StringSection Blog

Posts Tagged ‘Learn orchestration’

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. . .!

Holst St Paul’s Suite: A Guide to String Writing (Part 4)

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

This final movement of the ‘St Paul’s Suite for string orchestra’ is a reworking of Holst’s Second Suite in F for military band. The tune which appears throughout the movement is the folk tune ‘Dargason’, a 16th Century English dance tune included in Playford’s famous publication entitled ‘The Dancing Master’. A ‘dargason’ is defined as a country dance or ballad tune which consists of an 8-bar circular tune and this is exactly what the last movement of the ‘St. Paul’s Suite’ is. What is of interest to composers and string arrangers is the way the composer skillfully weaves this melody throughout the entire movement without it becoming tiring to the ear. At times it is prominent, whilst at others it is hidden within layers of melody or as an ostinato underneath the tune ‘Greensleeves’. It is a model approach in these days of ‘copy-and-paste’, where lazy arrangers/composers repeat identical swathes of music at the click of a button.

The tune is first stated by the first violins on their own, before being passed onto the second violins (whilst the firsts play a repeated figure that sounds a little like an inverted mordent). Soon a tonic and dominant pedal is alternated between the violas and cellos (with pizzicato and bowed chords), before an attractive pizzicato figure grabs the attention. This soon passes through a number of sequences, and this harmonic change (juxtaposed with the melody in the tonic) brings about a surprising harmonic effect.

Bars 41 – 48 are well worth studying from a string arranging point of view, as violins 1 and 2 generally move in the same direction, whereas the viola and cello parts undulate in arpeggios. This contrast gives the sound its fullness, as the arpeggios lead the ear to perceive more sounds than there really are. Soon, both the ‘Dargason’ and ‘Greensleeves’ are happening simultaneously – another technique which occupies the listener fully. This soon dies down before a sudden change of mood and the direction ‘pesante’ (meaning ‘heavily’). The accompaniment to the melody is mainly homophonic here, before being stated above a jaunty tonic-dominant pedal. Trills in the first violins help build up the tension further, as do the upward duplet scales and guitar-like spread chords.

In any composition that is written around a repeated figure, the composer/arranger has to continually invent new ways to embellish the subject, as well as making it appear interesting. This must be done whilst keeping a coherent whole, and in bar 136 Holst finds that now the music has peaked, it must build up once more. This is achieved by writing tremolandos to keep the tension going, over a rising chromatic scale. This leads to a magnificently dissonant section at bar 153, before return to a more tonic-based approach. Finally, ‘Greensleeves’ returns triumphantly at bar 186 before fading away to a short coda, consisting of fragments of the ‘Dargason’. A final upward scale from a solo violin heralds the end of this inventive work.

Note that the tune remains in the tonic key, never modulating throughout the entire movement. This is why Holst has to find ways of ‘spicing up’ the movement through interweaving interesting harmonies. A harmonic analysis of bars 137 – 168 would be a very good way of exploring different tonalities whilst dealing with a melody that stays the same. The whole piece is a model in varied string writing, which explains why, after 100 years, it is still immensely popular.