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Orchestration: PART 1 - Woodwinds

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Guest QcCowboy

These lessons are not intended to replace a good book on instrumentation/orchestration nor more serious study with a qualified professor. However, they should give you a solid head start.



Each instrument has a natural range with both weaker and stronger octaves. Acoustic effects explain the reason for this. I won’t go into that aspect of it, as it’s not absolutely necessary to understanding the final effects we are looking for here.


The woodwind section is the least homogenous section of the orchestra. It consists of 4 basic groups of instruments: flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons. There are also “auxilliary” instruments for each of these families, as well. Some are in common usage, while others are more rarely seen and should not be expected as being readily available.

A cursory examination of these instruments will immediately show us that we are dealing with a minimum of three completely different means of sound production. While all of them are “wind” instruments, one is akin to blowing air across a bottle top, one relies on the vibration of a single flat piece of reed, and the other two rely on the vibration of two thin slivers of reed for sound production. This creates endless difficulties for the composer who works with these instruments in an ensemble, and learning to get past those difficulties as well as using those differences is what will result in successful orchestration.

The following section divides the instruments loosely into their different registers. Bear in mind that the level of your musician will have a significant impact on these ranges and the lesser or greater difference in timbral quality between them. This is also a very rapid overview that will by necessity leave out much detail. As I’ve said: nothing beats having a good book on instrumentation.

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The flute has basically three registers, each with a unique timbral quality: low, medium and high.


The low register is the weakest as far as volume is concerned. However, it is also a very rich and colourful part of the flute’s range. We will consider the entire lowest octave as belonging to this timbral area. In the lowest octave, the flute has difficulty competing with other instruments, particularly in an orchestral setting.

N.B. a unique use of the flute in this register can be heard in Strawinski’s Symphony of Psalms, 2nd movement, where the flute is given the bass part in a fugal exposition. Since it is the ONLY instrument in the lower range at that moment, it ends up carrying over the other woodwinds by default. Had there been other lower instruments present, the flute would in all likelihood have been completely masked.

The next octave up has considerably more carrying power, and is where the large majority of flute music resides. Here the tone quality is rich and vibrant, with enough carrying power to carry its own weight in the proper orchestral setting. This octave also is very rich in overtones, giving the flute its unique timbre.

The “extreme” high range of the flute has a shrill and piercing quality to it. It is a little bit more difficult to control in very soft nuances, but again, with a good musician this is not an issue. In loud passages, this range is an excellent doubling of upper partials to solidify an orchestral mass.

The piccolo, the most commonly seen auxilliary instrument of the flute family, extends the flute range up by another octave. Written to sound one octave higher, its most common use is to brighten and strengthen the upper partials of an orchestration, however, it should not be totally relegated to this position. The piccolo’s lower octave (its lowest note is a D, unlike the flute) has a very special “dry” quality to it. Anyone who has had the pleasure of hearing John Williams’ score to E.T. The Extraterrestrial might have noticed the piccolo solo in the very opening measures of the filmscore.


The oboe has basically two registers – low and high. The differences between them are important, but maybe not quite as marked as with the flute or clarinet.


Here, however, we find a completely different acoustic effect from that which happens with the flute – the lower the instrument plays, the louder it gets. The lowest octave of the oboe is its strongest register. The very lowest notes are somewhat more difficult to control for volume and a certain “honking” quality (which CAN be put to good use, as you may witness in numerous pieces of P.D.Q. Bach).

The next octave up loses the “duck-call” quality of the lowest octave, and gains in the traditional sweetness we associate with the oboe. Here, however, the oboe loses in strength as it gets higher. There is certain “tightness” to the oboe timbre as it reaches the top of this octave. In pianissimo passages it has a quite ethereal quality. The extreme high register of the oboe gets a bit thin, and isn’t quite as useful as the extremes of the other woodwinds.

