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Most common orchestration mistakes

Bullersten

New Member
Question for the experienced orchestrators: What are the most common scoring mistakes made by learning composers writing orchestral music?

I can easily hear when my orchestrations do not sound mature, but I find it hard to pinpoint where to start working to improve them.
 
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JJP

I put dots and lines on paper.
  • Everything playing all the time (everything sounds homogenous/boring)
  • Overloading the low end with too much stuff thinking that gives you power (gets muddy)
  • Believing the french horns are the power instrument of the brass section or believing you need 8+ horns to get a big brass sound
  • Doubling everything or "dogpile" orchestration (pick a note and everybody pile on)
  • Forgetting to give brass and woodwinds space to breathe
  • Not using the woodwinds at all (greatly reduces the color palette)
  • Relying too much on percussion for rhythmic interest
#1 - Thinking orchestration is the problem when the problem is actually in the composition. That could mean bad harmony, chord voicings, voice-leading, elements fighting with each other, or a weak melody. You can't orchestrate your way out of compositional problems.
 

J-M

A glorified bedroom composer...
  • Not using the woodwinds at all (greatly reduces the color palette)
  • Relying too much on percussion for rhythmic interest

So guilty of these, especially in my earliest tracks. Actively trying to get rid of these...
 

Farkle

Senior Member
  • Everything playing all the time (everything sounds homogenous/boring)
  • Overloading the low end with too much stuff thinking that gives you power (gets muddy)
  • Believing the french horns are the power instrument of the brass section or believing you need 8+ horns to get a big brass sound
  • Doubling everything or "dogpile" orchestration (pick a note and everybody pile on)
  • Forgetting to give brass and woodwinds space to breathe
  • Not using the woodwinds at all (greatly reduces the color palette)
  • Relying too much on percussion for rhythmic interest
#1 - Thinking orchestration is the problem when the problem is actually in the composition. That could mean bad harmony, chord voicings, voice-leading, elements fighting with each other, or a weak melody. You can't orchestrate your way out of compositional problems.
Jesus, JJP, I was going to go on an orchestration rant, but you nailed all my points already. :middle finger:.

So, I guess I'll just talk about how the Flyers suck, and how we're doomed to another 30 years of sports mediocrity in Philly. :P

I'll add a couple more, that are variations of a theme:

1. Using the percussion (esp ethnic percussion) as the driving rhythm in orchestral pieces; Percussion should be (if you want to write great orchestrations) accents and colors, not a drum kit.
2. Registral issues. Writing chords too low in the register, creating harmonic mud. Look up classic "low register limits" in jazz arranging, and make sure your brass and strings don't duck down below those. And, before you say, "Well, Bernie Herrmann and Jimmy Horner did low register chords", look me in the eye, and tell me you're as good as either of those two.... Yeah, didn't think so. Watch your low registral limits.
3. Really thinking about your dynamics. Thinking about how a flute chord in piano would softly color against a harp in mf; thinking about what it means when a trumpet is forte, versus a violin section.
4. Getting off on walls of ethnic percussion as a primary force in your composition. It doesn't sustain formal interest; it's just a cheap hormone trick. Yes, I said it twice. Because it bears repeating.
5. Repeating JJP's thing about working more with woodwinds. For god's sake, every great theme written is stated in a woodwind at some point. Think about it.
There you go. Now go and study Ravel.

Mike
 

erica-grace

Senior Member
But seriously - and I heard Conrad Pope talk about this in a podcast - playing a five, six, or even seven note chord, and assigning all of those notes to the 1st Violins. Then playing another five, six, or seven note chord, and assigning all of those notes to the 2nd Violins. Then, doing the same for the Violas, Celli, and DBasses.
 

sIR dORT

Senior Member
But seriously - and I heard Conrad Pope talk about this in a podcast - playing a five, six, or even seven note chord, and assigning all of those notes to the 1st Violins. Then playing another five, six, or seven note chord, and assigning all of those notes to the 2nd Violins. Then, doing the same for the Violas, Celli, and DBasses.
Not to that extreme of a level, but did that all the time when I was getting into composing initially. Turns out huge block chords in strings don't sound good with VIs and just are dumb period ;)
 

ag75

Senior Member
But seriously - and I heard Conrad Pope talk about this in a podcast - playing a five, six, or even seven note chord, and assigning all of those notes to the 1st Violins. Then playing another five, six, or seven note chord, and assigning all of those notes to the 2nd Violins. Then, doing the same for the Violas, Celli, and DBasses.
Can you provide a link to the Conrad Pope podcast? I would love to hear that
 

NoamL

Winter <3
When I've orchestrated for composers who don't read sheet music (which is not my main line of work...) the most common error was just less/little/no knowledge of the relationship between register and foreground/background, or in other words orchestrating instruments for their inherent volume & penetrativeness. A good example would be a flute "solo" that was in the bottom half of the treble staff, and starting a maj3rd below that were some lush VlnI and VlnII lines. At mf. Well "I can hear it in the sequencer." :shocked:

Another mistake that plagues way more than just illiterate composers, is colliding parts. Just stuff on top of stuff on top of stuff with no clear foreground/support hierarchy. I've done this way too many times. More sound is not better, especially in the context of a real orchestra with limited forces where you have to conserve color. But inside a sequencer there's a strong temptation to 'add another part' because it helps hide how awfully unmusical samples generally are.
 
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bryla

Orchestrator
Dammit. Everything I thought of when clicking the thread has been said.

One thing else could be to understand articulations - not in terms of library patches. Way too many times I've had passages of marcato samples that the composer wanted marcato – and then some of those accented in a rhythmic pattern.

Also: thinking that divisi gives you more power just because it gives you more notes.
 

Mornats

Hobbyist
Not to that extreme of a level, but did that all the time when I was getting into composing initially. Turns out huge block chords in strings don't sound good with VIs and just are dumb period ;)

Same here yet a lot of sample library walkthroughs do just this so I thought it was what you were meant to do!

Seriously good tips everyone. I feel like I've been on a course and learned loads already!
 
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Bullersten

Bullersten

New Member
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Thank you all for your excellent contributions. Here is my executive summary for all your comments so far in the form of orchestration guidelines:
  • Use percussions sparsely, mainly for accenting.
  • Use all orchestral sections to make the overall sound richer.
  • Spread your harmonies across registers and do not overload the low end.
  • Learn the capabilities of each instrument (range, articulations, volume, dynamics, etc) and do not rely on VI libraries for that.
  • Learn how different instruments would interact at different registers.
  • Do not overuse doubling, especially at unison.
  • Before blaming orchestration, make sure that the composition stands on its own two feet harmonically and melodically.
 

Rob Elliott

Senior Member
All excellent points (and reminders). Maybe one more for mockup folks. LISTEN to YOUR music played live. Be prepare to be surprised - and not always in a good way. ;) (then extrapolate what you 'learned' to future writing/orchestrations/mockups.) Oh yea - humans have to rest and breath. Jeez!!!
 
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