THIS is an Orchestra

I would like to warn the reader that this blog contains opinions that may not be shared by all.

The habit of joining together with other musicians during performances is as old as music itself but the systematic arrangement of instrumental groups, that we now call ‘orchestration’, is comparatively new. It is a feature of formalized European music, other native cultures following a different path, as they do to this day.

The Church used to be virtually the only source of cultivated musicianship and a composer would be obliged to use whatever group of musicians happened to be available, leaving no one aside, and find them all something to do. This pattern continued even when wealthy patrons arrived to help composers pay the rent. The requirements of liturgy also gave shape to early music.

Even when the orchestra, as we now recognize it, began to take shape, a keyboard was still used as the centre of everything, the keyboard player becoming, in effect, the conductor. Combining the keyboard with other instruments limits the keyboard styles available, especially within contrapuntal works, which were common. Anything that emphasizes vertical structures, together with the correspondence of simultaneous down-beats and accents, will reduce the contrapuntal quality of music. A piano or harpsichord would also have helped to keep amateur musicians in tune. They also assisted the assimilation of the music from the point of view of listeners for whom the experience of aurally ‘scanning’ large groups of musicians, spatially separated and sometimes playing different but complementary roles, would have seemed rather strange. We take it for granted nowadays.

Improvements had also taken place in the manufacture of musical instruments, partly to ensure that they kept pace with the increase in virtuosity which, too, increased possibilities. (The clarinet was a recent addition to the orchestra in Mozart’s time).

The string section, because of its huge range and flexibility, became the force that, usually, bound everything together, other instruments being used to give occasional variety and to provide colour.

The orchestra as we know it

When virtually any instrument would be available, as a matter of course, composers could write in a style that matched each instrument’s characteristics. Instruments no longer had to cover a multitude of sins. The majority of attack forms are achievable on most instruments but some instruments lend themselves, for example, to smooth cantabile playing better than others. Woodwinds are capable of lightness and dexterity and feel more at ease when playing at an extremely low volume. Any brass player knows that maintaining a good quality of sound whilst retaining good intonation and clear articulation, at low volumes, requires a lot of practice. It also requires physical and mental flexibility following prolonged loud passages. On the other hand, brass instruments can provide heavy attack forms better than other wind instruments. Woodwinds in the high register sound relaxed but the listener is always aware of the effort involved in playing high notes on brass, which imparts a feeling of power and even aggression.

There is also a natural hierarchy regarding the vertical placement of instrumental sections. It usually feels unnatural to place sustained woodwind harmonies below brass harmonies because of the woodwinds’ comparative lack of sonority but it might, conceivably, be done for special effects. The woodwinds frequently double the brass either in the same register or in the octave (or double octave). Exact doubling is preferred to avoid ‘stray’ notes standing out at the expense of the other parts of harmony. In other words, it will sound as if the parts were supposed to be the same but something went wrong. As sections deviate more in terms of mobility and accent, more freedom will be available.


Harmony, melody, rhythm and instrumental resource are a composer’s most obvious tools but differing degrees of transparency and density are available. Density is also a matter of style; some composers habitually used transparent orchestration, perhaps due to the fact that they had tidy minds and disliked ‘clutter’.  Density can occur incidentally as a result of the failure to handle combined orchestral sections systematically or because the placement of instrumental parts pays insufficient heed to acoustic requirements. Congested voice leading can also bring it about.

I myself have always been less inclined to double individual parts in orchestration in order to obtain different tone colours, preferring a purer style. Nevertheless, individual ‘lines’ are sometimes intended to stand out where the part has a clearly defined shape or tunefulness or where, perhaps, it is thematically linked to something occurring elsewhere in the piece but, generally, I prefer ‘section-by-section’ writing because instruments of a similar tone colour tend to cohere. Anything they perform simultaneously will be perceived to be linked together, leaving the ear of the listener to expect similar sounding instruments to form some kind of acceptable structure in their own right.

