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I'm a seventeen-year-old aspiring film composer. I have twelve years of piano and theory experience, but beyond that, I have no experience with anything else musicwise. I am homeschooled with no easy access to an orchestra or other music program. I also want to learn to compose using a DAW but I don't have a synthesizer use with one. Where would you suggest I start when trying to learn how to write for other instruments? It seems I really need to learn to orchestrate, but I don't know where to start.

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So, your question has two premises: Where do I start for composition? and Where do I start for orchestration?


I would like to note that undertaking composition is a large endeavor and that the suggestions below are by no means comprehensive, but are some general advice for how one should get started writing and orchestrating. If I think of more, I'll add more.


GENERAL COMMENTS

Where to start for composition

  • You need to write music. Mountains of it. Everyday. For as long as you can.
  • You need to hear as many of those pieces performed, as you can. Hearing your music is excellent feedback for what works / what doesn't work.
  • If you have no one to play your stuff and your not in any program, write for yourself.
  • Orchestration for most people is just arranging the short score (piano score) for orchestra or another ensemble. The music has to be good before it can be given to other instruments. Other people (like me), write "open score" which is to say that I write directly to the orchestra / ensemble.
  • Write a solo piece for every instrument in the orchestra. Better yet, while you're learning each instrument, write yourself a solo piece to play, and then learn it / play it (see my bullet below about playing instruments).
  • After you've written a ton of solo pieces (short ones, maybe a minute or two), then write duos for every combination you can think of. Then move on to trios, quartets, etc etc, then write for chamber groups in the same family (wind quartet, string quartet, brass quintet, etc, then mix all chamber instrumentation. Learn to write for voice. An orchestra uses all of these things, so you need to know how everything works before you can put it all together.
  • Read scores. Learn to listen and read scores - especially from the old masters. Start from Baroque and work your way up to 2017. If you ever have a problem in composition, look for answers in the scores. Composers don't wait for inspiration, they solve problems.

Where to start for orchestration

  • You need to know ranges and transpositions by heart = surface-level stuff. But, you need to know it, cold. Samuel Adler wrote the Bible on orchestration, basically, and Alfred Blatter's resource is excellent as well.
  • Beyond the nuts & bolts, you need to be familiar with the qualities and nuances of each instrument - how they sound and feel in each register, what issues they have, what they do well. When you orchestrate, you need to orchestrate to these strengths and minimize the weaknesses. Knowing the timbre and character, and when to use each instrument is part of the art of orchestration. The best way to do this is to learn to play each instrument. No better experience than seeing it for yourself. Learn them in score-order if you want; go to a music shop, rent a flute for 3 months. Woodshed that flute with some method books for 3 months. Since you can already read music and know the theory, it's just a matter of learning technique. Do that for every instrument. Write down what you learn as you go along and keep all your discoveries in a journal or word document.
  • Don't be in a rush to write for orchestra. For young / beginning students, they typically don't even touch an orchestra for the first two years. The reason here is simple: too many instruments. They don't yet have a competent grasp of orchestration or composition to use the orchestra properly.

SPECIFIC COMMENTS

  • If you can get into a music festival for composition, many of them offer readings / performances from full or chamber-size orchestras. If you ever plan on going to school for it, recordings of these are a must. (Those opportunities are also given in school programs.)
  • Be aware that apart from a handful of people (Howard Shore, Hans Zimmer, John Williams, Marco Beltrami, Andre Desplat, Michael Giacchino, etc) that many, many people struggle to make a full-time living as film score composers. If you're at all considering any sort of career in composition, be realistic in realizing that you may have to do additional things besides score films. (I know some very prominent, very successful composers who toiled in absolute obscurity in LA trying to "make it" before becoming incredibly successful doing other things.)
  • Thanks so much! Anything I write for piano I can test out myself to see if it works, but any other instrument, I can't afford to learn how to play or have someone else do it. I've been learning about the ranges of instruments from YouTube, and I have a better understanding of some instruments than others. Do you have any suggestions on how good my compositions need to be to get into a college Composition major? All the colleges I'm looking at want me to send two or three compositions, but I don't know what they expect me to know before I can get in. – Kathryn Price Sep 20 '17 at 19:02
  • Instruments are quite cheap to rent month to month - usually $15-30. You can buy many instruments used from pawn shops for very cheap as well. I can't speak for all colleges / universities / conservatories, but most are looking at originality of ideas - potential. The thinking here is that anyone can learn nuts & bolts but intrinsic sensibilities are unique to the person. Knowing concrete skills only makes you more competitive relative to other applicants for that year. Ideally, you'd want to know these things just because you're obsessed with composition. – jjmusicnotes Sep 21 '17 at 4:32
  • Oh, lastly, I would definitely stay away from anything that sounds like a film-score. Too many kids trying to be glamorous without putting in work. Good luck. – jjmusicnotes Sep 21 '17 at 4:33
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Depends a little on what you want to do.. ie., what approach you want to take.

You can use MuseScore (Free, open source) to create music scores that can be played back with the sounds that come with MuseScore.. or you can export MIDI and play it through other DAWs.

If you'd rather create music with a DAW, checkout this guys videos https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC_CyR8Aqfl45kzFIDeMr-CQ

He uses Fl Studio, which doesn't look terribly expensive. Reaper is pretty cheap also. I haven't used either of those programs.

I don't know where you're from, but in Pennsylvania school districts have to allow access to kids who are home-schooled. So kids from our district can play in the band even if they are home-schooled. Finally, look into community bands in your area.

  • I've been using MuseScore to try to get my ideas down, but I posted them on a composer's forum and it looks like I'm going to need a lot of help in the orchestration department. I'll check out the programs you suggested-thanks! There's a commmunity orchestra in my area, and the school districts might let me join, but it won't help me apply for a college program in a couple months like I was hoping. Also, in order to play in an orchestra, wouldn't I need to play an orchestral instrument? I was looking into viola, but I'll need to earn some money first. – Kathryn Price Sep 19 '17 at 19:25
  • Our school uses keyboards in some of the ensembles and in marching band. Also, keyboardists can easily adapt to regular percussion (especially tuned percussion, like marimba) You might appreciate this video also youtube.com/watch?v=qtO9uHGQFes – Greg Sep 19 '17 at 19:43

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