Writing Orchestrations


I am beginning to really enjoy writing orchestrations.   I have learned much from reading, studying, and participating in the standard “B-flat”….not really fun….trial and error.  There are so many people in my life who have taught me much about orchestrating, but mostly, I just rely on my own critical analysis of strengths and weaknesses in my own work.

I have learned a few things about orchestrating, and I might be able to assist some of you as you write for choirs, etc.  Just take all of these suggestions with a “grain of salt,” as they do not even approach “TRUTH.” They are just a sampling of things I have learned over time.

1)  Orchestrations can be functional or creative

Let me explain.  Some orchestrations are written according to formula.  The flutes double the sopranos, the oboes double the altos, etc. There are benefits to this system.  If ever the voices are uncertain as to pitch, they just listen for certain instruments, and they can get back on the right track.

I am just realizing that my orchestrations are primarily countermelodies.  My late mentor, Dr. Brian Busch always told me that my countermelodies were my strength, and I am realizing it more and more in my orchestrations.  I really like for every participating musician to have their own special melody line.  My goal is that the countermelodies are actually independent melodies.  I want the instruments to enjoy playing their lines as musically as the choir enjoys singing their melodies, and I want the instrumental melodies to make sense.

2)  Harmony/imitation pairings

I am finding that when I write an orchestration, somehow there are a couple of instruments that “play off each other.” I enjoy having the flute and the oboe in duet or imitation with each other.  I also enjoy pairing Violins I and II in the same manner.  The double bass and the cello seem to “regard” each other in a meaningful journey as well…the sonorous foundation provided by these two instruments is the basis on which the function of every other instrument rests. The horn? I love French Horn, and it stands alone as I create the score in my head. Timpani? I use it sparingly….”less is more” for me.  I am finding that I use timpani primarily for dramatic effect.  In my mind, too much timpani “dulls” the effectiveness of this beautiful instrument.  Used wisely, we soar into musical bliss.

3)  The “when” of orchestration

I think the term “accompanying orchestration” is one that I should keep in mind most of the time.  I tend to put too much orchestration.  Feel free to take your pencil and cross out measures of my orchestration that seem to be “too much.” When writing a choral score, the voices are most important to me.  I use orchestration to add an element of elegance, drama, excitement, or a specific mood that I cannot capture with keyboard accompaniment.  I have learned to let the voices speak alone, and use the instruments only when enhancement occurs…..unless I have been instructed to keep the orchestra going throughout.  And yes…that is sometimes the case.  Again…”less is more.”

4) How do we create an effective orchestration?

I know there are many, many ways of creating orchestrations, and indeed, my own process has changed over the years, but I am happy to share with you my current process.  I would also welcome feedback on whatever process has worked for you over the years.  I begin with the bass (double bass, tuba, etc.), and go from there. I have a basic concept as to the predominant sound I want to hear in the orchestration (low strings, low brass, woodwinds), and I build my “world of sound” on a foundation that tends to focus toward this overall sound.  So…not too much from the high strings and flute, if I want a low, sonorous sound from the score.

5) Music notation programs are amazing!

There are many music notation programs that will assist a person in writing an orchestration.  In my Sibelius program, I add the instruments to the score (a couple of clicks), then write the instrumental parts while listening to the vocal parts.  Of course, I can emphasize the new instrument part, making it louder than all other parts….prevents aural clashes, etc.  Fortunately, the Sibelius program shows the range of the instrumental notation, and any notes out of range show up as “red.”  This alert prevents me from writing notes that are impossible or uncomfortable to play.  I write my entire score in an untransposed form before I transpose the score for B-flat instruments, viola, etc. (one click on Sibelius).  Should there be any notes out of range on the transposed score, they too show up as red notes that must be adjusted.  No problem.


Orchestration is a skill I needed to develop. Why? Because some music just needs something different from a piano to make it live and dwell in the hearts of the listener. Personally, I think we should allow our students to use their gifts when we think of performance.  It is not a bad thing to teach our developing students a bit about “real life” in performance.  Sometimes we have a marvelous experience…and sometimes the wackiest things happen that neither you nor they might predict, and we must deal with all of it in a mature manner.  You might never want to use the technique of writing an orchestration, but it might open a new door of challenge and musical joy for you and your students. The truth is that we get better at it the more we do it.  No surprise there….we’ve been preaching that very concept as musicians forever and ever. Church musicians might find the need and use of orchestration a bit more convenient than those of us in choral music education.  Why?  Because it is so difficult to get students out of class to rehearse with the choir, if they are in band, orchestra, etc.  There just isn’t enough time in the day.  I have heard numerous performances of my work over the past few years, and few ever used the obligato instruments I created for the score.  I am not complaining.  I have been in the classroom, and I totally “get” that issue. I do hope, however, that somewhere along the way, you will be able to “hear” an instrument that might enhance a choral or a vocal solo performance.  And when you do…write it. See how it goes…