The English-style brass band is a good example. With the obvious exception of the trombones, all instruments, from the Eb soprano down to the BBb tubas, belong to the same family, raising the temptation to break down the sections and to treat the band as one whole unit. It is often done to allow arrangements to be playable by varied instrumentations as, for example, when members were absent because of industrial injury or illness or because they were involved in trade union activities. Top level bands will always have a full lineup, where so-called ‘special’ arrangements may be used.

Double stops

I never use double-stops in the string section, especially with the cellos and basses, where they will sound ‘muddy’, because of factors within the instrument itself*, and where they are likely to conflict with trombones in the same register. It is better to reserve them for solo passages.

Whereas fretted instruments, such as the guitar, are tuned to equal temperament, the tuning of unfretted instruments is influenced by just intonation. Some tuning techniques used will naturally lead a player in this direction. This subject is part of the wider problem of acoustics, which requires knowledge of the mathematics involved for a complete understanding.  

The manner in which the two methods are actually combined in music is a different matter. For example, when moving in semitones from c>d the c# will be slightly higher in pitch than its enharmonic equivalent, the note db, will be when moving downwards in the opposite direction, d>c. These are interpretational, not acoustic considerations. Notes moving chromatically ‘lean’ towards the note of resolution. Fixed pitch instruments do not enjoy this luxury. We trombonists do it all the time.

As the music of the 20th century evolved, composers sought to extract new sounds from conventional instruments, eventually being rivalled by electronic effects, which were also combined with the orchestra. Music notation programs now offer some very authentic sound fonts which emulate live instruments very well but there is an important difference: each part of an orchestration may be played by several instruments, giving considerable weight to each part. This is especially true of the strings, particularly where ‘Hollywood’ style divisi styles emulate jazz and big band scoring. The technique requires careful handling.

A typical 20 piece Radio orchestra string section comprises 12 violins (6 first, 6 second), 4 violas and 4 cellos. Frequently only one acoustic bass will be used.  The block harmony style resembling an eight piece big band brass section requires more strings on the top part (melody) than on the other parts, distributed: violins 6,2,2,2,/violas2,2,/cellos2,2 . The fifth voice down (2 violas in this example) will also feature the melody in the octave. Dividing the strings into violins 4,4,4, violas 4, cellos 4 gives a four part block style with the melody in the octave. Here, the powerful support of the cellos playing the melody obviates the need to increase the number of violins on the top parts. Strengthening the melody helps to paper over the cracks that are often present in each part, melodically, in these block scoring styles for strings. With the big band, with one player to each part, the problem is less acute.

Complex divisi writing is divided by desk. There are two players to each desk (music stand).

The book illustrates examples of various string styles, including those that are more typical of string writing.

* I doubt  that anyone fully understands the effect of two or more notes resonating within the body of stringed instruments.


Where’s the tune, pal?

In the book I make the following claim:

In the main stream of conventional music, a composition that is expected to have popular appeal will fail if it does not possess, somewhere during its development, an expressive melody.

Melody is the outer contour or shape that musical rhythms and harmonies present to the world. People remember and recognize tunes. They sing them as they go about their daily routine.

Music doesn’t necessarily require a melody. It’s possible to write purely for percussive instruments, including those of indeterminate pitch, or to use harmony itself as the thematic material.

The standard tunes of the thirties, forties and fifties were characterized by a deeply formal relationship between the melody and the underlying harmonies, or chord sequences. Notes of the melody could be clearly identified, harmonically, and much use was made of the higher extensions of harmony to take advantage of their expressiveness. This was also true of popular music, for a while, at least.

Eventually, songwriters began to separate melody and harmony, producing forms where an arresting background treatment was the main focus, the melody being added almost as an afterthought. The use of the pentatonic scale, for example, which is the major scale with the two most active notes (the fourth and the seventh degrees) omitted, enables a tune to fit almost anything and although this might, at first sight, imply that the artistic ‘currency’ had been devalued, there were compensatory features that restored the balance.

There are many reasons for such changes in attitude but the main motivating force must surely be the desire to avoid what becomes an over-familiar style. Having said this, we know from history that ephemeral changes will eventually see a renaissance of previous styles.

