Orchestration: Where do I even start?


Senior Member
Hmm interesting approach. How do you utilise NotePerformer to its full potential as a learning tool?
I use it to study scores. First, you learn a great deal entering notes. It makes you think about the way the composer wrote the score and why he orchestrated it this way. And you'll learn about writing articulations and phrasing as well as just notes. Most orchestral lines are articulated and phrased very carefully and it makes a huge difference. You'll learn about ranges and optimal writing range, you'll learn about transposing and reading different clefs, etc. And when you run into questions and problems, you can use these as jumping off points to study the issues in more detail whether they are harmony or orchestration. Then at the bottom, I do a piano reduction to study the harmony and get an overall picture of the score in piano reduction. In Sibelius, you can easily select single or multiple staves so you can hear what an individual section sounds like on its own and how the various sections support each other. Its just another way to score study, but I find it a much deeper dive than just reading a score or making annotations. It heavily requires your involvement and makes you think about the orchestration in extreme detail. Of course YMMV, though I find it both extremely insightful and enlightening.
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New Member
Ask your teacher when would be a good time to study orchestration.
I am studying all of this by myself, I live in a very remote place. Far from cities, towns, etc. I have never had any music lessons in any institute before.
You will need solid harmony fundamentals to be an effective orchestrator.
This makes sense, I will keep learning harmonies, etc. And also see how much I can learn to orchestrate while I am still in the process. Thank you for your input :)


Senior Member
I am studying all of this by myself, I live in a very remote place. Far from cities, towns, etc. I have never had any music lessons in any institute before.
IMSLP and archive.org are your friends. On Archive.org you can find an amazing selection of books on harmony and orchestration. Check authors Heacox, McPherson, Lovelock, and Joseph Wagner. Wagner wrote an interesting book on orchestration that discusses how to arrange piano pieces for orchestra (based on Heacox's book Lessons in Orchestration which covers the same). He discusses various arrangements and the pros/cons. If you're doing self-study, you can learn a lot from Wagner's Orchestration book.


old school
@ed buller touched on something I haven't seen yet here (apologies if I missed it) in that orchestration should be inherent from the outset of composing and its effects, balances, timbres etc. should be utilised at the composing stage, not as an afterthought, that should be the op's ultimate goal ideally - a synergy between practicality, possibilities and creativity, one feeding the other. In that way, the music becomes idiomatic and just plays right. Otherwise the composer is continually arranging for rather than composing for the orchestra and missing out on the idiomatic opportunities for composition.
Getting to that stage though requires a serious commitment to goal driven study and will take years - but it's where J.Williams is at for example...that's the truth of it and what is required for achieving excellence.
The OP could start by discovering the strengths and weaknesses of instruments individually, first off, then do compositional exercises that exploit their strengths and technical capabilities in order to be able to insinuate the concepts into the initial moments of creation as guides and inspirational tools. Studies of balance within groups and then between groups would then be better informed as a result.

I have to agree totally with @JJP above. Learn the basics because they are the minimum requirement for orchestration if one is to do it properly (read...well).

"Do today what others won’t so tomorrow you can do what others can’t." – Jerry Rice
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Reid Rosefelt
In my $$ job as a publicity writer, I interviewed cinematographer Vittorio Storaro for the third time a few weeks ago. He told me that after shooting APOCALYPSE NOW, which he won the Oscar for, he felt he didn't know enough about color. So the man who shot THE CONFORMIST and LAST TANGO and so many others, stopped working and went on a personal course of intensive study for a year. I find Storaro's pursuit of rigor to be inspiring. I got the same feeling from Adler. I have always advanced the most with teachers with high standards and high demands.

At my age, I have no dreams of being an orchestral composer. I am an amateur songwriter with a passion for and curiosity about world music. I have other interests, like filmmaking. To be honest, I enjoy the pure gadgety technology side of making music with computers.

But the study of melody, counterpoint and orchestration... that interests me a lot. I don't listen to music with a score because I am hoping to be the next Ennio Morricone, but because it is very enjoyable to do so. And learning about all matters musical informs everything I do.

In fact, talking to Storaro, I said, "you sound to me more like a composer than a cinematographer." Because when he told me he needed to have a reason for every image and for every color, he sounded more like the people on this forum than most of the other directors of photography I know. And Storaro knew what I meant and liked this comment very much.

