I'm thinking of composing pieces for small ensembles with varied instrumentation.

Typically I compose on a keyboard. How do I determine if the musician can easily play the parts I write for them?

I can determine the playability of voice, keyboard, drums and guitar parts but not other instruments such as strings, woodwinds and brass. I can hear how the piece sounds approximately by listening to a MIDI sequence.

What are the rules of composition for strings, woodwinds and brass?

  • "Orchestration" by Samuel Adler? – pro Jan 12 '18 at 0:19
  • "Orchestration" by Walter Piston? – pro Jan 12 '18 at 0:19
  • "Principles of Orchestration" by Rimsky-Korsakov is too-high level. – pro Jan 12 '18 at 0:20
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    Many, many composers throughout history learned to write music by copying scores by hand. You’re not looking for motifs, you’re seeing how the instruments are handled and what is possible. Now to answer your question: learn to play the instrument yourself. You’ll have great knowledge of what what works or not because you’ve actually played the instrument. I learned to play all the instruments and it had a profound effect on my writing and orchestration. No complaining - just do the work: learning orchestration, hearing people play it, learning instruments yourself, ask questions simple as that – jjmusicnotes Jan 12 '18 at 12:27
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    I think the problem with this question is twofold: 1) There are many ways to learn about the playability of passages on different instruments, and none of them are easily summarizable here and 2) There are no rules. Penderecki doesn't seem to have worried about whether Threnody For The Victims of Hiroshima was particularly playable, but he clearly knew a bit about what was possible on the different string instruments. One reasonable answer to this question is lots of studying, but that would include reading scores which the asker seems unwilling to do. – Todd Wilcox Jan 12 '18 at 22:45

There's not an easy answer other than what you're asking requires a level of experience and exposure to the instruments in question. As a non-multi-instrumentalist, the quickest logical solution for me is to research possible and comfortable ranges for each instrument and either maintain a cheat sheet, or a list of examples for common instrumentation/tone colors.

The only thing that is a hard and fast rule is if you write a part for an instrument, make sure it is in the playable range of the instrument. Please don't write a low (below the staff) A for a concert flute, for example.

Sensible composition will take the best from experience, and utilize instruments effectively to draw out the correct colors from each respective instrument. For example, you might not want to use a percussive instrument for a sound that is meant to be sustained, like a whole note on a string instrument (unless the idea is for the note to ring out and echo over silence or over other sounds). A lot of composition is using that sense. However, depending on your own ideas, it takes learning the "rules" (more correctly, learning the conventions) and then maybe learning how to break those "rules"/conventions to get the sound you want. In the end, it's your piece! What experience you put behind it will determine if it's a good one.

  • Yes tessitura is a good rule. Do you have any good rules for fingering, jumps, rests for wind players, etc.? – pro Jan 12 '18 at 0:06
  • Unfortunately, I don't. I have suggestions of things I can think of that may be leads, but I have no "rules" so to speak. For example, you might not want to write a constantly moving line for a wind instrument that lasts a very long time without breaks. Score analysis will help with determining common patterns for instruments, length of play capability, and general sense (such as, strings get a lot of activity because they have no physical limitations such as shortness of breath, but they also can't play everything in one bow stroke) – psosuna Jan 12 '18 at 0:09
  • Another thing that might be a great help is to know the mechanics of each instrument. It came to me recently as a "duh" moment to me but not to the other person, that when a string instrument plays their notes, the bow changes direction unless otherwise instructed. Little nuances like these often go missed unless you take at least a small primer in the mechanics of playing the actual instrument. I think this, combined with knowing the range feasibility, and whether things like octave leaps or chromatics are easy or difficult, is a good enough starting point to begin to dabble with some sense – psosuna Jan 12 '18 at 0:11
  • keep in mind that the case for score analysis is not so that you can learn to write like someone else, but to get an understanding of patterns across composition styles (the ones that don't affect musicality like, most wind instruments should be able to handle this much time playing with one breath) – psosuna Jan 12 '18 at 0:18

A few ideas:

You might try to follow the example of the composer Hindemith, who was reputed to be able to play every standard orchestral instrument. He was certainly an exception musician, and he clearly devoted his whole life to music. Whether you want to go to that level of dedication is another matter!

It would be worth investing in a few books about learning to play various instruments. For example, a few days reading books about learning to play the violin, together with knowledge of the tuning of the 4 strings of the instrument would give you a reasonable grasp of what "ought" to be playable. Clearly this would not give you enough detailed knowledge to write the solo part for a violin concerto, but knowing that the violin can play pretty much any melody that does not go below G below middle C ought to be a decent staring point.

Having got a reasonable understanding for the violin, it would not be too difficult to get a similar level of understanding for viola, cello and double bass.

For woodwind instruments, the most important restriction is to look at the lowest and (normal) highest note they can play, If you stick to a melody line that lies between those 2 limits and only plays one note at a time, you are probably fine.

Brass might be similar, but I am no Hindemith and have very little knowledge of brass instruments. Maybe a book or an Internet tutorial on learning the basics of French Horn, trumpet, trombone etc would be enough.

To give an example, I am not a flautist, but knowing that the flute can play any note between middle C and at least 2 and a half octaves above (and probably more), and has virtually no limitations about playing a large jump from one note to the next, then almost any melody line within a range of 2.5 octaves above middle C ought to be possible for any decent flautist.

It might well be worth the effort of going through the music theory syllabus for an exam board such as ABRSM, as they require knowledge of many orchestral instruments, and go into some slightly obscure areas such as transposing instruments like the B-flat clarinet. The syllabus will not tell you everything you need to know, but it would prevent you making some basic errors at least.

Finally, you could have a look at the very large number of orchestral scores available for free on IMSLP and see for yourself the sort of parts that many composers have written for instrumentalists.


First, both the Adler and Piston orchestration books are great starting points. They'll not only inform you as to range and proper transposition, but give you a good idea as to what is idiomatic (normal and comfortable for the instrument), what is possible, and what is to be avoided.

Second, get to know how the instruments work. Put yourself in the body of a string or brass player. How far would I need to stretch on a cello for this double stop? Am I asking the brass to play too high for too long, knowing that this is fatiguing? As a musician, I really do appreciate it when it's evident the composer or orchestrator put some thought into what is possible and comfortable on the instrument I'm playing.

Third, if it's a question about a technique, find someone who plays the instrument and ask them about it. If you have friends who play the instrument in question, you might even get them to demonstrate what you're asking for so you can hear it before you write it.


Study scores. See what HAS been written for the instruments you intend to use. There's plenty available on IMSLP http://imslp.org/ Start with the Mozart symphonies. Even if your musical style is a million miles away from Mozart's, you'll get a good idea of what lies well for violin, flute, clarinet etc.

You say you don't want to hear 'have a musician play it'. But are you writing for an actual group of musicians, in your locality? (If not, who IS going to play it?) Talk to them. They'll be glad to advise and demonstrate.

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