The oboe’s auxilliary instrument is a very special case. The cor anglais (english horn) is basically an alto oboe. It sounds a perfect 5th lower than written, and has the same fingering as the oboe. It is, however, missing the lowest Bb, so the Cor Anglais has as its lowest note the E below middle C. The Cor anglais also has one particularity: its lowest range does not suffer as strongly from the “honk” effect as the oboe. However, it’s highest notes are pretty much useless.


The clarinet is probably the woodwind that has the most schizophrenic personality. It has four timbral registers, and each one is quite unique. If you want an instrument with multiple personalities, then the clarinet is the instrument for you. You get four distinct instruments in one.


One important piece of information that bears repeating, the clarinet is “in Bb”, which means that a written note will sound a whole-tone lower. A written C sounds Bb, D sounds C, etc… there are clarinets in other keys as well. The clarinet in A is often substituted for the Bb instrument without the composer’s knowledge, often to deal with tricky fingering passages or awkward key signatures. There is no real discernable difference in tonal quality between the two instruments. There IS however an additional semitone down at the low end of the range. There are literally nearly a dozen different kinds of clarinet (from a tiny sopranino in Ab, to a huge contrabass in Bb). I don’t recommend writing for anything too out of the ordinary unless you are ASSURED that your clarinetist has access to the instrument in question. The safest bet is to stick to the three “known” clarinets: Bb (and its quazi-identical twin “in A”), the bass clarinet in Bb, and the little clarinet in Eb. Even this last one is not quite as common as one could hope. Now, back to our regular programming for clarinet enthusiasts.

The low register, called “chalumeau” has a deep, rich colour. It is very dark and mysterious. Rapid figurations in this register have a quite spectacular effect. It is capable of all dynamics.

The medium register (throat tones and “break”) is a little bit brighter than the low register. There is one difficulty with fingering at what is called “the break” (written Bb – B natural), however, unless you are specifically writing for a beginner, this should not be an issue. (The difficulty is that the Bb uses almost no fingers from either hand, while the B natural uses almost all fingers in both hands)

The next octave up, the “clarino” register, has a bright and almost trumpet-like quality to it. This is not to be understood as meaning that the clarinet only plays loudly in this register. It has quite complete control over dynamics throughout the entirety of its range.

The extreme high notes (from the C two octaves above middle C and up) lose some of the characteristic qualities of the clarinet, and in soft dynamics have an almost flute-like quality. This higher register is more difficult to control in soft dynamics, and does have a tendency towards shrillness.


Like the oboe, also a double-reed instrument, the bassoon has a tendency to loudness in its very lowest register, and a gradual shift towards a “tighter” sound as it reaches the top of its range. The bassoon has quite a large usable range, which sadly is often neglected, relegating the bassoon to only a “bass instrument” position.


The lowest octave is the most characteristically “double reed”. Fingering in the very lowest 4th of the instrument’s range (Bb – Eb) can be treacherous since most of those notes require shifting of the thumb across a series of keys. It is best to avoid active figurations in that range in rapid tempos. While the bassoon CAN be ponderous in long held notes, it is also capable of a surprisingly light touch in its low register. Staccato notes in the bass will have a quality akin to a cello’s pizzicato.

The bassoon is surprisingly uniform in timbral quality up to middle C, even with the aforementioned “tightening” of the timbre as it rises. Above middle C, however, the bassoon becomes a unique instrument. Here, that “tight” quality gives the bassoon a very powerful singing voice that is quite unique. One need only listen to the opening of Le Sacre du Printemps. The bassoon very comfortably plays up to the first G in treble clef, and notes higher than this (up to the next C) should be part of a professional bassoonist’s playable range.

The bassoon family also has its auxilliary instrument: the rather cumbersome contra-bassoon. It is also a transposing instrument, sounding one octave lower than written. Because of its large size, bassoonists will often remove the last section of the contrabassoon when the music in question does not require the very lowest notes of its range (below C). This instrument’s lowest notes are considerably more “growly” than those of the bassoon. It has the same agility as the bassoon, but because of its size and the length of the body of the instrument, may be a little slower in responding to extremely rapid figurations.

