My top 10 composer tips for orchestral music

Hey all!

Introductions first,
My names Geoff, and I’m a composer and studio producer based in north wales. I’ve been composing for well over 10 years and have a professional background in the creation and production of music. I thought I would share with you my top tips for composing a piece of music.

1. First create a piano reduction.
Often we can get bogged down with one or two aspects of writing music, this forces us to sometimes get fixated on that section, chord progression or musical phrase. By writing our idea on a piano or keyboard instrument we can block out the important bits of our piece. Which brings me to my next tip.

2. Nothing is more important than the musical motif (melody, main idea) and the bass line.
Chords are great, they provide the harmonic content that we need in our piece which solidified the emotive context while also emphasising our cadential phrasings (this is the harmony that states wether the phrase is starting, stopping, moving to something else or changing key), but this is by far not the most important aspect of a composition, despite it often being the inspiration for the piece we are working on. I would always argue that the main thematic idea (no matter how complex or simple) should always be the star, closely followed by the Bass line which along with your percussion provide the foundation or bed for your composition.An excellent example of this would be John Williams Main Star Wars theme. If you were to take all the harmonic stuff out it would still be mm a strong piece because he crafted the two most important aspects first.

3. In the orchestra the strings are often the most iconic part. Use them wisely.
I remember as a youth finding strings really difficult to write for, and sadly as I’ve grown I’ve only come to realise this more. Orchestration of the string family will be your greatest challenge, but when starting out here are a few points to keep in mind which will keep you out of the mud.

  • Harmonically they work best spread out.
  • John Barry got it right when he used the bass section in octaves. Don’t be tempted to add too much detail down low.
  • Melody in octaves works well.
  • if you do want to play clusters of notes, do it in the C5 range (sounds very pretty).
  • learn as many articulations as possible.

4. Horns are easier than you think.
Horns, though generally being quite limited in their ranges in comparison to other sections are very easy to write for, they’ll do anything you want. My tips for these are as follows, they like to play close harmony and even in a piece where the horns are the main instruments wash them with some hall reverb that’s had the bass and highs cut. This will push them further back in the mix and create more realism. As Horns are the second loudest section so are situated at the back of the orchestra, next to the percussion.

5. Less is most definitely more.
Don’t write more than 4 parts at any one given time. We’ve already spoke about melody and Bass, but have a rhythmic element and some moving harmony if needed, that’s it. Anything more gets too muddy and confuses the listener. If you have long harmonic parts in your orchestra, such as long brass or choral elements that are just holding harmonic notes, generally I wouldn’t count that as a part. This is just thickening the sound and has no other function than to fill out the harmonic and sonic spectrum of sound. (This is one of the most important aspects of writing functional music that you can get paid from writing, if it’s just for your own enjoyment then I say ignore this point and go wild with experimentation!)

6. Hybrid elements.
By all means add any synthetic hybrid element to your piece that you want, but for peace of mind, don’t try to create it inside your project. Make all sounds that you might need before you start writing. If you don’t do this then your project will get crowded, CPU will be taken up and you’ll lose momentum and focus resulting in the worst case scenario, not finishing your piece.

7. Finish your projects!
Always finish what you start. This doesn’t mean it has to be a masterpiece. Just do as much as you can and include a closing section. When you finish a track, you learn the most you can out of the process. When you don’t finish projects you lose out on valuable lessons that could have been learnt.

8. Write and sketch with libraries that inspire you.
I herd Alex Moukala say recently that he writes best when the sounds he’s using get him fired up. That’s 100% true! If the sound isn’t doing it for you then change the sound. Who cares if it’s the only horn patch you have, grab a sound that inspires you and carry on. See it as an experiment and learn from it. Eventually you’ll get that horn library that inspires you, but for now use something that really makes you want to write with it. You’ll be shocked at the results.

9. Listen to a lot of music, film and classical is best for this genre.
I can’t stress this enough. What you write is a result of what you’ve taken in musically. The more you listen and think about music the more ideas you’ll have. Often I will just sit with a score too, which helps if you can read music. If you can’t then watch a visual tutorial and learn a section of a piece. Whatever works for you!

10. Finally, enjoy yourself.
Don’t take it too seriously, this isn’t just a hobby, job, side project. This is fun and expressive. Put yourself into it as much as you can without becoming precious about your work. The best music that’s ever been written has been as a result of just getting stuck in and enjoying it. I herd recently that the Icelandic band Sigur Rós said that they had so much fun writing Hipopolla in the mid 2000’s that they knew instantly that it was going to be the money maker. All because they enjoyed themselves and really got creative with it. That’s definitely a band to go look at for inspiration btw.

Well that’s it for today.
Here’s some composers I’d suggest taking a listen to, with a word on what to look out for.

Beethoven - string quartets (use of strings)
Mendelssholn - soloist concertos (use of solo instruments.
John frizzell - Alien resurrection theme (string writing)
Berlios - Orchestration
Alan Menkin - Rhythmic imitation of the orchestra.

Thank you for staying with me through this rather long post guys! if this is successful and is taken well I’ll post one on production soon.

Happy new year!

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Wow what an excellent post Geoffrey, well structured and formatted even. And great tips! :slight_smile:

Would you mind if I took this entire post and publish it on my website?

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Yeah go for it Mikael. The more that see if the better. I just wanted to create a post that encouraged and equipped people to write more music as we move into the new year.

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Also, feel free to correct any grammatical or punctual errors in the post. I’m dyslexic so I often don’t see my mistakes.

