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Orchestration: Where do I even start?

Last-Echo

New Member
I know the basics of music theory, i.e (reading notation, time signatures, etc). But I have never worked with an orchestral track before.
To put it in context, I am an aspiring film composer. I want to learn how an orchestra works, but have no clue where to even begin. I have a hard time learning from things that don't give me a practical example of what it's trying to teach. Are there any website, books, courses, etc that you know of which teach in a way that even a beginner could understand?

Also, I am still in the process of learning composition, i.e (chord and melody progressions and how one chord might lead to another, etc) So go easy on me with the level of complexity when choosing these. :D
Thank you.
 

muk

Senior Member
Samuel Adler's 'The Study of Orchestration' is a classic. It comes with a cd and a workbook. In addition, listen to a lot of music while following it in the score. On imslp.net you'll find tons of free scores (bascially everything where the composer's death has been more than 70 years ago, meaning it is no longer under copyright). For example, download the scores for all the Beethoven symphonies. Then listen to them following the scores. For the parts you like the best, go back to the score and read very carefully how they have been orchestrated. It's fun and quality time spending half an hour listening to a symphony like this.

Then, go to orchestral concerts regularly. If you can, try to attend rehearsals of a local orchestra. Maybe there is a student orchestra in your region, and you know somebody who plays there? Ask if you can attend a few of their rehearsals and listen quietly. Maybe you can make yourself useful and help preparing the seats and music stands before the rehearsal in return. Or maybe there is a good youth or amateur orchestra you could ask. Attending rehearsals will be enlightening, as only there you'll learn how orchestras work behind the scenes. This will be priceless knowledge for any composer.

One final idea, search youtube for videos of famous conductors rehearsing with orchestras. There are a few with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Bernhard Haitink. I'm sure there are lots more. Again, follow these with a score/scores of the piece(s) they are rehearsing.

That's half of what you can do to learn how to orchestrate well. The other half is just doing it. Orchestrate, orchestrate, orchestrate. Write music, orchestrate it, and have somebody correct it (if you don't know anybody you can post it on this forum, for example). Noteperformer is a valuable tool that will give you aural feedback of what you wrote. While it doesn't sound like a real orchestra or even a good mockup, it is very good at making mistakes in orchestration clearly audible.

Another trick: go to imslp, choose an orchestral piece by Mozart, and download the piano reduction only. From the piano reduction, orchestrate 8 or 16 bars (without having looked at the full score!). Then download the full score and compare how Mozart orchestrated the same 8 or 16 bars. I promise that you will learn a lot from this exercise. Repeat as often as manage, and progressively choose later composers music as well.

While orchestrating I found this reference chart to be useful for quick checks of ranges and instruments capabilities:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/wqepbz9jx8555ap/InstrumentReferenceChartv6.1.zip?dl=0 (chart not made by me, I'm just linking to it)

If you need more indepth information, you can always read up in Adler about a particular instrument or technique.
 

borisb2

Active Member
Another trick: go to imslp, choose an orchestral piece by Mozart, and download the piano reduction only. From the piano reduction, orchestrate 8 or 16 bars (without having looked at the full score!). Then download the full score and compare how Mozart orchestrated the same 8 or 16 bars. I promise that you will learn a lot from this exercise. Repeat as often as manage, and progressively choose later composers music as well.
thats a great tip!!
 

beyd770

Member
Samuel Adler's 'The Study of Orchestration' is a classic. It comes with a cd and a workbook. In addition, listen to a lot of music while following it in the score. On imslp.net you'll find tons of free scores (bascially everything where the composer's death has been more than 70 years ago, meaning it is no longer under copyright). For example, download the scores for all the Beethoven symphonies. Then listen to them following the scores. For the parts you like the best, go back to the score and read very carefully how they have been orchestrated. It's fun and quality time spending half an hour listening to a symphony like this.

Then, go to orchestral concerts regularly. If you can, try to attend rehearsals of a local orchestra. Maybe there is a student orchestra in your region, and you know somebody who plays there? Ask if you can attend a few of their rehearsals and listen quietly. Maybe you can make yourself useful and help preparing the seats and music stands before the rehearsal in return. Or maybe there is a good youth or amateur orchestra you could ask. Attending rehearsals will be enlightening, as only there you'll learn how orchestras work behind the scenes. This will be priceless knowledge for any composer.