Please see the lesson discussion thread for the exercises that go with this segment of the course.

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LESSON 1 (continued)


We will take a quick look at doubling woodwinds. Doubling of woodwinds should not be seen as a means to make music louder. You should be aware by now that two flutes do not sound twice as loud as one flute. Actually, the accoustic effect of the two instruments tends to blur the characteristic vibrations of each individual instrument, in effect creating a “new” instrument. This effect is more pronounced with certain woodwinds and less so with others. Of course, when you start to combine different woodwinds you have at your disposal a colouristic palette that has dramatically changed.

Here we have a brief melody, within a relatively confined range:


Range considerations will not allow us to have unison doublings of this melody for all possible woodwind combinations without some transposition being involved. For example, to have a flute and bassoon in unison the flute would need to be transposed down a 5th (the lowest we could do so without exiting the flute’s usable range), and this would place the melody in a “playable” (but only barely) range for the unison bassoon. It would be rather extreme. Likewise, if we remember our previous lesson, the flute in this lowest of ranges would also be in its weakest range as far as volume is concerned. Compare that to what we now know about the bassoon’s highest octave. So for this particular example, a flute/bassoon unison doubling is out of the question.

Likewise, a doubling of oboe and bassoon at the unison would require a transposition of the theme. This would place the bassoon in a very tense register, and the oboe in a rather loud and prominent register.

This does leave us with a few other doublings, however. Other than the obvious “two of each instrument” doublings, we could have

  • flute and oboe
  • flute and clarinet
  • oboe and clarinet
  • by transposing down one octave, we could double clarinet and bassoon

Listen to the recording of first the melody in the flute alone, then the above listed doublings.

Unison doublings in woodwinds

Notice how the unison doublings tend to blur the identity of the instruments that are playing together? Obviously, the effect as played here using sampled sounds is only an approximation. Each combination, however, is a new and unique colouristic possibility. When you start to use the differences in colour afforded the different registers of each instrument, and combine them to create new effects, your orchestration takes on an entirely new mantle. Orchestration is not only the act of laying out all the instruments of a large ensemble. It includes the important task of assigning instruments to melodies and counterpoints. There is absolutely no reason to limit the orchestral palette to solo instruments on melodies and divying up the balance of the harmony to the balance of the orchestra. Careful consideration should ALWAYS be taken to the combination of instruments for melodic material.

By doubling an octave apart we gain a great deal more flexibility in our choice of pairings. Keeping the melody itself in the same register precludes octave doubling of flute and oboe, but we may look at transposition for the effect of this pairing. By transposing up a 5th, the oboe can now be placed an octave below the flute.

Flute and oboe octave doubling

For the rest of the woodwinds, we can leave the melody as is and pair them as follows:

  • flute and clarinet
  • flute and bassoon
  • oboe and clarinet
  • oboe and bassoon
  • clarinet and bassoon can be taken down an octave

woodwind octave doubling

Notice how some pairings create entirely new timbral qualities. In some cases, the octave doubling reinforces the quality of one or both of the instruments, while in other cases the two become a completely new, independent colour.

The composer’s job is to explore these possibilities and incorporate them into his musical vocabulary. They are a large part of what identifies a piece of music as belonging to this composer or that one. Barring issues of playability, there are no absolute wrong or right choices. There are colouristic effects that work, and others that are less successful.

Exercises will be posted later.

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LESSON ONE - (Continued):

As beginners, we tend to think in terms of instruments fitting on top of each other, a little bit like bricks: flutes above, then oboes, then clarinets, then bassoons, for example.

But we can, and should, begin to learn other ways of disposing our instrument. Here are the major ways of placing them:

We are all aware of “stacked”, it is the first reflex of the young (and sometimes not-so-young) orchestrator. In this disposition, the instruments are placed in groups of similar instruments on top of each other. For example two flutes above two oboes, above two clarinets.

There is another way of disposing the instruments. This is by “enclosing” two like instruments between two instruments of another family. For example, two clarinets inside a wider interval made up of two flutes.

