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December 2021 post “Music Manipulations”

November 2021 post “The Instruments of an Orchestra”

October 2021 post “Orchestra Types”

September 2021 post “Soloists”

July 2021 post “Programming”

June 2021 post “Good Performance/Bad Performance”

May 2021 post “Good Music/Bad Music”

April 2021 post “Meaning of Music”

March 2021 post “Hearing 3”

February 2021 post “Hearing 2”

January 2021 post “Hearing 1”

December 2020 post “What to listen for in music”

November 2020 post “Early History of Conducting”

Following up on last month’s article regarding the many ways music can be “manipulated”, I would like to focus here exclusively on one – orchestration. Orchestration involves the writing of individual parts for each instrument in an ensemble (orchestration is sometimes referred to as “instrumentation”, especially when the ensemble is not an “orchestra”, but a “band” (symphonic or wind band)).  This is so specific a discipline in musical studies as to warrant an entire semester or two, dedicated just to this one topic.

Picture of Muted Trumpet

It is often said that orchestration “colors” the music. This is not so far from the truth. Of the eight or so “musical elements”, “timbre”, which translates as “color”, is one. This musical element is what we use to distinguish the tone of the clarinet or oboe playing the same melody but sounding quite different. Even one instrument alone can have a unique timbre depending upon the register in which it is playing (high notes, middle range or low notes), or depending upon unusual manipulations of an instrument’s sound, for instance with “mutes” (you may have seen trumpets place variously shaped “plugs” into the bell to make a more nasal sound). Even string instruments have “mutes”.

In its earliest stages, orchestration was approached quite functionally. Orchestrators would take given melodies and harmonies and select, from all options in their ensemble (let’s use an orchestra as the primary example here), which instruments can a) play this melody or harmony in a comfortable range on their instrument, b) play the written part such that it is properly balanced in volume while other instruments are playing (so it can be heard), and c) play the written part to provide the kind of drama the music intends to communicate (power, curiosity, frivolity, sensuousness, etc.). This is a more utilitarian approach to orchestration; Which instruments can allow for the melody and harmony to be sufficiently heard?

Rather quickly, orchestration moved from a more utilitarian approach to a much more aesthetic approach. This happened already in the Classical era and was greatly developed as an art form in ensuing eras of Romanticism, Post-Romanticism, Expressionism and 20th century / Post-20th century. Composers who orchestrated their own music would seriously consider the emotional effects different instruments might evoke, depending upon the orchestrator’s choices. While several instruments “could” play a particular part (a utilitarian approach), the search for just the perfect instrument in the perfect range was the goal now.

So let’s take a step back to identify the whole creative process. Before orchestrating a piece, the “music” must be written. That is, the introductions, the themes, with their various accompaniments, need first to be composed, to be written down. Some composers simply write the music on and for piano (to be later orchestrated). Some will write the music on and for piano, but in an expanded piano score with hand-written notes about ideas for which instruments might play which parts (strings, brass, solo flute, etc.).

When a student studies orchestration, one begins by learning all of the details about how every single instrument is played. The best way is not only to learn this from reading a textbook but to actually learn to play every instrument, even at a rudimentary level. Certainly, every orchestrator must learn to “hear” how every note will eventually sound as each instrument plays it. We are taught in class to “never write a note you cannot hear in your mind”. This takes much study and discipline.

As part of this study, those who orchestrate music, need to be aware of not only ordinary manners of playing all instruments, but also extra-ordinary manners of play. For instance, it is ordinary for a violin to be played with a bow, gliding across the string (arco). But a violin can also be plucked (pizzicato).  A violin can also produce unusual ghost-like sound called “harmonics” by lightly touching the string in a certain spot and bowing the string. Sometimes, a violin is asked to play a part “col legno” (“with the wood”), where the violinist bounces the wood part of the bow (not the hair) on the string to make a clicking type of sound. And there are dozens of such string techniques for orchestrators to learn and make use of.

Similarly, other families of instruments have their own ordinary manners of play and extra-ordinary manners of play. Of particular note is the percussion family. There is far too much to explore on this topic for this brief article. Suffice it to say that it is a life-long study for orchestrators to learn the nuances of how all instruments are played.

Picture of Mallets

(How many mallets can be used to strike something to achieve a unique sound?)

A very famous study in orchestration is with the piece “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Modest Mussorgsky, a Russian “Nationalist” composer (1839-1981). He composed the piece as a piano work in several movements (if you don’t know the “story” of this work, it is worth your time, as is his music). So we HAVE the original piano part (which is rarely the case, when dealing with an orchestrated composition). We ALSO happen to have Mussorgsky’s own orchestration – his own aesthetic choices to “color” and dramatize his piano music. This piano part is often given to orchestration students to orchestrate on their own, and then to compare with other professional orchestrators’ versions. Again, this is a long story, as there have been many different orchestrations penned of just this one work! Most notably, Maurice Ravel, a MASTER orchestrator in his own right, did his own orchestration of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” and it is exhilarating! It is worth comparing to others’ versions when you have some time! (see below)

  • This is the original piano version (with which all orchestrations began).
  • This is the most often performed version: orchestration by Maurice Ravel
  • This is for more curious persons – the same “Ravel” version but WITH THE MUSIC. You can follow along with the notes.
  • This is a very rare recording with conductor Leonard Slatkin. He compiled multiple orchestrators’ versions (one each per movement) into one recording. See the listing of all names in the notes provided online!)

As this topic of “orchestration” is quite rich, I will continue this in the month of February. Further aspects of the topic will include special use of concert hall space, use of electronic devices, recording techniques, and much more! Stay tuned!

© Copyright 2022 Michael Kamenski, Milwaukee, WI. All Rights Reserved.