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Does anybody use a "cheat sheet" for orchestra instruments' composing guidelines?
Old 28th February 2018
  #1
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Does anybody use a "cheat sheet" for orchestra instruments' composing guidelines?

Let me just start by saying that I am aware that the best way to know the struggles of playing an instrument is to actually play it. Now for me it's not very practical to practice a variety of instruments at this point in my life.

After years of throwing together classical music in .mid and later obsessive use of soundfonts, I am finally ready to stop messing around and get serious. Enter the Composer Cloud sound library and an incoming MIDI keyboard that *gasp* is actually velocity sensitive and has a mod wheel.

However, now I'm at the point where my music writing has come to a halt because I am afraid I am going to throw together something that is going to impractical to play in real life. I have been scouring Google for all of the information I can get on orchestral instruments and their limitations. I can easily find note ranges, but I have also learned that ranges aren't the only difficulty each instrument can have.

So far I found this for strings Arranging for strings - arrangements for string quartet

It's both encouraging and discouraging. I like how plainly it is laid out, and if I can find this sort of thing for every instrument, I would be having a good day. However, it's a little unsettling just how many things can make certain melodies challenging or impractical even if they stay within the note range.

So this all leads me to two questions:

1. Does anyone have/use/know-of a master list of quick guidelines to reference when writing classical music?

2. If there is no such thing, what would you all think I should be doing to familiarize myself with these instruments?

My current level: Piano Roll Ninja. I can't read sheet music yet, so I have to Piano Roll everything. I have had a lot of success creating my own style and most of my old stuff still sounds good (to me) years later. I am progressing along nicely in my ear training. I often can't escape the C and F Aeolian scale.
Old 28th February 2018
  #2
The FAQ answer is that one begins with Walter Piston's classic book, Orchestration. For more suggestions, look here: Orchestration Books - Orchestration Online

There's a caveat though: None of these books will be very useful if you can't read music. Consider enrolling in a local music lab course that will teach you some fundamentals, especially sight-singing.
Old 3rd March 2018
  #3
yep
Gear Nut
 

Orchestration is the word for what you are getting at, and it is a craft and an art-form in and of itself, much like woodworking is a subset of home-construction.

Professional film composers, for example, will generally have one or more orchestrators working for them, or with them. Their "composition" might have, say, six to ten staves, labelled things like "strings", "winds", etc, and where the parts are written out as chords and melodies, maybe with notes or call-outs for specific instructions. An orchestrator (sometimes the composer herself) will then take that score and plot it out for a specific orchestra, breaking the "strings" part out into 1st and 2nd violin, viola, cello, bass, etc, and so on.

Much like a mix engineer is trying to work with the materials they have to fulfill and present the best vision of the artist and producer, so the orchestrator's job is to turn the composer's vision into a set of specific instructions for what might be dozens of individual musicians. Just as a mix engineer has specialized knowledge of tools and techniques, so the orchestrator is expected to be familiar with the different ranges of different instruments, how they blend or clash with other instruments from other sections, how many cellos it takes to double a single trombone in a certain register, when to substitute an english horn for a clarinet, when to push an instrument out of its typical range, etc.

Composers who are competent orchestrators themselves will typically have an advantage, just as a producer who is able to mix can often guide the process more effectively, even if he is not mixing the record himself. And obviously, composers traditionally have done their own orchestrations in classical music, often with the help of an orchestra director.

The good news is, unless you are handing a written score over to a real orchestra, it doesn't much matter if you get it wrong. Plenty of virtual instruments will do semi-competent "auto orchestration", basically switching samples based on register and range when you call up a "strings" patch or whatever, so you don't have to keep track of whether the violas or the second violins are playing this or that note. And if doesn't sound good, just try a different patch, setting, or chord voicing until it does. When and if Warner Brothers decides to hire you for the next Superman soundtrack, they will hire an orchestrator to make you look good.

Of course, if you do want to learn this stuff, it can be tremendously rewarding. It does, however, pretty much require at least basic ability to read music. A great (free) resource is Garritan's Principles of Orchestration Online
Old 3rd March 2018
  #4
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I've read that Hans Zimmer doesn't read music. How did he get so successful without that ability

I once wrote a woodwind quintet with a ridiculous oboe part. I learned real quick when I saw the face of the oboe player
Old 4th March 2018
  #5
yep
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Dave.R View Post
I've read that Hans Zimmer doesn't read music. How did he get so successful without that ability...
He had a pretty significant role in the music industry well before he became a film composer.

If you are neither wealthy nor famous, it can be difficult to get trained orchestrators to turn your ideas into professional scores. If you are both, then there are a lot of music-school graduates who would love to work with you.
Old 4th March 2018
  #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by yep View Post
He had a pretty significant role in the music industry well before he became a film composer.
same question, how did he accomplish that without reading music?
Old 4th March 2018
  #7
yep
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Dave.R View Post
same question, how did he accomplish that without reading music?
It is not at all unusual for pop stars to emerge without the ability to read music.

