Scary? I know – just the word ‘orchestration’ can make you panic! The minute you start picturing a forty-strong orchestra belting out Mozart, you are inevitably going to be utterly intimidated, and will probably head straight back to your lunch, or any other distraction you can find. But stay with me – as somebody who has undoubtedly been in through the intimidation stage, I can now promise you that orchestration is an incredibly exciting and rewarding process, and you will be amazed what you can come up with. This very brief guide to starting orchestration is for anybody interested in composition, even if you’ve usually steered yourself more to in the contemporary direction. There is no rule that says orchestras have to be classical anymore, and if somebody tells you otherwise, they are wrong! If you want to add a bass guitar and a drum kit to your orchestra then go for it! It is actually a technique I use a lot; there is nothing stopping the worlds of pop and orchestras merging into beautiful harmony – hopefully both literally and figuratively.
By the Way - First off, your orchestra can consist of whatever instruments you want. Traditionally, you will have a wind section, a brass section, percussion and strings – strings consisting of Violin 1, Violin 2, Viola, Cello and Double Bass. You can use any of these you want, plus any extras you fancy. Before you start, try to familiarize yourself with ranges and clefs, as this will make your job a lot easier later on.
A Quick Note – go easy on the violas. Don’t forget about them – they always get given the boring part. It is worth tackling the alto clef (we all hate it) just to give them a decent part. If you can’t be bothered with alto clef, just stick it in treble clef and you will be fine.
Practicalities - I would strongly recommend investing in some music software. Luckily, if you’re just starting out, there are some super cheap versions of Sibelius online. The most basic package lets you write for four instruments at a time, and if you’re new to this, then that is probably enough. If you want more, the next one up will let you have up to 17.
Your Starting Point - sitting straight down to write some music conjures the dreaded blank page. I would always recommend avoiding the blank page. Before you start to write, spend some time on your piano or instrument of choice and see what you can come up with. Look for melodies, even short ones; chord progressions you like. Record everything on the faithful voice memo app and don’t delete anything, because you never know. I would recommend naming these memos, or you will end up like me with ‘voice memo 321’ and no idea what it is. A very large number of my orchestral pieces come from what were once singer/songwriter compositions. You would be surprised how well pop comps can be converted to orchestral music. But why not? They have chords, they have melodies, they have sections – a fantastic starting point!
Getting Writing: The Four Starting Categories: When you’re starting off with orchestration, it can help to think of four categories of music. Your chosen instruments, whatever they may be, are not all going to play the exact same notes – usually – or that would destroy the point. A lot of orchestrating, or ‘arranging’ is deciding WHICH instrument is going to take which category. This takes practice, and it takes the horrible process of rewriting, but you will get the hang of it, and when you do, you will feel fantastic! Let’s imagine, for the sake of example, that we are converting an original pop track.
Melody – This is a fancy word for the tune. Even if your music is very minimalistic, I would say you need a tune. Using our example, let’s imagine you really like your chorus melody from your pop song. Have a think: what instrument would you like to play the tune? Or, if you’re feeling more ambitious, how about ‘passing’ the tune about? These categories DO NOT have to stay on the same instrument all the way through, although for your first couple of attempts, it might make things easier. If you have mastered this, you could also add a harmony: a second part with an identical or similar rhythm, but different notes.
Countermelody – Not completely essential, but it can be nice to have a second, less prominent melody to accompany the main one. This could be on the same instrument, or maybe a different one in a higher or lower octave? I find the best ways to come up with countermelodies is to drive everybody you live with crazy and do it ALWAYS. Favourite song comes on the radio? Invent a counterpart: any other tune, even a very simple one, that works over the main part. If you keep doing this whenever you can, it will become very natural.
Harmony – This is important, and usually comes in the form of chords. CHORDS ARE IMPORTANT. Even when my music isn’t designed to sound like a clear chord progression, I always know what chord I have assigned to each bar, as it will help you know what other notes you can put in that bar. For example, if we are in the good old chord of C major and you are trying to write a harmony to your melody, you know that C, E and G are all likely to work, as well as probably several notes in the C major scale. Use your instruments to create chords. A good way to start is to work out the three notes in your chord and distribute them into a string section; a cello takes the C, the viola the E, and the violins the G – for example.
Rhythm – Rhythm is also important as it can determine the ‘feel’ of your piece. If all of your instruments have identical rhythms all the way through, your piece can become boring, so add rhythm to show whether we are in an exciting section, or a more simplistic romantic section. Rhythm isn’t exclusive to drums, either. Short, staccato strings can be fantastic to adding an interesting beat to your piece.
Have a Go! This should be enough for you to make a start. Remember, orchestration takes time and practice – like any music – but, also like any music, it can also be incredibly rewarding. Keep going with it, and show people your work to see what they think. I cannot recommend trying orchestration enough – I love it, and I hope you will too.
Keturah Paice (Piano Tutor at Vocademy)