Orchestral Sounds #2
This is my 2nd post in my Orchestral Sounds Series. First off, how many of you were able to take part in the Quiz at the end of my last post? If you did, and you answered with roughly the following section break-up, well done!
The general practice for orchestral seating is:
- Strings in front and across with the high to low register going left to right.
- Woodwinds behind them in the centre. The seating of the clarinets, and oboes may occasionally be swapped but typically, the flutes and bassoons are seated where I’ve illustrated above.
- Brass behind the woodwinds in typically the order I’ve illustrated above.
- Percussion behind and/or around the brass.
- Harps normally play behind Violins I. The piano’s position really depend on whether it’s piano supporting the orchestra or the other way round in a piano concerto. 🙂
- Choir positioning really depends on the venue and material, but it’s not uncommon for them to be positioned above and behind the orchestra so that their voices carry over to the audience easily.
- And of course, the conductor is right at the front and centre of the stage in the middle of the string sections.
What’s on the menu today?
I’ll quickly cover the playing considerations and limitations of the various sections, and a key point in any kind of orchestral writing – balance. Creating balance in the music and sound of the orchestra is a key goal for any composer and/or orchestrator. Without further ado, let’s get straight into it.
- Strings are chordophones i.e. the sound is produced by vibrating string(s) stretched between two points. Unlike a guitar, these strings are played with bows (except certain techniques such as pizzicato where fingers are used to pluck the strings etc.), and the hairs stretched across the bow are pressed into the strings as the player glides the bow back and forth across the strings. This is what gives orchestral string instruments their typical sound.
- Now, string players can play softly or loudly in any register within the pitch range of the instrument being played. This is simply because it’s controlled by the pressure the player applies to the bow. That being said, there is always a variation in volume as the player plays because the player cannot apply the exact same pressure throughout the bowing motion – it gets harder to exert pressure as the bowing hand moves further away from the instrument as you probably realise. Now, imagine many players doing this with all their little variations in volume and timbre. That is what gives a live string section their unique and lush sound. Being able to emulate it via sample libraries requires using various techniques to get it to sound real. We’ll get into some of these ideas once we get into producing strings.
- Outside of this, there is one more important limitation to keep in mind. The orchestral string family are fretless instruments all with 4 strings each and when playing multiple notes together like a chord (called double or triple or quadruple stops), only certain stops are practically achievable based on the hand position, how long one has to hold that position, etc. We’ll get a little more into this later.
- Woodwinds are aerophones. Players blow into the instruments, and the vibrating column of air is what produces their sound. The woodwinds include flutes, single-reeds (clarinet), and double reeds (oboe, english horn and bassoon).
- All woodwinds have an important limitation based on the physics of the instrument. It is that they cannot play loudly at low registers of the instrument, and cannot play quietly at high registers of the instrument. This is because blowing softer or harder is what allows players to access different octaves of the instrument.
- Woodwinds are typically excellent at quick passages of music like scales, etc. That being said, how long a player can play a note or series of notes is entirely dependent on their breathing capacity and it’s a very important consideration when writing for woodwind players. To circumvent this limitation, composer-orchestrators use dovetailing and masking – I’ll explain what these later.
- Aside from this, flutes, single-reeds and double-reeds all have a different mouthpiece from each other. However, the keys on the instruments and hand positions within the instrument families are similar. This is why players will typically specialise in playing either flute family, or clarinet family, or oboe family, or bassoon family. Given the keys and hand positions within a family are very similar if not identical, it is not uncommon for players to have to switch instruments during a musical piece e.g. the oboe player switching to english horn, or flute player switching to piccolo (flute).
- Though flutes, clarinets, oboes/english horn and bassoons are pretty much the standard for any orchestral repertoire, there are musical pieces that call for other woodwind instruments. These will most probably require specialist or additional musicians to be hired by the orchestra if the performance so requires it. Not many orchestras may be able to do so, it’s an important consideration to keep in mind when writing and orchestrating your music.
- More on the woodwinds later.
- Brass instruments again are aerophones and use air to produce their sound. Unlike the woodwinds where the blowing into the instrument directly produces the sound, here, the players vibrate their lips against the mouth piece as they blow to create the sound.
- This family too has the same limitation of being able to play at different dynamics only in certain registers (loud = high, soft = low).
- They’re also positively louder than any other section except perhaps some of the percussion. A brass section playing in their loudest moments can easily overpower most of the orchestra if not thoughtfully orchestrated.
- French Horns (known as Horn in F), because of their conical tubing shape, are known for their versatility, and ability to produce a soft sound, as a being both a part of the brass section as well as their ability to blend into the woodwinds. It’s not uncommon to see a Horn in F (or two) accompanying moments being led by the woodwinds as counter-lines or counterpoint, or even in a woodwind quintet.
- Trumpets, Trombones and Tuba on the other hand, have a brighter sound by default because of the straighter tubing. You will see brass players (especially trumpets and trombones) using mutes occasionally to soften the bright and powerful sound that you’d otherwise get from these instruments.
- As with the woodwinds, there are other brass instruments outside of these instrument families, but they’re not commonly associated with a standard orchestra and specialist players may need to be hired if the musical performance calls for it.
- This is really a matter of what percussion we’re talking about but for the most part, percussion can go from quite soft to extremely loud. They’re extremely versatile, and pitched percussion such as marimba, celeste or vibraphone are very commonly used to dovetail, double or add counterpoint lines to existing melodic material, which non-pitched percussion is excellent at emphasising the rhythm and/or providing syncopation.
- Timpani is a bit of a specialty instrument in that though they’re specifically tuned to pitch to pitch to match the musical key being played in, it’s instead useful to think of them in terms of their root, subdominant and dominant functions in relation to the music rather than absolute pitch.
- An orchestral percussion section will always have a dedicated timpanist, and general percussionists who perform on the other instruments. It’s a good idea to ensure that the musicians have enough time to swap between instruments depending on what the parts require, or spreading the parts out between them if the material is too dense to be performed by a single percussionist.
- Depending on the music, arrangement and the availability of performers, sometimes keyboard percussion instruments such as celeste, piano, etc. will also have dedicated players.
- Again, the general rule here is that percussion can easily overpower most of the orchestra so it’s important to be mindful of orchestrating percussion parts to create a more balanced sound.
- Given there’s so many types of percussion, we will address the basics of how to write/produce them (for as many as I can cover) in later posts and any queries via interactions you all have with me through this series.
It’s extremely difficult to try and cover this in just a few points, but suffice to say that orchestral material is about balance in every possible way.
- Vertical – Think of an orchestral score here. The music is written vertically for different instruments stacked one above the other in the sheet music. The idea here is how to balance the musical material (melodies + harmony + rhythms) across all the different instruments and sections. This includes choosing appropriate sizing of the orchestra for the material i.e. how many players in each section and what they will be playing.
- Horizontal – This really talks about how to orchestrate the material such that there’s strong balance in how the music flows around the orchestra over time.
- Depth – This talks about the actual listening experience. How many layers are you able to identify in the music? Just one layer? Two layers? A foreground, middleground and background? More layers than that? Layering the parts around each other requires strong balance to ensure that every desired layer is heard at the appropriate levels.
Post your favourite orchestral piece in the comments below.
It could be classical, or something from a film score, or anything else. Anything goes. We’ll try and have a discussion around each of the links that people share.
I’ll start by sharing one of my favourites: The Planets by Gustav Holst
That’s all I have for this post, folks! Hope you find this useful and as always, post your comments and share what you liked or didn’t like! Your feedback is always useful. Cheers!