By “enbricking” pairs of instruments, we are blending the timbres more consistantly. The sound of a pair of oboes will be more prominent if they are side-by side, yet place them such that a clarinet is between them and you have just created a bit of mystery in the timbral combination.

A last way of combining instruments is to “overlap” them. This is particularly useful when dealing with a very large ensemble. Great care must be taken, however, to overlap timbres on notes that will emphasize our musical intention. Remember that when two instruments are in unison, they will not be louder, but their timbre will be new and unique. This CAN bring out a note in a chord that we did not intend.


There are other ways of combining instruments that incorporate elements of all of these dispositions.

For example, one might double the top note of a chord with two different instruments, but “enbrick” or “enclose” the remaining instruments of those pairs:


This has the advantage of creating a unique timbral quality for the “melodic” top note of the chord.

An additional thing to notice is that the flutes by playing in octaves end up reinforcing their upper partials (that is, the natural harmonics that are part of the flute sound).

Which brings us to something I don't want to go into in detail: overtones and harmonics. Every instrument has a particular vibration. Using an oscilloscope you would be able to see the particular pattern of vibration each instrument makes. And each instrument has a unique pattern. The reaction of the sound to doubling and intervallic superimposition depends in large part on the instrument's particular vibration pattern.

It is always a consideration when placing instruments which ones are doubling at the unison, which ones are in octaves, which ones are in thirds, etc...

Placing instruments in unison will make the overtones of that particular sound conflict with each other. This conflict is not in itself a bad thing. It is simply a consideration. This can either create a more mellow sound, where some of the characteristic vibrations of the instrument are "cancelled out", or it can create a "buzzier" sound where new and unexpected vibrations are created by the conflicting vibrations.

Placing two instruments in thirds will strengthen the over-all timbral quality of those instruments if they are exposed, by giving a large amount of overtones (again, the harmonics that are part of the natural sound of the instrument). In thirds, each note has it's own set of harmonics. Likewise placement in 5ths or 6ths.

Placing in octaves, as has been mentionned, will reinforce the overtones since both instruments are actually "sharing" more harmonics that way, but without the "cancelling out" effect of a unison.

None of these methods of instrumental disposition are “better” or “superior” to any other. It all depends on context. I don't want you worrying too much about this last section. It's a simple fact of accoustics, and there's not much we can actually DO about it. As composers we end up working around any potential problems, and building up our own vocabulary of sounds and sound combinations. This vocabulary, along with your harmonic palette, is what will identify your music as your own. It's not so much a question of choosing a palette, as it is one of simple personal preference.

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Guest QcCowboy

LESSON ONE (continued):


Obviously, you can't be expected to set all of your thematic material in octaves or unisons all the time. Nor will you necessarily be interested in creating complex contrapuntal countermelodies for every single theme you write.

One approach to this is to create "thickened" melody. For example, if my phrase was a rising scale of C major "C - D - E - F - G", harmonized going from C major to G major, you could easily consider using the notes of the first harmony (C major) as a jumping off point, and simply "parallel" your rising phrase until you reach the target harmony of G.


A prime example of this sort of treatment is Ravel's Bolero. In that piece you will find myriad instances of the main theme being not so much harmonized as "thicked" with harmony - sometimes quite pungent harmony (major 7ths at one point).

Your job when orchestrating a melody is to decide at what point the "harmony" can return to unison/octave treatment. Remember that this sort of thickened melody is not actual harmony nor counterpoint but a simple thickening of the texture. Since all the voices are moving in the same direction they do not sound as independant entities.

N.B. This is also one of those examples of "strict counterpoint" rules coming into effect OUTSIDE of the context of any actual counterpoint. If your goal is to create countermelody, then thickened melody will NOT sound as independant voices. If your bass part is acting as a part of that thickened melody, then it does not have true independance from the melodic material either. This is one of those instances where the idea of parallel octaves between the soprano and bass, even in a non-tonal context, can be detrimental to the overall effect of your music. If you let the bass and melody coincide too often you are simply creating a very wide thickened melody.

