Orchestration: The Devil Is In The Details, Part 2

By • May 23, 2011

In past articles, I’ve hammered, and hammered hard, on the value of detail in sketching, orchestrating, or arranging your music. To repeat: As any old pro will tell you, the best, most efficient, and certainly cheapest place to solve your recording problems is in the score. Tempi, dynamics, phrasing, articulation, voicing, expressions… If you think going the extra mile to fully edit your score is costly, try the ambiguity that goes with not doing so. You’ll never achieve the Holy Grail of a perfect sight reading if your notation doesn’t tell each musician at a glance how it’s supposed to sound, nuance for nuance. If your time is too valuable, hire an orchestrator.

Additionally, beyond inspired composition or idiomatic scoring, nothing turns on your players more than parts which allow them to do their best work with maximum efficiency (read: with as little discussion or analysis as possible.) And when the musicians are in your corner, they will cover your backside by carrying the ball stylistically or technically on those occasions when notation is no longer enough.

Probably the most subtle (yet critical in its need for study) element in conveying the flavor and style of your music is phrasing/articulation. While tempo and dynamics are more obvious, they also are less idiosyncratic, across the different orchestral sections, in their interpretation. The concepts of soft/loud (except perhaps for the harpsichord) and beats per minute are universal. This by no means makes them unworthy of complete treatment in your score, though.

Where inexperienced orchestrators can unwittingly get into trouble, however, is either in the misuse of basic articulations (due to the variances in how different orchestral sections interpret them) or in their non-use altogether. It is not uncommon to hear session players ask the deadly time-waster, how do you want this played?despite having completely edited parts right in front of them. Usually it is because they simply know (having played similar stylings for decades) how you probably wanted it to sound, despite your use of some articulations in favor of the ones that really nail it. String players, bless their hearts, (and possibly owing to their lifetime burden of achieving perfect synchronicity with a dozen or more people on the same part) seem to be particularly fussy about correct articulations.

Here, in Example 1, at the risk of being a chaplain of the obvious, is the palette of articulations understood and jointly interpreted by your the brass, woodwind and percussion players:

Example 1

Remedial? Perhaps, but perhaps not to those who came to scoring, loaded with inspiration or creativity, from musical worlds (popular, percussion, electronic) unneedful of such notational detail. Briefly, let’s review what they say to your winds and percussion:

1.Short, without additional stress or accent (word expression equivalent: “stacc.
2.Striking the note harder, hence adding greater volume, sometimes (although not consistently) shortening the note just a bit. (word expression equivalent: “accented.
3.Holding the affected note for full value, usually without any additional stress or accent. Perhaps think of it as an articulated slur. (word expression equivalent: “ten.
4.Adding considerable stress, more than an accent. Implies some shortening of the note, although not as much as staccato. Colloquially known as carrot-top, perhaps relating to its other name in language symbology: caret.
5.Same added stress as the accent, only with the note shortened in the manner of staccato.
6.Same added stress as the circumflex, only with the note shortened in the manner of staccato.
7.Seemingly a contradiction, but implies mostly full value, but with a barely perceptible break before the next note; usually used in a series of notes to lighten the effect.
8.Full value, full accent. Used to imply heaviness or ponderousness, particularly in the lower registers. Rough symbolic equivalent of the term “pesante.”

Again, the key to giving your players the notation they need to give you back the phrasing you want (on the fly) is to play the phrase in your head, on the same instrument (hey, in my imagination I am a virtuoso on every axe) and then work backward. Slow it down, even to a snails pace, to perfect your rendition and then find which symbols will best communicate the intent. No one said this job was going to be easy, but it sure beats heroically trying to squeeze 3 and a half hours of productivity out of a 3-hour scoring session using ambiguous notation.

Backing up a step, for those new to the intricacies of the symbology, how do you learn to understand them as well as your players? Think back to whatever score study you did to get here in the first place. How much complete attention, if any, did you pay to the articulations and their resultant phrasing on the recording? Film, tv, and jingle scores can be the most enlightening, as they result from the least rehearsal time, and therefore tend to be the most detailed. (Anybody can clean up the ambiguities of Beethoven’s notation with a lifetime of study and days/weeks of rehearsal…)

In the future, we’ll delve into how string players interpret their articulations, both with an eye to composing more interesting and authentic string phrasing as well as effectively communicating such to your players.


By synthetic on May 23rd, 2011 at 7:38 pm

Thank you. I’ve wondered about a few of these in scores and you can’t look up “^” in the music dictionary.

By Martin Hughes on July 9th, 2011 at 6:28 am

Very interesting article. Another good place to look for examples of highly detailed scores is musical theatre pit parts. Deps (Subs for those in the USA ;) ) often come in with little to no knowledge of the music, and have to be note perfect the first time they play it through in anger…

By Phil Kelly on November 16th, 2012 at 4:13 pm

Example 1 and the following explanation of the subtle differences between them ( particularly the last 4 ) arereally
valuable information.

Even experienced composer /orchestrators who are usually pretty careful about employing the first four articulations often fail to correctly employ the last four ( -myself included and I’ve been doing this for close to 40 years .)
also :
the other trap is those of us who use notation programs tend to memorize the letter shortcut for the basic first four get lazy and fail to find the shortcut for the last four ( again mea culpa ! )

By Chris Johnson on October 7th, 2015 at 7:34 pm

My college music composition professor had an absolute rule for everything I wrote: No naked notes!
There was to be no such thing as a note without some kind of articulation. Ever. It turned out to be a good rule, for which I’m still grateful.

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