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A Case for Learning About the Orchestra

7/30/13 by samulis

I've met and know a whole host of fabulous composers across Newgrounds, the internet, and real life so far in my journey through the dazzling world of music. There are people out there who rightfully make me feel like I am just getting my feet wet in the subject of composition, and they are a continued inspiration for me to try harder and learn new things!

However, that's not what this post is about.

I have noticed a frightening, startling, and threatening trend in the realm of orchestral music recently. I see many people popping up in the forum and other places saying they are a "____, ____, and Orchestral composer". If you call yourself an orchestral composer, I call upon you to answer the following 10 questions. If you cannot, then I don't see why you can call yourself that. Instead, I suggest the name "orchestral pad composer" or "virtual orchestral composer".

1. How many strings are on a Violin?
2. What transposition is the Concert Trumpet?
3. How many fingers may a harpist use on each hand?
4. What note is the middle line in a staff marked with Alto Clef?
5. How does the E-Flat clarinet differ from the B-Flat clarinet in size, range, and timbre?
6. Name the following techniques for bowed strings, plus, describe how to mark these in notation:
- The back of the bow is drawn across the string(s), creating a glassy sound
- A string is pulled away from the instrument and allowed to "smack" back
- Two strings are bowed simultaneously
- The instrument is bowed closer to the bridge than usual, creating a more nasally sound
7. Describe the difference in timbre between a double-reed and single-reed woodwind.
8. What is the term for brass playing "full tilt" that gives an edgy, high-overtone sound (it's french)?
9. Name a tempo marking that is slow (the actual word for it, not just bpm).
10. Each timpani is centered a ______(nd/rd/th) away from each other.

I am by FAR no veteran, not even a journeyman in terms of knowledge and yet I can provide the answers to all of these things without thinking for more than a few seconds (vocabulary isn't my strong suit). You may wonder- why does any of this matter? It's not like you need to know notation or weird things about instruments, right? They're just instruments, and I can just put in notes in my host/sequencer and hear them play, and that's all that matters!

Unfortunately, that's not all that matters. Recently, there has been what seems to be a trend of people writing orchestral music that is not idiomatic or even vaguely playable. The advent and use of samplers has been a double-edged sword. While they let us hear what things sound like, they also let us forget what things REALLY sound like. We grow used to our EWQL SO flute with its excess vibrato and our endless bass trombone sustains. In real life, these things DON'T work this way- the bass trombone requires an enormous amount of air to sustain for long times (esp. in the lower register), and the flute hopefully doesn't sound that way when played live. I have heard stories of beginner composers like myself who have been upset when they get to see their work finally performed but it doesn't sound like the samples. I have come to the conclusion that there is an urgent need for focus on the actual theory and knowledge of music.

Let's have a short thought experiment to prove this.

Imagine there are two furniture makers in a town. They make the chairs, desks, tables, etc. that the residents of the town need. One day, one of them decides that instead of having to buy all the wood and materials and build furniture, he will just buy it from a furniture maker in another town who has a large surplus at a heavy discount and sell it to the townsfolk marked up to a normal price. The other furniture maker sees this, but decides to continue working by hand. As generations go by, both businesses go well. However, the sons of the woodworker who decided to instead import furniture forget the crafts of their father and their sons in turn are not trained to judge furniture as their grandfather and so on. More people from the town see how easy it is to just put furniture on a cart and carry it over from neighboring towns to this one, and eventually people who have no idea how to judge furniture and have no understanding of what woods are good and bad start joining in. Some might buy a load of furniture made from poor wood that breaks or cheap furniture that breaks after a few years and sell those, being inexperienced. Others are very successful and find a niche well. However, one day the town from which they all purchased furniture burns in a great fire. There is nothing left. Their stock of furniture dwindles and then vanishes. They are now all on the streets. Some try to learn the tools, but no one knows them... except those who decided to instead take up the art of carpentry and learned from the descendants of the furniture maker who decided to keep making his own furniture to sell. These people do very very well, as they are the ones who still have the tools. The descendants of the furniture maker who decided to import furniture look at the remains of their distant ancestor's rusty ramshackle workshop in dismay, for they have no idea how to use the tools.

