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.
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.