Orchestration for Dummies

I've searched the web high and low and found nothing that explained, for us dummies, the principles of orchestration.  This isn't unexpected.  Even as early ago as 2002 the technology for ordinary folks to engage in orchestration wasn't practical at all. So up until now the only folks who could truly orchestrate were those who had studied music for years, and even those folks could look forward to hearing their own music played by an orchestra very seldom.   

Computer music technology (see sidebar) has evolved in recent years to enable even someone with a very rudimentary computer (and $250) to conduct an entire orchestra that sounds really, really good.  And these folks are now asking themselves "Just what is orchestration, and how do I go about doing it?"  Or, in much simpler terms, "How do I make my music sound good?"

The books and information out there are written by professionals for professionals, and while there is good stuff to be gleaned it won't be easy.  So herein is a guide for Dummies, by a dummy, in how to get started in this process.

My Credentials

I'm pretty much a dummy myself when it comes to music.  Oh, I can read music (and you should learn, too) and have attempted to play various instruments through the years.  But I have no formal training in music theory.

What I have done is read a lot of the classic books, even those who speak way over my head.  I've gleaned enough practical information from them and from my own experimentations that I can at least tell you how to get started.

Obviously this page isn't for anyone who actually knows this stuff.  Indeed, if you aren't a dummy I ask you to leave now and read no further -- this isn't the place for you.  I'm going to write stuff that will probably make you cringe.  Hey, if you want to write your own guide, please do, and please let me know about it.  In the meantime this will get the vast majority of you who don't understand a major chord from a major domo up and running with your own beautiful music.

The wonderful thing about music is the more you know, the more you want to know, and the more you do, the better your music will sound.  Things you write today will sound childish and silly next year... but by then you will be making even better music.  Just do it, and don't worry about it.

Starting Technology

You can make music on almost any computer, but for the purpose of this guide I don't want to go into too many technical details.  There are lots of places on the net that you can find this information, and I'll post some links at the end.

However I am going to refer constantly to using a couple of different computer programs in my own work.  You don't need these programs (indeed, you can get buy a lot cheaper than this -- see sidebar again) and in your own programs you may do things a little differently, but at least it will give you a starting guide to how I work.

In particular I use three different tools: Sonar, a music sequencer, Finale, a notation program, and Garritan Personal Orchestra, an orchestra sound module.  All but the last are dispensable: GPO is a definite requirement here.

It is GPO that has brought Orchestration to the masses, and for $250 you get not only the entire orchestra but a sequencer and notational program to boot.  It and a computer that will run it are all you really need to conduct your own symphonies in the privacy of your home.  Get it and you won't regret it.

What is Orchestration?

In it's simplest form, orchestration is just taking a melody and adding elements to it that make it come alive.  Almost anyone could write a simple tune like this:

But it took a Mozart to do this:


Now, strictly speaking, changing a melody from A to B isn't orchestration, it's arranging.  Orchestration in it's pure form is taking an arrangement such as that in B and assigning different instruments to it, assigning certain notes to certain instruments, collapsing it to a piano only, or taking a piano piece and expanding it to an entire orchestra.

For our own dummy purposes, though, Orchestration and Arranging are basically taking our simple song and doing all that we need to do so that an orchestra can play it.  We aren't likely to be getting any orchestral scores we need to change around, we just want to make our own music.  And that's what orchestration is all about.

Getting Your Melody

The first step you need to do is to get your melody.  It may be something you have floating around in your head, or something you've worked out on a keyboard, but you have to have the song before you can orchestrate it.

For me there are two distinct paths to getting the melody into the computer: I either use a keyboard and record it into a sequencer at a very slow rate (and then clean it up with the sequencer tools available for that, like quantiziation) or I use a notation program like Finale and enter the notes one at a time until I get something I like.  Either way, that's where you need to start.  After that, we can orchestrate it.

Here's my starting melody (and if you don't read music, you really should learn.  It isn't difficult and you don't need to hear it in your head anymore, since your sequencer or notation program can play it for you.  Here's a good resource for learning):

There are really only three aspects to orchestration, but contained within those three are infinite variations.

Aspect 1 -- Harmony

A melody by itself is rather sparse sounding.  It needs harmony to fill it out.

Harmony is the addition of one or more notes to the melody notes that go together with it, or harmonize the tune.  We've all heard the Barbershop quartet where four men sing different notes that harmonize the main melody.  This is classic application of harmony.

Implicit in every melody is harmony -- this is just the way music works.  Essentially a song is a set of harmonic notes and notes that don't fit within a harmony.  The notes that are harmonic, that fit, are generally the notes that are held the longest.  Notes that aren't harmonic, that are discordenant, are the ones that are generally shorter.

Can a melody be all harmonic.  Of course -- most simple songs (and a lot of church music) is exactly this way:


This melody is all harmonic, none of the notes are out of the basic chords that are used.  But a simple song sounds just that... simple.  In general we like more complicated melodies, because we like the restlessness and then the resolution that comes when a non-harmonic note occurs and is then resolved into a harmonic:


So the first aspect of orchestration is to put together these harmonies from the melody notes.  The study of harmony can be very involved and complex.  Music theory will go into great detail about chord progressions, non-chordals, major to minor, etc.  But for our purposes we don't care about all that.  For us, the bottom line is if it sounds good it is good.

So here's how I add harmony to a simple melody:

What did I do?  I took my simple melody 


One last word before we go: don't get too carried away.  Not everything needs to be harmonized, and there are times when a simple melody sounds perfectly wonderful.


So we have our tune harmonized.  Are we done?

Perhaps.  An awful lot of music is made with just this process.  But to make your music really sing (so to speak) you should consider using counterpoint.

Just what the heck is counterpoint?  It's simple, it's just another melody occurring at the same time as the primary melody.  That would sound confusing, kind of like someone playing a radio station while you're trying to listen to TV, but in practice the human ear lives quite comfortably with two different melodies at the same time (three, for some reason, is not tolerated.  The magic number is two).

Now, you can't just have any old melody playing at the same time.  This wouldn't do at all:

But what you can, and want to do, is to take some of those harmonic notes that you created above and make a little melody out of them.  They won't sound discordent (your counterpoint should in general be harmonic) and will make the melody all that prettier.

There are some other guidelines: in general (obviously all musical rules are meant to be broken :>) you want your counterpoint to be busy when your main melody is not, and vice versa.  So when the melody holds on notes you can stick in some nice secondary melody:

There's no end to the kind of things you can do with counterpoint.  But one thing to remember, just as with harmony and instrumentation, is not to get too carried away.  Sometimes simpler is better.


Here's where it really comes alive.  Up until now we've used one instrument, the piano, to get our song arranged the way we want.  But while a piano is beautiful in its own way, it's not an orchestra with all the wonderful infinite sonic possibilities.

And they are truly infinite: there are no end to the number of ways you can orchestra something.  Indeed, once you've come this far you may want to start studying some of the classic texts on combinations and patterns of using instruments with each other.

Indeed, once you become familiar with this process you may want to start with the instruments in the first place.  That is, rather than using a piano for the music, you may want to have a string section or a horn section, or woodwinds with strings, or woodwinds with horns, or whatever combination you want perform your basic music.  Nowadays that's how I mostly proceed, using a combination of techniques.  I put some notes in the flute, harmonize them, and break them out into other woodwinds and strings.

But let's go over the process to "explode" our music into various combinations.


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