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How much do you pay attention to voicing?

Hey everyone,

I've been diving deep into some voicing techniques to improve my arranging and sketch to full score process. How much do you all pay attention to these kinds of things? I feel like is so important yet so many composition texts overlook it or don't really explain how important it is. Especially when it comes to extended tertian harmonies in orchestral music or quartal/quintal harmony.

Just curious
 

neblix

Music, Math, Cats
Voicing defines how the music is going to feel for me. So I guess to me, it's just ingrained in how I look at the music I'm writing. But I know for un-trained musicians or hobbyists, they're adding layers of sounds together without consciously observing what registers each of their voices are in, and just kinda build stacks of harmony that way.

The latter isn't really bad for an experienced person who is used to it but it just creates a lot of opportunity for confusion and trouble in both the arrangement and mixing processes that doesn't need to be there. My mixes became a lot easier to manage when I started to keep my voicings clear throughout the different musical parts, this is especially more easy to deal with if your piano roll can edit multiple midi channels at once, so you can see the sum total voicing of all the instruments playing in the music.

It's essential to use virtual instruments that have MIDI mapped to concert pitch (in other words middle C actually sounds at middle C) or manipulate them using transpose until they do if you want to pay attention to this stuff.
 
OP
MatthewHarnage
Glad to hear! Its just so rare I hear other writers talk about it, so I wasn't sure if it was just me or not (I didn't think so really). I've noticed a definite improvement in my music when I arrange everything on piano and maybe 1 more stave for countermelodies. Then everything is voiced appropriately and nothing is fighting each other in the same range. Plus that's a quick way to make sure you're not constantly writing stuff in root position. Then when it comes to those extended chords it gets even more important. Any of you do a similar process?

Piano sketch with maybe 1 other line for counter melodies? Maybe add a drumset if you know that'll be in the end result (or something similar).
 

Saxer

Senior Member
The best way to learn good voicings is to play with live musicians. You get immediate shitstorm when there are clashes in middle lines or you have to answer questions like: why do I play a C and have to change to Db while my neighbor continues playing C? In such situations you should have answers or solutions... or a better chance next week...
 

JohnG

Senior Member
it seems as though there are two uses of the word, "voicing" in this convo. One is voice leading -- a horizontal thing. The other is what I call voicing, which is the vertical distribution of a chord across the various instruments and sections.

Of course they are related, but pretty different, I'd say.
 
OP
MatthewHarnage
it seems as though there are two uses of the word, "voicing" in this convo. One is voice leading -- a horizontal thing. The other is what I call voicing, which is the vertical distribution of a chord across the various instruments and sections.

Of course they are related, but pretty different, I'd say.
I'm using it to refer to both simultaneously, but mostly in the way of vertical distribution. Otherwise I'd used "voice leading" instead. They are similar but different for sure.

I brought it up however really referring to voicings aka Drop 2,3,2+4, etc etc
 

miket

Senior Member
Definitely don't overlook vertical voicing... I think that can make or break a sonority even more than how it's orchestrated.
 

JohnG

Senior Member
I'm using it to refer to both simultaneously,
fair enough; I agree that both are critical.

Just finished arranging some material for large orchestra and choir. Constantly, you have to think about where each instrument group or voice is within its range. If the sopranos are singing an A above the treble staff and the altos are on a D below the staff -- you aren't going to hear too much alto.

And the same goes all the way around the orchestra, of course.

One of the most common blunders I think I see is writing too high in the register for brass. Samples sound great way up there but real live players often sound pinched and thin. If you look at where John Williams voices chords it's like a master class in "how to do it." Raiders march, Superman march, Star Wars intro -- any of them.
 

Soundlex

Member
Can't think of any situation I've seen or used a drop 3. Do you have any examples?
Voicing is the most important thing to me. Really, it changes literally everything.
Drop 3 are mostly transitional chords, they don't stay around for long but it's very useful...
 

mikeh-375

old school
Terms like 5 part drop 2 etc are not orchestral terms really, more big band/jazz (sax arranging in particular) I've found, although I can obviously see their application (I know, I'm a pedant ;)).
As you will undoubtedly be aware, vertical spacing is intimately linked to the musical effect, timbre and dynamic you are after and only you can answer that Matthew. Once you decide on those three factors, knowledge of individual instrumental techniques and combinations thereof will guide you in the best way to achieve the effect you're after. Best of all though is to write for the combinations at the composing stage, that way your music is immediately informed by the instruments and vice-versa.

