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Whilst learning more about the art of composition for traditional classical music, I have come across a question that I always wish I knew the answer to.

Multilayered classical 'songs' are so detailed; the amount of instrumentals playing at one time is huge. Often 10 or more notes are being played simultaneously. If you were the composer on these pieces, surely you would have to go back to the start and write for different instruments each time? You could not simply write it down as you were going for every single instrument, could you? That would take near on a genius.

So back to my question:

Is it commonplace then, to start with say, the strings, then go back and do the woodwinds, then go back to the start again and do brass, and then percussion?

This must be the most common way of composing; yes?

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If my memory serves me correctly, Professor Robert Greenberg in his lectures about Bach relates that Bach would compose his concertos this way:

  • First: He would write the main melodic themes of the lead instruments.
  • Next: He would write the parts for the Basso Continuo.
  • Finally: He would fill in the material for the Tutti - the rest of the orchestra.

Logically, this makes perfect sense:

The lead melodies are the defining features of a piece and would not be determined by the accompaniment.

The Basso Continuo provides the fundamental harmonic and rhythmic underpinnings of the main themes, so that comes next.

The Tutti fills in the spaces, providing embellishment, harmonic depth, contrast and texture within the framework determined by the other two components.


I'm sure that others, more familiar with the details of scores and autographs, could confirm that other composers used similar systems, although there are undoubtedly some exceptions. Both logic, and, as you rightfully pointed out, practicality, would seem to demand that sort of approach to complex orchestral composition. It's no different than building a skyscraper or a bridge - one cannot do it haphazardly and expect a good result.

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Depends upon the composer.

The melody/melodic material is generally written first along with basic harmonic notes (what chords to be played beneath the melody).

The melody is then generally written onto whichever instrument the composer sees fitting (commonly trumpets/horns/violins).

Following this different composers approach orchestration differently. A technique both I use and many of my friends use is to start with strings or brass dependent on the genre. But this changes. For example I often write the horns line at the same time as the viola line. Or writing the trombone parts along with the bassoon and cello parts.

It depends on the overall atmosphere of the piece as if it is meant to be a percussion heavy (military style) piece then percussion may be one of the first to orchestrate.

Back to your question, orchestration often also occurs a phrase at a time; rather than orchestrating all the strings from bar 1 to the end, one might orchestrate the first 8 bar phrase for all instruments before continuing to the next.

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