And when Adler talked, among other things, about how art should have a meaning but that the artist shouldn't explain too much what he thinks it is, that resonated with me. That's what I told the actors and directors I worked with for years. Don't explain and take that job away from the audience.

So I didn't find him ridiculous, and of course I don't feel bad that I can't go back in time and learn a ton of stuff before I began writing music over 50 years ago.

I look forward to learning from him as I look forward to continuing to learn from all of you.


Senior Member
I guess anyplace is ok to start.

That said, personally, I am squeamish about recommending Piston (though I have it and have studied it) or Rimsky-Korsakoff (same) only because they are so old and because I find them relatively idiosyncratic and personal.

By contrast, Adler I find takes a more inclusive approach. No doubt he has his prejudices but I find those lean generally toward the practical side -- what players can actually execute -- and less on the "what I think sounds good" side. I also think Adler's musical examples expose to some extent one of the elements @JJP emphasized in his post -- the difference of various instruments in various registers. I agree with him that samples often disguise that issue (though oddly not the EWQLSO original library, which I found unerringly predictive of what will sound strained or comfortable for players).

So if you're going down the road of trying to learn orchestration using samples via a DAW or notation program, maybe consider the (I assume very inexpensive now) EWQLSO library as a sketching tool. It also would be far less demanding on computer resources than the new libraries.

What to Look for?

But if you're going to look at scores, be sure to look -- thinking of brass and woodwinds -- at the actual ranges the composer uses. Every orchestration book worth its salt will talk about the difference in timbre between low, medium and high for wind instruments. It's a huge difference and, for particular effects, the range you want for a particular sound is often surprisingly narrow.

Example: Do you love the trumpet / brass fanfare at the beginning of Star Wars? It's in exactly the register that makes it both playable and sound awesome.

Number One Mistake(s)

The number one mistake is forgetting to let wind players breathe and for the feeling to return to brass players' lips -- rests, in other words.

But maybe even more common and equally pernicious are range blunders. Inexperienced composers often put the French Horns (and trumpets), for example, in their extreme high range for long periods of time. Not only does this disappoint in real life (because it sounds a lot more pinched and strained than it does on samples, and just not as brilliant and alluring as people expect), it's often unplayable, even by professionals. Sure, you can find a sample set with French Horns playing way high, but in real life, with a real budget, and real people those notes sometimes sound and work much better on the trumpet or flugel horn.

By contrast, people forget how brilliant and controlled trombones are in their high register. They can play well up to at least a c-natural in the middle of the treble clef (one octave above middle c; I know the literature has higher notes but I have never written higher than that for a recording gig).

Anyway, this thread offers many good suggestions about learning harmony, studying scores etc. Personally I'm not at all a fan of orchestrating piano pieces -- it's incredibly laborious and, unless you are Ravel reincarnated, often rather disappointing. But I guess one can learn that way too.

Number three mistake? Maybe crowding too much in the low registers? But @JJP would be a good one to rank common errors and misguided ideas since he orchestrates for others all the time.

Best Study Scores?

There are a lot of scores from which you can learn, but for those seeking to write film music, here is a handful that contains some of what one hears all the time in movie scores:

"Old Guys" Concert Repertoire: Ravel or Debussy -- treasure troves; Respighi; the Russians (Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Glinka, Kabalevsky, Rimsky-Korsakoff and of course Stravinsky); Richard Strauss; Wagner.

More modern and available, maybe in your library: John Adams -- has a bunch of concert works available (listen to him and then the scores for The Matrix -- hmm); Benjamin Britten; Philip Glass; Lutoslawski; Ligeti;

Movie Scores that are / have been in print: Edward Scissorhands; just about anything from John Williams but Raiders March, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Schindler's List; Back to the Future;

Naturally I'm forgetting some obvious stuff so others please chime in.

Again, just learn something. One doesn't have to know everything to make plenty of headway.

ed buller

Senior Member
My Fav Books:

The Elements of Orchestral Arrangement: William Lovelock
Orchestration Scores and Scoring: Donald J Rauscher
Thinking Of Orchestration: Rene Leibowitz and Jan Maguire
The Art Of Orchestration: Bernard Rogers
The Technique of Orchestration: Kent Wheeler Kennan
Orchestration: Wagner
The Orchestra: Prout
Style and Orchestration: Gardner Read (more of a historical compendium)
Orchestration: Cecil Forsyth
Principles Of Orchestration: Rimsky
Project Lessons In Orchestration: Arthur E Heacox

we had a fire here last year and got a warning to evacuate ( although we never did ) These are still in the box by the garage door ! Some are hard to find but worth it. Forsyth's is the closest to Adler ( though NOT as detailed ) but has all I need. The others especially the Wagner and Heacox are much more thorough. The Heacox has lessons and really good assignments . But I'd be hard pressed to part with any !. Thinking of Orchestration is basically two books. The first part is piano pieces. The second is the answer's how they where orchestrated. You get clues and some instructions. Then you go to part two to see how you did...Fabulous !