The notes of melody resemble the free movement of particles, forming a trajectory, its vertical co-ordinate defined by variations in pitch and its lateral component resulting from its projection through time. This isn’t an attempt to create a way of looking at things. We can’t help responding in this way and familiar physical forces such as inertia will play an important part in our responses. Kinetic energy, as we all know, is the energy associated with an object’s movement.

Simple forms of melodic movement, such as a sine wave, represented, musically, by a gently undulating melodic form, excite the same response from the listener that he derives from equivalent stimuli in every day experience of the physical world; calmness, low activity, a feeling of tranquillity. It’s possible to express all melodic forms in this way, each with its own effect on the listener’s auditory response.

Due to the importance of vocal music, early melodic forms were restrained with regard to their range, the suddenness with which they changed direction and the size of their melodic intervals. The standards we use to make such judgements as acceptable/unacceptable are also governed by our everyday experiences.

In an age where the family car can attain high speeds in a matter of seconds and where what goes up may never come down, our ideas will inevitably change.

Nevertheless, we maintain an inherent north/south, up/down orientation which may explain why serial music has never attracted a large following.

Melody/axis relationships

Melodic axes govern our response to the motion of the notes of a melodic line. They form a reference frame by means of which motion may be recognised and referred to. An axis may be the key axis or tonic of the prevailing tonality (few tunes remain consistently in one key due to temporary modulations), a secondary axis (see below) or it may be a dominant or other pedal.

The forms of movement may be defined as follows:

Upwards away from the axis
Downwards towards the axis
Upwards towards the axis
Downwards away from the axis

These illustrative ways of looking at melodic forms are very useful. Patterns that consistently move up and away, for example, will seem to us to be more hopeful, positive and energetic.

Secondary axes

Besides the primary, or key axis, a melody will generate other reference points. Notes acquiring a statistical superiority, due to the sum of their durations at each recurrence, will suggest other axes, each having a different effect according to its definition. Notes foreign to the key will have the most radical effect.

Notes attaining higher ‘scores’ in terms of the sum of their durations throughout the melody have a greater affect on our awareness of music and will impart their  individual character to the melody.

The book includes an analysis of melodic structure, sequences and parallel, oblique and divergent axes. There are also detailed examples of song structures and phrase formation, etc.

Melody/harmony relationships

Adding a chord sequence to a given melody and composing a melody to a given chord sequence are opposite sides of the same coin and yet, initially, all musicians approach the subject of the melodization of harmony with more confidence.

There is no single, correct solution.

The original combination of melody and harmony employed by the composer of a song arrives as a complete package, although we may wish to add altered chords, passing chords etc. in our arrangement. The resulting mood or style the composer created was appropriate to the original setting of the song and after repeated listening we become conditioned to the result, regarding it as being ‘correct’.

Entirely different harmonizations may be created for any song, resulting in totally different characteristics. What may be too extreme for a conventional song may work well in another context, for example in background music to a documentary film.

A melody is a series of notes of different pitch sounded in sequence, whereas a chord is a group of any three or more notes of different pitch sounded simultaneously. Powerful effects may be achieved by moving away from the conventional families of chords and their standard progressions and by the use of ‘unconventional’ scales, with their own diatonic* harmonies.

Non-chordal or ‘unessential’ notes

A common difficulty experienced by the beginner, either in harmonizing melodies or in voicing for instrumental sections, concerns the treatment and identification of chordal and non-chordal notes.

Notes that fall on the beat, especially a strong beat, that are accented, or are of long duration (where the melody comes to rest) will most often be chordal.

Situations sometimes arise where it is expedient to regard chordal notes as being non-chordal in order to achieve a better flow of the parts in orchestration.

(Jazz musicians tend to refer to all unessential notes as ‘passing notes’, regardless of their definition.)

The many different kinds of unessential notes are discussed in greater detail in the book.

