Studying Orchestration: What Does a Viola Taste Like?

By • January 13, 2009

“How do I learn orchestration?” Such a recurring question. Traditionally, the orchestrator’s art has always had two basic components: instrumentation (how instruments or combinations of instruments sound) and notation (how to unmistakably communicate, on paper, which sounds you want produced, and when.) Of course, in opera (and now film and television, and even video games) there is the third craft of sound design, i.e. the reinforcement (and occasional outright creation) of a dramatic presentation through the use of instrumental color and effect.

Usually, the question refers to the first discipline, and invariably devolves into which books to read, which scores to study, even which movies to watch. Unfortunately, such discussions miss one very thorny but fundamental point: Like fine cooking, orchestration begins with an organic and intimate connection with one of your five senses, impossible to put in any book. No chef becomes worth his salt (pun intended) until he first and foremost knows, really knows, how thousands of things taste, either alone or in a limitless number of combinations and amounts. Substitute “sound” for “taste,” and your orchestration discussion snaps into the proper focus.

Even when “orchestrating” through midi, the principle still holds, as one still must deeply know how every sample will sound and interact, especially if one is trying to make them emulate the orchestra they are intended to replace. (“sigh!”)

This is why “rounding up the usual suspects” (venerated tomes by Berlioz, Piston, Kennon, Read, Rimsky-Korsakov, et al,) is putting the cart before the horse. Think about it: What does vanilla taste like? Can you describe it exactly with words? Can any book really get you to experience the taste of vanilla? And, once you’ve really savored it, are you likely to forget it? Substitute viola for vanilla and revisit the same discussion.

Orchestration books use contextual ensemble examples for which audio probably exists. But such experience is usually premature for most students of instrumentation because one only hears the finished “stew,” not its component ingredients. Until one instinctively knows how each one “tastes,” it’s largely a theoretical exercise, and one that is less likely to sink in. If you really know the sounds of a piccolo and bassoon in all their registers, then a discussion of how they interact several octaves apart will resonate with you in a way that you can assimilate and readily use.

Plus, by going first to the “how to” books, you are substituting other people’s determinations of what is delicious and exciting for what should be your own, a move which only delays the development of your own taste and style.

So, assuming you do want your search to be led by your ears and your heart instead of your eyes and your mind, and you aren’t fortunate to have spent years sitting in orchestras, what are some good ways to get these sounds into your head? Adopt the following listening priorities: Live beats recordings, rehearsals beat performances, and smaller ensembles beat larger ones, as your goals are isolation and clarity.

Rehearsals work because you often get to hear larger sonorities broken down into component ones, and then reassembled. If there is a college near you, find its music department and haunt some rehearsals (but be polite and ask beforehand.) Don’t sit front and center; listen from offstage or even behind the ensemble. You’ll hear things in the lopsided balance you won’t hear on a well-engineered recording. Bring the score, but spend most of your time with your eyes closed, trying to intuit what’s really happening in the sonic architecture, and then confirm it through the score.

Ideally, however, find a sympathetic player and get him/her to show you how their instrument works and how its component ranges and effects sound. Take notes or, better still, record the demonstrations (on some low-fi recorder for the player’s peace of mind.) Then buy him or her lunch; it’ll be among the best investments you’ll ever make.

If a live body simply isn’t available, fake it. As part of s symphonic player’s training, there have always been recordings on the market of significant orchestral excerpts performed by principal players and sections from great orchestras. They are usually superior exemplars of the player’s art in isolation and can be swapped for study purposes with other seekers in your circle (but not duplicated; that would be unethical and illegal.) Check eBay.

These are just a few avenues to investigate. Use your imagination for others, but always remember that sound is the element from which meaningful orchestration emanates.

Once you know how all the instruments “taste,” only then will the books, the scores, the notation, and the seminars and discussions actually mean something, as will everything you hear for the rest of your life.


