StringSection Blog

Posts Tagged ‘composer’

String arranging tips, how to learn orchestration.

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

Most of us when composing for a string section or full orchestra will do so in front of a keyboard. In this respect, the process isn’t too different from the time when a composer’s only tools were a pen, a bottle of ink, a blank manuscript and a piano. The gear may be a lot more sophisticated nowadays but the same essential problem remains: namely, how to make our ‘vertical’ keyboard tendencies sound convincing when scored for the ‘horizontal’ melodic lines of orchestral instruments.

When we think and write in chords, we are effectively dealing with harmony. And in its most basic form, harmony occurs in a vertical way (ie. the various notes of a chord are stacked up, one on top of another). However, once the music is distributed between different instruments, these individual notes are then read as a melody (so are in effect played horizontally, one after another). So, the most important conundrum is to ensure that each instrument (or section of instruments) ends up with a melody line in their own right, even if they are merely supporting or harmonizing a more prominent melody. In this way, music notation programmes (such as ‘Sibelius’ or ‘Finale’) are essential in their ability to display and play back each individual instrument’s melodic line. There may be occasions when a section does have sustained notes within a chord, but even here, the subsequent notes need to follow on smoothly (avoiding awkward-sounding leaps). In order to achieve a convincing overall sound, each detail within that sound needs to be melodic in nature.

It helps to get to know your orchestral instruments. If you’d like to learn more about what an oboe can do, for example, look on ‘Youtube’ under ‘oboe concerto’. It may demonstrate the compass of the instrument, techniques such as staccato and slurring, as well as its dynamic range and ability to sustain notes. Then try and write a piece blending the sound with a flute, clarinet or bassoon.

One thing that many of the great orchestral composers and string arrangers have in common is their ability to continually share more than one melody happening simultaneously. Often there are four or even five strands of different melody which can captivate the ear on several levels. And these strands sometimes overlap to provide a unity in the musical line. That’s one of the reasons that the most creative composers are able to achieve clarity, by assigning different instruments and textures to simultaneous points of musical interest.

As such, many major film score composers often study works by the likes of Richard Strauss, Sibelius, Ravel, Holst, Prokofiev, Janacek and Copland (to name but a few) to see how they combine different instruments and continually keep the music fresh by changing instrumentation. This blending and changing of the orchestral palette is a perpetual and ongoing process that unfolds naturally from phrase to phrase in an accomplished composition or arrangement.

When working on an orchestral piece, try dissecting it. So if, for example, you have a violin melody with supporting string parts, rapid woodwind scales and rhythmic french horn parts, try listening to each instrument individually, then pairs of instruments and so on. This way, you’ll develop a feel for sonority as well as individual melody lines. Also, try practising writing a small section, resisting the urge to use playback at all! This will hone your ability to think in terms of individual instruments. This is the opposite approach to assigning a chord to an unrealistic body of instruments, without knowing how the individual parts will sound. It will also avoid the problem of the orchestra ending up sounding ‘muddy’ and noisy.

So in a nutshell – go horizontal and cut out the vertical. . .!

Composing New Age Music

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

‘New Age’ or Relaxation Music, like all music intended as a background ambience, can elicit very mixed responses from different people. Whilst some find the neutrality of the synthesized sounds relaxing (rather like a blank canvas), others have commented that they find it repetitive and overly artificial. Well crafted music should allow the person meditating, performing yoga or experiencing a holistic therapy to mentally ‘switch off’ from internal thoughts and external stimuli. It also serves the purpose of masking intrusive noises, such as outside traffic and conversations which may be occurring nearby and the presence of music may help the client feel that they don’t need to make conversation with the practitioner to alleviate the silence. Ideally slow, without too many changes of tempo, relaxation music should create a backdrop to aid calming and allow the client to focus on any treatment they are receiving.

Often though, this seemingly neutral music can cause consternation in the listener. The seemingly slow ‘swirl’ of the synthesized keyboard textures is not everyone’s cup of tea. The use of birdsong, waterfalls, rainfall as well as the sound of dolphins, whales and other creatures can be distracting rather than relaxing. Sampled indigenous sounds (such as didgeridoos or chanting) may be greatly enjoyed by many but can occasionally alienate people who are not immersed in a New Age philosophy. So, as all our tastes are different, whilst New Age music is ultimately designed to have a relaxing influence, for some it can have the opposite effect or even provoke scorn. A friend who works as a massage practitioner commented that for the majority people who are simply coming along for a treatment on tense shoulders or a sports injury, she usually selects albums of quiet classical guitar or harp music as these are tasteful and calming without any unfamiliar or artificial noises.

This was something I reflected on whilst writing the album ‘Music for Healing, Relaxation and Massage’. The music was always going to be written with real instruments replacing the more usual synthesizers, I wanted to make sure that it was an album that could be played and enjoyed by most people, without a practitioner or clients being distracted by anything unfamiliar. The instrumentation included violins, violas, cellos, flutes, oboes and cor anglais. As the music was composed with orchestral instruments in mind (and not on a keyboard transcribed electronically), each melodic line was written to have complete independence from all the others – this is a hallmark of classical music in general. If you were to highlight and listen to one instrument, its melody would make perfect sense on its own. The music also had to effectively hold the listener in a suspended state of relaxation without using minor chords, changes in tempo, original melody – as all of these usual compositional techniques could be too distracting for a client receiving healing. The important thing was to avoid writing anything that was too memorable – again, this is the opposite of what a composer or string arranger would usually do. I was advised that if a client came out of a therapy humming a catchy tune, they may not have been able to fully relax into the treatment. Writing in this new genre was a challenge, yet an opportunity to try and create a certain mood or atmosphere, where the music contributes to the effect of the healing session without dominating in any way.

Another challenge was to write twelve tracks (each of almost exactly five minutes in length), each of which had a slightly different mood, but which merged one into another seamlessly. So, it would be as if each track had a subtly different shade of colour, without this being too jarring on the senses. The beginning of the album was to represent the beginning of a treatment, with the patient gradually acclimatizing to a deeper state of relaxation, therefore the music had to reflect this by becoming more ethereal and thinly scored as the treatment progressed, being at its most sparse and minimal in the three central tracks. After this, the album gradually comes back down to earth and becomes more ‘grounded’ at the end of the healing session, with a final ‘reprise’ as a gentle signal that the hour is drawing to its close. The last track is a continuation and variation of the opening track, so this signals the end and prepares the listener for the return to the everyday world.

Although when I first started this project, I hadn’t really considered writing like this, what I gained from the project was the ability to compose in a totally new style of music – one that enables the listener to be in the moment with a sense of stillness. I had to curb any natural temptation to write interesting harmonies, counter melodies, rhythmical changes and powerful orchestration as these can be too stirring on the emotions. Feedback from several sources (including our local chiropractor) was that the music was very different from anything else she played in her clinic and that lots of her clients had remarked on how using a real orchestra was a breath of fresh air. Some people have suggested that stringed instruments might have a healing effect in their own right, with natural vibrations emanating from the harmonies and the input of human beings actually performing music on real instruments makes it sound…well, real!