I want to learn orchestration. How can I start? Are there any steps on how to start learning for a musician that has never tried it before?

What kind of level of music theory do I need before I embark onto orchestration?

3 Answers 3


Short of embarking on a formal taught course, surely reading some books is a good first step.

Rimsky-Korsakov's "Principles of Orchestration" is out of copyright, and you can find English translations for free if you Google for it. Browse Amazon for newer books on the subject.

If you know enough theory to write a piano piece with harmony, then you can start composing simple pieces for groups of instruments.

You would probably want to build up to full orchestral composition, in the same way as a painter would make sketches before attempting a gigantic canvas. So write for a brass ensemble or a string quartet first. It is somewhat easier to find a string quartet to try out your composition, than it is to persuade a full orchestra to play a piece.

You have an advantage Rimsky-Korsakov did not have. You can try out arrangements using a sequencer.

  • Can you also mention what kind of level I need on my music theory knowledge before I embark onto orchestration? Aug 20, 2014 at 10:53

I have orchestrated several pieces for performances at a local college and I have no formal music education, other than some vocal lessons, and an introductory music theory class in college. I do however have lots of personal experience writing songs and independent study of general music theory. Chords and scales, etc.

If you have written songs before for multiple instruments, such as guitar, piano, vocals, and bass, this can be considered 'orchestration'. I treat the act of orchestration quite similarly.

When writing for an orchestra it's essential to break down instruments into their respective groups and with their tone in mind think about how you want them to behave. Not that I do the same for every piece I orchestrate, but typically I let low instruments, such as cello and tuba perform what I would normally write for a bass line and throw in embellishments, solos, or fills to keep it interesting. I usually utilize strings as chords, writing triads using violins and violas, with the cello acting like a bass but also usually hovering on or around the root of the chord. I also utilize strings melodically when the piece calls for it, and then get creative with letting woodwinds or brass instruments handle the harmonies.

I could go into great detail on how I usually approach other instrument sets, but I think the string example suffices.

You should start by taking a song that either you've written or a song that you like that is not written for orchestra and try orchestrating it. If you have access to recording equipment and a keyboard this would be especially helpful since you can record the parts with midi instruments and get a general idea of how it will sound.


To answer your 3rd question first. Grade 5 theory, ABRSM would be a good level to be at, by then you'll have covered different clefs, harmony, time signatures, writing in all keys and met transposing instruments.

First and second questions. Orchestration is not necessarily getting it all written down, at least not initially. Get a loop station and a keyboard. Maybe start with a melody line you have made up, then layer it with - bass, chords, counter melody, etc., until you are happy with the results. No writing of dots, but you will have a feel of what works immediately, just by playing back. Using a keyboard will give you many sounds/instruments to put into your piece.

Bear in mind other problems will appear in the writing, if you do it longhand. Lots of instruments transpose, so you have to compensate by writing a piece, say in C, with trumpets in D, alto sax in Eb, etc.Obviously there are loads of computer programs that will do all this stuff for you, but you'll never get the feeling of being another Mozart, Beethoven or Ravel with those !

Another option is to take a simple arrangement that has been written, listen carefully, and try to emulate it, both in writing, and in using that keyboard. See how close you get to the original, but also put your own spin on it, by changing parts, instruments, timing, etc. Good luck !

  • Would basic part writing be a pre-resiquite for basic orchestration? It would be useful to know how to invert chords, how melodic lines interact, and how to properly move between chords. Aug 20, 2014 at 23:26
  • @ElyBeauEastman - yes, it would. Hence the last para. Moving 'properly' between chords, etc., will mean listening for consecutive fifths, etc.,and actually hearing them for what they are. The usual sounds wrong - probably is; sounds right - probably is.Mostly covered by grade 5.
    – Tim
    Aug 21, 2014 at 5:55

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