And so it has become. Our tools are rusty and dull and sit abandoned. We are too content to buy the furniture (i.e. samples) we need, ready to go- putting our trust in the quality of the "furniture maker" instead of doing the work (and paying the price) needed to learn about the wood and how to work it. We can only write music using these samples we have, and that is all we are left with. We can't carve the delicate beautiful figures of a fine custom piece of furniture just the way it is needed, but we can buy furniture that looks pretty darn close. That is what it sounds like when I hear a sample company offer their stuff- we can sell you a bureau that looks like this, and a chair that looks like this, but we can't tell you how to build your own chair.

In addition, people who otherwise wouldn't be composing music can join in, just as anyone with hands and legs (or a cart) can help carry furniture between towns. It has become an open market, where the playing field is being constantly equalized between those with training and those completely without. I have heard of brand new people looking to compose who buy a DAW or some samples straight off the bat- an extreme risk in speculative investment. There are companies that offer "simple ways to write music" that "require no booooring theory knowledge" such as loop-based systems in which you drag in a looped sound of an ostinato or a riff and just keep doing that to build a piece.

So what's wrong with that? A level playing field? A way for the common man to write music, just like his/her hero, that big-name club producer? Sign me up, right?

Well, not so fast. We need to take one tiny little thing into account- emotion. The sole purpose of our existence and duty as composers is to create music that says something- about ourselves, about our times, about our loves and passions, our ancestors and heritage. We write music that moves people in ways that science can't even fully explain yet.

Although the playing field may be level, that doesn't mean everyone automatically knows how to play. It's like trying to have a game of basketball with some people who are professionals, some who have played competitively a few times, some people who used to just shoot hoops for fun, and some people who have never touched a basketball in their life. The last two groups are the expanding part of the demographic, but everyone wishes they were the first group instantly- and they figure if they buy some good balls and just keep throwing basketballs eventually they'll make it in. Unfortunately, it rarely happens that way. While practice is good, and some people have a natural knack for composing (or playing basketball) and might just get there just from doing that, there is no way to learn the techniques and strategies without working with others or reading up on all that.

So why does it matter if we know how music works then? What if I just want to make sick beatz?

Understanding how music works- just like knowing which tool to use to make a clean beveled edge on a piece of furniture or how to throw a basketball correctly- allows us to create music that not only sounds better, but music that can be exchanged with others through notation, and lets us speak a common language in musical terms: we are all better "team players" so to speak. Understanding general theory, orchestration, harmony, how melody works, counterpoint, and even complex things such as overtones, temperaments, and the history of instruments allow us to write music that flows better, sounds nicer, and lets us get to the very heart of that one tiny thing, emotion, much much much easier. When we do get the chance to go onto the field of glory and make it big-time, we can be confident in what we are doing and we will be able to produce something that is able to be read by the orchestra.

The orchestra and its members are some of the oldest and most sophisticated tools ever conceived by the human race. Look at the orchestral harp, with 47 strings, weighing in at almost 100 pounds, with hundreds of moving parts that allow the marvel of changing the pedals to take place. When a harpist moves one of the pedals at the base of the instrument, it moves little discs that sharpen or flatten the strings for that particular step in the scale. This machinery must be flawless, smooth, and the strings must be tuned properly- every single one.

When you go to write your harp part, however you do it... notation... playing it into your sequencer... even clicking each note in... do you think about the harpist? Do you imagine him/her in your head, plucking those strings you just indicated are to be plucked? Do you imagine the pedals moving? Do you ensure there is time for him/her to move the pedals? These are realistic concerns every single composer from 180(4?) when the pedal harp was first conceived has had to take into account.

The harp is only an example. When writing for an orchestra, you must do this for EVERY SINGLE INSTRUMENT. I don't care if it is a violin or a trombone or a tambourine. You need to know if they can play that trill or if the technique you are asking for is possible in that range.

Instead of taking a shot in the dark, you will know that having a droning cello solo in a minor key with a series of semi-dissonant minor chords being played along with it will create the sad mood you need for that game track in which the hero's mother dies. You will know that if you syncopate that rhythm on the trumpet like that, it will create a lighter more bouncy mood that will help lighten up the victory music. You will know that you need to give the harpist at least two measures to adjust the required pedals to get that pentatonic glissando you are dying for at that tempo.

