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Scoring Music: Writing for Specific Instruments

Module by: Catherine Schmidt-Jones. E-mail the author

Summary: Here are some basic guidelines for musicians who would like to try writing or rewriting a piece of music for a particular set of instruments.

Introduction

Click here to Skip introduction and go straight to rules.

Arranging music is the art of rewriting a piece of music that already exists, usually by writing it for a different instrumentation. If you are composing an original piece of music, the step that involves writing it for specific instruments is called scoring or orchestration (although this term often refers specifically to writing for an orchestra). The beginning arranger/orchestrator will find some useful tips here, but if you are trying your hand at original composition, you need much more than good scoring for a successful piece. Melody, harmony, rhythm, form and counterpoint are all important elements that a good composer must know how to handle properly, and none of those is covered here.

But texture and timbre are also very important aspects of a piece of music, and these are in the hands of the arranger/orchestrator. There are, of course, many arrangements that substantially alter the original piece, changing the form or harmony, or adding new countermelodies. But using the form, melody, countermelodies, and chords, of a piece and simply giving it an entirely new orchestration can be a very good way to start learning the art of arranging.

Note:

If you intend your arrangement/orchestration for public use, don't forget to check on the copyright status of the original, and understand the law regarding it. If you don't want to worry about copyright, use a version of a piece that is clearly in the public domain.

History

In Medieval and Renaissance times, large instrumental ensembles were unusual. When a piece did include parts for more than one instrument, the parts were not even necessarily for specific instruments. (For example, the same music for four players might be played by either four string or four recorder players.)

But writing for specific instruments allows a composer to take advantage of the specific timbre and abilities of that instrument, in effect giving the artist more colors and textures to work with. Baroque and Classical composers became adept at using this expanding pallette, writing works for specific sets of instruments. These composers particularly had to take into account the limitations of the instruments, which were sometimes (especially for many wind instruments) quite severe. A typical Classical symphony would rely heavily on the strings, with pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets, horns, and tympani added for color and interest.

At the same time, composers were also experimenting with writing for specific instruments in smaller ensembles. Here is a short list of some of the most popular instrument combinations for chamber music. Writing for a common instrumentation will make it much easier for you to find a group interested in playing your arrangement.

Chamber Ensembles

  • Piano and one wind or string instrument
  • String quartet (2 violins, viola, and cello)
  • String quartet with a piano or a wind instrument
  • Woodwind quintet (normally flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and French horn)
  • Brass quintet (normally two trumpets, one French horn, and either two trombones, or one trombone and one tuba)

Throughout the Romantic, post-Romantic, and Modern eras, the basic playing abilities of wind instruments improved greatly, and composers also continued to be interested in experimenting with new sounds and colors. A typical late Romantic symphony would need more of all the wind instruments found in the Classical group (3, 4 or more of each instead of 2) as well as a piccolo, some trombones, and a tuba. It might also need a harp, English horn, bass clarinet, euphonium, piano, or saxophone, and almost certainly would call for a variety of percussion.

Improvements in wind instruments also led in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to a blossoming of band music. Previously used mostly for military music, by the twentieth century, the band - a large group of winds and percussion - became a common vehicle for both art ("classical") and popular (especially dance and jazz) music, as well as for instructing young musicians. The typical modern "wind ensemble" includes expanded sections of all the winds found in the modern orchestra and a varied percussion section, as well as a saxophone section and a baritone/euphonium section.

But, for many arrangers, the most important development of the twentieth century was electronic amplification. Using both electric instruments and microphone-amplified acoustic instruments (including the voice) allows a much greater variety of groups that can get a big enough sound to entertain in a large hall or noisy setting.

