Orchestration: (excerpt from a lesson on Orchestration)
Orchestration is the way timbre is used in musical contexts
(songs/compositions). If you have a melody, a bass line and some
chords, you can play all of these on a single piano or solo guitar
(sometimes). But you can also arrange (orchestrate) these elements (the
melody, bass line and chords) for 2 or more instruments. Making the
decisions about which instruments will play what notes is the process
In the past, classical composers almost always composed their own
music and also orchestrated it. Today, it is common for composers and
songwriters to have other people orchestrate their music for them. If
you have ever written songs for more than one instrument, you have
orchestrated music. Orchestration is an art, a science and an industry
all its own. For the typical songwriter, orchestration is often
overlooked, misunderstood or a mystery. We will begin discussing
orchestration on an intermediate level (you will need to have a very
basic understanding of how instruments work together before being able
to get the most out of this lesson.
When using multiple instruments, consider how many different ways
you may arrange the placement of each instrument in the pitch range
[Pitch range spectrum? What is that?... It is the range of all
possible notes from very low notes to very high notes and everything in
It is obvious that bass instruments such as, bass guitar, double
bass, tubas, contrabassoons, etc. play the lowest notes (the bass
notes) in the vast majority of musical contexts that use these
instruments. Composers use these instruments in the bass because:
- These instruments can easily play the very low (bass) notes in the pitch range spectrum.
- The tone color quality (the sound) is excellent in their low pitch range.
Because these instruments do play and sound well in low pitch
ranges, it is often overlooked that these same instruments can sound
great in the tenor range (the pitch range just above the bass range –
for example the lowest several notes on a 6 string guitar are in the
tenor range). In a typical song (pop, rock, metal, country, blues or
jazz) the bass instruments are virtually always playing the lowest
sounding notes (the bass notes). Classical music composers of the 19th,
20th and 21st centuries frequently experimented with the role of
traditional bass instruments, sometimes placing those instruments
higher than (or equal with) tenor or even alto range instruments. This
is called “voice crossing” or “crossing voices”. It is generally done
as a special effect in the music to bring out contrast in the role and
sound of the orchestration.
- Is it because songwriters around the world
thought this whole process through and made an informed artistic
decision concluding that crossing the bass instruments above other
instruments was a bad idea?
- Did they read it somewhere or conduct a bunch of musical experiments to test the level of value regarding voice crossing?
- Have they studied orchestration either formally or at least informally?
No, in general, non classical music orchestration has been limited
to the basics of instrumentation (the common pitch range of
instruments) because bass notes are natural for bass instruments, and
because that is the way it has traditionally been done. And yes, the
usual way of doing things works just fine, that system is not broken,
so why fix it? Crossing voices with the bass is not “fixing” anything,
it’s simply another useful tool when used in the right places (and when
not overused!) It is a cool sound to use in some situations and many
bass players love to play high parts but rarely get a chance to in
When you listen to music, notice how infrequently this technique is
used, but when you do hear it, analyze how and where it’s used. If you
are looking for it, it is pretty easy to hear.
Experiment with voice crossing the next time you write music. If it
does not sound good the first time you try it, don’t give up on the
concept if it doesn’t improve the sound of your song. Voice crossing
does not work in all musical situations. For example, you are more
likely to hear it used in instrumental sections (intros, interludes and
transitions for example) or a vocal bridge section. Verses and choruses
are less likely to contain voice crossing involving the bass
instruments. This is because vocal melodies are generally more
important than bass lines and crossing voices with the bass will
distract one’s ear from the vocal melody. Composers generally want
important vocal lines to be clear and without much conflict for the
listener’s attention. But don’t let this stop you. Experiment with each
section of your song to see if it works for you.
Tom Hess is a professional touring guitarist and recording
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- Take your existing bass line and play it 1, 2 or
3 octaves higher than usual. This will usually bring the bass line
above the next lowest instrument. This will result in a new bass line
because since the original bass line is now “above” something else, the
“something else” will become the new bass line (even if it is not being
played by a bass instrument)
- Trade parts with another instrument where the bass
plays higher than the next lowest instrument. This will result in the
bass line staying the same (as far as the actual notes go), but will
now be played by another instrument instead of the traditional bass
instrument. This is easier to do with a 7 string guitar or
piano/keyboard for example.