Composing melodies

We may compose a melody first or devise a chord sequence and fit a melody to it. Expressive and unusual melodies can result from writing a chord sequence first, although both the original chord sequence and the resulting melody may need to be altered as the composition takes shape. If all this appears to be rather premeditated, it’s worth bearing in mind the fact that much of the music we admire may have started its life in a spirit of honest toil rather than a flash of inspiration.

In composition, the germ of an idea may appear out of the blue but we might need to stimulate ideas, especially in the commercial situation where there’s a deadline to meet.

There are a series of techniques we can use:

Compose a melody to a preconceived harmonic progression and then compose another one based on the same harmonies but using a predominance of upper harmonic functions: 9ths, 11ths and 13ths and their ‘altered’ forms. A marked change in expressiveness will result.

Or, choose a very simple diatonic sequence and write an expressive melody to it. This is a useful way of reminding ourselves that we do not have to use every trick in the book to arrive at an interesting result.

Another way of overcoming a fallow period is to write some interesting rhythms and use those as a source of ideas.

*The word ‘diatonic’ should nowadays be understood to mean that the melody and harmony employ notes of the particular scale being used, not merely the major and minor scales.

So what ARE the ‘rules’ of music?

I could open this blog by making a slick comment such as ‘Well, there AREN’T any, actually’.

This isn’t too far away from the truth but, as always, the matter is a little more complicated.

I think I’ll probably be correct if I say that the majority of people approach music theory, especially the theory of harmony, with fear and trepidation. But why is this? We all know that, even in the arts, we have to push our boundaries in order to progress but I’ve always believed that, if we aren’t enjoying ourselves (most of the time), we’re doing something wrong.

Mindful of my own struggle with mathematics at school – partly because it was badly taught – I was determined to breathe some life into the subject of music theory when I wrote the book. I’ve always believed that, to explain something to someone, a person needs a thorough knowledge and understanding of the particular subject. To achieve this, an understanding of the rules-behind-the-rules is required, otherwise we’ll apply them ‘parrot-fashion’, as so many do, even those who should know better.

Music theory, as it is generally presented to us, consists largely of a catalogue of the preferences of prominent composers over the last 300 years or so and as such is obviously not without value. It has always been one step behind practice. A successful theory would embrace the music of the past, present and future. There would be no need for us to say that certain rules do not apply to certain types of music.

Every rule of music has been broken many times by talented writers. The sole criterion is that a composer’s music should demonstrate a clearly defined, strong artistic purpose.

We should never say ‘that is forbidden’ but rather, ‘if you do this, that will happen’. It’s a subtle but important difference. Students of music should be fired by an enthusiasm to write and not feel intimidated before they even start.

The commonest rules of all are those pertaining to parallel intervals, especially the perfect fifth.

The least complex interval is that of the octave, each octave being in a simple 2/1 ratio to the one above or below. The relationship is so simple that we give each note in the series the same letter name but they are not all the same note. Parallel octaves are common where the bass is reinforced in the octave or where the melody is duplicated an octave below. They are also common in counterpoint, where they provide added thickness to voices – even if the lower octave of one voice overlaps the upper octave of another. (The lower octave is perceived to be a reinforcement of the upper notes, rather than a voice in its own right.)

Next in complexity is the perfect fifth, in fact the effect of the fifth is so ‘perfect’ that a succession of them (between the same pair of voices) in a simple, diatonic harmonic continuity will stand out at the expense of the other voices, producing an ugly effect. And yet, to remain true to the above claim regarding a ‘clearly defined, strong artistic purpose’, we will find many instances where consecutive fifths will serve us very well:

Discounting the many stylistic treatments such as those found in rock riffs* and Red Indian, and other, programmatic associations, the effect of large masses of sound in orchestration may be enhanced by having a fifth between the bass (which will not necessarily be the ‘root’) and the note immediately above it in the harmony. In practice, there will most often be an octave between the lowest voices, with the fifth placed above the upper octave.

In the period of Organum parallel fourths and fifths were common. I’m sure no one on here needs to be reminded that a fourth is an inverted fifth.