Popular Band Ensembles

  • Traditional jazz - Cornet or trumpet, trombone, clarinet, double bass, drums, keyboard, and banjo
  • Big band jazz - cornet/trumpet section, trombone section, saxophone section (including altos, tenors, and baritones, and maybe soprano and/or clarinet), and rhythm section (including drums, guitar, keyboard, and double bass or bass guitar). Some big bands also include a violin section. Any jazz group may also include a vocalist.
  • Modern jazz "combo" - trumpet or cornet, trombone, saxophone, guitar, keyboard, and double bass or bass guitar
  • Rock or pop band - drums, keyboard, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass guitar, and vocals

Sketching Out your Arrangement

  • Choose your instruments. What basic sound/texture/timbre/flavor do you want? As suggested above, you may want to start with a common grouping. Not only is it easier to find performers, but one reason an ensemble is popular is because the instruments are well-balanced with each other, making it easier to write a strong arrangement. This doesn't mean you have to write for one of the groups listed above. If you want an "island sound", find out the typical instrumentation for a steel band; if you want a "country" or "folk" sound, include the instruments typically used in that kind of music.
  • Know the strengths and limitations of your instruments. Try to write for instruments you know, at first. There are also some links below with useful information about specific instruments. If you can't find the information you need here, research your instruments. Otherwise, you can easily find yourself writing an arrangement that is simply too difficult to play well. This does not mean you can't write difficult parts. But the more "typical" for the instruments the parts are (i.e. falling well within their ranges and taking advantage of the things they do well and easily), the better-sounding your arrangement will be.
  • Whenever you don't know the rules, stick closely to the original. If you don't know the rules for scoring chords, try to keep the lowest note and highest note in each chord the same, and pay attention when notes are left out of the chord or doubled. If you don't know the rules of melody and counterpoint, try to take melodies, bass lines, and other specific lines as whole pieces into your arrangement. Don't change the form unless you understand how that will affect the piece. Meanwhile, if you're serious about this, find a theory teacher and start learning the rules.
  • The first rule to learn in balancing the instruments is to make the important parts easy to hear. The melody, bass line, and other interesting parts should be given to loud instruments playing in their strongest register whenever the full ensemble is playing. If you want to hear the melody on a quieter instrument or in a weaker register, give some of the other players a rest (usually a good idea anyway) so that it can be heard.
  • Even if you avoid learning a lot of theory, you will almost certainly have to learn to transpose music to get good arrangements. Don't hesitate to change the key if it makes things easier for the players and puts the melody and other parts in a better range for your instruments or vocalists.
  • Once you've got your basic arrangement sketched out, you're guaranteed to run into some stumbling blocks when you start putting it on paper. You wanted the melody in the oboe, but it starts too low or ends up too high for oboe. Or the accompaniment can't be played by the trombones without changing the inversion of some of the chords. Should you give the melody to another instrument? Start it on oboe but then switch to flute? Change the key so the entire piece is lower? This is where your creative choices as orchestrator are most important.

Tips on Individual Instruments

A Few More Tips

Here are a few extra suggestions once you've got the basics down (or if you are unhappy with the way your arrangement sounds and don't know where to start fixing it).

  • If your arrangement seems to lack "drive" or "energy", try making the "uninteresting" inner parts interesting, too. The easiest way to do this is with rhythm. For example, if your accompaniment is block whole note chords, give those chords an interesting rhythm instead. To hear this technique used very effectively, listen to some big band jazz. But be careful; adding too much complexity usually leads to a muddy sound.
  • Another cure for an uninteresting arrangement is to vary the timbre and texture. If the first section of the piece had everyone playing, with the melody in the saxophones, cut down the accompaniment and have a trumpet solo for the second section. It's also effective to alternate the timbre and texture of alternating phrases. (For example, guitar and keyboard take turns on eight-bar phrases), but again, don't get carried away. Having the same timbres all the time is boring, but having six different textures in one section is bewildering.
  • Are your performers struggling? Give brass players ample time to rest their chops. Give all wind players and singers time to breathe. Use flat keys for winds but sharp keys for strings. Don't give singers too many large or hard-to-hear intervals. Don't give anyone a part that is all the same - all low-range whole notes, or all high-range sixteenth notes, for example.

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