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Guest QcCowboy

LESSON ONE (continued):


When you play at the piano you use the pedal to create an effect of resonance – notes that hold through as you continue playing. This effect can, and should, be recreated in some way in your orchestration.

I will take this opportunity to add an instrument to our orchestral palette: the Horn in F. We won’t go into technical detail of the instrument’s absolute range (and we will take the same approach with the other brass instruments) but will rather lay out an idealized tessitura wherein the horn is most effective in various contexts.

Brass instruments, like string instruments, have ranges that are not as clearly defined and “absolute” as those of woodwinds. The skill of a performer, as well as the quality of the instrument, will often define the extent a particular instrument can exceed its “normal” range. While we will only consider the written high C (two octaves above middle C) as the highest note for the horn in F, you will surely meet horn players capable of notes beyond this limit. However, as orchestral composers, your main preoccupation is not the rare exception to the rules but rather an overall sense of “ideal”. In this extreme register, the horn loses both tonal quality and precision of both attack and intonation. As a matter of fact, this applies to pretty much all the instruments of the orchestra. If you get into the habit of placing orchestral instruments regularly in their extreme registers, you risk having more trouble with rehearsals/performances and a greater number of unpleasant extra-musical sounds. The recommendation is to keep extremes for those very special moments of climax.

Back to the horn. Here we have a general idea of three different ranges for the Horn in F:


The first example indicates the written (and sounding) full range of the horn in F. Lower than the lowest note here written creates serious intonation and attack problems. The lowest octave is absolutely playable but is not commonly used for the simple reason that there are other instruments more suitable to that register. If you require notes from this lowest octave remember that they cannot be attacked with any precision if the music is extremely active, or if they are approached by wide skips.

What we will refer to here as the “normal” range is shown in the second example. I have further added a “most useful” range which is what will preoccupy us for the first few weeks of these lessons and exercises.

I want you to learn one most important lesson here: the horn is an alto instrument. Meaning that it should NOT consistantly be above the main group of your orchestral ensemble. Its role is principally one of intermediate harmonic support when it is not a solo melodic instrument.

The "most useful range" in the image above is "written notes", meaning, those notes actually sound a perfect 5th lower. DO take that into consideration. The single most common error of young orchestrators is to write the horn part much too high. Assuming you are working in concert pitch (ie: in C), then your horns should only in extremely rare cases go higher than the C in the 3rd space of the treble clef. Once transposed, this means the G just above the staff. The easiest habit to get into is that just visually, looking at a transposed horn part, very little should go above the staff, you should only find ledger lines in very extreme cases. The notes are not impossible, they can and should be used to good effect, but they are not what we are concerned with here. On the other hand, it is VERY normal for a horn part to have notes beneath the treble clef staff. If 50% of the horn's material is written "in the staff", then 49% is written "below the staff", and only 1% will make it "above the staff". If you look at your horn part and it looks like a flute part... toss it.

Here we will also mention a tradition of horn playing: the concept of the high and low horns. Traditionally, the first horn has been the one specializing in the higher notes, while the second desk player specialized in the lower end of the range. With the addition of third and fourth horns for a larger orchestra, this same range preference continues and we have the third player as the “high” horn and the fourth as the “low” horn.

The reason we are talking about the horn at this point sends us back to the opening paragraph of this part of the lesson: resonance. The horn serves a very useful purpose (other than adding a new tonal colour to the woodwind section): it is a solid backbone on which to orchestrate with resonance.

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LESSON ONE (continued):


Here is a very simple example of resonance in orchestration. We have a simple melody in C major, which covers two harmonies only: C major and G major (a dominant 7th chord). With a full woodwind section we might consider giving the actual melodic line to a unison of flute and either oboe or clarinet, or possibly a unison of two different timbres with a third timbre an octave down. The balance of the material is either the bass line, harmonic

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LESSON ONE (continued):


Another important aspect when considering notes to assign as resonance, and here it gets boring and technical, is the directional implication of the notes being chosen from your harmony.

