminor fundament they were at in 20, 21 up to a which evokes the feeling of a dominant. So actually I tried killing two birds with one stone there by raising the intensity (adding the Field Drum and going “up” to the a) as well  as giving me a fundament for the dominant build up.

Bar 22-24 function, as in bar 10-12, actually as dominant “field” with rising grades of dissonance. A classical dominant 7th chord followed by a “free” effect section would just sound pretty strange so it was my intention to raise the grade of dissonance high enough to make this transition musically logical.

Brass_bar22-24We moved to A there which has this dominant feel to the Gminor before as well as prepares for the following section. The chords building up there are: A – Bb07/A – Am – Bbo7/A. As you can see, harmonically these are pretty much 2 repeating bars apart from the A chord being major the first and minor the second time. To still create a feel of building up tension there, I used two “tricks”. First one being melodic movement. As you can see the upper line (1st Horn, doubled by 1st Trombone) raises up in steps, creating this feeling of raising tension. The second and far more effective trick is the use of voicing. As a matter of fact a Bb chord over bass note A neccessarily produces a minor ninth as interval somewhere in the voicing. A minor ninth nowadays is often referred to as “the last dissonant interval”. And it actually is –  try comparing a minor second with a minor ninth on the piano and you will see, how much more dissonant that minor ninth sounds. If you write a “normal” chord progression, you would be well advised to avoid a minor ninth somewhere in the voicing, and it happens faster than you would imagine (a badly voiced Major7th chord for example). If you have a minor ninth in your voicing, this is a very sensitive issue. Due to the harmonics etc. it will create a heavy dissonance. Dissonance was what I was aiming for here, so I made use of this. Let’s just compare the two Bb07/A voicings:


The position of the minor 9th makes the difference here. The first time I placed the A and the Bb more than 2 octaves apart which lowers the level of dissonance. Placing 2 dissonant notes pretty far apart creates the effect that the ear will not hear them as much “harmonically” but as 2 different acoustic events. By bringing these 2 notes closer together the second time, it raises the level of dissonance. I also tried to expose this minor 9th way more than in the first one where it is kind of hidden in the thirds structure. (By the way, when speaking of minor ninths in this context I also mean intervals a minor ninth + an octave etc. apart).

Bar 25-27 are a pretty “free” passage with lots of effects and not very much harmonic/melodic content. The high strings keep on trilling and glissandoing from their highest possible pitch (hence the triangle shaped note head) downwards while brass, percussion and low strings throw in rhtyhtmic accents mostly in clusters (Horns chromatic clusters, Trombones diatonic cluster).


Bar 20-23 use Celli and Basses in octaves to provide that rhythmic pulse. None of the sections alone would have the power to pull it off the way I want, the Basses are there to add the bottom end while the Celli add the rhythmic definition. In bar 22 I picked the Field Drum to enter the rhythm as it has more body and “size” than a snare drum. I use one of my favourite brass effects in bar 24 which is also very common in film scoring. The whole brass chord starts with a sf accent, suddenly drops to piano and crescendoes up to forte again. This is very successfull on brass instruments as they change their sound colour so much over their dynamic range and adds a quite dramatic effect. Bars 25-27 use quite a few orchestral effects, ranging from flatter tongueing clusters (Horns) giving that trembling growling to aggressive snap pizzicatos on the low strings giving very heavy accents especially in combination with gran cassa, timpani and trombone clusters all being very short and dampened immedialtely (indicated by “secco”). The trill-glissandoing on the high strings starting at an indefinite pitch is a very nice effect as it creates large clusters by itself as not every player will slide down at the same speed starting at the same pitch etc.

Bar 26-38

Last Survivor – Part 5


The new and short “soft” part of the piece enters with a new scale and new tonality as I’m switching unprepared to F harmonic minor. To make that clear I let the glissandos of the high strings end in a tremolo on F as well as establishing a small harp motif with the shape of F harmonic minor. To not lose all tension at once and still keep the piece “boiling” I add those bass “rumblings” consisting of quasi-glissandos up and down on the low strings and low woodwinds. As the pitch is so low, you can hardly hear what is exactly going on there except for a kind of “lion roaring” :) I still like that effect very much but even though it’s already a Hollywood cliché (being introduced by John Williams in Jurassic Park and being used about 4mio times since then). Bar 31-34 use a complete scale of F harmonic minor bing spread out in a kind of harmonic scale giving that incredible richness for this chord. The scale is spread out like this:

