To preface this article, the topics and suggestions we discuss may seem elementary to the seasoned and trained composer. However, being in the orchestra recording business, we work with composers of all levels, some of whom have become composers through different walks of life, besides the traditional means. This article is primarily designed to help those with less orchestration knowledge and experience, to whom, such pointers may not be so obvious. Please enjoy and we gladly welcome all feedback.
As an orchestrator, I get sent numerous MIDI/notation files, which mostly have great musical ideas, but often need extensive editing to make them work in the “real” orchestral environment. This is critical to achieving the desired sounds demonstrated in DAW-produced orchestra mock-up tracks.
So, I have decided to share a few tips to help composers better understand what goes on in a real orchestra and hopefully assist in avoiding these common mistakes. Welcome to part 1!
Unlike a VST Orchestra, a real orchestra has limits defined by what people and instruments can do; thus when writing for an orchestra, we need to be mindful of these limitations:
She Can’t Go Any Higher, Captain!
Instruments are confined to ranges, meaning some things are just not possible. Want to put it to the test? Give a Trumpet player a Piccolo part and watch as they study it in bewilderment, most probably followed by a slow raise of their hand. The limitations of all the instruments start with available ranges. Here is a list of some common instruments and their (normal) ranges:
Violin: G3 - A7
Viola: C3 - E6
Cello: C2 - C6
Double Bass: C2 - C5 (sounding an octave lower)
Flute: C4 - D7
Oboe: Bb3 - A6
Clarinet (Bb): D3 - G6
French Horn: F#2 - C6
Trumpet: F#3 - D6
Trombone: E2 - F5
Tuba: D1 - F4
One At A Time Please
Most instruments are monophonic, meaning they are limited to playing a single note at any given time, with the exceptions of the strings. Strings are capable of double, triple & quadruple stops of which only double stops, two notes played simultaneously, can be sustained. Due to the many string players per section, “Divisi” may be used to build more than one line of music per instrument grouping.
In other words, you should not write chords for a monophonic instrument to play, unless you want to make that trombonist rage quit. However some very clever players can play multiphonics, but this really is specialist territory and generally should be avoided.
But for the persistent among you here’s an example of James Morrison playing multiphonics on trombone:
Woodwind And Brass Players Also Need To Breathe, On Occasion
Unfortunately, woodwind and brass players haven’t had compressed air cylinders medically inserted into their lungs as part of their trade, nor have they all perfected circular breathing (and thank goodness because imagine how long we’d have to listen to them all trying to beat the existing Circular Breathing World Record!). So unless you want to watch the entire brass section go blue in the face and eventually keel over, let’s give them some time to catch their breath!
And on that note, the Official Guinness Circular Breathing World Record is still held by Vann Burchfield.
Here’s an example from Bruckner’s 8th Symphony, which beautifully illustrates a lengthy section of orchestral brass playing comprising 8-measure segments with a place to breathe between each phrase:
They Don’t All Want to be Mariah Carey Hitting Those Highs
For woodwind and brass instruments, it often takes more physical effort to achieve the high notes and we need to be mindful of this when writing sustained passages. Of course, loud “stabs” are possible in the upper registers. Also, these high registers can be beautifully evocative and should then be reserved for highlights and one of the best examples is the bassoon opening to Stravinsky’s “ Le Sacre du printemps”:
Also, remember that in a standard orchestra, it is the Principal Player who is generally assigned high register and solo playing.
Now Give Me La Campanella into Étude Op, Pronto!
A DAW could complete this challenge flawlessly, and play both pieces from memory… quite literally. However, as magical as orchestra players are, they also appreciate a rest between challenging passages, especially when coming up on a solo passage. If possible, be kind and give players a rest before taxing solo passages so that they can adequately prepare to give you the best possible rendition of your beautifully written solo.
I hope you find these tips useful in assisting with your orchestra score compositions. Stay tuned for part 2 and more related topics.