Introduction to Orchestration

Português – Русский

Hello Friends!

I know I’m in debt with the blog, to post more about many important topics, but my time has been too short. I’ll try to maintain the average of 1 big post per week until this full-agenda time passes on. I hope you apologize me! =)

So, let’s start today a new topic in the blog, Orchestration.

More than a technique, orchestration could be called an art. It’s one of the 4 specialities a good composer must have, and as Rimsky-Korsakov said in the preface of his treatise on orchestration:

For, just as a handbook of harmony, counterpoint, or form presents the student with harmonic or polyphonic matter, principles of construction, formal arrangement, and sound technical methods, but will never endow him with the talent for composition, so a treatise on orchestration can demonstrate how to produce a well-sounding chord of certain tone-quality, uniformly distributed, how to detach a melody from its harmonic setting, correct progression of parts, and solve all such problems, but will never be able to teach the art of poetic orchestration. To orchestrate is to create, and this is something which cannot be taught.


The power of subtle orchestration is a secret impossible to transmit, and the composer who possesses this secret should value it highly, and never debase it to the level of a mere collection of formulæ learned by heart.

It’s exactly what I think. To orchestrate isn’t a set of rules, but like all the forms of the musical performance, is part of an expression, of an esthetic, of a feeling. Orchestrate is deeply linked to compositional process, so important as melodic, harmonic, rythmic questions…to let orchestration a step below this is a capital error.

Aleksandr Glazunov, a great russian composer and orchestrator, divided the excellence in orchestration in three levels:

1. When the orchestra sound well, playing from sight; magnificent, after a few rehearsals;
2. When effects cannot be brought off except with the greatest care and attention on the part of conductor and players;
3. When the orchestra never sounds well.

Evidently, the main goal is to obtain the first level, always. Obviously, hardly anyone will produce master pieces everyday, but a master piece only appears after lots of practice (and good ideas, too). To practice everyday (or sometimes by the week) is a great way to achieve this experience, this fluency in various instruments, essencial to develop this “poetic sense” Rimsky-Korsakov said.

“But Korsakov said that there aren’t sets of rules/formulae to form a good orchestrator, right? So why is there so many treatises and rules about orchestration?” Many of you may be asking now. Indeed, there is a lot of this. But, as music isn’t a constant, an exact science, there is didactical rules (made to teach some aspect and restrict on it the focus), there’s stylistic rules (different genres, different aesthetics) and general rules. In hands of an expert composer all rules can be broken, bent or expanded…you just must have imagination and a good judgment. And practice.

I like to imagine orchestration as a painting: if the music were a picture, the colors would come from orchestration. This parallel is so commom that various composers and musicologists say terms like “tone color”, “music color”, “orchestra colors”… there is also the technique klangfarbenmelodie (sound-color melody), coined by Schönberg. Recently, in a class with Eduardo Camenietzki, I had a broaden view of this concept.

He said he like to think on orchestration by the theory Wassily Kandinsky coined, the point, line and plane. All can be reduced to these three elements and its mixtures. The definitions:

  • Point: the smaller space to be occuped;
  • Line: a group of points going to one direction;
  • Plane: a group of lines.

Adapting to music:

  • Point: a single short line;
  • Line: a continuous sound;
  • Plane: a lot of countinuous sounds.

Thinking in this, one can “subvert” all music itens (harmony, counterpoint, melody etc) to these concepts, working even more free (bending and breaking rules).

Another very important concept to orchestrate is the organology, in other words, the classification of instruments. A system I like to use is Hornbostel-Sachs, that propose the classifing based on sound produtor element. It’s 5 main cathegories (and its subdivisions):

  1. Idiophones – the sound is produced primarily by the body or parts from the instrument, by the material’s own elasticity, without needing aditional tension, neither strings, membranes or air columns. Examples: xylophone, cymbals, castanets etc;
  2. Membranophones – the sound is produced by the vibration of a stretched and tensioned membrane. Ex: timpani, bongo drums, snare drum etc;
  3. Chordophones – the sound is produced by one or more tensioned strings. Ex: violin, piano, harp etc;
  4. Aerophones – the sound is produced by air vibration or its passage through edges or reeds. Ex: flute, oboe, pipe organ etc;
  5. Electrophones – the sound is produced by electroeletronic means. Ex: synthesizers, theremim, ondes martenot etc;

For an orchestrator, these two concepts (point-line-plane and organology) are keys to a good way. One must think the orchestra or instrument groups to be used as a watercolor pallete, and each instrument as a color from that pallete. As colors, there isn’t bad quality. The organology comes when you think in each family colors, sound effects and in construction of new tones(timbres) and instruments.

Besides, it’s important that orchestrator listen to loads of group music (orchestra or chamber), it must have contact with these languages. And study the scores, whenever possible.

There are many books with great content about this topic, I’ll indicate some:

  • Rimsky-Korsakov (obviously) – Principles of Orchestration* (the Garritan Interaticve people made an online edition comented by some composers here)
  • Cecil Forsyth – Orchestration*
  • Cecil Forsyth – Choral Orchestration*
  • Walter Piston – Orchestration
  • Samuel Adler – The Study of Orchestration (the better book, the most complete and updated)
  • H.Berlioz e R.Strauss – Treatise on Instrumentation*
  • Charles-Marie Widor – The Technique of the Modern Orchestra*
  • A.Blatter – Instrumentation and Orchestration
  • A.Stiller – Handbook of Instrumentation

All books tagged with an * may be found legally for free. All of them are in IMSLP, by the way. If you’re only reading one, Adler is the chosen one, but it is important read many about this theme, because every author introduces his vision, everyone has different details being explored.

So, this is all folks. On the next orchestration post we’ll begin to play, indeed.

Until next time!


~ por arssonis em ter, 29/05/2012.

Deixe um comentário

Preencha os seus dados abaixo ou clique em um ícone para log in:

Logotipo do

Você está comentando utilizando sua conta Sair /  Alterar )

Foto do Google+

Você está comentando utilizando sua conta Google+. Sair /  Alterar )

Imagem do Twitter

Você está comentando utilizando sua conta Twitter. Sair /  Alterar )

Foto do Facebook

Você está comentando utilizando sua conta Facebook. Sair /  Alterar )


Conectando a %s

%d blogueiros gostam disto: