Do composers need to write the music for every instrument individually or is there some other trick?

I was listening to the Imperial March from Star Wars (don’t ask) and I wondered if John Williams had to write music for oboes, music for tubas, music for kettle drums, music for cellos, music for xylophones and so on.

Seems crazy to me that one person would manage to compile a whole score by writing individual bits for each instrument. Boggles the mind. Do you have the music in your head then tease out the individual instruments and write that? Do you have the individual pieces in your head and compile them? Something else?

Clearly we have an abundance of masterwork pieces from numerous composers. However they do it obviously it has been done and done a lot.

But how? I can’t imagine the process.

I know almost nothing about composing new music from personal experience, but I would expect that it usually starts by coming up with a single melodic line.

When you have a melody, the ways of creating pleasing harmonies for it are fairly easy to apply. I’ve heard that it’s possible to write a computer program that will do a competent, if unimaginative, job at turning a single melody into four-part harmony.

Then you can start assigning the various parts out to different instruments.

Sorry for the WAG, I hope that it’s somewhat helpful until an expert comes along.

Whack-a-mole, the work you are describing is the job of the Orchestrator, and my brother is one of the best in the business. He takes the score as written by the composer and separates it into the necessary parts. From what I understand, it is a manual job, done on computers but not by computers.

The composer might only supply the music scored for a piano, and then it is up to the Orchestrator to write out 3 or 4 violin parts, 3 or 4 cello parts, percussion, horns, etc. It is pretty impressive.


Did Beethoven and Mozart (as an example) do it similarly?

Obviously in those times there were no computers but lots of things we do with computers today were done by hand in the past. Computers may make it easier and less tedious but they are not required.

And I am unclear how a score is teased out into different pieces by another person. I assume they work closely with the composer but still…

Note I am not busting your chops. It’s great you can answer with some expertise (why I love this message board). Just asking questions…please do not take them as a challenge.

Just realized I misspelled “composers” in the title. :smack:

If a Mod would fix that I’d be appreciative.

Or I can live with the ignominy. :wink:

Classical composers (as opposed to film composer) always orchestrated their own works (with very few exceptions).

It’s not really a matter of writing a part for a violin and one for a tuba - many of them play very similar things and they are usually divided in sections. You basically write a piano piece that has a melody, a bass line and harmonies and divide that into the different section. That process is called orchestrating, and the reason it’s done by different people in film is usually time constraints: the composition is the actual creative act, while orchestration can be learned and there are more “rules” to follow, although there are still going to be huge differences between a good and a mediocre orchestrator. It’s definitely not something that can be done by a computer.

To take the imperial march as an example, you have the march rhythm in the strings and the snare drum, the melody in the brass instruments and the woodwinds take care of lots of other little parts. The part for the trombone and the trumpet is going to be very similar for much of the piece (not necessarily in another piece, though).

As a side note, Mozart is said to actually have written all his music in one draft to full score - no piano “reduction” - he basically wrote down what he had in his head already.

Here is what I have been led to understand.

First, you come up with the basic rhythm and basic melody and the basic harmony (perhaps just the chords) that backs them up. At this point, you have the structure of the piece. The rest is mostly filling it in.

The next part is figuring out which instruments are going to play what. This generally relies on looking at the sound qualities of the instruments. (Brass can sound triumphant, timpani can sound portentous, flutes can be heard over most other instruments, and so on.)

After this the basic melody has been developed a bit. It might be split among several instruments, played by one instrument and underscored by another, played by one instrument and undermined in a sense by another, and so on. The same goes for the harmonies, as well as the dynamics (when is it loud or soft or fast and slow). Then it’s time for the little details, trills, pauses, crescendos, and so on.

It seems perhaps overwhelming when all you see is the end product, but it’s a process of development, with a number of steps that get done slowly but surely. Obviously, not everyone will do it in exactly the same way, but the idea of development is the key.

So, on the whole, orchestral music gets composed like a book gets written. You don’t just start with writing chapter one. First you figure out what sorts of characters you’re going to have, then you figure out the basic trajectory of the story, and the themes that will support them. After that you sketch out things in a bit more detail, and then a bit more detail, and then you’re writing a first draft.
Oh yeah, the parts for each instrument are written individually, either by the composer or the orchestrator, mostly because there is no other way to do it.

There are lots of books about arranging – Russell Garcia I believe I have, but also a handful of others I can’t remember. Yes, basically, it’s my understanding (from reading and being friends with grad students in music composition doctoral programs) that you have to know the range and capabilities of each instrument. Of course, an arranger (or composer, in many if not most cases) doesn’t play every instrument, but everyone knows the lowest note a guitar can hit and all that.

My dad, who used to be a decent French horn player, to hear him tell it, can’t explain to me a related question – how would you know to notate the horn in F or Bb (because of that weird slide-thingie)?

I am not an expert by any means, but I do have a pretty nice little book of originals (not arranged, just in lead sheets or chord sheets for the guitarists :)) – I always start with melody, and, when possible, crib harmonic progressions from general knowledge and the certainty that most people (including me) aren’t that comfortable about playing on the job, with 30 seconds to read the chart ahead of time, some wild Wayne Shorter modal harmony. I suppose, start with a harmony that feels good to play over, then the fun stuff starts with coming up with a hip “line” to play over it, as a head arrangement. I guess I contradicted myself – I do mean the last – the harmony idea is in my mind already, and then work a nice melody over it. Change what wants to be changed.

Doesn’t apply to through-composed music, I expect. But if I wanted to arrange for three horns/winds + rhythm – start with the melody for me (personally) and make a way to have the harmony suit the melodic purpose.

BTW, WHY were you listening to the Imperial March? :smiley:

Re: film music, some composers (I believe Williams is one; Ennio Morricone is another) are their own orchestrators. These tend to be those deeply schooled in musical training.

Others (Danny Elfman is a good example) do not orchestrate at all. They compose themes and motifs and then collaborate with an orchestrator to finalize harmonics, instrumentation, and other tonal colorings.

Another point is that not all instruments are playing at all times, so just because you’ve got a few dozen instruments in the orchestra doesn’t mean you have to have a few dozen different parts for each moment of the piece. I’ve seen some works where, for instance, the tuba part consisted of 43 bars of rest, then four bars of playing, then another 40 bars of rest (though that’s obviously an extreme case). And even when it’s not rests, the parts for harmony instruments like the tuba are often very repetitive: It might just be the same measure repeated over and over, doing little more than helping to establish the beat.

Naughty, naughty!

Not only did Mozart probably write every note, he had to draw the staff lines, too, as there was no pre-printed music paper back then.

There were always derisive sneers among my composition professors about film composers, who took a “lead sheet approach” to orchestral composing. Only the more modernist composers like Herrmann and Goldsmith got a pass.

John Williams, despite his fame or perhaps because of it, does not orchestrate his film scores. Google Conrad Pope, and find out how many other composers have their works orchestrated for them.

It depends what you want them to do. If you want huge swaths of strings with a solo oboe, I could have “orchestrated” that for you back in my undergrad days. If you want something with layers of complexity and extended technique instrumentation…something like Berlioz or Ravel or the like…then you really need someone who’s a real orchestra virtuoso.

In the case of JW, it’s not that he’s not eminently qualified to do this work. It’s that when you consider the time constraints on a composer post-production for a film, it makes more sense to use another person on the “music team” to do that sort of grunt work, in this case Conrad Pope!

The person doing the orchestrations does need to know a bit about the instruments he’s/she’s arranging for.

Aside from just the “ranges” of the instruments (which can be tricky; a particularly talented soloist with a good instrument can be counted on to hit some notes that an ‘average’ professional cannot. So, depending on who the target performers are, certain things may or may not be available to you. Also, instruments will have different timbres at different parts of their ranges, which, while technically playable, may not sound like what you expect or want the instrument to sound like), there are issues like playability; giving a G#-A trill to a saxophone is a pretty demanding thing to require because of fingering on the instrument.

Also, knowing about more detailed and advanced things about playing techniques; anyone can write a melody line for a violin and say, “here, play it!” But, bowing and articulations are pretty important to a nice, finished piece, and as an orchestrator, you need to be familiar with those techniques, what they sound like, and what their ranges and limitations are.

We studied this and called it transposition in my music theory class. Our last project involved taking a piano piece and transposing for several band instruments.

Thankfully we didn’t have to do the entire band or orchestra. I didn’t realize there was an Orchestrator until I read this thread.

I think you mean transcription. Transposition is simply changing the key.

That’s right. I always got those two words mixed up.
Thanks :wink:

Wind instruments will have an absolute minimum pitch that it’s simply impossible to go below, no matter how talented the performer. And you’re well-advised to give that absolute minimum a fair bit of margin: Many notes will be missing entirely down near the minimum, and others will be horribly out of tune. Plus, unless the performer has lungs the size of an elephant’s, it’s really, really hard to maintain those cellar notes for any significant length of time (I was able to hit the bottom of the tuba’s range, but after about a quarter note of it, I’d be gasping for breath). On the high end, though, there’s no hard limit at all, and it’s limited only by the performer (though it’s probably still unwise to go much beyond two octaves of total range on a brass instrument).

Oh, and one other tool that the orchestrator uses: There are certain combinations of instruments that are fairly standard. Everyone “knows” that a tuba goes “oom pah pah”, for instance, except that it doesn’t. The “oom” is usually played on tuba, with the “pah pah” being answered by the French horn.