Orchestration for Starters

          The necessity of higher education for composers is not something I believe worth debating. There are countless examples of people who became successful with and without schooling. However, I will argue that it is absolutely necessary to be consistently honing your skills through constant practice, reassessment, and an understanding of general music theory. Whether on your own, or through an institution, keeping your music skills sharp and current is essential to your present and future success. When a composer has a decent understanding of music theory and composition, then orchestration absolutely becomes one of those skills that needs to be honed, practiced, reassessed, and applied to all genres of music.

     My personal definition of orchestration is: using the accompanying instruments of the orchestra (or band) to support the melody of the composition through creative and imaginative rhythms, counter melodies and harmonies. I know it is implied that music is creative or imaginative, but I so often find composers and musicians using regurgitated phrases  or poor ideas that take away from an otherwise nice melody. To paraphrase Rimsky-Korsakov,  you either are born knowing how to orchestrate or you cannot. I’m not sure I’m as cut and dry as he was, and I think with study and experimentation you can become pretty good at orchestrating. However, if you don’t think of interesting ways to support your melodies, due to laziness or what have you, then there’s no point attempting it and you might as well have someone else do it for you.

      For those of you who want to orchestrate, I’ve selected 3  books that contain general orchestration instruction to help you develop your orchestration skills. I chose only 3 as I did not wish to make this a novel post and lose your attention. For the more advanced composers reading this post, these suggestions are not like Gevaert’s Méthodique d’Orchestration where there is excruciating detail of each instrument and it’s application. If you are looking for voluminous detailed information on a particular instrument then these books won’t have that. However collecting detailed texts of every instrument individually (especially harp) is recommended for every composer.

    This post focuses on introductory texts that I believe to be a good starting place (in my humble opinion) for newcomers and great reference for seasoned professionals. Although not everyone who reads this will agree with my choices, I do think I’ve done enough due diligence to give an educated and thorough opinion.

         Before I begin on my selections I would like to mention that I do not care for Samuel Adler’s The Study of Orchestration and accompanying workbook. I’ve read the book from beginning to end, and found that there was very little in the way of orchestration techniques to apply to your composing. I will concede that the book is detailed about instrumentation. However, knowing the range and sonorous timbres of an instrument, and knowing how to orchestrate for it are two different things. Adler’s book is more music dictionary than orchestration book. I did not find anything having to do with harmonization techniques, composing subordinate lines, doubling prominent lines, or esoteric or aleatoric techniques. Nor did I come across even simple things like how to orchestrate instruments with vastly different dynamics, tone/timbre, and register range, together. I only make mention of Adler’s Study as it’s in so many learning institutions and I felt I should address it. Again that is my opinion, take from it what you will.

       Conversely, a book that I felt does give insight on scoring musical elements (as well as instrumentation and timbres) is Alfred Blatter’s book on Instrumentation and Orchestration. This book explains techniques that can be heard in many world renowned compositions, with exercises built into the end of each chapter. A used copy of the book costs between $44- $74 used (half.com)* and if you can’t find it used you’ll have to unload up to $150 for a new one. (amazon.com)* In either case, I assure you it’s worth the effort of finding and purchasing.

     Two examples of orchestration that really stuck out in my mind from Blatters book  were Klanfarbenmelodie and Heterophony.

       Klangfarbenmelodie (german for sound-color-melody suggested by Schoenberg) is simply alternating the melody of a composition “generally” within the same measure between different instruments of an orchestra. The melody won’t sound detached as long as you’re trading the melody between instruments of similar timbre and registers. (The melody can cross between choirs of the the orchestra i.e…. Flute and Trumpet ect… again as long as they are similar in register and dynamic)

Q6 Example .png

To keep things less clinical I’ve decided not to give you the text book definition of Heterophony. My definition of using Heterophony in orchestration is to: harmonize a melody or pattern in constant intervals regardless of key signature or implied harmony of the melody or phrase. Essentially, heterophony in orchestration is using the same intervals   when harmonizing, whether it is a 2nd, 3rd, 4th, tritone, ect… in subsequent repetition  to color your ideas/phrase/melody. Below is an example of a melody harmonized in major thirds. It’s basically contiguous augmented chords.


For the most part using heterophony is a lot like salt. A little goes a long way. It’s a great way to add a unique flavor to your piece as different intervals give a very distinct sound. I think it sounds great used in-between melodies as a connector or during an interlude or bridge. However if used for too long it will become less accessible to the listener and to the trained ear it will lose it’s tonal center and the listener will tune out. Anyway I digress.

Before this post becomes extremely long and difficult for you to get through, I just want to briefly touch upon the other 2 books and why I think they’re valuable reading material.

If you’re in music school you’ll know this book all to too well. Tonal Harmony from Kostka and Payne is a very useful guide from 18th to 20th century music. Many music students grumble over this read, and many say it has it’s flaws but there are 3 elements to this book that go overlooked that are actually the best way to learn fundamentals of composition and orchestration.

Aside from teaching figured bass, elements of counterpoint, and ornaments, this book has 1) Online tutorials, 2) answers to the questions of each exercise within the book so you can check your work, and 3) a really easy to understand explanation of Atonal Music. I purchased just the text book of an older edition  of Tonal Harmony from ebay for 12$. I then read each chapter and did the exercises at the end and then checked my work with the answers supplied. If you don’t have a teacher handy, this really gives you a way to learn through deduction.

My last choice  is Principles of Orchestration by Rimsky-Korsakov. Now there is definitely some issues with this text I won’t disagree.  Rimsky-Korsakov says some things in this text that may have been true in his day but definitely untrue today. One specific example that comes to mind is he talks about the contrabass basically being only good for doubling the cellos and not to count on your players to be able to do anything to ornate. There are plenty of virtuosic contrabass players in the world today and can do wondrous things. Again not sure the reason, but that’s unimportant. When you get passed some of the discrepancies (which are minor) from 19th century to today, you’ll see what an amazing job Rimsky-Korsakov does with dynamic pairing, and orchestral balance. One of the most useful things I learned from him was with regards to brass. When composing for brass, the dynamic level of the french horn, more often than not, should be written louder than the rest of the choir for balance. If the harmony or melody you’re composing is soft(p) then trumpet, trombone, and tuba, should be written pianissimo (pp)

I purchased a used copy of the the Principles of Orchestration used for $10, however if you don’t feel like doing that you can visit Make Music and read  and interact with the material for free. (some browsers work better than others)


I’d like to end this post by first stating the obligatory, which is listen, study, and talk to everyone you can about your craft. Revisit and emulate all the work you have time for to develop a sense of what works and what doesn’t. Working with live players is essential in letting you know if your ideas are possible, and appealing. Sometimes this isn’t easily done, but college students are a great place to start. Study scores, by loading them into your music software and dissecting the intervals, the harmonies, and the rhythms. Read, read, read, as many texts as you can. Watch YouTube videos. There’s a ton and some are actually helpful.

The second thing I’d like to state is find your voice. Sure it’s important to be able to compose and orchestrate like noteworthy composers, but if you don’t have something uniquely interesting to offer then you’ll be considered a poor orchestrator or worse derivative.

I think if you work diligently through all this material, you’ll not only be a better orchestrator, but a better composer as well!


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*(I did not put a direct link to each book as retail items change constantly leaving dead links galore. If you just visit the online retailers and pop in the name in the search engine you’ll find them)