I recently had the privilege of speaking to the Advanced composition seminar at Morgan State University. This talk was designed to facilitate an upcoming collaboration between Morgan State University and the Hopkins Symphony Orchestra, where I currently serve as Assistant Conductor. The original name of the lecture was “Orchestrating for Success: Getting the Players On Your Side, on Day One.” In the discussion, we covered a top ten list of important orchestration and engraving rules of thumb to help guide young composers through the process of bringing their ideas to life.
Before I began, I put out a call for suggestions on Facebook and Twitter and received many great pearls of wisdom from experienced performers. I have embedded many of their suggestions below. Many thanks to the contributors who added valuable information to this discussion.
When working with young composers preparing a composition to be read for the first time by orchestral musicians, I have a very simple premise. The best shot a composer has at a successful premiere is to have:
excellent musical ideas,
cast within thoughtfully engraved parts.
If you win over the musicians, you are set for success with the audience and beyond. In order to win them over, all it takes is a general sense on by the musicians that you put care into creating your parts. An orchestration textbook and instrument guides are critical resources, but sometimes it is helpful to focus on a shorter list of general rules of thumb. In that spirit, here are ten guidelines to help make sure your next composition looks great on the page, and sets the stage for the orchestra to give you an excellent first reading.
Articulations and Other Style Indications
Put thought into the articulation markings that are appropriate for every passage. In particular, wind players expect that every note will contain some indication as to length and attack (legato, staccato, tenuto, marcato, etc.) and do not have a default articulation. All musicians look for guidance, shape, direction, and character, that you have specific ideas in mind. Large passages without articulation or style look naked to the experienced musician.
Work to create the simplest possible beaming, organizing according to the time signature. Exception: in 4/4, beam into 2 groups of 4 eighths.
Singers should also see beams in logical groupings according to meter. Avoid flags as the default.
Use the most generic and easily readable fonts and styles possible. Avoid “handwritten” and “jazz” fonts. Always keep in mind how you wish to use limited performer bandwidth for maximum musical success.
All events occurring on beat 1 belong on the left margin. Exception: whole rests are centered.
Franz Doppler, Fantasie Hongroise
Ledger Lines, Clefs
Generally speaking, musicians prefer not to look at more than a small number of ledger lines (2 or 3) if it is avoidable. For many instruments (violin, piano), it is appropriate to use 8va or 8vb, or even 15va or 15vb. For some instruments, such as viola, cello, bass, trombone, and bassoon, clef change is the more common way to indicate extended pitches beyond the first few ledger lines. Note in the Schoenberg example below that the Cello part goes into Alto Clef. This should not be emulated. Cellos prefer Bass, Tenor, and Treble. On the positive side, note how he carefully optimizes for minimal ledger lines, switching to alto clef to keep all notes inside the staff. That said, one should avoid excessive clef changes whenever practicable.
Avoid creating new notation methods when at all possible. Opt for the simplest and most traditional method of notation possible to achieve the desired sound. Oftentimes, there is a very simple way to achieve a desired effect. For common terms, use standard Italian markings. For specific instructions, use English.
See below for an example that would have ideally been written with a standard time signature like 6/8. There are always rare exceptions where an idea needs a special notation to properly capture it, but in most of those already rare cases, that reason should be readily apparent to the musicians by looking contextually at the music.
Page Turns, Spacing
Make certain that page turns do not sit along modulations, new sections, new meters, tempo changes, or other important musical transitions. This brings up the important issue of spacing (which will get adjusted when you start optimizing for smooth page turns). In the best parts, the musicians never even think about spacing, “it just looks right,” throughout.
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Rehearsal Marks, Measure Numbers
After you have finished composing, do a surface-level analysis and select logical points for rehearsal marks (letters or numbers). The finished score should have at least one rehearsal letter for every two facing pages, if not more often. Do not place an arbitrary rehearsal marking every 5 or 10 measures. Also provide measure numbers in score and parts.
Score Order, Staff Deletion, and Other Layout Concerns
Use the most conventional score order possible.
Generally avoid deleting staves unless there will be an extended section, such as a cadenza, which will fill up a significant portion of the score, which will only use a handful of instruments.
Work to spell chromatic chords in ways that make sense horizontally rather than vertically. That is, look for the option that makes it easier for the individual musician to read their part, even if the chord spelling is not vertically satisfying to its chord function. As a general matter, avoid using double-sharps and double-flats if there is a simpler way to write that. Also, French horn players as a general rule do not read key signatures in contemporary music unless the music is particularly tonal.
Strive for Simplicity.
Even as you make certain to give a thorough sense of musical detail, look for ways to simplify your notation without compromising your musical vision or the sound you are after. The goal in simplifying is not to affect the sound but to lower the cognitive bandwidth on the musician so that they have an easier time performing the musical whole, the end result being a more complete realization of your musical conception (which is everyone’s goal to begin with).
After you extract your parts, make sure to look through each individual part, measure by measure, slowly, with a “fine tooth comb.” You are looking for outright errors, for style and rehearsal markings that did not export to the proper line, and for things that differ from your original intent that may not have jumped out at you in the full score. Generally, you are making certain that your music looks as elegant and gorgeous on the page as your vision for your music sounds in your head.
The musicians will be striving to give you a great reading of your work. You want to show them how much their time is worth to you by giving them highly-readable parts. Show empathy for their efforts by thinking through what each musical request will mean to them in simple, physical terms.
Adler, Samuel. The Study of Orchestration, Volume 1. New York: W W Norton & Company Incorporated, 2002.
Beck, John. Encyclopedia of Percussion. New York: Garland Pub., 1995.
DiOrio, Dominick. Writing for “The Chorus”: Text, Dynamics, And Other Occupational Hazards. New Music Box. nmbx.newmusicusa.org/writing-for-the-chorus-text-dynamics-and-other-occupational-hazards. 2019.
Gould, Elaine. Behind Bars. London: Faber Music Ltd, 2011.
Read, Gardner. Music Notation: A Manual of Modern Practice. Second Edition. Boston : Crescendo Publishers, 1969. (paperback edition: New York : Taplinger Publishing Company, 1979)
Stone, Kurt. Music Notation in the Twentieth Century: A Practical Guidebook. New York : W. W. Norton, 1980. (Based on the International Conference on New Music Notation in 1974.)
Indiana University. Music Notation Style Guide. music.indiana.edu/departments/academic/composition/style-guide, Rev. 10/09, 4/10, 8/11.