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How does someone write music for an orchestra?

Discussion in 'Tips, Tricks & Talk' started by Luke Johnson, Jun 29, 2018.

  1. The title of this thread may seem very silly but I have started this thread because I want to know what the process is of going from absolute zero, having never written music in your life, to being able to write music for an orchestra.

    Obviously music is a life time journey but what are the skills someone has to have, the skills that need to be internalised, in order for someone to be able to compose for an orchestra?

    Mike has said many times that you don't need any music theory to write for an orchestra (in his Theory 1 masterclass is the last time I can remember him saying that) but there has to be a level of theory, surely, that someone must know. Being able to read and write on manuscript and charts I would guess is a bare minimum regarding theory. Then there's instrumentation. Knowing the instruments roles, ranges, and timbres. Then orchestration. And the list goes on and on.

    I guess here's the question. If a 13 year old said "I want to write music for an orchestra!" what would you say to that kid? What path would you set them down for them to be able to realise that dream?

    Sorry if this seems silly asking this but I'm feeling a little lost in progressing and although I'm not 13 years old, I sometimes feel my musical ability is! haha!

    Bradley Boone and David Healey like this.
  2. I don't really think of the orchestra as anything other than a bigger version of a four piece band - lead, bass, chords, percussion. The bigger your band gets (all the way up to orchestra size) the more players you have available for each of the parts, but you don't have to have everyone playing at once. The more players you have the more choices you have available. Whatever ensemble you're working with you have to know the instruments and write appropriately for them.
    Bradley Boone likes this.
  3. I'd say, don't do it!

    Seriously though, there's a lot to unpack in that question. Some might say "your inspiration/experiences will inform your musical expression" and "it doesn't take long to learn the theory/instrumentation" or even "computers can do it - learn computers (DAW, signal processing/routing, sampling, notation software)."

    My own practical answer would be (not necessarily in order of significance):
    1. Learn to play at least one instrument at a very competent (near professional) level and have a working understanding of the others. You learn the language of music by singing and playing. Phrasing, breathing, and expression are all developed through this study.
    2. Also, be more than a little familiar with a harmonic instrument (keyboard/guitar). Many composers play these instruments, but not all use them for composition. I also think there's something to be said for hearing the harmonic language that you don't get from a purely melodic instrument. With computer generated audio now, it is not as heavily emphasized as it once was, but it is very expedient to plunk out some chords and hear voice leading.
    3. Play in an ensemble when you get an opportunity. You'll understand from the player's perspective, how the orchestra operates. Also, observe orchestra rehearsals with a score (what do they work on? why are some things natural for the ensemble and for other things the ensemble has to hunt for the right sound?).
    4. Improvise/record yourself - a lot. Transcribe your improvisations (fodder for future work with refinement).
    5. Transcription/ear training - can you write down or recreate what you hear. Can you hear what you write without playing it? Can you make a keyboard reduction of a work?
    6. Do you know the common practice music notation rules (meter, beaming, articulations, pedaling, bowing, rhythmic grouping, dynamics, tempi)? If you write in some personally developed language, then no one else will play it because we have a system in place (flawed and limited as it is).
    7. Study (visually and aurally) scores to build your vocabulary. This goes hand-in-hand with ear training and transcription. Can you see/hear the structure of a piece? Can you identify the thematic material? What about the orchestration supports the compositional ideas? What would you borrow, steal, adapt, or do differently?
    8. Can you take preexisting material and apply it to the orchestra? (Take a jazz ballad for combo and create a pop orchestra or pit orchestra arrangement for instance).
    9. Learn how to develop your material: modulation, variation, repetition, reharmonization, counterpoint, metric modulation, etc.

    I could go on, and some of this needs to be tailored for the kind of orchestral music you want to write, but it is a process of acquiring a scaffold of information that builds from simple to complex understanding. If you take @David Healey at his word, that the essential components for orchestra are like a four piece band, then orchestral writing is necessarily more complex as you add more players, but the players are just playing your composition. Since the composer understands how to work with melody, harmony, and rhythm, you're essentially just adding orchestration (and a lot more proofing/part layouts/editing if you don't pay someone knowledgeable in that skillset).

    Look forward to hearing from others on the topic.
  4. I was 5 when I said I wanted to write for orchestra, and I was doing so with reasonable control before I'd had a second of theory training. It's possible. As for the path, I"m happy to explain, but it'll take a bit and I have a show to do!
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  5. I, of course, await with an open mind and eager ears to hear what Sensei Verta enlightens us with.

    Just off the top of my head:

    What do we mean by theory : In my mind music notation is theory. So knowing how to read notes on treble and bass staff is theory. In fact there is entire subjects on just this.

    Now I should pause and say....... all one does need is your voice to come up with the ideas. Many a film composer (called hummers) made there careers by humming melodies and outer lines etc. You can say Michael Jackson embodied this model, and well.....Bobby Mcferrin is in a league by himself (** Mcferrin studied conducting as a post-grad, and was conservatory trained. His dad was an opera singer...... so he knows tons of theory)

    I guess the point I am trying to make is that - in my mind - there are a few stages that most orchestral pieces go thru.

    The creation of the idea is separate from the execution. Said another way it's about how you communicate your idea to the musicians to realize it, and in the most expedient way possible.

    Lastly..........everything sounds good with an orchestra. Even the worst piece has a beauty to it. Check out some os the late 60's stuff. People would just draw scribbles, and yeah..... an orchestra can play it.

    So in a way anyone can write for orchestra.

    I think, personally, the ideal is to write ORCHESTRAL music for the orchestra. Meaning it really cannot be realized another way without diluting the quality, and it's conception matched the realization.

