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Orchestration: PART 4 - Planes of sound

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Guest QcCowboy



We have already discussed the idea of resonance when orchestrating, and in a sense, resonance is a single plane of sound that differentiates it from, let us say, the melody, or the accompaniment.

We can think of planes of sound as covering three general “areas” in the 3-dimensional universe of our orchestration:

  1. Foreground
  2. Mid-ground
  3. Background

(in extremely complex textures, you could further subdivide these sonic areas into multiple sub-layers)

Your main thematic material, by virtue of its very nature, should come to the foreground when properly orchestrated. Think of the classical symphony, a Mozart for example, where the main theme is presented in all its glory by the violins. This is the most obvious and logical foreground placement: a clearly delineated theme, orchestrated in such a manner as to deny any possibility of the thematic material being obfuscated by accompaniment figures.

Characteristic figurations which function as accompaniment figures will be the mid-ground: evident to the careful listener’s ear, but in no way overpowering the rightful foreground material.

Important note: foreground, mid-ground and background have nothing to do with the actual pitch of the material. Foreground material could be found in the bass part as much as in the mid-range or the upper register. It is important to consider that these are planes of sound that stretch from the front to the back of the listener’s perception, and not from top to bottom.

Thus, any accompaniment figure, often comprised of multiple elements, is the middle plane. If your accompaniment is too busy, or too heavily orchestrated in relation to the intended foreground plane, the danger then is that it will dominate the texture and confuse the roles you are trying to assign.

The final plane of sound is that of the background. Here are elements that often give support to the harmony: for example our resonance notes. The more movement you give to the background plane, the more interest you are giving it. And interest equals movement forward in the world of sound.

Interest can be provided, whether you intend it or not, through movement (rhythm), distinctive melodic figuration, or even through timbre. Remember not to fight against your orchestration or let it fight back against you. If the material you are assigning to the background plane becomes “too interesting”, then it is up to you to decide whether to consciously bring it forward and give it a more prominent role. Doing so, however, will negate its function as a background plane.


Once the various lessons of this course start to be assimilated, you have more powerful tools with which to attack a project for full orchestra.

Some things to keep in mind when dealing with a full orchestral texture:

  • It is not necessary to use the entire orchestral force at all times
  • It is not necessary to use the entire orchestral force at all times
  • Start by keeping the planes of sound distinct
  • Orchestrate your dynamics
  • Play with texture and colour
  • Consider changes of dynamic and texture carefully. Plan them out carefully.
  • Remember that you can use PARTS of all your orchestral choirs to create a sense of “full orchestra” without actually drowning the listener in the actual full complement of your symphony orchestra.

Once you are well versed in these techniques, you can start to experiment with moving material from one plane to another. None of the rules are absolute. They are, as always, guidelines, tools to help you on your way. The good orchestrator follows the rules carefully. The great orchestrator bends them and discovers ways of cheating them.


At times, you will have foreground material that has less movement, with an accompaniment figuration that is highly rhythmic. An example of this would be a choral-like main theme over a very dynamic accompaniment layer. Here the danger is that the listener’s ear, already predisposed to follow the plane containing the most movement, will be attracted to what is, in essence, the background rather than the musically more significant, yet slower, main thematic material.

It becomes the orchestrator’s main challenge to give enough density to the principal musical material so as to allow it to remain in the foreground. This can be achieved by various means:

  • Differentiate the two planes through register differences
  • Create a difference in density of orchestration
  • Use clearly differentiated sections of the orchestra
  • Contrast blended timbres with pure timbres for one or the other of the two planes involved

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