Successive compound fifths, especially when more than one octave is added to the interval, become more and more harmless the wider the notes of the interval retreat from one another (which applies to other parallels, too).

In other cases, the movement of a parallel fifth will be become virtually unavoidable. Using the substitute dominant in place of the regular chord (Db7>C in the key of C) often provides an example of this.

The ‘rules’ of melody can be even more obtuse

There isn’t space here to deal with this topic in its entirety but a few pointers might help to convey the purpose of this blog:

Regular note resolutions may be overridden by inertial forces in, for example, a scale run. In this context a scale run is one that entails four or more notes moving in the same direction by stepwise motion. Similar principles are involved in sequences and in many other circumstances where repetition, resulting in familiarity, paves the way.

After a leap in either direction, a melody usually turns in the opposite direction but an augmented interval will continue in the direction of the chromatic alteration before resolving. The requirement to turn in the opposite direction will obviously be ignored in ‘real’ music where a composer wishes to create an intensely dramatic feeling of unusually high upwards energy by defying the ‘rule’ and allowing the melody to continue upwards.  Augmented intervals in melody can give rise to awkwardness but where a melody clearly describes an arpeggiated form, e.g. going from the seventh to the third in a dominant seventy type of chord – f > b in C7 – or when it occurs in an augmented chord, many situations are ‘allowed’, although they are best suited to instrumental music. Vocalists find some intervals difficult to pitch (and they’ll usually still sound wrong, even if sung well except, possibly, in a jazz context).

It might be worth pausing, here, to consider that this problem isn’t all one-way. A musically aware, experienced listener will be more tolerant.


Traditional rules regarding note-doubling are too simplistic in an orchestral setting. Apart from the obvious fact that they would place too many constraints on a composer, sections of instruments of a similar tone-colour tend to cohere and are heard as elements of the picture in their own right.


Having learned the basics of harmony, the next important step is to consider the vertical placement of chordal functions. The lowest note practicable in music is c = 16 vibrations per second (two octaves below the bottom c on my bass trombone).  Referring to the harmonic series we find that e doesn’t occur until the fifth harmonic, which takes us to the e below the bass clef, the third of the chord of C major. Placing the the third of any chord below this level will imply the existence of a fundamental that doesn’t exist in performable music. Although our systems of harmony evolved independently, especially with the adoption of equal temperament, the vertical structure of harmony must comply with the arrangement of the harmonic series, with wider spaces low down and closer intervals higher up. (Colouristic effects are likely to use any distribution, of course.) Other, similar, considerations involve the avoidance of placing higher chordal extensions below the seventh. ‘Clustered’ jazz voicings are another matter, of course.

In one of the textbooks I own the chord f-a-c-e in open harmony is given as a C thirteenth chord in a musical example, even though the f (the eleventh!) is just below the bass clef. This cannot be unless, of course, you’re happy with abstract examples that only exist according to ‘root theory’.

High tension chords will benefit in terms of clarity if the octave placement of the bass is correctly chosen. For example, both the natural fifth and the altered fifth may be used at the same time if these considerations are exercised and the ‘offending’ notes are kept well away from each other. The raised or lowered fifth then become the lowered thirteenth or the raised eleventh, respectively.

Isn’t life complicated? Well, not necessarily, when you understand how things really work.

* The riff is one of those terms that has changed its meaning over the years. A riff is a repeated phrase or motif that continues under (or over, or in between) the other parts even in cases where, technically, it doesn’t always fit. It was a characteristic of jam sessions. Nowadays, it is a term often used to describe those memorable heavy rock phrases. Similarly, cool referred to a deadpan style that was characteristic of modern jazzmen seeking to escape the hotter styles of the past. Nowadays it’s used as a sign of approval. Un-cool means it sucks (it’s a lemon, in US parlance).

Footnote: I haven’t used the numeric description of octave placement in this blog because there isn’t really much standardization. Mostly, the octaves are numbered from the bottom up but I prefer the scheme where ‘middle’ c is the starting point and notes above this are numbered with superscripts and notes below with subscripts. Subscripts move downwards numerically.