By this I mean that some notes within a single chord have a strong sense of "wanting to go somewhere". In the previous example, I chose a single "common note" treated in octaves as the resonance. As I said, this wasn't the ONLY solution to that particular orchestration problem.

Let's see what else might have worked.

Working from the same example, we still have only two harmonies: C and G7.

We should examine every note of each harmony to see how "directional" it is.

The C major chord:

The root © would have been an acceptable choice. It requires no resolution and is modally neutral - in other words that note does not identify the chord as major or minor or anything else except "C".

The median (E) is problematic. Not a major problem (excuse the pun), but it clearly identifies the modal quality of the chord as being "major". For that simple reason there is considerably more risk of it coming into conflict with potential passing notes in our melodic material. Obviously, this depends heavily on the particular idiom in which you are composing, or the particular harmonic language of the extract you are orchestrating.

The 5th (G) is also an acceptable choice, since it is modally neutral - it does not identify the chord as either major or minor, nor does it really clearly identify it as "C". In this particular case it had the added advantage of also being a note in common with the subsequant harmony.

The G 7th chord:

The root of the chord (G) has the same qualities as that of the preceding chord.

The median (B) is problematic. It is the leading tone in C major, and as such it has a very strong upwards pull. Being a median, it also has a role as a modal identifier - major or minor. So it has two strikes against it, and two more reasons it could conflict with passing notes in the melody.

The 5th (D), like that of the preceding chord, is neutral for mode. However, having no commonality with the subsequant chord (C major), it will require movement (or "resolution"), which is something we are trying to avoid as much as possible when creating a resonance plane.

The 7th (F) is a note that requires resolution and stands out in any texture. If your goal is an unobtrusive background plane of resonance, then this note is not a good choice. However!!! Properly used, for example in a long cadential passage where there is a pedal of dominant 7th, without interfering with the melodic material it would act as a stronger resonance. In a strictly tonal context, this note would require resolution in the normal manner. That resolution would however, make it lose a bit of its "background" role, bringing it into the foreground as a quazi-melodic element. Something to consider if the case should pop up.

So what we end up with is a simple concept:

Resonance works well with "open intervals" (ie: 5ths and octaves) that have a certain modal neutrality to them.

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LESSON ONE (continued):


When dealing with a larger ensemble, the orchestrator will more often than not have access to four horns. It would be important to point out that, despite HAVING four horns, it is not always suggested that you orchestrate with four continuous individual lines for the four instrumental parts.

In the following example, we have a brief phrase, in both 3-part and 4-part harmony. This particular example is written as a sectional solo (ie: it does not rely on other instruments to complete the harmony).

Four Horns


The first thing to notice is the disposition of the four instruments: 1st and 3rd horns are considered the “high” horns, while 2nd and 4th are the “low” horns. This disposition, while not compulsory, is traditional. It has, also, the added advantage of creating a certain stereophonic effect within the grouping of horns since the two higher instruments are not seated together, nor the two instruments designated as “low” horns. This separation is evident in the score a well.

If we examine the example in more detail, we notice that the high horns start in unison on the first chord. The music immediately divides into four parts for the next measure. When the music returns to 3-part harmony, notice that the “low” horns are instead given the unison. The “high” horns could just as easily have been assigned the unison B, however, this also gave the orchestrator the chance to create some melodic movement in the 3rd horn part (the descending figure: B – A – A – G). Had the unison been between 1st and 3rd horns instead,that would have given the rather banal neighbor-tone relationship of simply B – A – A – B.

Notice the 3rd beat of measure 3. Again, the 2nd and 4th horns are in unison. here, the simple leap up a 5th by both is reinforced by the unison. While this particular leap is not particularly difficult to perform, it is an important consideration when writing for horn that leaps be preferably doubled in some way. This reduces the risk of “horn-honk”.

