top of page

Chapter 4 Contents

Orchestration Introduction

In contrast to Passman’s statement which may be true in some cases, I present a divergent notion from Igor Stravinsky in which he suggests that “good composers borrow, great ones steal.”  This is taken from his Poetics of Music in which he discusses compositional processes.  He does not suggest plagiarism but rather the study and taking of, for our purpose, orchestration ideas and concepts and using them in our own work.  Choosing the psychology of the texture or effect and not stealing the notes.  


Regardless of your position on these two quotes, it is important whether you are using abstract sounds or virtual orchestral sounds that you consider the techniques used for traditional acoustic (orchestral) orchestration.  Abstract sound should be thought of as their equivalent acoustic instrument, i.e. low FQs sound may be equated with cellos or basses while higher FQ’s may be envisioned as flutes or violins.  Therefore, building an effective balance with interesting textural variances should be used regardless of the language or sonic elements being employed.  Always think orchestral textures and devices.


We begin this short introduction to orchestration examining the four different sections of the orchestra and the techniques that should be considered for virtual instruments as well as orchestral instruments.  They are:  strings, brass, woodwinds and percussion (battery).



There are few scores that do not take advantage of the lush, warm, octave and timbre possibilities, along with their breadth of performance techniques, that strings offer.


We examine the ranges of the Violin (Vln), Viola (Vla), Cello, (Vc) and Double Bass (DB).  


MIDI Tip 4.1

It is important when using virtual instruments that one does not go beyond their ranges.  These are sampled sounds combined with various modulation processes.  Anything above or below their range will sound unrealistic.  However, these out of range sounds may be useful as carrier waves for creating new timbres by adding DSP in an experimental setting.


String Ranges  [Create new in logic and add pics from Wikipedia for all instruments]]

Developing an understanding of these ranges and how they function in the standard Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass (SATB) fashion is crucial in creating a realistic representation of the string ensemble.  


Illustration 4.1:  String Ranges













Violin (Vln)




Viola (Vla)






Cello (Vc)






Bass (DB)







String Voicing

The following are voicing techniques that are typically used for this group.  Remember that the entire ensemble need not play together all of the time so there are possibilities for solos and other combination of these instruments.  The standard format for a string orchestra uses 18 violin Is, 16 violin IIs, 14 violas, 12 cellos, and 10 double basses (contra bass).  However, most of us do not have the opportunity to have our work performed by such a large collection of musicians, therefore we need to emulate this group a best as we can to capture the reality of this ensmble.  One can also reduce budgets by creating a string score for string quartet (2 Vlns, 1 Vla, 1 Cello) and still have dynamic and emotional impact.


Advantages of the string section of the orchestra include:

• Encompassing seven octaves, much like the piano.

• Uniform tone color with slight timbre variations depending on register.

• Wide dynamic range–ppp to fff.

• Dynamic envelopes with rich, warm and expressive qualities.

• Perform fast as well as slow passages.

• Different sounds can be created using different bowing techniques.

• Provide diverse textures ranging from thick or thin and contrapuntal or 



Usage of Strings

There are three key usages of strings.  First, as a foreground element where the melody predominates and the desired emotional intensity is presented.  Higher statements of the motives are generally kept for the climax of a scene.  Doubling at the unison or octave creates a stronger theatrical effect.  Consider thinning out counterpoint, when required, to allow the main idea to have prominence.  Always choose the best instrumental range for the presentation of the theme.  This may mean using another instrument that has better color for the idea.  The material supporting the theme should also be rhythmically different to ensure the theme has clarity.  Voice using SATB style.


Second, as middleground where the strings offer contrapuntal ideas.  Consider distributing figures through the different voices as well as dovetailing of ideas (overlapping from the end of one phrase to a different instrument in the next while using the last note of the first phrase performed by both as a transition.  Also, avoid the register of the melody especially if performed within another instrument section.  


Third, as background which provides harmonic support for other sections of the orchestra that are carrying the main material for the purpose of variances in color.  The background may also contain subtle doublings of melodic material.


A general rule of thumb when orchestrating or arranging is always choose the best register for the ideas being expressed especially when using virtual instruments.  Harmonize as you would on a keyboard and be sure to only have octaves or fifths between the cello and bass otherwise the sound will become muddy.  One can also use double or triple stops, or in the case of virtual instruments two or three notes on one track, i.e. Vln 1.  This technique is used to provide great intensity and harmonic depth.  These stops are great for punctuations at the end of a key section or the finally of the piece.  


