Tutorial: The Orchestra

Posted on Aug 28, 2009 in Articles


Welcome to my second tutorial. This time I will talk a bit about the orchestra itself, especially certain practical issues to keep in mind when you write for an orchestra.

So you decided you want to write for an orchestra, maybe even a real orchestra, but at least you want to write for something that sounds like orchestra – a sample library, and you also want it to actually sound like an orchestra. It’s not like you need a lot of knowledge about an orchestra to write for samples, you just do what sounds good, but in order to get a convincing result, you might want to handle those samples as if you were writing for orchestra. If you want to write for a real orchestra, you of course HAVE to stick to certain rules and things in order to make it work at all.

An orchestra typically consists of four sections: the woodwinds, the brass, the percussion and the strings. A standard sized symphony orchestra might have the following numbers of musicians:

Woodwinds:

2-3 Flutes (including one player doubling to piccolo, alto and in rare cases bass flute)

2-3 Oboes (including one player doubling to English Horn)

2-3 Clarinets (including one player doubling to Bass Clarinet or Eb-Clarinet)

2-3 Bassoons (including one player doubling to Contrabassoon)

Brass:

4 Horns

3 Trumpets

3 Trombones (1 of them usually being a Bass Trombone)

1 Tuba

Percussion:

2-5 Percussionists (including 1 Timpani Player)

1 Harp

1 Piano and/or Celesta

Strings:

14 1st Violins

12 2nd Violins

10 Violas

8 Violoncellos

6 Contrabasses

These are the “standard numbers” to deal with. And you should stick to these proportions, even when making music with samples. These proportions have been worked out for centuries in order to produce a decent balance in the orchestra. If you want an epic Brass section with 6 Horns, 4 Trumpets, 4 Trombones and 2 Tubas you might want to enlarge the Woodwind and String section as well, just to keep the balance. However having like 5 different flute voices in your sample production at the same time won’t really add to the effect of realism. Balancing things out is also important when orchestrating. You wouldn’t want to let a sparse woodwind solo line compete against Basses, Cellos, low Brass and Timpani. It just won’t work. But this is a topic worth several books.

Generally one can say that Brass and Percussion are the loudest sections in the orchestra. Actually when placed right, even a solo Trumpet can be louder than the rest of the orchestra. In order to balance out one brass instrument, you usually need at least 2 woodwind instruments. What does that mean? For example, if you orchestrate a C major triad and you let a horn play the c and a trumpet play the g, you definitely need 2 woodwinds to play the e in order to make this chord sound evenly balanced. Percussion, especially snares, toms, cymbals etc. can be just as loud if not even louder so when you’re producing a trailer score with lots of “Hans Zimmer-ish” percussion you practically don’t have much choice but to balance out these enormous percussion sounds with lots of brass and/or a potentially huge choir. Woodwinds and Strings are the softer sections if not played very high (a high piccolo flute will stand out most of the time as well as very high violins) but even though you might not hear a lot of them in a setting as described above, they add to the fatness of the general sound and you might want to write decent parts for them as well. However Cellos and Basses are definitely the most important instruments to build a bass fundament for a tutti, even in a “trailer setting” and you might not want to leave them out at all in such situations.

The reason why 14 Violins from the 1st Violin section arent 14 times as loud as a single violin is due to acoustic reasons, actually the whole section is only about twice as loud as  a solo violin.

If you are more into more colourful orchestration, you should really get your hands on one of the many books on orchestration and study it thoroughly or wait for more tutorials coming up here :)

Also, always keep in mind that an orchestra consists of people and not just playing machines and even in the most professional orchestras, effects of mass and individual psychology appear from time to time which you can partially avoid when taking care of them in the process of writing. The easiest way is to just imagine the player of each instrument playing the voice you have written and try to get into his head. There’s a big tutti where everybody is playing and make it “big” but somehow you decided to leave out the second clarinet in this, maybe because you forgot him or her or you couldn’t immediatlely come up with something for him/her to play. Now imagine this poor guy, sitting there, everybody around him roaring and fiddling like crazy and he sits there and stares at his sheet, watching at the break you have written for him. That is something you should avoid as it will produce bad mood and frustration and if you need him or her for a solo in the next passage, it might not turn out too well.

Also possible frustration causing situations might be:

– force a player or section for a long time to play on their technical and/or conditional limit, while the others get to play easy stuff, this feels for them like they’re being picked on. However, the complete opposite might happen when you do this for a short time, they might feel it like a special challenge they want to use to shine. However, make sure to be *near* their limits, not above them.

– force a player or a section to play boring filling voices with bad melodic quality, repeating accompanying figures or anything else less musical attractive for a long time. This might cause a loss of concentration as well and will just bore the players which you will hear immediately, short passages of such things are okay, but just make sure to also give the something to shine somewhere in your piece

– bad score sheets containing wrong notes, wrong transpositions, unneccessarily tricky notation, overlapping texts, unreadable badly copied passages, too small or too big staff sizes, bad page turning positions etc. are the ultimate mood killer. This is something you really want to avoid as it will a) waste lots of time and b) will result in a worse performance due to frustrated players.