So, I'd start there. If you want a jam packed ff chord study scores, if you want a delicate pp colour thinly spaced...study scores....get the picture. There are classic guidelines such as juxtaposition, enclosing and so on but that is only a start to realising the possibilities. Study and listening (with a score) my friend, its the only way. You could develop a learning course for yourself that for example, just concentrates on wind spacing, do the same with brass and then strings. Then, look at how the sections are combined in the scores you've just studied, say brass + wind, then strings and wind, who's doubling who and why - you get the picture. Take note of the musical context, dynamics and where instruments are in the vertical field at a given dynamic. Doubling - is it unison or at the octave or more - why? How many instruments on a particular note, is it an important note musically? Does the harmony of what you are studying have a discordant interval in it? How is that treated?, same/similar colours or different.? Is the chord foreground or background, the answer to that will be crucial to how a chord is treated in terms of spacing and timbre. Are there gaps in the spacing to allow important lines to come through? Is the chord percussive or sustained? Does it have moving parts in it if sustained and how are they spaced? Are those moving parts foreground or background and do they have space around them or not? ......jeez I could create the longest post ever on this. You'll have to use your initiative Matthew - study deeply, inquisitively and consistently (in other words...practice, practise) and over a prolonged period of time because this ain't a few youtube vids and you're good to go scenario if you want to do it well.(Not suggesting that's what you think btw, just a general comment).

Vertical spacing is also inextricably linked with voice leading as chords will in all likely hood move to elsewhere in similar spacing/combinations. For best practice there you need to have a good knowledge of counterpoint and/or a great sense of musical line allied to knowledge of harmony and harmonic resolution.
As @Saxer implies above, the best scoring will be good for the players because it has at its heart , solid, practical voice-leading and a musical sensibility.

Sorry, I've gone on a bit but the subject is vast and the rules (no, not rules as such, just tried, tested and proven practice) are open to abuse (in a good way) by the imagination, but only after you have understood and internalised them because only then can you make them work for your music.

BTW...Korsakov is a good read with fine examples of clearly delineated and well spaced, judged scoring...he was a master after all.
 
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mikeh-375

old school
fair enough; I agree that both are critical.

Just finished arranging some material for large orchestra and choir. Constantly, you have to think about where each instrument group or voice is within its range. If the sopranos are singing an A above the treble staff and the altos are on a D below the staff -- you aren't going to hear too much alto.

And the same goes all the way around the orchestra, of course.

One of the most common blunders I think I see is writing too high in the register for brass. Samples sound great way up there but real live players often sound pinched and thin. If you look at where John Williams voices chords it's like a master class in "how to do it." Raiders march, Superman march, Star Wars intro -- any of them.
I've heard that JW is very considerate to brass players and gives them every opportunity to get their breath back during takes. True though John, too much inexperience and time with samples does not translate well into the live room unless know how has contributed to the parts on the stands.
In fact Matthew, brass is the most important section to get right in louder chords because of their potential domineering power. In a ff chord all other instruments have to be placed in registers and doublings that give them a fighting chance of at least being felt if a general tutti is sought. Mind you, brass players sometimes dial down their superior sound in compensatory fashion if required, but that's no reason to not be vigilant or be unaware of best practice.
 
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bryla

Senior Member
Voicing is the most important thing to me. Really, it changes literally everything.
Drop 3 are mostly transitional chords, they don't stay around for long but it's very useful...
I understand that. Do you have any examples?
 

Henu

Senior Member
At this point, I still use at least 60% of the time spent on voicing only. The more I learn, the faster it goes, but it's very much about trial and error still. Some day!
 

JohnG

Senior Member
Study and listening (with a score) my friend, its the only way.
For me, the only way as well. John Williams' scores are widely available, but you also can find a few film scores from Omni publishing that are gold.

Example: Back to the Future -- that is for pro players only! But it is a great example of how far you can push the orchestra. Plus, since it's a parody in many cues, it ironically gives a lot of insight into how the guy who did the Avengers thinks about action and adventure.
 
OP
MatthewHarnage
For me, the only way as well. John Williams' scores are widely available, but you also can find a few film scores from Omni publishing that are gold.

Example: Back to the Future -- that is for pro players only! But it is a great example of how far you can push the orchestra. Plus, since it's a parody in many cues, it ironically gives a lot of insight into how the guy who did the Avengers thinks about action and adventure.
I think its more than just score reading. I'd suggest score reading AND making a piano sketch of the voicings/voice leading. That's what I've been doing for the past month or two and its been very informative. That's a quick way to memorize this stuff as well, since you're writing it all out in condensed form by hand.