But as quick as you can Study scores. Bear in mind a revolution happened in the late 19th century as well. Technique become much more pronounced in the whole orchestra as apposed to soloists. Just look at the end of the first section of the Rite Of Spring in the Woodwinds !!!. And yes I agree with Mikeh-375. Orchestration really at it's best IS the piece. You just can't imagine Daphnes and Chloe on a piano !




Senior Member
When I started this journey last year one simple piece of advice has helped me so much.
Listen to classical music.

Classic FM is constantly on, I've had so many inspirations doing this and discovered many new composers from across the spectrum. My Shazam is full.
I'm sure @Parsifal666 gave me that advice, so I'll credit you :)


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. ... 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)
I would say: try arranging for just a few orchestral instruments at first so as not to get overwhelmed.
For example, write something basic on your own instrument (guitar, piano, whatever). Then arrange and orchestrate it for -at most- a string quartet. Then try the same thing for a few woodwind instruments. Then try for brass.

My way of working is: I don't add a line or an instrument unless I first hear in my mind that it needs to be there and that it fits. If you (or I) cannot 'hear' great and meaningful parts for an entire orchestra in parallel yet, then why don't we just keep it small at first?

There are some great film scores with very minimal instrumentation. Think of Intouchables and Amelie for example. It's more important that what you compose is good than complicated. In fact, making it complicated should not be a goal at all IMO.


Senior Member
A lot of people will recommend something like books (Adler, Korsakov...) But honestly, for me, the best way to learn for me is to listen to tons of classical (and any other good orchestral) music and then read and analyze tons scores (or good midi files made from scores).


Senior Member
A lot of people will recommend something like books (Adler, Korsakov...) But honestly, for me, the best way to learn for me is to listen to tons of classical (and any other good orchestral) music and then read and analyze tons scores (or good midi files made from scores).
Fair position; I think both is nice. Certainly if you have never heard an orchestra, starting straight in with a textbook would be weird!


Senior Member
Tons of great information here from really smart folks - not joking - some very respectable composers have chimed in here.
Here's how I learn:
1. Listen (and often read)
2. Do
Orchestration books and scores are super useful; always keep an orchestration book within reach. That said, my simple recommendation is this - find a piece you like and mock it up (either with a score or just your ears). You'll learn a ton! Then write a piece or five with what you've learned. Repeat usque ad mortem. You'll start to learn ranges, general timbre variations and color combinations; granted samples won't give you everything, but they get your brain/ears in the ballpark - listening will make up the rest.
3. Don't wait until you think you know enough - that day never comes.
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Winter <3
Attend orchestra rehearsals. NOT concerts.

The time I spent playing in orchestras continues to be more useful to me now 15 years later than any book. If you can't be in an orchestra, the next best thing is to attend rehearsals. I'm sure you have a community orchestra nearby. Email them and say you're a composer studying orchestration and want to silently attend the rehearsals. There are always music librarians, PAs and other nonmusicians at rehearsals so you won't be a bother or stand out.

So far everyone has covered the concept of orchestration from the angle of "writing colorful and varied music for the musicians." This is good but another aspect of orchestration is understanding what can trip up musicians, what kind of music works instantly and what needs a little or a lot of workshopping. And the atmosphere at a rehearsal of a community orchestra or youth orchestra is a lot like the atmosphere of a scoring stage. The musicians are discovering how the music fits together as they play it. And the sound is direct and not covered up with all the glamour of a concert hall reverb. Attending a concert is really not any more valuable than listening to music on YouTube.


Senior Member
Work with musicians. Play with them, write for them. Go to rehearsals. Don't start with a full orchestra. Small ensembles are ok, rock/pop bands with brass section are looking for arrangements all the time. String quartet is great to try some voicings for a beer, also clarinet quartets and so on.