Fermata. Subito. Forte. Staccato. These words sound a lot fancier than they are. For people with a non-musical background, it’s like a foreign language — actually, it is.
As a hobby and a passion, I write orchestral music. I don’t know a lot of 25-year-old composers, but that’s fine with me because I absolutely enjoy it. Today I’ll share my process to help you understand how a complex piece for orchestra comes together—from its conception to the final stages of polishing (and panicking). Of course, every composer works differently — I’m no John Williams—so my process may not match other composers.
First and foremost, writing music is a creative process. That’s a good thing, because it means there’s no inherently “wrong” way to do it. And from what I’ve gathered, everyone has their own twist on getting the job done. As a quick disclaimer, I’m by no means an “expert” in the field, but I like to think I’m a decent composer and I definitely have a serious passion for it.
Gaining the Knowledge
I’m entirely self-taught. That statement has shocked some people, while others aren’t phased. Frequently I listen to and read what other composers are doing, and it seems like not having a music degree is fairly uncommon. To be fair, I played trumpet and piano through middle and high school, so it’s not like I didn’t have a background in music at all. But as far as writing it, that’s a different beast entirely, and I’ve never had formal training in that department. There’s a few ways that I’ve gained my knowledge.
This is the single most helpful thing I’ve done. For those who don’t know, a score is what the conductor uses to see all of the instrumental parts together on the same page. There’s a lot of resources available to help study this. For older music (aka Classical), the International Music Score Library Project —IMSLP for short—is extremely useful. Any older piece of music that’s in public domain is probably on this site.
Also, lucky for me, John Williams has a lot of his film score themes published. Major themes from Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Hook and countless others are available from Hal Leonard at pretty reasonable prices (for a John Williams piece). Actually, “The Flight to Neverland” from Hook was the first score I studied, and it helped me take a leap into this compositional world.
Listening to Music
When I’m not writing music, I’m listening to it. In the car, at the desk and even in bed, it’s important that I continue to absorb all I can from what the vast array of music styles have to offer. Mainly, I listen to orchestral music—more specifically, film scores—because that’s the style I write in. It helps to hear what good composers are doing with orchestral music: it not only gives me ideas of my own, but it gives me better ways of executing those ideas.
I know that sounds redundant, but it’s a fact that writing music helps you get better at writing music—the same way playing basketball helps you get better at playing basketball. It’s actually very simple. The first thing I wrote was an arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner in ninth grade, and it was absolutely terrible. Trumpets were two octaves out of their range, the harmonies were clashing, and the rhythms were all off-beat. But it was a start, and since that moment I haven’t stopped experimenting with writing.
I’ll be honest, I don’t read words as much as I should. In total, I’ve read one entire book from the library on orchestration (albeit a good one), but that was years ago, and the rest of my experience comes from the points above. Oops.
Just like creating anything else, it can be hard to sit down and begin. Intimidation, fear and doubt can all take over when a blank canvas is staring you in the face. A lot of composers deal with this differently. John Williams sits at a piano and works out the entire piece on paper from there. Others tinker with synthetic samples, pads, and unique instruments to come up with a thematic sound for the piece.
I usually start with a melody. It’s very basic for me. I’m driven by a good, catchy theme, and it forms a nice grounding for the entire piece. From that melody, I come up with interesting variations, harmonies, countermelodies and other elements that will eventually form the entire piece. A lot of modern composers write in minimalist or abstract styles, without a central theme—and that’s perfectly fine, it’s just not my style.
Writing the Piece
Unlike traditional composers that write using a pen, paper and piano, I write my stuff on the computer using Finale, one of the major music notation programs on the market. One day I’ll be talented (and patient) enough to write things the old-fashioned way, but—who am I kidding—I’m a millennial.
Once I have a solid melody that I can get behind, it’s time to slap an entire piece around it. Luckily, my works are always pretty short: 8 minutes is the longest piece I’ve written, and that’s just a medley of Christmas tunes.
