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I'm trying to find out about the process of composing for the multiple instruments in an orchestra. Do you just write on the piano for all the instruments and then present the finished piece to the orchestra?

Or do you present the semi-finished piece to the orchestra and then make adjustments?

Or do you continually write small sections and then test it with an orchestra and then re-write parts and repeat this process many times until you finish the piece? If so how many times, roughly, do you try out the piece with an orchestra? 5? 20? 100?

I've not been able to find an example of an orchestral composer explaining this process so far on the web and I'm very interested in the process! If you are an orchestral composer and could share some information about your process I would be very grateful.

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Well Hector, I'm a composer who's written for orchestra several times, and I'm happy to tell you how composers typically wrangle that beast.

There are 3 primary ways composers work, depending on their preference:

  1. Piano Score
  2. Short Score
  3. Open Score

Piano Score – when a composer writes everything on a grand staff (like you would for piano). Often composers will add little indications to show which parts should go with which instruments (e.g. "fl." for "flute" and then a connecting line to a run of 8th notes). Many composers are pianists, so these is an easy way to work for them. After the piano score is done, the composer will orchestrate the music, assigning different parts of the music to different orchestral instruments. (I'll explain orchestration a little more below).

Short Score – a short score is somewhere between a piano score and a full score. A short score will typically have the grand staff as before, but might include additional staves of fully notated music. So for example, if a composer knew they wanted lots of big brass chords but little tiny fast fluttery woodwind sounds, they might elect to put the chords on the grand staff and use 3-6 additional separate staves for the woodwinds. Again, once the music is done, orchestration.

Open Score – also known as "Full Score", this is when the composer writes the music directly on to a full sized orchestral score. Instead of 2 staves like in a piano score or 5-10 in a short short score, there might be anywhere from 24-60 staves depending on the size of the orchestra and the type of piece the composer is creating. Once the composer is done the music here, orchestration is already done (however, if they wanted to play a reduction for someone, they'd have some work cut out for them!)

There are pros/cons to each of these methods. I won't go through all of them as that would take awhile, but I'll give a couple examples: piano score pro: quick and intuitive / con: the most orchestration work. open score pro: allows the composer to instantly write for any instrument / con: if the composer is not disciplined, a score can become really clouded, unfocused, and disorganized. In the end, the manner in which composers write depends on personal preference.

Copying & Orchestration – if a composer is not well-known, prestigious, or established, often they will copy (make the score and parts) and orchestrate their own music. If they are those three things I mentioned, they'll often outsource that work to less established composers. This workflow is very common in movie scoring: in fact, there are companies dedicated to "music preparation" that prepares the written music for the orchestra, and movies often have teams of orchestrators to translate the composer's music into a full score.

Putting it in people's hands – orchestras are big and very expensive. For that reason, any time an orchestra plays or reads music is a very special thing. Professional orchestras might rehearse a piece 1-3 times before a performance. A conductor will ALWAYS spend more time on old, dead guys (like Beethoven and Mozart) than someone new and living. This is sad and should be reversed, but I digress.

If it's part of a commission (a financial agreement between the composer and commissioner), then workshops are typically included and outlined in the commissioning agreement; the people who pay for the piece want to make sure it's good, and they'll often schedule workshops throughout the processes, sometimes 1 in the middle and perhaps 1 toward the end before final delivery. During the first workshop, they obviously don't expect the entire piece. For that workshop, the composer should endeavor to try out as many different ideas / sounds as conceivably possible. (I once sat in on a workshop in which a composer didn't have any part of a "piece" but spent the entire 30 minutes having the orchestra play 20-second gestures. This is an excellent use of a first workshop.) However, the 2nd or final workshop needs to have a completed draft. That workshop should be for tweaking and adjusting the final product before delivery.

Almost all commissions / project have a specific timeline, so the it's the composer's job to make sure that they stick to that timeline as well as the guidelines of the commission.

Computer simulations are "okay" but mediocre at best as to be truly effective they need to rely on what we call MIDI Programming to make them sound really realistic, and this is a very time-intensive process, and again, people specialize in doing it (especially in film, where they can make up to $400/hr!) In the end, the absolute best thing is to always hear the music played by live, human performers. It gives the composer the truest reflection and sense of the sound.

Last point – and this is really important: composers are not mystical wizards. Yes, the final product sounds really impressive, but like most everything else humans do, writing for orchestra comes in layers. General ideas and sections take place, and from there, more tweaking and details emerge. Composers are always weighing the music they hear versus what's in their head, and they try and make the two match up as closely as possible.

Hope that helps.

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If you have your own orchestra at your disposal (like Haydn did), then you can try out your compositions multiple times if needed. However, most of us do not have the luxury of having an orchestra at our disposal, so it would be better to try and get your full composition as complete as you can before offering it to an orchestra to play. Minor adjustments can be made as needed. The more experienced you become, the closer you will get to knowing what you wanted in your score.

