Obviously there are several well-known orchestration treatises throughout history; Berlioz's is perhaps the most famous, and Adler's is perhaps the one most in use today. My question is whether orchestration has ever been approached from a systematic and analytic way. Whenever I hear/read someone invoking orchestration in a scholarly setting, it's usually very surface-level: the composer uses a piccolo here to depict fragility, the tuba here to depict sluggishness.

I'm looking for something much more rigorous than this. Has anyone ever systematized a scholarly, analytic approach to orchestration, whether through timbre, instrument construction, or otherwise?

  • If you want a "rigorous" answer to this (or any other) question, you first have to find a rigorous definition of what the question actually means. Otherwise, the answer is likely to be the musicological equivalent of en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – user19146
    Jun 19, 2016 at 20:33
  • I was intentionally vague in an effort to cast as broad a net as possible. I'm looking for anything that uses orchestration for an analytic purpose that is more systematic and rigorous than the typical "brass instruments here because loud."
    – Richard
    Jun 19, 2016 at 21:03
  • I googled analytical orchestration and got: alexanderpublishing.com/Products/…
    – user30440
    Jun 20, 2016 at 14:13

1 Answer 1


I am unsure of anything that systematically analyzes orchestration. I've worked with the Adler, the Berlioz, and the Rimsky-Korsakov. This is quite a broad question because indeed orchestration is extremely subjective. You can find more systematic approaches in spectralism, for example. It is interesting because often orchestration is judged objectively. I.e., "Mussorgsky made many orchestrational errors."

However, when I was in conservatory I my orchestration teach did systematically define orchestration practice. The key is to do it historically. This will be more work, but it was incredibly fruitful for me. Start with Hadyn and Mozart. There are more than just "tendencies" but actually rules for doubling and the organization of instruments you can find in the scores. Start by looking at what instruments typically double each other and when, how the winds and the strings are treated differently, and how tutti sections operate. Then move on to Beethoven and question what is truly different. It become very obvious how the ideas evolved. Finding the system in orchestration can only be done historically with a strong knowledge of how these timbral ideas changed over time. A young composer might feel free to orchestrate a piece in anyway they fancy now, but in 1740 this was most definitely not the case.

Sorry I don't have a specific book to read, but scores are always the best resource for learning. IMSLP is our friend.

  • You've hit the nail on the head; that orchestration is often judged objectively, yet we only ever really approach it subjectively. I'm unconvinced by a later sentence, though: "There are more than just 'tendencies' but actually rules for doubling and the organization of instruments you can find in the scores." How, in your opinion, does one distinguish between something that is 'just a tendency' and a full-fledged 'rule'?
    – Richard
    Jun 20, 2016 at 8:35
  • Theory often follows practice and I think this is the case for orchestration. For example, we learn proper harmonic movement for different eras of music now, but Mozart most certainly was not thinking about specific rules for his next harmonic movement or modulation.
    – John Ivers
    Jun 20, 2016 at 9:29
  • When referring to the classical period I gather ´rules´would be the proper word, as `the way´to make music was very strictly taught, either from father to son as in the case of Mozart, or in apprenticeship arrangements. Deviations from these rules would not be accepted or at least would be scorned upon, as indeed they were by some when Beethoven himself did it. It is not for no reason that we refer to "common practice" (Oxford Dictionary: practice-the customary, habitual, or expected procedure or way of doing of something) when talking about classical period. Jun 20, 2016 at 9:30
  • John, I dear say Mozart would perhaps not be thinking about specific rules, but only because he had them extremely well ingrained and he used them automatically, as did all composers from the period, who were taught by the partimenti and schemata methods. Mozart's knowledge and domain over these methods is historically documented (see e.g. scholarworks.gsu.edu/cgi/…). It is only proof of his greater genius that he is able to flomboyantly surprise and (most times) be original while applying the common practice of the day. Jun 20, 2016 at 9:53
  • I agree with most of what has been said here (and I applaud @joseem for a great citation there), but it seems that the distinction between 'just a tendency' and 'an actual rule' is very vague. It comes across as something stated, though still not proven.
    – Richard
    Jun 20, 2016 at 10:20

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