FmharmAs you can see, every scale tone is used however it’s organized mostly in thirds or larger intervals to give it the definition it needs to not just sound like a cluster. I also put a very clear diminished triad on top in the high strings and piccolo to give it a clear structure.  Bar 32 and 33 enter a horn motiv as well as an Fminor chord in the low brass bringing back that triplet chord repetition from the beginning already as well as moving from F minor to a G major chord which was also already the base of the first theme in bars 12-19. The high strings start moving again in bar 35, bringing us back to the triplet grid. They crawl up in a G lydian scale and beginn to raise the energetic level again sustaining on a high tremolo in bar 37 while the low brass repeats the chord of F minor again modulating to d minor in bar 39.


Bar 28 enters with a sul ponticello tremolo on the high strings which gives that extra glassy colour to this tremolo, making it a bit more eerie and “shining”. The growling in bar 29 is spread out to tremolo-glissandoing low strings and short runs up and down in the Contra Bassoon, Bassoons and Bass Clarinet in thirds. This gives this undefined growling feel without being able to actually determine what pitch it is. Later on I repeat this run in the Contra Bassoon, mainly because the other instruments have different tasks there. That rich Fminor chord in bars 31-34 is orchestrated with pretty much detail. I wanted the whole chord to be heard as “one” not being able to hear certain instruments and their pitches. Also I wanted it to have a strong but boiling bottom end (low strings tremolo) and a shimmer on top (high strings harmonics, random harp tinkles, windchimes glimmering). Additionally, I scored the woodwinds at a very low dynamic in registers where none of them has a exposed solo sound, being all comfortably in the medium range so nobody sticks out of this chord and can play softly.

Bar 33 enters the low brass chords, being scored for trombones and tuba the first time going from piano to mezzoforte, adding horns on top the second time going from sfp to forte so theres a growth of intensity.

The high strings in bar 35 play triplets which are bowed on every beat to establish the pulse again. Also letting them crawl up from their lowest to a high register adds quite some intensity. So in the end of this section there’s enough intensity built up again to get back to the pulsing fast pace.

Bar 39-48

Last Survivor – Part 6


In bar 39, I spontanously modulate to D minor to mark the new part and to use a new set of colours. Every modulation gives the subjective feeling of opening up a new palette of musical colours so I wanted to open up one for the quasi main theme of this piece which kicks in at bar 42. In bar 39-41 I build up to this main theme and due to time limitations I had to do it very quickly so I chose one of the easiest way by writing a “notated” crescendo, which means consecutively adding more instruments and registers as well as using an actual crescendo. The main “engine” of the piece is again that triplet eighth figure which is building up through the strings and woodwinds.  Bar 41 once more is a dominantic bar making use of the quater triplets again which I used already alot in this piece to give it all a bit of cohesiveness.

The following Main Theme is written out pretty straight forward, relying mostly on one melodic statement with the aim of a maximum of mass of sound to provide that “Hollywood” feel. Basically it can be reduced to 4 main elements: the melody, the chords, the pulsing triplets and a short side melody coming in at the end. By reducing it down to those few elements (apart from this passage once again being very short which doesn’t need more things anyway) you get the maximum amount of impact when stating such a theme for the first time. If it was a repetition of the theme one would definitely need something more to keep it interesting but as it’s a first time statement, it works out like this.

The theme itself works pretty much in the “Hollywood”-way, relying on these chord progression:

Dm – Bbmaj7/D – C – Am7 – Bb(#11)- Gm7-Eb

The melody itself consist of 2 motifs and a few few hollywoodesque melodic concepts:

mainthemeFor such kind of melodies which should evolve epicness and grand scale there are a few typical devices concerning melodic writing:

– as you can see is the theme rhythmically not very active, it consist of lots of long notes.

– the motifs used are pretty simple and memorable, you will instantly hear that bar 44-46 is a kind of repetition of bar 42-44 while bar 47 enters a new rhythmic value to keep it interesting (more than one repetition usually gets boring)

– large intervals shape the melody, preferably perfect fifths, octaves, fourths. As you can see, I placed a perfect fifth upwards right at the beginning which gives quite a sweep (Star Wars, E.T., Jurassic Park just to name a few use just this) and to make it even more extreme, I use an octave jump upwards at bar 44/45 which even adds more “sweep” (“Somewhere over the Rainbow”) Also, that the C in bar 45 is higher than the A in 43 adds to the impression to have the feeling that it sweeps even more

– “epic” harmonic rests are also a very common Hollywood feature. That means that you pick certain harmonic functions as heavy spots of the melody. Most common are maj7, add9 or #11 for these notes. I used the maj7 of Bb in bar 43 and the #11 of Bb resolving to the fifth in bar 46 on count one, which makes them pretty strong and add to that “sweepy” character. A #11 for example always evokes the feeling of Lydian which is definitely THE Hollywood mode.

