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Hints & Tips No. 2: String Orchestration (Part 2)

In my second orchestration blog, I want to focus on the strategy many composers face using string instruments. I am aware many fellow composers and blogs out there have covered extensively how to write for string instruments correctly, voicing and extended techniques. I don’t want to offer the same ideas.

Although strings are incredibly versatile and accessible towards use in all music genres, I want to share a few ideas I have found most enjoyable to use in subtle and detailed ways. Not to add complexity to the music, but just to add that fine detail that heightens the sound with strong string writing and sophistication.

A phrase I adopted and carry throughout my musical career was one gifted to me by my tutor at college, “write by celebrating what you have, not apologising for what you don’t have”. Very profound, I know, but this has stuck with me.



Further listening

Mahler Symphony No. 4
Shostakovich Piano Concerto No.2 II
Ravel Miroirs (La alborada del gracioso)
Debussy La Mer
 

Concept 1: Unconventional doublings


One of the things that can often be seen in music by learning composers / orchestrators is the limited scope of the execution of ideas throughout the orchestral colours of string instruments. This might sound really confusing but let me explain what I mean:

Idea of doubled notes but played in different ways. use a note as bowed note that is part of your chord. Double this with a simple artificial harmonic either on another string instrument or by simply using divisi within the section (idea pictured below).


Additionally to this, I encourage you to also throng about the horizontal movement between change of notes by using sustained notes. I inspire you to try this concept in your own music when writing for strings, as the possibilities are endless when doubling a note with harmonics.Furthermore, you could also apply this concept to accompanying ideas. Instead of artificial harmonics on strings, the example below uses harmonics on the harp to sustain the impulse beats of the accompanying piano part. A word of caution, don’t over use this technique as it may come across as a gimmick to the listener.

Concept 2: Activation and sustain doubling in sound combinations


The second is making the music sound much bigger with limited amount of instruments. I know this is something we may all face when working with budget constraints. I first stumbled across the problem when I was faced with the concept of “how am I going to support the melodic/ main line in my music with such limited instruments”. An idea maybe to think about what instruments you have aside from strings that their sound fades and doesn’t sustain (ie.tuned percussion, plucked strings or piano etc.).

A concept I really enjoy using and wondered why I didn't try this out earlier, yet is so effective, is doubling sustaining instruments like strings with a hammered instrument like a glockenspiel, celeste or piano. It just felt like a I had solved the problem in how to carry this melody I had been working with. An example of execution could be found in Richard Rodney Bennett’s Symphony No. 3, IV where we see the first and second violins playing in unison artificial harmonics alongside muted french horn. Another could be piano and glockenspiel melody lines found in music by Danny Elfman’s score for the 2013 film ‘OZ: The Great and Powerful’, where we hear celeste melody lines being supported with violin artificial harmonics. This is a considered approach to not only how instruments work together but also how the nature of the sound is produced, we can still support the music note by sustaining its everlasting existence to the listeners ear. An approach that is frequently neglected by learning composers.

Concept 3: Chord movement


The third offering I have is the execution of a musical idea, that remains in a relatively confined space. There is for example "a moving chord " sequence successfully voiced and written for the string instruments with an orchestral setup.

The musical idea is often executed without leaving the confined space of a single instrument like a violin and if it actually is extended to another instrument like a cello, we often see a straight forward copy-paste job with an octave voicing comparison. Although this is OK, there is so much more you could do to the instruments at your disposal. Try doubling the violin line with a lower registered instrument like the cello, but write it as harmonics. This can add a second layer to your string voicing, but also add that top layer of frequencies to the ear. Example shown below from a cue for the 2021 film Homesick. See this idea being executed in bars 3 to 4 in Violin 1.

Additionally to this, I like to write in horizontal slides between harmonic changes (if there is any). I call these ‘slides’. This overall translates that device into your own musical writing by just simply considering the role model of the cello, that was originally doubled in octaves below or harmonised.

 

Final thoughts


Overall strings are great instruments to use within your music and are incredibly versatile in what they can offer to your sound as a composer or orchestrator. The common approach I think most learning composers is using the preset DAW plugin or MIDI date and translate that to a score without these details explored in this blog post. It is much easier to write as you do, don’t change that! Only consider using these ideas after you have written your chord progressions or passage and think about what detail could you add to the music that translates well to players.

Celebrate what you do well, but consider how you could support other instruments by using a combination of colour and activation of each note.
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