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The Simple Guide To Orchestration in Film Composition


I wanted to put together and share some high level insight on the art of orchestration for film, TV, and game scoring. For the sake of this post, I am going to refer to the music as either film music or simply the score. But the concepts and principals apply to all music scoring regardless if its film, TV, etc.

Like all things in composing music, there are some nuanced and critical skills to make your music come alive. One of these is orchestration or being an orchestrator. The art, skill and craft of taking a melody or piece of music and bringing it life through instruments, layering, voicing, etc. This is where the magic of orchestration comes alive. But lets back up and take it from the top.

Film music is an essential element of cinematic storytelling. In fact, George Lucas has called film music "the magic dust of movies". A film's score can evoke deep emotions, set the mood, and enhance the audiences overall experience. This is why the orchestration is a critical part of the music. To keep it simple, orchestration is the art of arranging and combining different musical instruments to create a harmonious and emotionally resonant score for a film. Remember, orchestration doesn't necessarily have to be "orchestral" instruments. It can be synthesizers, ethnic instruments, vocals, etc. Orchestration is the aggregate of "voices" in the music/sound.

The Power of Orchestration

Orchestration (in this case - the selection of voices/sounds to deliver the music) is critical in the following areas:

  • Setting the Mood: Orchestration is a potent tool for setting the mood, feel or vibe in a film. By selecting specific instruments and musical elements, a composer can convey a wide range of emotions – from the suspenseful strings in a thriller to the majestic brass in an epic adventure.

  • Character Development: Motif's are not the only trick in a composers tool box to develop characters. Orchestration can also be used to symbolize or represent different characters in a film. For example, a unique sound or instrument can help identify and define a character. A great example of this at a rudimentary level...i.e. an instrument assigned to a specific character, is Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. If you haven't hear this piece of music, be sure to search for it. While not a film, it is a great example of orchestration and musical thematic development.

  • Enhancing the Narrative: The orchestration of a film score can also emphasize key moments in the storyline. A climactic scene can be intensified with a well-orchestrated crescendo, while a soft, subtle orchestration can underscore moments of tenderness and intimacy. The synergistic blending of synthesizers with orchestra are also great ways to enhance the narrative. Think...Jerry Goldsmith, Thomas Newman, Hans Zimmer and yours truly.

Simply Orchestration Techniques

  • Instrument Selection: The choice of instruments is crucial. I refer to this as defining your sonic palette. Strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion are the core components of an orchestra, each with its own unique timbre. Selecting the right combination can make or break a composition.

  • Texture and Layering: Creating a rich and varied texture is important. A skillful composer knows how to layer different instruments and voices to create depth and complexity in the music.

  • Dynamic Range: Paying attention to dynamics is essential. The use of crescendos, decrescendos, and sudden shifts in volume can heighten the emotional impact of a scene.

  • Motif Development: The use of recurring motifs or themes can provide a sense of cohesion throughout the film, and it can be a powerful way to associate specific music with particular characters or ideas.


  • If you are doing the orchestration with an electronic score and using samples of "natural" instruments from the orchestration BE SURE to perform or write your parts in the realistic ranges of the instruments. I cant tell you how many composers...especially young and aspiring composers will play horn parts in unnatural ranges or perform/program strings parts as if it was a piano or guitar. Know the voicing, and performance characteristics of the instruments you are using to ensure your score sounds pro. Unless of course you are trying to make your music sound terrible and unnatural. If you don't know this information, get yourself Alfred's Essential Dictionary of Orchestration. Best reference investment you can get (I need to start an Amazon Affiliate link!).

  • Be cognizant of instruments and frequency ranges. Think about this, if you have a scene where there is a female actor or child actor, you do not want to be using instruments in the same register or frequency range. It will fight the dialog. Same applies for male actors. Be cognizant of the dialog when orchestrating. This applies to melody as well as underscore.

  • Experiment with expression i.e. crescendo, glissando, instrument articulations and effects. These can add a unique vibe, feel or effect to the scene. You would be surprised at the odd sounds orchestral instruments can make. John Williams, James Horner, Jerry Gold Smith, Hans, etc. are all masters at this. Take a list to John William's Close Encounters score. Some amazing stuff in there. Also an amazing score.

  • Yes, in the biz, there are still "composers" who are hummers and use the orchestrator to develop the score. Don't be a hummer. Learn your craft. Maybe even become an orchestrator yourself!

Practical Tips for Aspiring Film Composers

  • Study and Analysis: Study film scores and their orchestration. Analyze how famous composers use orchestration to enhance the films they work on. I would highly recommend Jerry Goldsmith's Alien and John Williams Close Encounters as starting points. Listen from an orchestration point of view. I would also study actual score manuscripts and research orchestrators and what makes them unique. There are a ton of very talented orchestrators out there.

  • Collaboration: Build relationships with Arrangers and Orchestrators. Learn from them. NOTE: Arrangers are not the same as Orchestrators. Effective collaboration is key to creating a successful film score.

  • Experiment: Don't be afraid to experiment with different instrument combinations and styles. Film composition is an art, and creativity is highly valued. Developing your own sound is crucial to stand out in a highly competitive and crowded field.

  • Technology: Familiarize yourself with music production software and virtual instruments. These tools can aid in composing and orchestrating, even on a budget. Synthesizers offer unlimited sonic possibilities.

  • Feedback and Revision: Be open to feedback and willing to revise your work. The film industry is highly collaborative, and your compositions may need adjustments to fit the director's vision.

So there ya have it. Some super high level insight on orchestration.Remember, orchestration in film composition is an intricate art that involves selecting the right instruments, crafting textures, and using dynamics to convey the intended emotions and enhance the storytelling process. Aspiring film composers should remember that practice, study, and collaboration are key to mastering the art of orchestration and creating memorable film scores that resonate with audiences and become an integral part of cinematic storytelling. Developing your orchestration chops can also offer you a unique, rewarding and dynamic career outside of composition. Although, being a composer even at a basic level, will go a long way to being a productive orchestrator.

For what its worth!




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