As usual with writing papers and such, coming up with a beginning and an ending are the trickiest things for me.
For beginnings, I usually try to hint at melodies or themes that come later in the piece (I learned that from John Williams, by the way). For example, after the initial opening fanfare in “Patriot March,” I have a slow, quiet section that hints at the primary theme of the piece—but it’s not the entire theme, and the harmonies and orchestration I chose give it a melancholy, distressed feeling, as opposed to the optimistic, powerful version that’s revealed later on.
At the other end of a piece, I generally prefer a big, powerful and slightly abrupt ending, so that usually influences how I write them. To me, they’re more fun to write and listen to, and the music I’ve written so far has lended itself to those types of endings.
I write each piece for a lot of instruments (a full orchestra, which is standard for this type of music). To give you an idea, that’s a piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, a bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 french horns, 3–4 trumpets, 3 trombones, a tuba, violins, violas, celli, contrabasses, a harp and some percussion. To some that seems overwhelming, but that means there’s endless possibilities with the music. I can use a lot of different techniques—like tempo, the combination of different instruments, rhythm, and more—to create a mood, style and general feeling to each moment in the piece.
For example, to create that melancholy feeling towards the beginning of “Patriot March,” I have the melody played slowly by just a piccolo and then by an oboe, with extremely light and hollow orchestration—meaning the first violins and violas are the only instruments supporting that melody with simple, quiet chords.
Later in the piece, when the melody reaches its climax, the orchestration is a bit different. At this point, all the woodwinds are playing quick trills, the strings are playing the melody across three octaves (giving it more depth and power) with the french horns, the trombones are blasting a previously-heard countermelody, and the snare drum is keeping beat with a fast-paced rhythm along with occasional crash cymbals.
Knowing when and how to use the different instruments to create the sound and mood I’m looking for can be tough, but it’s what makes orchestral music so exciting to write and listen to.
Depending on the length of the piece, I’m usually finishing up after a couple months—and thank goodness, because by that time I’m sick of it entirely and I’m eager to start working on something different. Before it’s ready for me to share with the world, there’s some final touches I go through to make sure it’s in tip-top shape.
First, I make sure every instrument is playing exactly when and what I want it to be playing. One of the downfalls of using technology to write music is the invention of copy-and-paste, which can be a huge time saver, but can also lead to lazy writing and musical typos, both of which are bad.
I also meticulously comb through the entire piece and make sure every instrument is playing the right notes. When my creative juices are flowing, I’m usually slapping things together—which means I’m not always concerned about the quicker, background “fluff” notes being super accurate. Before I publish the piece, I play back those areas at a very slow tempo to correct everything, work out what notes should be played when, and make sure none of the different parts unintentionally clash.
Once I’ve made sure everything is in place just how I want it—notes, rehearsal marks, dynamics, articulations, and everything else that brings the piece to life—it’s still not finished.
Just like writing music is an art, engraving the music is an art, too. A lot of composers engrave their own music (and sometimes, it shows—and that’s not always a good thing). To save on time, energy, and insults from the musicians, I outsource it to a professional. This ensures that the score (what the conductor reads) and all the parts (what the musicians read) are of the highest caliber to help them rehearse and perform the piece quickly and easily.
To see what a well-engraved piece looks like, you can view the “Patriot March” score—again, not engraved by me. For bonus points, try to find those orchestration techniques that I mentioned in the previous section.
I hope this shines a light on the creative and practical work that goes on behind the scenes of writing orchestral music. For those of you that don’t know the difference between allegro and moderato, I hope it wasn’t too boring—and for the few music nerds out there, I hope it wasn’t too vague.
What I know for sure is that a world of possibility exists with orchestral music, from the classical to the modern styles, and I encourage you to explore the exciting variety that’s out there, and let your imagination take you on a boundless journey with the music.
“Where words fail, music speaks.”
— Hans Christian Andersen