By Peter Alexnder on January 13th, 2009 at 12:31 pm

Ron, as the author of Professional Orchestration, How Ravel Orchestrated: Mother Goose Suite, Writing For Strings and editor of the soon to be released Orchestration: A Practical Handbook, I’m 50% with you on your suggestions, especially since I did sit in rehearsals of the BSO while at Berklee (Ozawa had black hair back then).

Orchestration instruction tends to fall into three camps:

a. instrumentation
b. actual orchestration
c. transcription

Louis Kastner

Some scholars believe that the Berlioz book was a rewrite of Louis Kastner’s. If you look at both, you’ll find that the early idea of an instrumentation book was to give enough information about each instrument so that the student knew it just wasn’t about writing notes. Since there was no TV in the 1800s it was assumed by these writers that readers would be going to concerts. That is still a fair assumption. Forsyth, a favorite of Mancini and Goldsmith, took this to the next level by giving the detailed history of instruments including how many pieces of wood are in a violin. It contains information on instruments not played today, but are now showing up in sample libraries. Piston, Kennan and Adler followed this strand started by Forsyth.

Koechlin, Widor, and Alexander (uh, me) stayed more with instrumentation leaving history to the others. The primary book used by Ravel was Widor, and these notes, updated with me by studio musicians from the Local 40 in Los Angeles, make up the bulk of our Professional Orchestration volume 1. Here I followed the path of Berlioz and Rimsky-Korsakov by using full page/full score examples so that the excerpts for each instrument quoted could be seen in context. I also grouped each instrument by range breaks (low, medium, high and very high) with examples for each.

So in our system of teaching, Volume 1 is about instrumentation and writing for solo instruments.

Concert going is a critical learning step, unfortunately, I keep running into students who think listening to a CD is enough. Back in the ’50s, Piston warned in his book the dangers of basing decisions on a record (blush – I have some) or on live radio performances (I heard the NY Phil on the radio once in my teens, and that was definitely before the War of 1812).

An intermediate step is having added YouTube video to cover a majority of the examples in the book, which I’ve done along with supplemental audio.

I specifically chose the phrase intermediate step because if a student can’t get to a live symphony (North Dakota, Montana – winter!) they can at least, or at minimum, watch the videos.

Students going to live concerts and then coming home to immediately listen to their sample libraries will understand more than words can explain why they’re called “sample” libraries.

Charles Koechlin
Peter Alexander
Henry Mancini

I’ve not seen the Geveart book, so I’m open to correction. But like most of us who’ve worked in L.A., I of course have the Rimsky book. However, following this trendsetter is Koechlin and then, modestly, myself.

If book 1 is instrumentation, then everything that follows is orchestration. I would like to supplant something Rimsky taught. Before orchestration is composition, it’s first ear training.

If you don’t know what it sounds like, and now with samples, what it doesn’t sound like, you’re cooked. Nuff said.

All of Rimsky’s examples are from his own works which was the decision of his son-in-law Maximillian Steinberg. Rimsky’s plan had been to include examples from the great Russian masters.

One teacher took me to task for this next statement, but I hold it to be true. The Koechlin books, those masterful 4 volumes in classical French on a 9 x 12 page are a vast revision with much new information by Charles Koechlin, a classmate of Ravel’s. I know this because the outlines of both books are exactly the same once you get past the opening instrumentation section. My opus, Professional Orchestration, follows Rimsky’s approach with the exception that I’ve meticulously taken each orchestral device covered and given examples of each across the four registers of low, medium, high and very high. String is out now (63 techniques) with Woods and Brass following in a few weeks. The first three volumes of Professional Orchestration run shy of 1800 pages on instruction. In all, I’ll have 9 volumes when this is all completed, and 4 will be out by Fall 2009.

Mancini’s book still stands in a class by itself and it saved my bacon so many times because it was truly Sound and Scores. While stylized to Hank’s writing approach, it’s still timeless today. I checked with the publishers, and sadly, it only moves about a 1000 units a year, if that now. But what separates it from all others, is that it’s truly the first film scoring orchestration book. Of all the great composers in our circle, only Hank left a written legacy with one follow up – Case Study of a Film Score: The Thornbirds. Both books come with audio.

