Composing for the Orchestra: Putting It All Together

There are numerous books and articles about composition and composing for the orchestra. While most are well written, it is such a huge and complex subject that it’s hard to know where to begin and how to put it all together. Here we’ll go over the basics of how to put it all together without getting into the fine details. (We’ll save that for a later post).

The Sections

The first thing most textbooks on orchestration do is separate the orchestra into the different sections. This is both a great way to introduce the orchestra but it’s also a great way to think about things when composing. Most of the time composers think in terms of the different sections (i.e. strings, horns, woodwinds and percussion) and while there is a danger of doing too much ‘section writing’ (simply writing in terms of the sections and not the orchestra as a whole) it’s a great way to start. Starting with exercises in writing for the separate sections is also a great way to get acquainted with part writing.

The Ranges

This is another thing that most textbooks on orchestration will do. They will go through all of the different instruments in each section and talk about the ranges of each. There are two different ranges when it comes to instruments; there is the actual range of the instrument and then there is the effective range of the instrument. The actual range is all of the notes that each instrument is capable of playing while the effective range is the range that is effective in both playability and sound. Of course these ranges change depending on the player, a more accomplished player will have a greater range, so remember who it is you’re writing for.  There is also within the ranges, different characteristics for each instrument. For example strings are pretty consistent throughout their range whereas sounds for horns and woods will change considerably depending on how where you are in their register.


Each instrument in the orchestra is capable of creating certain effects and sounds that are special to that instrument. Horns are effective in special tonguing effects and breathing noises where the strings are good at other noises and effects. It’s good to get acquainted with these effects because they are used quite often and to great effect. There are numerous effects and applications for each section. For example the strings alone have many different ways of articulation and ways of playing. The same goes for the horns as far as tonguing and breathing. It’s important to know all of the different ways sounds can be articulated for strings e.g marcato, spicatto, legato. This should be a consideration for every musical line you write for these instruments.

Musical Effects and Clichés

While it’s easy to put off musical effects and clichés to just tricks and not great writing, they exist because they work. There are musical statements and effects that are used so often that we’ve grown accustomed to hearing them. While they can sound bad when used improperly, they sound great and are effective when used sparingly and in the right context.  For example the high strings from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is an over used cliché but can be effective when used with different backgrounds and instruments. If you’re wondering how to find out what clichés there are, just watch any spoof movie and they’ll use these clichés in the worst way, just to make you laugh. There are a number of these that every composer should know and be aware of.

Voice Leading

As soon as you start writing for the orchestra, you become aware of how important voice leading is to your writing. Voice leading is simply the way of creating lines that flow naturally. There are times when you want your lines to leap and move angularly and then there are the times when you want all of the lines to flow smoothly. Problems arise when putting together coherent lines for each instrument in a section only to hear that some parts sound fine where others sound thin and others sound awful. This is where voice leading comes in. Voice leading is knowing how to put all of the voices in four (or more) part writing and make it sound great. There are tons of rules and things to know about voice leading but once you get the grasp of the fundamentals, it becomes a little easier to figure out what instrument should be doing what in any given situation.

Individual Instruments

If you’re just starting to writing for the orchestra, it may be a little intimidating because you may not be familiar with all of the instruments that you’re actually writing for. Most composers are quite knowledgeable about all of the instruments that they are writing for. To be the most effective at writing for the orchestra, this is where you want to be. You want to get to the point where you actually ‘hear’ the notes in you head while writing and not have to rely on feedback later on. That said, one of the best things a beginner composer can do to get familiar with all of the instruments without having any access to them is to listen to music written specifically for that instrument. To get familiar with the violin, listen to solo violin, piano and violin, string quartets and violin concertos as much as you can. This gives you a good idea of it’s overall sound, range, and some of the special things that it can do. It also gets the sound of the instrument ‘in your head’. A good exercise to do is to write a simple melody and then see if you can ‘hear it as a violin player would play it’ in your head. Once you can do this with all of the instruments in the orchestra, you’re well on your way to getting a good grip of what you can do with the orchestra.

4 Part Writing

All of this comes down to how you’re going to put together lines for the different instruments. This comes down to part writing. If you’ve got a melody and, bassline, and inner moving voices, how are you going to arrange that for the different instruments? There is a whole world in just this alone. Which instrument do you give the lead line to? Do you double it with another instrument in that section, or one from another section of the orchestra? There again is a whole world of problems and ideas that you’re going to have to figure out and work through.  Again the best way to start learning about this Is to simply try arranging 4 parts on the piano. Once you get used to writing and arranging some pieces on the piano, see how they sound with a string quartet to start. This is where all of the above things that I talked about come in to play.

Ready, Set…

Like I mentioned in the intro, this is just the beginning. There is a lifetime of writing and learning when it comes to the orchestra, so you might as well get started now. Just pick one of the topics listed above and get to work. It will be challenging but interesting. Don’t forget to take notes!