Plus its basically reversing the process of sketch to orchestra. So now when I'm doing my sketches they are becoming more vivid and purposefully just because I know how to reverse engineer them.

@mikeh-375 I wouldn't say they are only used in jazz contexts, especially with film/game composers being so influenced by jazz and fusion. Its taken its own life, even if people aren't referring to them that way. I see these voicings everywhere still, in all types of music. That's another reason I wanted to bring it up, good voicing has a universal music approach to translucency of ideas.


I understand that. Do you have any examples?
Drop 3 voicings are used in a lot of solo contexts. So in a jazz guitar solo arrangement or solo piano for example. Drop 3 is used more when you don't have a bass instrument, so there's room for the note to be that low yet still close to the overall harmony. Definitely in Joe Pass and a few others. Can't name exact moments of pieces of the top of my head. In general its better on solo instruments or when no other instrument is playing the bass.
 

JohnG

Senior Member
I'd suggest score reading AND making a piano sketch
I agree to a point -- piano sketches sometimes elucidate quite a bit, Matthew. As you probably know, however, a lot of pieces (Rite of Spring) can end up looking like a bunch of clusters, with dissonance bunched close together, which is not the feeling I get listening to it. In some cases you really are hearing two different chords played by different choirs and the effect is less jarring in the orchestra than on a piano or organ.

If I really want to work out what someone has done, my favourite is to reduce to an 8 stave, concert-pitch sketch -- two staves winds, brass, strings, choir/other. That way you also preserve the registers of the brass instruments.

Besides, an 8-staff sketch is how a lot of people work.
 
OP
MatthewHarnage
I agree to a point -- piano sketches sometimes elucidate quite a bit, Matthew. As you probably know, however, a lot of pieces (Rite of Spring) can end up looking like a bunch of clusters, with dissonance bunched close together, which is not the feeling I get listening to it. In some cases you really are hearing two different chords played by different choirs and the effect is less jarring in the orchestra than on a piano or organ.

If I really want to work out what someone has done, my favourite is to reduce to an 8 stave, concert-pitch sketch -- two staves winds, brass, strings, choir/other. That way you also preserve the registers of the brass instruments.

Besides, an 8-staff sketch is how a lot of people work.
Yeah for sure. I've run into that while analyzing some of Joe Hisiashi's more quartal/quintal sounding works. Most I guess "normal" writing works on piano, so its cool to be able to play that stuff from the ground up. Similar to you with the more orchestrally written stuff I've been using more staves. But so far its 4 staves, just because clusters aren't super intelligible unless you can split it somehow haha. Especially when you have clusters moving inner lines all the time. But I personally like separating the analysis style. So for me that means piano sketch (or just bass and treble clef) most of the time, and making annotations in my score books for studying the arranging/orchestration. Not like I'm going to sell them so they are full of notes haha! All in all its just such a good way to learn I think, and my years in school never really mentioned this stuff in isolation so I feel like we should talk about it more.

For instance I was taught part-writing early on (in a classical style) but when we were introduced to different voicing styles they were never explained outside of our primary instrument. A big loss for arranging imo. But that may have been more of my school than the standard curriculum.
 

JohnG

Senior Member
But that may have been more of my school than the standard curriculum.
The guys who taught me the most in classes were those who themselves had to arrange stuff. There was a professor / teacher at Stanford who taught orchestration and who did all the arrangements for the marching band (so-called; Stanford's band doesn't "march;" it swarms, or something). That guy was practical.

The other guy was a composer named Don Ray who'd started writing for TV back when electronic instruments were expensive, hard to use, and often not very portable. So he knew how to write for a small ensemble and still make it sound interesting and give it variety.

It's a lot easier to have variety with 90 players than with, say, 11!

Standard Curriculum(?)

The point to this missive is that in general, universities are not packed with actual practitioners -- people who write, day in and day out, for ensembles of any size. Consequently, I am not aware of a "standard curriculum" for teaching practical orchestration. I'm not even sure it exists(?) There are books, some of them quite useful, but that's about it, methinks.

I did learn from those two classes, but most of what I know came from two things:

1. Reading scores (including some of the scores that those guys used as sources); and

2. Orchestrating for other guys and then hearing it week after week. Quite a set of lessons that was!

I also was lucky enough to work quite a while with Immediate Music, who hired large orchestras for trailer music. It was awesome.
 
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