Putting It Together: The Art of Arranging and Orchestrating

Music arranging and orchestration are essential skills and generally are not well taught in university music departments. The special contributions of music arrangers and orchestrators are often misunderstood and sometimes unfairly maligned.

Arranging is the adaptation of an existing composition for performance on an instrument or voice or combination of instruments for which it was not originally composed. For example, a singer-songwriter may come up with a new song that she can perform. When she decides to record it with an orchestra, she may hire an arranger to create the orchestral score, based on her original song. Many arrangers approach this kind of work as a kind of re-composing of the song and may enhance the harmonies, use additional keys, develop transitional passages, create an introduction, and so on. Asked what an arranger is, the famous arranger Van Alexander (who arranged for legendary jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, among others) quipped, “An arranger is a songwriter’s best friend.”

In answer to the same question, someone else said, “An arranger is someone who prays for a great song.” The better crafted the original song is, the easier it is to do a great arrangement. One could think about arranging as a type of musical composition, requiring the same skills and talents required of all composers.

Orchestration is the art and craft of arranging a musical composition for performance by an orchestra or other ensemble. Orchestrators are often used in film and television, not because composers do not know how to orchestrate their own music for orchestra, but because of the time constraints. Most TV and film composers are very explicit in their instructions to orchestrators about how to prepare the parts. Often the composers write what is called a “short” score, and in most cases it clearly indicates what the orchestration should be from this “sketch.” Sometimes when orchestrators are given complete freedom to orchestrate a music cue as they wish, it becomes more of an arrangement than an orchestration, so these terms become interchangeable or confusing.


The American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers (ASMAC) is the professional organization for arrangers and orchestrators. You can find out more at www.asmac.org or visit them on MySpace.

When should a composer seek the help of a professional arranger or orchestrator? Generally a composer may need an arranger or orchestrator when deadlines loom or a specific type of expertise is needed to complete the work. Many composers have written successful compositions that could enjoy new or extended life in performance by having the work adapted for another ensemble. For example, you have written a work for symphony orchestra that could be effective for concert band. You don’t have experience writing for concert band so you might consider hiring an arranger/orchestrator who is known for his or her concert band work (either arrangements or his own compositions) to make a version of your symphonic work for concert band.

Part of what arrangers and orchestrators do is what composers consider “the grunt work” of composition, and once the composer has completed the task of composition, are relieved to turn this “grunt work” over to a professional upon whom they can rely so they can turn their attention to the next composition project. In order to work this way as a professional composer, it is necessary that you are able to separate out these tasks in your work.

Next time: Sketching and learning to delineate what is composition, what is orchestration, and what is arranging in your own process as a composer.

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2 thoughts on “Putting It Together: The Art of Arranging and Orchestrating

  1. William Osborne

    I think many might find the idea of using an orchestrator appalling. They would argue that orchestration is an inherent part of the compositional process, and that assigning it to someone else would be to surrender one’s own creative identity. In fact, some of the most active orchestral composers, like Augusta Read Thomas, compose directly on score paper.

    On the other hand, there are some very well-known classical composers who use orchestrators. One is Hans Werner Henze, though he might argue that is not what happens. In the past, he has had students orchestrate his works, based on his instructions and oversight. I know this, because I was at a music festival in Montepuliciano, Italy, where Henze was the resident composer. One of his students was orchestrating one of Henze’s works. The student explained that Henze often involved his students in orchestration work, and that it was considered part of the educational experience.

    The use of an orchestrator might depend on the composer’s style. It might work for Henze, whose work is not strongly oriented toward orchestration, but not be possible for a composer like Thomas who writes works that study and explore orchestral timbres. Or for another interesting example, Danny Elfman is one of Hollywood’s most esteemed and highest paid composers, but he cannot read music. He composes by ear and cannot write it down. He creates synth arrangements of his compositions and gives them to orchestrators. (Or at least this is what was reported in Keybaord Magazine several years ago.)

    I also agree that arranging/orchestration can be a very high art form. A great example is Joni Mitchell’s 2000 album “Both Sides Now” with arrangements and orchestration by Vince Mendoza. It won a Grammy and is simply astounding art that any composer could aspire to. And interestingly, Mendoza is a graduate of Ohio State and not one of our high falutin conservatories that have put out notable strings of nobodies. Hollywood has its drawbacks, but sometimes honest practicality seems to produce better art than grand and pompous aspirations.

    William Osborne

    Reply
  2. philmusic

    There is nothing that puts the music over better than the sure hand of a professional orchestrator/arranger. Whether its the composer themselves or others. I think that many works of the “new music theater” type especially those composed by song writers could be improved in this way. Yet the problem is;

    how does one get access to an orchestra for your performance in the first place?


    Phil Fried

    Reply

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