Techniques of Orchestration

Copyright Justin Henry Rubin © 2005


Simply put, orchestration is the timbral articulation of musical ideas, and is as important to conveying to a listener the expressive intent of the composer as an inspired melody, a finely crafted harmonic progression, or a vital rhythmic impulse. Orchestration, despite the connotation of the word, is applicable to any given instrument, voice, or group, whether it be an arrangement for a symphonic ensemble, string quartet, solo piano, choir, or even electronic sounds. The composer's obligation transcends mere assignment of the parts to instruments that have the compass to convey the music: one must bring transparency to the textures and illuminate the dramatic qualities, as well as sufficiently support the acoustical needs of the ensemble and resourcefully utilize the idiomatic instrumental possibilities that lie within. As such, there is no single manner that can provide the composer with a solution to all of these requirements within every work. Effective orchestration depends as much on the musical style at hand as it does personal taste and an ear for experimentation.

The brief examples that we intend to orchestrate below will explore some of the fundamental stylistic approaches that composers have cultivated from the Common Practice onward.


Orchestration Types

A. Type I Orchestration

B. Type II Orchestration

C. Type III Orchestration


AUDIO and MIDI files can be listened to on this page or downloaded separately here.

A. Type I Orchestration

1. Type I orchestration is a hierarchical treatment of the music within an ensemble: each layer of activity is, in effect, portrayed by an instrument or instrumental group with a significant degree of regularity throughout a particular texture. When a new texture arrives in the course of the piece, a different hierarchy can be established, similarly to the compositional concept within a sonata that calls for contrasting thematic types. Let us begin by writing a short score with a clear delineation between the function of the four component voices: 1. the primary melodic voice, 2. a secondary melodic voice that both supports the upper line while bringing an added dimension to the harmonic lower parts, 3. an accompanimental voice, and 4. the bass.

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2. In our arrangement (for flute, clarinet, harp, and string trio), the strings form the core of the texture, with the cello performing the bass, the viola the accompanimental role, and the violin the melody. However, to reinforce the melody as the principal line in this hierarchical structure (being clearly homophonic), it is doubled an octave higher by the flute. This provides the emphasis needed to clearly articulate the melody while still binding it with the overall textural orchestration.

The secondary melodic voice needs to be clearly distinguished as it is an inner voice and could be aurally lost if assigned to another string instrument. The choice of a clarinet to fulfill this role was made because of its acoustic strength and lyrical flexibility throughout the given tessitura while avoiding the more strident tone an oboe would produce in this lower range. The flute was also avoided because it is at its weakest in this range and would be difficult to discern in the interior of the texture.

In addition, the concept of adding compositional elements such as textural motifs is explored here from the outset. Note the oscillating thirds in the accompanimental voice are reconceived as two sixteenths + eighth note patterns. This motif is judiciously incorporated in varying instruments throughout, bringing with it a rhythmic continuity otherwise absent in the original. The source score, conceived at the piano, should not in any way be held as entirely sacrosanct. Indeed, it is a part of the orchestrator's initiative to discover ways to, in effect, translate the raw material of a composition into a new entity while maintaining the character of the original.

The harp is employed primarily as an acoustic and rhythmic embellishment of existing instrumental parts. However, because of its large compass, it is freely displaced between the treble and bass registers. It also is used in the closing bars to emphasize the descending scale in the bass (which is removed from the cello line entirely) and additional final statements of the rhythmic motif in the treble.

Finally, phrasing and articulation is incorporated into the instrumental parts to maintain a lyrical quality throughout each layer of activity. A key idea for the orchestrator is to sing each part aloud to find the correct phrasing needed. Dynamics are avoided in this exercise in keeping with a simple arrangement that seeks equal balances between the parts over a type of 'superimposed equalization' that differing intensities can provide.

The score below is untransposed. The original piano part is reprinted for reference (it is not part of the arrangement).

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