This isn't only true for works destined for performance too. If anything is true, it's that music you put your heart and soul into- music that READS right, SOUNDS right. If everyone builds their own furniture and knows how to use their tools, the furniture will be all around good. If you are importing furniture from a shady guy and you have no idea what you are getting into, you might have some shoddy furniture for sale, or, if you are just starting out and new to the tools, it may not look very pretty or be as functional as it should (which is the reason why things like apprenticeship and family inheritance of such things were and are common, so consider finding a mentor or even just collaborating a lot with other composers, even if you ARE experienced- I do it all the time and I learn new things every time!).

So how can I start learning this stuff?

Unfortunately, there aren't as many resources on the internet or for free as I'd like. Some great places to start include the Rimsky-Korsakov Orchestration Manual (
), digitized by Garritan and partially updated. In addition, the youtube channel of orchestrator Thomas Gauss- OrchestrationOnline, is another great place to start.

However, the most important place to learn is other people- composers and orchestrators, as well as the players themselves. There are musicians both across the web and around the world- go arrange a meeting with one or send off some e-mails with questions you might have and ask if they could give you advice. At the worst, you might get a "sorry, I'm too busy at the moment" reply. At best, you might learn the most important thing since you figured out how to write a melody in your new DAW.

I have a wide range of materials and links I've collected over my past three years of teaching myself and studying with others that I would be more than willing to share for starters. :)

So get out there, be brave, and keep compos(ed/ing)!
-Sam "samulis" Gossner, Orchestral Composer Wannabe (getting there!)


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A lot of words, and well said. And I like how you ended the post with "Orchestral Composer Wannabe". :D

8/11/13 samulis responds:

It's true... I've only been at it for 3 years and I definitely don't know everything I really should.

Thank you, sweet Heavens, thank you for posting this.
Also, the word "epic" has become cliche. I see it everywhere in song titles, and I think it's entirely the artist's opinion of his own work. Very insightful on how attached they are to their music.

8/9/13 samulis responds:

Thanks for reading all that!

I'm glad someone agrees with me... and yeah, the "epic" thing is a bit cliche. I sometimes call things that just to make fun of the cliche.

Goss is an absolute pleasure, his videos are really insightful. Samuel Addler's 2nd edition of "The Study of Orchestration" I believe is free to access online, as I believe is Berlioz's treatise on orchestration. Another great one is Andrew Hugill's "A User's Manual" on orchestration, found here:

I worshipped Rimsky-Korsakov as a teenager, though I think "Principles of Orchestration" is a little dated.

8/6/13 samulis responds:

Rimsky-Korsakov is a bit outdated indeed, although Garritan found some professors and had them provide commentary to bring it at least a bit more up to date. I was not aware Addler's was available- Goss and others I have spoken to have talked of his book in high esteem, although all I have right now is a copy of Piston's Orchestration.

Thank you for the extra resources. :)

I can only answer seven of the ten questions, so I suppose I can't claim to be an orchestral composer. Perhaps one day... :'(

That aside, very nice post. I especially like when you asked if we imagine the harpist when writing for harp, because just last week, I sat down with a harpist friend for an hour and watched in wonderment as she explained it all to me (including how many fingers can be used on a chord at once!).

Every time I actually meet an instrumentalist, see solo music for their instrument, and begin really digging in and asking them questions, I get SO inspired to write music. For instance, I realized last week that the harp was so much more capable than I had been giving it credit. Now, I'm realizing that I can make my harp parts much more interesting than mere arpeggios.

Thanks for the resources and great post!

8/5/13 samulis responds:

You can call yourself an orchestral composer, and a good one too, hehe. I put a few hard ones on there, I guess- I had to check one or two. :P

Harp is also the instrument that opened me up to this point of view... When my own harpist friend showed me how it was played and written for, some of the literature, and even had me arrange a piece for her- that changed me a lot, not that I knew it at the time. I now understand how important and inspirational it is to understand each instrument, so whenever I can corner a musician who plays something I haven't cornered someone else about previously, I definitely make a fool of myself asking way too many questions. :D

Meh, I just mix everything together with no knowledge of what should come first...

8/1/13 samulis responds:

I take it that's a TL;DR? :P