Hans Zimmer has built a career based upon his ability to envision and realize sounds, not based upon his ability to read music. He accomplished that by making great music.
Old 4th March 2018
  #8
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Sharp11's Avatar
 

Learn to read music - and take harmony and theory courses.

There's no better way.

Great composers and arrangers study music, inside out, and that includes score-reading with and without following along with recordings.

There are many great books on orchestration, but none of them will do you any good because you cannot read music.
Old 4th March 2018
  #9
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Sharp11's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by yep View Post
It is not at all unusual for pop stars to emerge without the ability to read music.

Hans Zimmer has built a career based upon his ability to envision and realize sounds, not based upon his ability to read music. He accomplished that by making great music.
.... and teams of excellent ghost-writers, a time-honored hollywood tradition.
Old 6th March 2018
  #10
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Music for Picture Forum

Go to the Music for Picture forum ... you will get the best responses there including software to use. Some of the guys there are quite good at orchestration and composing. Cheers, Steve
Old 14th March 2018
  #11
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Thanks everyone for the replies. You have all been a great help. I got a little distracted and forgot I started this thread because I had sort of mentally put off classical music until my Komplete Kontrol S61 MK2 would arrive... which got delayed until the end of this month at the earliest.

It's a little relieving to hear that I should be able to go on producing without too much worry. Though like I said, my current piano doesn't do velocity at all and doesn't have a mod wheel. So my workflow is pretty much self abuse until my gear shows up.

I did start to learn the basics of music theory and reading music though. I found a youtube channel that makes it pretty simple and I actually know the guy doing the videos. It's interesting being able to put words to most of the stuff I figured out on my own as a kid. While I am getting better at that sort of general music theory, I still have a gap in the area of instruments.

By that I mean I am learning what the chords and modes are, but I am not learning about stuff like pizzicato and arco. So that's something I'll have to work on researching.
Old 14th March 2018
  #12
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Zimmer sucks balls. He gets a half-baked melody idea and then has his team make it sound "impressive". The worst.

Principles of Orchestration is arguably the foundational text you should start from.
Old 14th March 2018
  #13
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Herr Weiss's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by creegstor View Post
Zimmer sucks balls. He gets a half-baked melody idea and then has his team make it sound "impressive". The worst. [...]
The world is full of 'half-baked' melodies; nothing new there. At least his music, as I can attest to, works wonders as a sleep inducer.



Old 14th March 2018
  #14
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Bob Ross's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Dave.R View Post
I once wrote a woodwind quintet with a ridiculous oboe part. I learned real quick when I saw the face of the oboe player
When I was in grad school at the New England Conservatory I wrote a piece for woodwind quintet that included a rather high tessitura for the alto clarinet. Guy gives be a buttload of attitude: "You can't play that note! Are you an idiot? That note's not even on the horn! Why, why, in order to play it you'd have to do this ..." And he proceeds to do something that causes the note I wrote to be played.

I waited a few seconds to let that sink in before I said "Thanks. Do that there."





But to answer OP's question, I always keep a one-page orchestral range chart handy when arranging. No need to keep all that crap in my head!
Old 21st March 2018
  #15
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bob Ross View Post
But to answer OP's question, I always keep a one-page orchestral range chart handy when arranging. No need to keep all that crap in my head!
I figured I would find at least one person who does that. I love reference sheets myself (as you can probably tell since I started this thread.)

What do you do about all of the other stuff, like giving your brass time to breath, bar rests for the strings and maximum comfortable tempo? Do you just have a feel for that stuff based on experience and what you've learned?
Old 21st March 2018
  #16
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Bob Ross's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by IgneousRay View Post
What do you do about all of the other stuff, like giving your brass time to breath, bar rests for the strings and maximum comfortable tempo? Do you just have a feel for that stuff based on experience and what you've learned?
Yeah, I don't think there are any formulas for those considerations, just experience + education + common sense.

Believe me, the first time you hear a horn section play a passage that has not accounted for breathing, you'll never make that mistake again ...if they allow you to live.
Old 21st March 2018
  #17
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cjogo's Avatar
I strictly play by ear but >> YouTube

Generally have a string /horn player in --- and I just layer to their performance ,,,,with our samplers...

Last edited by cjogo; 22nd March 2018 at 10:55 PM..
Old 21st March 2018
  #18
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Quote:
Originally Posted by IgneousRay View Post
I figured I would find at least one person who does that. I love reference sheets myself (as you can probably tell since I started this thread.)

What do you do about all of the other stuff, like giving your brass time to breath, bar rests for the strings and maximum comfortable tempo? Do you just have a feel for that stuff based on experience and what you've learned?
There is what is technically possible/achievable and there is what is possible for most reasonably proficient players. A grand-master will be able to play things even a well-seasoned pro just will not have a hope in hell of executing. So you have to write for the average well-trained player if not for the worst musician in the orchestra.
Old 21st March 2018
  #19
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bob Ross View Post
Yeah, I don't think there are any formulas for those considerations, just experience + education + common sense.