Would you happen to have a nice portrait picture of yourself, or studio image perhaps, that I could use in the blog post? If you have, you can simply attach it as a comment in thread.

Also, what’s your SoundCloud profile so I can credit you with a link to it. :slight_smile:

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Yes of course, I’ll just send you all my social media links as they’re saved on one document for ease of use.

Social media links

Sound Cloud - https://soundcloud.com/geofcevans

Facebook - https://m.facebook.com/Media.Man.P

Instagram - themediaman09

Twitter - @GeoffCharlesEv

Here’s a few pictures, take your pic of which you would like to use. If you could link the page you publish it to on here I’ll also share it on my social media sites too!

Thank you Mikael!

I too have been doing this for a long time. Almost 50 years (Wow that went fast) and I saw your topic and thought “you know what I would like to see his conclusions.” The one that resonates with me the most is to write at the piano. When I block out a song especially I don’t wind up painting myself into a corner. With big pieces I am usually looking at a monitor and because I have a visual guide it’s really different. When I start with a groove it can get out of hand. because I am having fun playing and next thing it’s 6 minutes long and I don’t know how to get rid of something I like but clearly doesn’t work. One thing I might add is ( I write anything that pays, any genre I don’t care) you can sort of do the same thing if you write out the lyrics of the important parts so it’s like a map.
Thanks Sean

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Awesome! Thanks Sean, writing away from the screen is definitely more inspiring. My first instrument is guitar so generally I write on that as my initial idea. It’s not as conventional as the piano but I was classically trained on it so themes are still prevalent. I think that ultimately, as long as you are inspired it doesn’t really matter what you write on… but it’s definitely a plus if you can sketch it out on a keyboard instrument first.

Thanks, I just published the blog post here: https://professionalcomposers.com/10-composer-tips-for-writing-orchestral-music/

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Ah nice, thanks Mikael I’ll post to my social media pages now !

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Great! I think I am going to do this for more “super valuable” posts here in the community in the future. Meaning cross-posting it to my blog, that way it’s also searchable in Google (more than a forum is). :slight_smile:

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Great post Geoffrey! Some really great tips.

I’d also add , for those who really want to learn orchestral music, there’s one thing that REALLY helps: recreating existing scores.

Find some music cues that you really like and can get hold of the scores for (easier for older scores, trickier for film music - Marco Beltrami publishes a lot of his scores for free on his website though, so try there first) - and then simply recreate them in your DAW.

You’ll learn so much about how to put all the pieces of an orchestra together, as well as improving your “Virtual Orchestration” skills (if you take the time to make sure it sounds as realistic as possible) AND your music reading will get faster and faster too. Win/win/win!

Of course, you’ll need to already be able to read sheet music, but that’s also a really helpful skill to learn.

And don’t think you have to do entire cues - even just a few bars of something that you really like the sound of is so helpful.

Don’t mean to “hijack” the thread - just thought it was worth mentioning if anyone is here trying to work out how to better orchestrate :slight_smile:

Here are Marco Beltrami’s most recently released scores:

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Excellent point! By all means add as many extra points as you want! The more the merrier!

I just limited myself to the top 10 things that will help new composers to write better music off the bat, but there are a load of points I would have loved to have put if I didn’t have the limitation. I mearly added the limitation so that people wouldn’t become over stimulated.

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You know I just wanted to say, that for me, the first time I sit in front of a monitor running a new film ( or TV ect) I run it and a sequencer with SYMPTE is maybe the most amazing thing to me because I am letting the visuals trigger the score. Then I play it back and out of 30 cues eg: I might like 4 ideas and those 4 ideas are usually 4 of the themes that I can build on. Anyway don’t give up on this as not being fun or helpful. It’s one of my favorite things to hear what I vamped and feel like “Holy S(*t” I don’t even remember playing this, but it’s right". This is one of the gifts we are given but it only works if you are willing. ( Understand there are a million ways to do this but don’t rob yourself of fun without seeing what the film wants from you. Sorry to go on.

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This is great advice. Thank you for sharing!

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Thank you for sharing. These kind of input is so good for us who have just started composing.

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Your welcome Marcus and Fredrik! It’s a lot to take in for anyone. I know I wouldn’t be where I am now if it wasn’t for those people who offered advice! Happy new year!

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hello
wow, these ten tips are amazing
you talk about the horns, but what about the other brass like the tuba , trombone or trumpet, sometime we forget them, and there is some good combination with the tuba for the bass, or the trombone that can be very powerfull
what’s your opinion about the other brass ?

Hey Florent,

Hope you had a great Christmas and new year! When I say horns, I mean the whole horn section, which includes all of those instruments. I understand your confusion though as French horns are often nicknamed the horns in the orchestra.

My tip will work for the whole section, though this doesn’t mean that you are limited to just doing this. Close harmony sounds great in this section for thickening but octaves bring the real power. So depending on what you want to get out of the part will determine your approach.

Something that works really well in horns (on occasion, are the use of parallel 5ths. In perfect harmony I’d say to avoid this if possible t for that huge but wide sound this works great. Just make sure the rest of your instruments are playing in counterpoint (moving away from the horn notes. I think it was Bernard Hermann who developed this little tip. He was fantastic with the horn section!

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thank you Geoffrey, happy new year to you
you 're right for the horns, i often use the word Brass to define the brass ensemble of an orchestra that include tuba, trumpet, trombone, french horn and some other rarely used nowaday

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