Measure 4 finds the 2nd and 3rd horns in unison. There is no reason here other than to avoid giving the same two instruments constant unisons. Here the orchestrator could have continued the 2nd and 4th horn unison, but then the chance would have been lost for a brief “melodic” moment in the 2nd horn.

In the final measure you may notice that an apparent rule of harmonic voice-leading is broken in the 2nd horn: the F# should normally have resolved up to the G natural. Here licence was taken to allow for a more complete final chord, and it is made to move down to the D. Since the leading tone (F#) is in an inner voice, the lapse in voice-leading is not as noticeable, and the fullness of the final chord is considerably more satisfying. The 3rd horn might have been considered to play that final D, but the parallel 5ths thus created (between 3rd and 4th horns) would have been considerably more noticeable than the “faulty” voice-leading which was our final choice.

Writing for four horns requires a carefully controlled conception of the harmony we are using. The horns cannot be used as “filler” in a woodwind choir, nor in a brass choir. Ideally, their material should come as closely as possible to “harmonic completeness”.

Bring the horns in at an important moment in the music. They will not sound “loud” and “brassy”, but will give a fullness to the orchestral sound. If you toss them into the mix haphazardly, the appearance and disappearance of the horn parts will be glaring. Whether you conceive of the horn part as a resonant part or as a melodic part, you must be sure that it has linear consistancy.

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LESSON ONE (Continued):


Now comes into play an issue we will have to carefully consider in all our future orchestration endeavours: balance.

We know that two of a single instrument are not twice as loud as one of that instrument. And we are also now aware that instruments have stronger registers and weaker ones. It therefore should come as no surprise that as we expand the colour palette of our orchestra we should encounter instruments that carry more weight throughout their range.

The horn is usually considered “midway between the woodwinds and the brass”. There have been innumerable discussions on this topic over the years. Suffice it to say we will accept this as a given without expanding on any theoretical or accoustical reason for this.

The horns blend rather well with the woodwinds, thus explaining their inclusion in woodwind quintets. They also blend well with other brass instruments, though they have more difficulty holding their own against the slightly more powerful trumpets and trombones. One of the reasons the horns blend so well is because of the mellow nature of their timbre.

While you have access to four horns in a traditional orchestral setting, you are not obligated to use the four horns at all times. Apart from the moments where you will assign a particular melodic solo to a single horn, you may require only two horns to give more weight to, or round out the timbre of, a particular orchestral passage.

When writing for a full woodwind complement (two of each), in any dynamic other than soft, four horns can readily overpower the entire sonority. This is why we have spent so much time considering the use of unison and octave doublings, and the construction of blended timbres using the different woodwind.

You will find that you can use your horns as a “harmonic backbone” (much as classical-era composers did) over which you can assign melodic material to composite timbres of mixed woodwinds and/or strings.

Things to try:

create a simple repeated 2-part harmonic rhythmic motif that can be passed back and forth between pairs of horns (a quick edit here: I accidentally wrote horns 1 & 3, then 2 & 4, and of course, this IS possible, but a more likely distribution would be horns 1 & 2, then 3 & 4, thus keeping the high/low horn relationship intact. I must have been half asleep when I created this image!)


create a sustained harmonic background with four horns


create a rhythmic ostinato pedal tone with the four horns


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Guest QcCowboy

LESSON 1 (Continued)

Let me add a final example for the woodwind section. A question came up in the discussion thread on this topic, and I will repost the example and explanation here.

Again, to repeat, the concepts of "weak" and "strong" registers are guidelines meant to aid you in understanding how instruments can and should function together.

Notes in the weak register of an instrument are not notes that are not to be used. Au contraire, learn to use them at appropriate moments, learn to take advantage of the effects they can create.

Brief piccolo and oboe example

Above is a short recording of music using both weak and strong registers of two woodwinds: piccolo and oboe.

The opening places the piccolo, in its lowest register, against tremolo strings.