Believe me, the first time you hear a horn section play a passage that has not accounted for breathing, you'll never make that mistake again ...if they allow you to live.
I wrote a big band chart once where one of the musicians was triple jobbing on sax/clarinet/flute. Most of the stuff was pretty straightforward, stab/harmony/hocket but there was one cool but quick/tricky legato run on the flute and the guy was flipping out because that wasn't his first instrument. For a full-on flute player it would have been no problem at all, but it was a stretch for him because he was really a sax player! Everything in band arrangement is contextual to who you have available.
Old 29th March 2018
  #20
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cjogo's Avatar
I do conform to this lay out > for panning in the final
Old 1st April 2018
  #21
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Quote:
Originally Posted by yep View Post
A great (free) resource is Garritan's Principles of Orchestration Online
Not sure what you mean by "Garritan's;" this was written by Rimsky-Korsakov...but yes excellent reference source IMO (at least based on what I've read to date), though you don't need to read all of it to get a lot out of it.

You don't need to read music to do orchestration either, but it's a (really) good idea to if possible.

PS: interesting link
Old 2nd April 2018
  #22
yep
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Quote:
Originally Posted by bill5 View Post
Not sure what you mean by "Garritan's;" this was written by Rimsky-Korsakov...but yes excellent reference source IMO (at least based on what I've read to date), though you don't need to read all of it to get a lot out of it.

You don't need to read music to do orchestration either, but it's a (really) good idea to if possible.

PS: interesting link
Haha I guess my attribution was incomplete!

The plugin company Garritan took RK's seminal work, and turned it into an interactive website with live audio+score examples, which is a significant improvement over the score-only written page, especially for anyone with weaker sight-reading abilities.

It's still (mostly) Rimsky-Korsakov's book, but I got a lot more out of the Garritan interactive version, than I did from the paperback.
Old 2nd April 2018
  #23
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ponzi's Avatar
I don't think even famous composers played every instrument--they learned the ropes from the musicians. As others have said, plenty of books give guidance on these matters. I do think one needs to learn to read music, though. I watched some nice orchestration videos on macprovideo.com as well--with tips on playability. Until one gets famous or otherwise wealthy, I imagine your orchestra will be a sampler of some sort--in the event you have live musicians and they can't play something you wrote, sounds like an easy problem to solve on the spot.

I have been taking piano lessons with music reading as one of the main goals. Reading orchestral scores is said to be a very helpful way to learn orchestration.
Old 2nd April 2018
  #24
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ponzi's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by bill5 View Post
...You don't need to read music to do orchestration either, but it's a (really) good idea to if possible...
So, go to town on the piano roll editor and let the daw produce a score from it?
Old 16th July 2018
  #25
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Or not.
Old 16th July 2018
  #26
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Quote:
Originally Posted by ponzi View Post
So, go to town on the piano roll editor and let the daw produce a score from it?
Yep that's one way. There's other score-making software too, e.g. Finale, which I believe can be used to import a MIDI file and make a score from it.
Old 16th July 2018
  #27
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Sharp11's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by bill5 View Post
Yep that's one way. There's other score-making software too, e.g. Finale, which I believe can be used to import a MIDI file and make a score from it.
Someone who doesn't read music would have to have an intermediary to prepare a midi file to print a proper score. It's not going to be a "play it in and forget it" process.

Having said that, there were plenty of composers over many years in Hollywood who had little if any orchestration chops, and depended on ghost writers and orchestrators to make a "score", ANY score come to life. Andre Previn got his start in exactly this way, and he wrote about it in his (excellent) book.
Old 16th July 2018
  #28
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Sharp11 View Post
Someone who doesn't read music would have to have an intermediary to prepare a midi file to print a proper score. It's not going to be a "play it in and forget it" process.
? Because? I haven't done it myself, but pretty sure there is software either within some DAWs or that can be used in conjunction with them to do just that.
Old 16th July 2018
  #29
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Sharp11's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by bill5 View Post
? Because? I haven't done it myself, but pretty sure there is software either within some DAWs or that can be used in conjunction with them to do just that.
Software notation won't necessarily spit out the correct rhythms, phrasings, or enharmonics for chord spellings - a human being has to oversee what the software comes up with. It's very easy to confuse software with ritards and such, which is why many composers will do a completely different midi file for notation vs the file they do to audition the orchestration.

In short, you still have to know what you're doing - or hire someone who does.
Old 21st October 2018
  #30
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Quote:
Originally Posted by David Rick View Post
The FAQ answer is that one begins with Walter Piston's classic book, Orchestration. For more suggestions, look here: Orchestration Books - Orchestration Online

There's a caveat though: None of these books will be very useful if you can't read music. Consider enrolling in a local music lab course that will teach you some fundamentals, especially sight-singing.
That Walter Piston Orchestration book is a classic.
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