    Every time I've seen a "Dub-step" or "Metallica and Orchestra" etc. I always feel the original was better. Dubstep thrives in a club. Metallica is amazing with guitars and large amps. Tossing in a oboe and timpani....... never been my thing.
  6. #6 Luke Johnson, Jun 30, 2018
    Last edited: Jun 30, 2018
    I would love to hear the path. Or what yours was at least.

    And as for the age 13. It’s just a number plucked from the air. I sang in a church choir when I was 9 and was having Piano and Guitar lessons when I was 5. My uncle has written for Orchestra his whole life, so I have had a musical family (all be it I rarely see any of them - even now - typical musician lifestyles haha) but writing for Orchestra wasn’t something I wanted to do until later in my life. When I was younger I didn’t think it was possible unless someone went to a prestigious school or something. Just didn’t realise. It’s why I didn’t pursue it. But hey, there’s nothing like making up for lost time!
  7. Also, when i say “write for Orchestra” I do obviously mean “write good music for Orchestra”.

    And “good” maybe subjective but understanding what parts to write for each instrument and knowing what is best for each instrument etc

    Every time I write something with Orchestral instruments I get so excited and then it’s not long before someone instantly says “that Harmony isn’t correct!” Or “that melody is cliched”. They are probably right and likely heard these things a million times before (and before anything they write too) but to ME it isn’t incorrect Harmony or a cliched melody at the time. To me it’s the newest wonder of the world that I’ve just discovered. Haha! Not trying to break new musical ground or anything. Even harmonising two String notes a third apart is a joy to me at the moment. Haha! I would like to understand how someone learns Harmony, and then how to harmonise the different instruments throughout an Orchestra... Ah, I’m rambling somewhat, and have many questions and I’m very aware this is a huge topic but I would love to know the path that someone has to go down from ground zero to writing good Orchestral music.
  8. I also appreciate how embarrassing many of my questions must be to most (I don't actually care about such stuff cause people like myself have to start somewhere) so perhaps there should be an area on this forum for "Beginners" rather than me clog up the forum from much more advanced stuff. ;)
  9. #9 Bradley Boone, Jun 30, 2018
    Last edited: Jun 30, 2018
    No feelings of embarrassment required. We're all (hopefully) learning all the time: new philosophies, methods, & techniques. This topic (back to basics) helps me focus on the things that matter (to me).

    The path I outlined in my post above is not unique to my experience, it loosely follows a typical 6th grade musician through four years of an undergraduate music education in a university setting. I'm well aware that you don't have to follow that kind of formalized/institutional approach to be successful. I'm a big advocate for self-education in subjects that really matter to you - and you can have all of the resources and lessons without the debt and diploma.

    Also, there's potential benefits (exposure to music you might not otherwise study/hear/perform) through a formal education, and pitfalls (adopting a cookie-cutter approach or de-emphasis of your unique internal voice while you ape the greats) if you don't actively work to keep your individualism.

    One of the great child prodigy composers of the late 19th through mid-20th centuries, Erich Korngold, was composing complex music: ballet, one-act operas, & brief orchestral works in Vienna from age 8 to 18. His dad, a leading music critic, had connections to the elite German/Viennese composers & professors of the time (Mahler, R. Strauss, etc.) and got them to hear his son's music and got hooked up with private tutoring. I'm pretty sure that Erich never actually obtained a degree from the conservatory in Vienna, but he later taught there. Erich's professional network he developed as a composer & conductor got him a gig in Hollywood in the 1930's. Film music was pop music, fleeting, and would sully his reputation as a 'serious' composer (the views of his overbearing father & most of high society in Europe), but it was a brand new medium (like interactive music in gaming today). Erich couldn't go back to stay in Europe (WWII was ramping up & he was Jewish), so he kept his gig working for Warner Bros. and became one of the early fathers of modern film music. I know this is a seriously condensed bio, but I bring it up to say that:
    He was a brilliant young composer/musician
    He studied with teachers, but not in a formal school setting
    He developed a professional network that got him job opportunities
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  10. I would say the starting point to learning harmony would be learning functional harmony - which is fundamental in western music. Basically...
    I (tonic) chords are arrival and departure points.
    V (dominant) chords are tense and resolve to I.
    IV (subdominant) usually moves to dominant. (ii can be a substitue for IV)
    vi (submediant) can act as a temporary tonic or subdominant)
    III (mediant) can act as a temporary tonic
    vii dim (leading tone) acts as an alternate dominant.
    Not sure if you know any theory, but the above are just chords built on the different scale degrees (indicated by roman numerals). Ex. I in C major would be a chord (C major in this case :)) built on the first note of the scale, C - ii would be a chord (and I'm talking about triads here) built upon the second note of a C major scale (d minor in this case), etc.

    This is just a starting point obviously but much music is built upon this foundation. As far as harmonizing different instruments throughout the orchestra I think it would probably be best to start with a group at a time - strings or brass or winds - and then deciding to add color, weight, or effects with the other groups. In other words, don't try to take a 6 part chord and put bassoon on the top note, piccolo under that, then horn, tuba, violin, etc. Make it simple and use common sense. Use the instruments in their ranges - get an orchestration book for a guide and/or just copy something you like that someone else has written/ orchestrated.
    Luke Johnson and Paul T McGraw like this.
  11. Amen!
  12. Thanks for everyone’s replies.

    I’ve just signed up to ScoreClub and looking at doing the “Essential Composer” course. They look decent.
    David Healey likes this.
  13. #13 Josh Fix, Jul 2, 2018
    Last edited: Jul 2, 2018
    "Use the Scores, Luke"

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