• Oli Pikett

Why Study Orchestration?

Updated: Sep 28, 2021

The art of orchestration refers to arranging a piece of music by combining instruments to achieve the desired balance of melody, harmony and rhythm. The principles behind this skill, as we know them today, have their origins in the works of Haydn and Beethoven, and have been refined and codified across several centuries. The study of orchestration must naturally form an important part of the media composer’s training if they are to create good sounding music at an industry standard level.

Of course, the media composer’s goal is rarely to produce traditional symphonic works. Whilst many aesthetics are shared between film cues and classical music, the reality is that they serve distinct purposes and are conceived quite differently. Rather than as a means of self expression, the media composer uses the orchestra as part of a wide and flexible palette of sounds, which must serve the drama at all cost. This often means bending or breaking the principles of the classical framework. Frequently, the power required of film music, as set by modern 'Hollywood' standards, requires more than a traditional orchestra could provide. For instance, in an action sequence, multiple groups of string sections might be employed in order to provide additional breadth, allowing for simultaneous use of heavy ostinatos, string pads and melodic lines. These concepts are unlikely to be found in classical orchestrations, but should not be overlooked in a modern context.

So why would film composers invest time learning the classical method? The first reason is that scores for classical works are widely and cheaply available for study, whilst film scores are virtually impossible to obtain. Secondly, well chosen classical scores were orchestrated by true masters of the art and might be some of the greatest pieces of music ever written. That is not to denigrate the work of modern composers, but simply to acknowledge that one is in fairly safe hands studying notable classical works.

My own discovery is that the study of orchestration in classical pieces offers a wealth of creative inspiration and a vocabulary of approaches which be used in the creation of contemporary music. Most importantly, if followed, the principles will ensure that those arrangements will be capable of actually being played by an orchestra without a raft of complaints from the musicians!

As long as the end goal of producing dramatic music is kept in mind, alongside an appreciation that the principles are only for guidance and never to be considered ‘rules’, classical orchestration is a valuable area of study.

The purpose of this series of short blogs is to highlight some potentially useful techniques of orchestration observed in classical works. The idea is that they can be taken and applied to film and TV scores in order to help write better and more creative arrangements.

The first blog on the use of doubling and creative arranging for woodwinds, based on The Tsar's Bride by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, can be read here.

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