Start with a Sketch

Photo courtesy Matthew Wanlin Photography

When I first started writing orchestral music, I was a bit overwhelmed. There are so many instruments! How was I supposed to know what to do with all of them? I would write for the whole orchestra at once, in my sequencer, and gradually build a complicated mess. It turns out I was making things a lot harder for myself than they needed to be. The secret? Start with a sketch.

These days when I write an orchestral piece, I always write on piano first, and create a three-line sketch. The melody goes on top (you are writing a melody, right?), and the accompaniment goes on the other two staves. Using this method, it’s much easier to tell if you’re writing good music because you’re not distracted by all of the bells and whistles of a full orchestra. Writing on piano—using just melody and accompaniment—lets you hear your music for what it really is. You can instantly tell if its good or not, and you’re not overwhelmed by choices.

The three-staff format also forces you to keep things simple. With all the visual and auditory overload of a movie or TV show, your music better be simple or it’s not going to get heard. TV composer Ron Jones (Star Trek the Next Generation, Family Guy) talks about restricting yourself to two elements: the Main Thing and the Other Thing (and the Other Thing is optional). This approach makes a lot of sense. If you’re writing a five-voice fugue and expecting it to be heard it over all the dialog and sound effects in a modern movie, think again. A well-written melody with strong accompaniment is all you need.

When all the writing is done and the piece sounds great on piano, I start to break it up and assign parts to various sections. I only use what’s in the piano sketch, nothing more. It’s OK to double parts in different octaves (within reason), but writing new material is verboten. This keeps the piece simple and clear. Clarity is what I always strive for in my music these days, and with an orchestra it’s not always an easy thing to achieve.

With a three-line sketch, orchestration becomes relatively easy. You’ve already got your material written—all you need to do is give it to someone to play. For example, I may give the melody to the flutes and 1st violins, and the rest of the accompaniment to the other strings. Or I may have the trumpets play the melody and have the strings and other brass play the accompaniment.

It may be tempting to add more parts and embellish what you’ve sketched, but don’t. Keep things simple. If you’re not happy with what you’ve got then go back to the sketch and make it better. I sometimes want to try to “fix” a piece by adding another part to make it more interesting, but this doesn’t work. If your music’s no good to begin with, adding parts isn’t going to change that. You’re gilding a turd. Go back to the drawing board and make sure your melody is great and your accompaniment suits it and the scene. Once you’ve done that, 90% of your work is done.

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