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. . .!