One final idea, search youtube for videos of famous conductors rehearsing with orchestras. There are a few with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Bernhard Haitink. I'm sure there are lots more. Again, follow these with a score/scores of the piece(s) they are rehearsing.

That's half of what you can do to learn how to orchestrate well. The other half is just doing it. Orchestrate, orchestrate, orchestrate. Write music, orchestrate it, and have somebody correct it (if you don't know anybody you can post it on this forum, for example). Noteperformer is a valuable tool that will give you aural feedback of what you wrote. While it doesn't sound like a real orchestra or even a good mockup, it is very good at making mistakes in orchestration clearly audible.

Another trick: go to imslp, choose an orchestral piece by Mozart, and download the piano reduction only. From the piano reduction, orchestrate 8 or 16 bars (without having looked at the full score!). Then download the full score and compare how Mozart orchestrated the same 8 or 16 bars. I promise that you will learn a lot from this exercise. Repeat as often as manage, and progressively choose later composers music as well.

While orchestrating I found this reference chart to be useful for quick checks of ranges and instruments capabilities:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/wqepbz9jx8555ap/InstrumentReferenceChartv6.1.zip?dl=0 (chart not made by me, I'm just linking to it)

If you need more indepth information, you can always read up in Adler about a particular instrument or technique.
Wonderful advice!
 
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Parsifal666

I don't even own a DAW, I'm just a troll.
Samuel Adler's 'The Study of Orchestration' is a classic.
It's the one I default to, though there are other very good books on the subject like the Rimsky-Korsakov and Forsythe (there's also the very Wagnerian Strauss book by Berlioz, but if you're not into the two Dicks you might not get as much out of it), the Adler is a bankable go-to.

I never liked the CD/Workbook that came with the actual book, and thank Bubs for the internet today, because the book has a lot of musical examples you can look right up (whereas I used to have to dig through my CD collection).

The Adler is not only seconded by me, but strongly recommended as the cream of the crop.
 

AllanH

Senior Member
To the OP: Adler is imo the best place to start, but it is a "study book" not a book you "just read" and then get it. The value of Adler is that he provides instrument-specific information illustrated in context with many examples. I expect to be going back to Adler for the next many years.

Final recommendation: Find music and orchestrations you like and try to decipher it.
 

joebaggan

Member
The fourth edition of Adler provides the examples on an associated website, so the newer edition no longer has a CD.
Right, having the associated 4th edition website means you can go straight to the streamed audio examples and listen along to the examples in the book, which makes things a lot easier. This book isn't cheap but probably worth it.
 

BenG

Senior Member
In addition to all that has been mentioned already, I highly recommend working at the piano to start. The general range, timbre, voicing, etc. should all transfer to orchestra seamlessly. For example, say you've written a soft, heartfelt melody in the upper range with some quiet loses chords beneath.

- What orchestral instrument sounds soft and warm there? Obie, Flute?

-What can support that theme quietly, in the middle range and blen well? (Strings?)

Combining instruments on a single line or part will also give you a hybrid sound that can shift tone depending in context and arrangement.
 

fixxer49

Bouncing Consultant
there's also the very Wagnerian Strauss book by Berlioz, but if you're not into the two Dicks you might not get as much out of it
True. But, it certainly has the greatest foreword of any of the other books mentioned here ;). lots of [quotable/actionable] concepts that are highly applicable to this discussion...
 
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bryla

Senior Member
Start with OrchestrationOnline's introduction series and go from his recommended score studies.
 

JohnG

Senior Member
Adler's book and website. By far the best, but I guess I'd even more strongly urge you to attempt a couple of pieces -- even excerpts -- and arrange them for players and have them record them for you. Even a feeble recording / performance will teach you things you will not learn online or out of a book.

If you live in a big city you could take an orchestration class, maybe at an "extension" or "adults education" class.

You can maybe do some online stuff; some of it might be good.

Classic ensembles would be string quintet, brass quintet, woodwind ensemble (like flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon). I it's easier to learn by hearing things you really thought through.
 
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