There are also some individual issues to take care of with certain sections and instruments, which are listed below:

WOODWINDS:

– as the name says, these are instruments which need air, air which comes from the lungs of the players, lungs which aren’t much larger than your lungs. Unless there are rare occasions where circular breathing (filling your mouth with air and using this air to play on for a short time while you quickly breathe in again to not interrupt the sound) can be used, you must give your players time to breathe, think of that when writing and orchestrating with samples

-Flutes: we all know and love the high piccolo runs we hear in film scores all the time, still, avoid to overuse them, they tire the ear of the listener and the player as well. When you use an alto or even bass flute, count in for twice the amount of air needed, there’s not only one story of players passing out (especially common in winter after someone had a cold and is not perfectly healthy again) while playing those.

– Oboes: don’t force them into their lowest register. The players know they don’t sound nice there, and they really don’t :) Also, give them time to rest, maybe even more than the other woodwind players as this is a very laborous instrument to play

– Clarinets: don’t force them to extensively play alot of notes in the range of middle a to middle b as this is their weak spot. I will explain in another tutorial why that is. Excellent players can of course compensate these few weak notes but generally, they don’t sound too great and the players always need to struggle to get them sound decent. The thing I said about alto and bass flute also applies for bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet. Especially the latter one needs a huge amount of air to produce a sound. Count that in when composing and orchestrating.

– Bassoons: just for a matter of taste: use them for some other things as only for the “funny comic guy walking across the street” staccatos. A bassoon in the high range can have such an expressive melancholic quality, try that one as well for example.

BRASS:

– same as with the woodwinds applies here, they need time to breathe, and additionally time to recover after heavy passages, also, intonation is often a problem, so you might want to try to write structures which are very clear, avoid small intervalls between neighbouring instruments, especially minor seconds

– Horns: don’t overdo the “epic”. We all love the heroic horn themes but it’s quite a struggle to play them. After a while, the players won’t just be able to physically play it as epic as you might want it especially when they need to play lots chords and filling voices as well. Also avoid the highest and lowest notes as they’re especially difficult to play and will often sound like “he’s struggling” as well.

– Trumpet: same goes for the trumpets, don’t overdo the highest range, give some time to rest in between passages where they play and additionally, avoid long and intense passages of short notes which need double or triple tongueing, they have a great effect but can’t be done for a long time. Also count in for a balancing problem, even if you have written everything decently. Trumpets have just that huge range of loudness that it will take some time for you and the player to find the appropriate dynamic for certain passages. Generally, you wouldn’t write ff except for real heroic themes that need to stand out.

– Trombones: avoid very low notes for the bass trombone, even when they’re in range, they’re difficult to control. Also, due to the trombone slides, they’re limited concerning fast notes. Avoid fast notes over Bb3 and B3 in the tenor trombones as the player needs to move in the slide completely to play the Bb while it has to be completely out to play the B. Unless the player has a special valve to compensate for this (which you cannot be sure of), this is a very difficult skip.

– Tuba: the Tuba is louder than you might imagine. Don’t hesitate to write it one dynamic step softer than the rest of the brass. Don’t overuse the lowest register. It needs alot of air and is a struggle to play. Also due to the large dimensions, don’t write too fast passages on it as it just won’t physically work out.

PERCUSSION

– Timpani: count in time for retuning the timpanies when you need different notes. This will be done with a foot pedal but still needs time. Avoid close intervals in your timpani lines as most of them can’t be played.

– Percussion: save the crash cymbals for the climax, overusing them is very tiresome for the ear. Use the bass drum with care, especially in a situation where you record the whole orchestra without acoustic seperation you might want to get very ugly effects of the bass drum compressing the rest of the instruments out of the mix in the recording. No problem however in concert situations.

– Harp: Harp is great for glissandos but it’s not the only thing it can do. Avoid chromatic passages as they might not be playable at all.

STRINGS

-when every other player in the orchestra is tired already, you can still count on the strings. They can do almost everything, play notes of virtually infinite length and the string section is the only section in the orchestra the ear doesn’t get tired of. However, the players are also thankful for short breaks in the cue to relax their muscles. Also, give them some time to pick up their bow again after long pizzicato passages and vice versa.

You generally should avoid to overuse special effects that involve knocking, slapping or whatever the body of the instruments or parts of them as most instruments are very expensive and the players might refuse to execute such playing techniques to avoid damaging their instruments.

These are a few basic hints on handling an orchestra. Of course one could go way more into detail about every instrument and I will do this on the tutorials to come.

I hope you enjoyed this little text. Stay tuned for more to come.

4 Comments

  1. Great little tutorial! Robin, it is so refreshing to see how you care about orchestra musicians and you can be sure that they will care about you and your music.

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  2. Thanks for this! Very useful information for young composers :) This helps out a lot

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  3. Thanks for this article. I am in middle school and am arranging a piece for an ensemble of 20 friends to play. If anyone could give me any tips on how to conduct rehersals, these would be greatly appreciated since my friends and I have little experience. Some of our problems include intonation in the woodwinds, and a trumpet player who is about to get braces (high C’s and D’s will be hard to play.) Any tips?? Thanks. Here’s the music, and you can download it from the site. https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=sites&srcid=ZGVmYXVsdGRvbWFpbnxtYXh3ZWxsY29udGV8Z3g6M2FiMzEwNTdkN2U5MDczMA

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