The oboe comes in in its very lowest "strong" register, with a sort of "honk"-ish quality. The oboe then switches to its "sweet" register, two octaves up. So you can hear the contrast between the two extremes. The piccolo comes in then in its very highest octave.

What you will notice about the piccolo in its "weak" range is that it has an almost "woodsy" quality to it. It actually resembles the sound of the soprano recorder.

The oboe in its strong register, on the other hand, sounds like an asthmatic duck. Which CAN be a nice effect when well used. There are countless examples of this effect in well-known pieces of music.

The important thing to remember with either of these examples, however, is that the instruments in their weak ranges are generally softer and easier to cover up with too heavy an orchestration. Likewise, it is more difficult to expect subtlety from their strong range if the orchestration is very denuded or sparse.

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  • 9 months later...
Guest QcCowboy

LESSON ONE (Continued):


If you are scoring a simple melody with a single woodwind as the soloist, then remember that four horns will easily overpower that solo. If your orchestration also includes a string section, then judicious placement of the solo line above the accompaniment is a “must”.

With half of your woodwind section in unison/octave doublings of thematic material, the four horns may support the harmony with one added consideration – that you are careful to avoid crossing ranges. If your melody resides entirely around middle C, and your horn parts are in that register as well, the two will simply become one massive blur of sound.

By separating the melodic material from the accompaniment material, you bring clarity to the planes of sound. This is not to mean that a solo piccolo playing in its highest octave against an accompaniment of low horns will sound good (mind you, it MIGHT sound good… but it is highly unlikely).

Be sure to give a bit of distance to important melodic material. It may be either above or below, but it should have its own “space”.

When creating octave doublings you may come across instances of the lowest doubling instrument crossing into the range of the accompaniment. This is not as much a problem since that lower doubling is a reinforcement of the upper melody.

And again, you must take into account the psychological effect of “movement attracts attention”. If your accompaniment is extremely agitated and your melody is placid, then they must be clearly separated in space so that the two may be distinguished. If they share the same accoustic zone then the more agitated material will automatically take the predominant role as far as the ear is concerned.


As has been said before, it is not necessary to bring in all four horns at every instance. A single horn may prepare the texture, the additional horns coming in either singly or in pairs or as a group. However, it is important that weight be consistant.

The issue of “movement attracts attention” applies to instrumental density as well. A rapid or sudden shift in instrumental density will sound like movement. A constant shift in density will also create this effect.

There are two extremes when treating background material, neither of which is the perfect solution:

Too little when you have nothing but sustained, repeated notes.

Too much where there is so much activity in the background layer that it begins to steal the spotlight from the actual foreground plane.

The learning process for a composer involves balancing the extremes.


Material may be divided, as well, between the horn parts so as to include both foreground and background material. Nothing stops you, the orchestrator/composer, from giving melodic material to a single horn, or a pair of horns, while designating the balance of the quartet as background plane material.

In this case, great care must be taken to clearly distinguish the registers used. Since the horns are homogenous in sound, similar material for both foreground and background will be confusing to the ear. Nothing stops you from using your fourth horn to play melodic material in a lower register while the balance of the quartet play background material in a higher register (taking great care not to push them into “extreme” note range). As long as the background material, again, does nothing that attracts attention to it, thus camouflaging the intended melodic material.


If you utilize the 2nd and 4th horns as melodic doubling for another section of the orchestra (for example, for the violins, having the horns play the same melody one or two octaves lower), then the issue of confusing planes of sound as mentionned above becomes less important.

Since the horns are then doubling a distinct timbre (in our example, strings), there is considerably less danger of the background plane confusing the listener.

The doubling of strings (whether it be violins or violas, or even cellos) with a single horn, or the entire group, is a standard orchestration process (one which John Williams use a great deal, by the way).

Horns can add a great deal of solidity to a woodwind melody as well, giving it more strength to hold its own weight against a full orchestral complemant of brass and strings in a louder passage.

The trick is to learn when and where to utilize this sort of very rich and full doubling. Overusing it will very quickly tire the ear and becomes boring.

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