Study scores of pieces that you admire and see how they achieve what they do.

You can write your composition in reduced form for the piano and orchestrate it later if you wish. However, a great goal to aim for is to be able to 'hear' what you want away from the piano and try and get it as close to your intention as you can. Not easy to do. Great composers like Britten composed in this way. With time, every composer will find the best/most comfortable process for himself/herself.

  • It should be added that composers have had vastly different workflows. Some of the greatest magicians of sound, (e.g. Richard Strauss) would compose entire major works in reduction and then set aside time during summer break for weeks of non-stop orchestrating. Others (e.g. Hector Berlioz) would have cut off their hand rather than let a piano anywhere near any part of their artistic process. – Kilian Foth Jan 29 at 7:45
  • I doubt Haydn would have landed a job with orchestra attached unless he was already pretty good at churning out music that DID work, without too much trial-and-error. – Laurence Payne Jan 29 at 17:23
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You’re asking and you give quite the right answers.

But first it is to say that the job of instrumentation and orchestration is always the biggest and needs more time than to compose and notate your ideas. And since there are notation programs you‘re wasting the most of the time for things concerning the layout!

All of the three ways are possible and useful. Which is to prefer is dependent of the complexity of the arrangement and the challenge of the work.

Most advisable is to write in a grand staff with bass instruments and soprano instruments like you say (a piano reduction ) but with an additional system between the two (treble and bass clef) for middle voices and counterpoint parts. When ever you have already an idea you can write the instruments names abbreviation to the notes.

In homophone sections it will be sufficiant to note just the chord.

It can also help to make first only a dispositio or a graphic designe of the whole n

It might look fine, smart and cool to start with a full orchestra score, but you don‘t save time writing this way. We are not all Bachs, Beethoens and Mozarts.

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    I disagree with your some of your comments, especially about using a full score. It depends entirely on the composer. – jjmusicnotes Jan 29 at 14:44
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Only a few years ago, I'd have responded to your idea that orchestration could proceed on a trial-and-error basis with a sardonic 'Dream on!' A new composer studied scores, listened to as much music as possible, orchestrated to the best of his ability and MIGHT be lucky enough to get a performance by an orchestra. If the orchestration didn't work pretty well, his chances of getting another piece played were greatly diminished! (If studying at a conservatoire, he MIGHT be fortunate enough to be in a scheme where work-in-progress could be tested briefly on a student orchestra, but this would be a luxury.)

Now we have computers, sample sets and programs like Sibelius, Finale, Dorico where orchestration ideas CAN be tried out, 100 times over if necessary. Playback doesn't imitate a live orchestra exactly, of course. But it's a lot better than nothing.

(You'll get opinions that this is a boon, or that it's a semi-immoral shortcut, avoiding learning to do the job 'properly' :-)

The composition/orchestration process varies. Some composers start with a piano score then orchestrate as a seperate process. Some think in instrumental terms from the outset and compose straight to orchestral score.

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I think it is necessary to put something on the notes all the same, the first image of how it will be, come show the orchestra what and how, where can they themselves tell you how it would be better for them to play such violins in this or that position), then you will correct these mistakes and modify their shortcomings, and all at once will not be able to bring everything ready to someone somewhere something will not work). I personally didn’t write pieces for orchestra, but looking at the teachers how they act and work with the parties and how many times they lose with us, I conclude that with the orchestra 10 times to lose and find out what the shortcomings are, but this is my personal opinion). There is a lot of water on the Internet and not everything is clear, I would advise you to go to a teacher with experience and professional skills and deal with them this question.

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I'm mostly an electronic music producer, but I've written a couple of pieces for concert band as well. The simple answer is that I wrote my pieces on my computer. The software I used made it easy to format the score so that it looked professional, make changes to the score, and hear what was written played back.

Being able to play the music I was writing was crucial. A computer playing MIDI doesn't sound remotely like a live orchestra, but it does more than good enough a job for checking whether your musical ideas make sense and that you haven't made any errors. It only takes a little bit of imagination to have a good idea of how your piece will sound when it's finally performed. To me, the process was like having an orchestra available to repeatedly play parts of my music until it was ready - except far more convenient and inexpensive!

There are three major composition programs that I'm aware of:

  • Finale and Sibelius are the two most well-known software packages. The full versions of their programs are industry-standard, and they have cheaper versions of their software that remove some features but are more accessible to new users.
  • MuseScore is an open-source alternative.

All three pieces of software have the same basic functionality. If you decide to compose on a computer, which software you go with comes down to personal taste and how much you're willing to spend. You can't really go wrong with any of them.

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This is a very interesting question and big challenge historically. But today we have software that give you the ability to instantly play your orchestral pieces. In the past, composers generally relied on piano and their own mind by 'just' hearing it in their head.

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