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Im composing a song or theme for a setting in the desert. I'm trying to get instruments to use to capture the feeling being in the desert.

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This question is... rather broad. Duke Ellington did just fine with a jazz ensemble instrumentation; and I would argue that to say thematic feelings are dependent on instrumentation is to diminish both the thematic feeling and the instrument in question. Rather than attempting to match instruments to mood, I would instead suggest asking for recommendations of instruments common in desert-based musical cultures if that's really what you want. –  NReilingh Jan 28 '12 at 5:10
    
Sorry, I have to vote to close, not only for the reasons NReilingh gives, but also because "desert" is so broad. The dunes of the Sahara feel completely different to the scrubland of the Navajo. –  slim Jan 29 '12 at 10:30
    
You guys are thinking to much. I'm simply asking for advice for instruments to use. The feeling is up to me and how to use those instruments. –  DimebagFan Jan 29 '12 at 22:24
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Apologies for thinking too hard. Use a guitar. –  slim Jan 30 '12 at 9:05
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3 Answers

Well, I've never been to the desert, but I watch a lot of documentaries. The only sound in the desert itself is the wind and the sand.

So maybe some soft woodwinds?

And scraping noises. Drums with brushes. Shakers. A soft-shoe tap-dancer?

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What does tap-dancing notation look like? (It had honestly never crossed my mind to use that as an actual percussion instrument.) –  AsianSquirrel Jun 4 '13 at 3:16
    
I wish I knew! It was just a wild idea. –  luser droog Jun 4 '13 at 4:01
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Here are some different approaches I thought of:

Cultural accuracy

Firstly, what is the geographic location of the desert you have in mind? There are many different types of deserts, and different regional cultures within the same desert (such as the African Sahara --just think of the vast number of African people groups it spans) will have different music styles --different instruments, different rhythmic patterns played on common instruments...the list goes on and on. I would advise doing some research and picking a specific location and cultural group if you are aiming for accuracy.

Also, as with any composition work you will ever do, the "feel"/situation/idea/viewpoint you are trying to portray/depict/suggest (I couldn't pick just one word, hence the forward slashes). A peaceful moment at a stereotypical oasis will (or should!) sound much different from a sandstorm, long and laborious camel caravan trek, unexpected rain, or bitterly cold and dark night. A work that attempts to follow a lost, dehydrated wanderer's encounters with various mirages will have a completely different feel than that illustrating the hectic flight of a desert hare -- and both of those will be written differently than a majestic celebration of the desert's vast landscape itself... and then incorporating indigenous instruments into the mix, as well as typical regional rhythmic patterns, time sigs, scales, etc. will also give the piece a unique flavor.


Going with the stereotype

Disney definitely made broad use of the Middle-Eastern desert stereotype (and probably helped develop and fuel it) in the movie Aladdin. Luckily for us, many parts of the movie's soundtrack reflects their aims. Some other references I can think of right now/found on the web are Arabian Dances and a marching band show I saw this year (unfortunately I can't think of the name of the show or the band).

My concert band idea

If you're writing this for concert band or something, though, and just trying to achieve the stereotypical, instantly-recognizable desert image, here are my ideas on the "desert landscape" thing (I like the concept so much I'll probably try my own hand at this someday):

  • Opening movement/section (depending on how long the piece is):
    Aerial flyover-type thing....soaring over the endless sand.
    Brass play a rousing, broad melody, with woodwinds floating atop with various runs,etc. supporting the brassline, liberal use of cymbal crashes, tasteful tom-tom (and maybe timpani) parts, indigenous instruments support, playing a theme that continues throughout the piece [some kind of cool ostinato-type stuff]
  • Oasis
    Swooping in to get a closer look at things....
    Brass drop out, lightly-scored woodwinds give a more intimate feel than the previous "sweep-over" by the brass. Infrequent but well-placed trills accent the cultural-region-contributed syncopation, if any. Marimbas play some kind of slightly syncopated, cultural-region-based pattern, shakers or whatever indigenous instruments are highlighted occasionally and are used as the main percussion/rhythmic-drive force now (bass drum, timpani, snare, and cymbals are a no-go here).

  • Desert animals thing
    Following a desert animal...which one, I have no idea
    Probably a marimba ensemble feature plus the addition of any indigenous instruments you can think of. What goes on here is dependent on the animal selected. Cabasa is likely a must, unless taking a "savage dismembering" approach.

  • Lost in the Desert
    Great. We're lost. Stereotypical walking-around-in-circles, etc.
    Trancelike feel with much shifting of time sigs, accidentals thrown in (shift between scales perhaps, to give that idea of uncertainty and confusion)...Depending on the feel you're going for, perhaps some synthy stuff for mirages. Or maybe play off the fact that they're "illusions" and give the illusion that the phrase is about to resolve and abruptly cut it off with the start of a new phrase, that perhaps repeats but increases tempo each time? This could go in many different directions.

  • NIGHT
    Plunge into darkness.
    Eerie vibraphone and French horn stuff, maybe have horns "stop" the bells with hands for hits or something, to give contrast. Native instruments should shine in this passage (in my opinion). Claves or something similar would be neat on a syncopated pattern. Low reeds could sustain. Eventually maybe a bassoon solo.

  • Daylight, caravan trekking
    Leaning heavily on downbeats to suggest the footfalls/gait of the camels.
    Here is where the "one TWO-AND three FOUR" (not sure if I got the accents right) would be played by drums (djembe, etc.) and shakers. Maybe sparse use of background winds and pitched percussion to accentuate the "lean" more. Oboe solo, muted trumpet support possibly. The main idea for this section will be the obvious placing of weight on downbeats. Dramatic entrance of French horns leading the brass if going into either the (grossly stereotype-driven) desert raiders scene or the "back-to-the-intro-overview-theme" thing (not listed, because it's like a "swooping back out thing").

  • [obnoxious stereotype alert] Either desert raiders or marketplace
    Depending on which option.....
    Desert raiders: Intensity is key here....a lot of tribal-sounding tom-toms....just go with the drama. Marketplace: Think hectic, think of the market in Aladdin (again, hate to say it, but...). Driving low brass, low reeds stay low except on hits. Saxes and/or clarinets could have melody here, but it really depends. Maybe add in some wild trombone after the melody is well-established. Lots of shakers and hand-drums. Little to no timpani.

Again, this is just a bunch of random stuff I thought of off the top of my head. Now that I read it, it sounds like more of a movie score than a cohesive work, but I might be wrong. And I applaud anyone who read though yet another of my ridiculously long answers. (I honestly try not to make them long...)

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You also might be able to work some cajon in there, but only to support more ethnically correct instruments. But it seems that you're wanting to play the song yourself, and cajons are much easier to come by than indigenous instruments. :) –  AsianSquirrel Jun 2 '13 at 13:59
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What kind of mood? Anything like this or this? At any rate, a sitar and some bongos would be a good start.

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I do have those instruments. Sitar was my first on the list. I tried bongos but I wasn't impressed with the sound I was looking for so I switched to a timpani. –  DimebagFan Jan 28 '12 at 3:28
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I always think of double reed instruments, like oboe, when I think of desert (or Egyptian) music. –  Reina Abolofia Jan 28 '12 at 4:46
    
Maracas! That kind of percussive instrument. –  Edward Bowles Feb 13 '12 at 11:00
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