Arthur Heacox
Joseph Wagner

Arthur Heacox is an unsung hero in the teaching of orchestration. He wrote a little book called Project Lessons in Orchestration which he used for the one semester of orchestration training you get in the standard college curriculum. His idea was to teach orchestration from the standpoint of transcribing piano parts for each orchestral section then for the full orchestra itself.

His student, Joseph Wagner, the American composer who ended up being the composer-in-residence at Pepperdine University, updated the concept and called it Orchestration: A Practical Handbook. Alexander Publishing now handles this book, but not before I went through the string section completely with Albert Harris (before he moved to New Zealand).

Of all the orchestration books, this one has had the least success because the reader must know what each instrument and section sounds like or you’re lost in doing the exercises. To be complete, Adler’s book covers a smidgin of the subject. However, going through it with Al Harris was an eye opener because you discover quickly how many solutions are possible for a passage. As a note, we’ve since re-engraved the entire book including the workbook and will be re-releasing in sections in 2009. Part of the update includes the recording of all the piano parts for the very first time.

Herb Spenser once told me that you needed to know about a 1000 orchestral combinations to do the job. On completion, the Professional Orchestration series should approach that number.

While Rimsky-Korsakov said that orchestration is composition, I’ve found that there’s even a step before that: Orchestration is ear training before orchestration becomes composition.

Any textbook writer can write, “flute + oboe in unison is a common woodwind doubling.” OK, gee, thanks. But what does it sound like? And what does it sound like in each register?

This is where the Mancini book had the edge for guys starting out like me. I could hear it. I could lodge it in my imagination. I could analyze the score. I could write with confidence.

My second observation, which is unpopular these days, is that you need to learn to compose. You need to know how to write a good song. You need to learn compositional devices. One lesson learned from both Mancini and John Williams is that it’s still about melody. The ability to write a melody, shall we say, does have some career “use”. I don’t know one composer who’s career was hurt listening to Palestrina.

With this is the need to learn how to score a song orchestrally.

This requires not just listening, but scoring in the imagination away from sample libraries.

At any rate, I apologize for the intrusion.

Peter Alexander

By Alain Mayrand on January 16th, 2009 at 11:15 am

Ron and Peter,

This is like a double article! Thank you both Ron and Peter for the insight.

Peter, I completely agree with you that composition comes first. No combination of instruments, no enclosing or overlap or interlocking will save you from poor part writing and poor melodic writing.

But Peter, why do you say that your observation is “unpopular these days”?


By Peter Alexander on January 19th, 2009 at 1:28 pm

Learning to compose means learning counterpoint and how to apply it. Learning theme and variation techniques and how to apply them. Learning about homophonic forms and how to apply it. Focusing on one thing at a time instead of trying to do 2-3 things at once. Learning to read music notation, the only true international language.

All of these are skill-based activities which take time to develop and apply in a culture that wants it now.

By Phil Kelly on February 4th, 2009 at 10:56 am

I’d only like to add that the Sam Adler Orchestration text is new newest ( and one of the best ) texts availble today IMO.

Another overlooked text I found very useful is :
“Creative Orchestration ” by Geo. F. McKay

Phil Kelly

By Kris Falk on January 13th, 2011 at 1:43 am

Dear Ron,

I appreciate your quest to speak about orchestration, but must remind your readers that form and content are inseparable. One of the few topics Schoenberg was not able to formulate into a clear method textually was orchestration, and I believe for the same reason.

Composition and orchestration belong to the same world. Yes, “recipes” are the worst answer, and I have to say, even using the simile of cooking I find (sorry) … “distasteful.” Violas have no flavor, bit they do have timbral color, and this color comes from their physical construction and limitations.

Orchestration has everything to do with musical spacing and texture, and very little to do with the most obvious choice of which instruments are the “right” choice for a musical passage. Creativity defines great orchestration.

– Kris Falk

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