Those are pretty much the principles, such melodies rely on, however it still doesn’t make it simpler to come up with them :)


The Orchestration in this part is pretty straight forward and very much aiming for a large mass of sound and Hollywood bigness. A very safe way to achieve this is doublings in unison or octaves. One wouldn’t want to have lots of small individual things going on in such a setting as it would a) obstract and b) reduce the subjective mass of sound, that massive epic feel of the lots of doublings. Bar 42 onwards relies heavily on unison and octave doublings:

Melody: Flutes-Horns-Violins

Chords: Bassoons-Contrabassoons-Trombones-Tuba-Contrabasses

Triplet figure: Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Violas, Celli

Sideline: Trumpets+Oboes which after one bar switch to doubling the melody as well while the horns switch to a short cuivré motif (meaning “brassy”) in bar 48.

When one relies on so few elements spread out over a whole orchestra, one got to make sure that these few elements are good. I spent alot of time for example to do nice voice leading on the low chords which always pays off. As a few orchestration side notes: instead of whole notes on the Contrabasses as in the Tuba, I used repeating quarter notes to add a bit of that pulse which is also carried by the timpani. In the Clarinets, I build in some breath breaks for obvious reasons. It’s important in such a setting to not have the breaks by every instrument doing this figure at the same time, so I distributed the breaks differently on Clarinet and Bass Clarinet so that there’s no danger of hearing a “hole”.


Bar 49-53

Last Survivor – Part 7


The ending takes over the Eb major chord from the theme before in bar 49 and brings up once more the quarter triplets downward motion. It is structured into 2 repeating bars (50 & 51) one bar timpani solo (52) and a final chord.

Harmonically, the end remains in the scale of D melodic minor however bar 50 and 51 start this scale on the 5th note, actually using the 5th mode of D melodic minor. This scale has the properties of having the same notes as the natural minor scale on a however having a major third instead of a minor one. However the mode isn’t that clear. The accents in the trumpets and  the target notes of the string runs build a clear d-minor chord, so harmonically i wantet it to remain a bit ambiguous here.

Bar 50 and 51 are both identical and the main principle is heavily accenting count 2 of each bars (runs (strings), rips (horns) and crescendoing rolls (timpanis and suspended cymbal) all aim for this accent. The timpani solo is a kind of delay for the actual final chord while the final chord deliberately comes on the 3rd beat of bar 53 to not be too predictable. The final chord stays in the scale of d melodic minor and  concludes the piece by getting back to d in the bass register so it gives the feel of a V-I cadence.


As mentioned above already, there’s a heavy accenting of counts 2 in bar 50 and 51 so most of the instruments are used to accent those as effectively as possible. Horns do rips in their high registers there, which are very successfull there, as well as the runs in the strings and woodwinds.

The timpani solo in bar 52 rely on 3 notes only which are being repeated but through the sheer intensitiy so many dense timpani hits at ff have, it is by far enough to fill this spot and make it sound very exciting and “close to the big finale”. The final bar starts with trills and tremolos in the low register, kind of expecting the final hit and then uses all forces to make that hit on count 3 bigger than the ones in the bars before. It adds more woodwinds, a longer glissando by the horns, a run by the first trumpet and a string chord spread up an octave higher as well as a hit by the gran cassa. The overall dynamic is ff so it gives almost the “loudest bang” possible with the orchestral tutti.

I hope you liked this tutorial. Stay tuned for more to come.


  1. Hi Robin – this article is pure madness, very interesting… – thanks!

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    • Thanks Felix, I’m glad people find the stuff I’m writing helpful :)

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  2. HI Robin, I recently discovered your website by signing up for the CInematic Orchestration course with Guy Michelmore. One word: Awesome! Thanks for giving us an insight on your composition and orchestration! Cheers, Yannick

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  3. Hi Robin. I want to thank you for these two great tutorials! I appreciate this very very much. Thanks!

    Post a Reply


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