Orchestration: A Practical Approach
The MeHaRyTe method
Have you ever wondered what makes Ravel’s, Debussy’s or Tchaikovsky’s orchestration so beautiful and constantly interesting? What makes for an alluring orchestral sound that draws the audience to the edge of their seats?
In this article I will answer these questions with my personal practical approach. The method I am about to show you is my way of thinking when I orchestrate. I will stress this again: this is my personal way of thinking, so the MeHaRyTe method might not suit every single composer out there.
I like to think, that an interesting orchestral sound is composed out of 4 layers, that sonically blend into one coherent sound and synergistically complement each other.
These Layers Are:
And that is where MeHaRyTe comes from. Let's break it down!
The melody is usually of course the most important part of any great composition. Without a doubt, you want your melody heard at all times. By studying instrumentation you will learn how to make your melody stand out - no matter the size of your orchestra. Often the main melody/theme will have a counter melody, which will of course create another layer in your orchestration, but in regards to the MeHaRyTe method, we will think of all melodies as one layer.
Every good melody must have a great harmonic accompaniment. Giving your melody the right chords can make even the most simple theme interesting. On the other hand, giving your melody a bad chordal progression can make an otherwise great theme sound weak and plain wrong.
With a rhythmic layer your composition will get movement and drive. A great rhythmic line must compliment the melody and harmony. You usually want to portray a feeling that your music is going somewhere. You never want your audience to feel that they are just standing still. Great music is a journey through the unknown and every listener's journey is unique. This is one of the things that makes music so powerful.
In orchestration, rhythm will a lot of times be interlocked together with harmony. We will take a closer look at this later.
Creating textures is my favorite part of orchestration. When I hear lush, fluttering and imaginative orchestral textures, as in Ravel’s Dafnis et Chloe, my heart and soul gets filled with joy. In my opinion, the ability to imagine and write down unique textures separates good orchestrators from great ones. Look at any score of John Williams or Maurice Ravel and you will soon realize that they are masterful in how they use orchestral textures.
So what exactly is an orchestral texture? Textures are the parts of the orchestration which are often in the background of the orchestral sound, but act as sort of an additional color to the music. Laic listeners will usually not be consciously aware of them, but they will certainly feel them. Orchestral textures are usually interlocked with the rhythmic and harmonic layers. They blend with them to make an interesting sonic landscape.
Now that you understand the basics of the MeHaRyTe method, let me show a practical approach of its usage. We will start out with a simple piano sketch composed out of two layers (melody and harmony). We will then arrange this sketch for a string orchestra using the same two layers. The next phase will be adding a rhythmic layer to the mix, thus creating a 3 layer structure. Cutting out the rhythmic layer, we will be replacing it with a texturesque layer, and so we will still maintain a 3 layer composite. After that, we will be adding a flute, clarinet, oboe and three horns to our orchestra while still maintaining our 3 previous layers. Lastly we will be adding a snare drum to our ensemble, that will be playing the rhythm from before. Now we will finally have a complete 4 layer orchestral sound.
1. Piano Sketch
Below you can see and listen to the piano sketch. The nice, but “nothing special” melody has a simple harmonic accompaniment.
2. Two layer string orchestra (melody + harmony)
Here, the piano sketch is arranged for a string orchestra. The melody is played by the first violins, while the second violins, violas, cellos and double basses are adding the harmony. We can sometimes think of the bass line as a layer of its own, but in our case it is so deeply interlocked with the harmony, that we can just safely say that it’s part of the harmonic structure.
3. Three layer string orchestra (melody + harmony + rhythm)
In this arrangement, the first violins are still playing the melody, while the second violins and the violas are adding rhythmic accompaniment based on the same harmonic progression. Note that in this arrangement the harmony and rhythm are working together as one, but are audibly separate layers.
4. Three layer string orchestra (melody + harmony + texture)
Now we have replaced the rhythmic layer with a texturesque one. The first violins are still playing our theme, which in the last four bars is doubled by the second violins in octaves to bring it out even more. The harmony is in the beginning played by the second violins, violas and basses, while the cellos add the texture element to the mix. The texture in the cellos is locked into the harmony, and therefore adds to it both in texture and in harmony. Why was I able to put the melody into octaves in the last four bars, without losing a sense of harmony? The reason for this is that the texture created by the violas and cellos brings us all the tones needed for our ears to recognize the harmonic progression.
5. Three layer string orchestra + flute, oboe, clarinet + three horns (melody + harmony + texture)
By adding extra instruments to our ensemble, we suddenly get a lot more room to maneuver! In our previous examples, we had to have all our layers in only the strings, but now, we can color our sonic atmosphere in other timbres and use our layers in even more interesting ways.
In this arrangement, the flute starts out with the theme, which is then taken by the oboe and lastly by the first and second violins in octaves with the clarinet doubling the lower octave. Switching the melody from instrument to instrument makes this short piece constantly interesting.
The harmony is in the beginning played by tremolo violins and violas. Note that now, the dynamic marking of these strings has changed from mp to p. The reason for this is to dynamically make room for the flute, which can now really sing the theme so we can hear it loud and clear. The cellos are still playing the same texture as in the previous arrangement, but now, this layer is complimented by a subtexture layer in the clarinet. The triplets and eighth notes create a somewhat dense and moving feeling. The double basses are the only instruments, that still have not changed from our first arrangement.
In bar 6, where the mf part starts, we have now added a rich texture in the flute and oboe, which are playing 16th sextuplets based on the harmonic progression. This texture enriches the high part of our composition and gives it a triumphant and “flying” feeling. The cellos and violas are in this part exactly the same as in the previous arrangement. In bar 6, we finally also add the horns, which take the role of the harmony. 3 horns are more than enough to make the harmony heard loud and clear. Even if we erased out the horns, we could still sense the harmony because of the flute and oboe and violas and cellos. But because, the woodwinds are playing fast and transient notes, it is a lot better to have some long and steady horn notes that really bring the harmony forward. Having long notes in your harmony acts as sort of a super glue that holds the whole orchestration together.
6. Four layer string orchestra + flute, oboe, clarinet + three horns + snare (melody + harmony + rhythm + texture)
In this arrangement, everything is exactly the same as in the previous one, with the only difference being the snare drum playing the rhythmic line instead. We cannot count this rhythm as texture - it is another unique layer on its own.
Now that you understand the basics of this method, try it out yourself. Create a simple 8bar piano sketch and then arrange it for the same ensembles and with the same layers as we did here. I am sure you will learn a lot if you decide to do this. If you wish, you can send your to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will try to reply to all the email I get. I will use the best assignments as examples in my next lessons.
Please send your work in PDF or Sibelius format. If you will send a PDF, please attach a MP3 as well.
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Anže Rozman is a full time composer of classical music and music for media from Slovenia. Over 5h of his orchestral music and orchestraions have been performed and recorded by several orchestras from London, Bulgaria, Hungary, Switzerland and Slovenia. He is also a part time assistant professor at the Academy of music of Ljubljana, Slovenia.