String pedals, both high and low or combined are somewhat of a cliché in the film scoring world.  Despite this they can be very effective in framing certain scenes and generate the illusion of size (high and low pedals) or anticipation (high pedals).  They are also very effective in typing the scene together and giving room for other musical ideas to emerge in between.  They are especially effective if not using a traditional string sound.


Illustration 4.2: String Pedal Points


High two note pedals 






Low two note pedals






Midrange pedals






Combined high and low pedals






Duncan Metcalfe



Last, consider that one can always take material away if over scored or if the overall sound gets to heavy, muddy or unrealistic.  Thinning out of ideas is always something one can revert to if necessary.  Tried and true tested techniques do not eliminate the need for experimentation and adjusting to the needs of the scene.  All members of the string family are equal partners.  Experiment with the extended ranges for each to discover additional color qualities.


MIDI Tip 4.2

Double the string line that carries the motif with another string of the same type that has as slightly different color or attack.  Pan string 1 to 9 or 12 o’clock and string 2 to 12, 10, or 3 o’clock.  This will give you a broader and richer tone overall.


Exercise 4.1  Orchestral Template

Create a string orchestra template that is made up of 5 tracks–Vln I, Vln II, Vla, Vc, and DB.  Choose legato virtual strings and assign DSP to each track on the virtual console if you desire.  Note:  some music software programs come with templates but it is important to create your own custom string ensemble which may mean two or more tracks of each instrument to gain a more powerful and realistic effect.  Once you have done so, explore the following scoring techniques using melodic and harmonic creations of your own.


Sequence your melody for solo violin.  Then copy and paste your track to violin II and transpose violin I an octave higher.  Copy and paste to the remaining tracks and choose different ranges for each instrument.  Have the melody played solo by cello, violins and violas.  Cello and viola solos can be more intense.  Experiment with a harmonic progression using the SATB style for strings or the overtone series.  Now determine the most suitable results for future use.


Special Techniques

Virtual instruments cannot emulate all of the great extra musical performance techniques that acoustics strings can create.  Although more advanced virtual instruments may include extended techniques, the following chart identifies the usual virtual possibilities for each group. 



Illustration 4.3:  String Techniques–analog versus digital.





There are several additional special bowing techniques beyond this list and are not presented here since they cannot be realized using current MIDI technologies.  



It is important to provide a brief mention of the harp because of the importance it can play in bringing additional depth to the orchestra.  


The harp has 47 strings representing six full octaves.  It is dark and sonorous and sustains well in the lower range and thins out and sustains less as it reaches the upper ranges.  Seven pedals control the tuning of the strings.  The tunings are indicated at the top of the first staff and the bottom of subsequent staves that required changes.  Muse score provides a short method for creating a pedal arrangement for each key as do most scoring software.  


Illustration 4.4. Harp Pedal Diagram in MuseScore 



Muse Score


The harp should only be used with a light and thin orchestration otherwise it will not be heard.  It is performed using only four fingers so four note chords are best and are traditionally rolled unless otherwise indicated.  They can also perform harmonics.  Acoustic harps as opposed to virtual ones can perform an array of special effects including:


• Pres de la table which is playing close to the soundboard and producing a 

   hard sound.

• Son étouffez dampens each note as soon as it is plucked.

• Glissando.  Thumbs are used for down and fingers for up.  Identify starting 

   and ending pitches.

• Multiple glissandi–two and three

• Trills and tremolos

• Bisbigliando which is two pitches performed as a shake.

• Knocking on the soundboard.

• Plucking strings with fingernails.

• Using a pick.

• Playing harmonics other than octave harmonics.

• Pluck first then change the sounding string’s tuning with pedal.


Clearly, virtual instruments are not capable in creating most of these, however they still have some very effective possibilities.  Uses for the harp include:


• Melody alone, melody with accompaniment.

• Accompaniment

• Doubling instrument

• Add color and sparkle with pizzicato to the beginning of phrases or chords 

  and doubling string pizzicatos.

• Harmonics can color the flute.

• It can be paired with flute, clarinet, bassoon, cello, or French horn for added 



The harp does not play like a piano, so keep this in mind when using a keyboard and virtual instrument.


Generally, one can profit by using the tried and tested or search for new solutions.  The governing rule is that the orchestration must serve the works form, structure, and tonal flow-emotion.


4.1  The following masterpiece by Samuel Barber illustrates the dynamic and emotional impact that a string orchestra can have.  It was used in the film Platoon













Platoon | Directed by Oliver Stone | 1986

Composer: Samuel Barber

string ranges.png

Duncan Metcalfe