Lectures/Scripts/WritingsTelevision ScriptsYoung People's ConcertsWhat is Orchestration?

Hero Image

Young People's Concert

What is Orchestration?

Written by Leonard Bernstein
Original CBS Television Network Broadcast Date: 8 March 1958


Hello again. It's been much too long, I think six weeks, since we've seen each other. I've missed you. Today we're going to talk about a part of music that's really exciting and really fun — orchestration. Now, this big word means a lot of different things to a lot of different people; and we're going to try and clear up what it really means. Mainly it means how a composer goes about arranging his music for an orchestra to play; whether the orchestra has 7 men in it or 17 or 70 or 107, which is what we have here on this stage.

Now to start things off, we're going to play you a piece by Rimsky-Korsakov, the Russian composer, who is looked up to as the real master of orchestration, the composer who wrote the most famous book about it, and the one so many other composers have imitated ever since. Now listen to this last part of his Capriccio espagnol, or Spanish Caprice by Rimsky-Korsakov, and notice how brilliantly he makes the orchestra shine and how many different kinds of sound he gets, in five minutes of music, one after another, and how clear the music is — and most of all how exciting the orchestration makes the music sound.

[ORCH: Capriccio espagnol - Rimsky-Korsakov]

Now everybody will admit that's a pretty exciting piece of orchestration, brilliant. Let's take a look at one page of the conductor's score of this piece.

This whole page full of notes in only four bars of music, the music we've just heard, and it tells us everything that every instrument is doing in the orchestra for the duration of those four bars. This top part is the winds: the piccolo and the flutes, the oboes, the clarinets and bassoons. Then come the horns. This line has the trumpets on it; there are the trombones and here are the tympani. And all these lines here are the percussion instruments like castanets and snare drums and so on. This is the harp. And these are the strings at the bottom: the violins, the first violins and the second violins, the violas, the cellos, and finally the double basses. And that takes care of everyone in the orchestra.

Now how did Rimsky-Korsakov arrive at this page? What did he go through to figure it out. Well, to begin with, the music that he heard in his head was made up of four different ideas. First of all, he had a big tune that went


then he had another little tune that goes along with it,


then he has the Spanish rhythm which is in the accompaniment,


and then he has another at the same time, this other Spanish rhythm in the accompaniment.


Wow! Four different ideas. Now, he was faced with the job of writing all that down for these 100-odd people to play in such a way that all four ideas would mesh together, strong and clear and exciting. And so he distributed the four ideas to the orchestra this way:

He gave the big tune to the trombones, here


and he gave the other tune to the violins down here


Pardon my terrible voice I can't sing in tune. Then he gave the first of those two Spanish rhythms divided between the woodwinds and the horns;


You see that? And then he divided the other Spanish rhythm between the timpani and the trumpets.


And that takes care of all four ideas. And it sounds this way after you put it all together.

[ORCH: Capriccio espagnol - Rimsky-Korsakov]

Fine. Now that sounds just great, especially with the addition of those percussion instruments giving it that Spanish flavor. And what he did actually was to take the bare notes in his head and sort of put clothes on them so that they could go out into the world. After all, notes can't wander around naked - they have to dress up in orchestration. But good orchestration means not only clothes that you put the music into, the way you wear a dress or a suit to keep yourself warm. It's got to be the right orchestration for that particular piece of music, like wearing the right suit or the right dress. Bad orchestration would be something like putting on a sweater to go swimming. It's just ridiculous. It's wrong. Now, just for fun, let's listen to those same four bars orchestrated badly, just to see how wrong they sound.

[ORCH: Capriccio espagnol - Rimsky-Korsakov]

You see how terrible that is? Awful, isn't it? You can't hear the tune, the rhythms are too loud, and it all sounds clumsy and thick, and not at all Spanish.

So remember what good orchestration means is orchestration that's exactly right for that music, and lets the music be heard in the clearest and most effective way.

Now that's pretty hard to do. Just think what a composer has to know before he can orchestrate a piece he's written. First, he has to understand how to handle each instrument separately - he has to know what it can do and what it can't do, what its lowest note is and its highest note is, what its good notes are and not-so-good notes, and all the different sounds it can make. Then on top of that, he has to understand how to handle all kinds of different instruments together, blend them, and balance and mix them. He has to be careful that some instruments which are bigger and louder, like the trombone


don't drown out the littler, softer instruments, like the flute.


You see that's easy to drown out. Then he has to be careful that the percussion section


doesn't drown out the strings, for example.


You see, that would be very east to drown out.

Then he has to be careful about mixing the instruments so they don't get all muddied-up together — and lots of other problems like that. But the biggest problem he has is to choose — the problem of choice. Imagine yourselves sitting down to orchestrate a piece you've written, and there are 107 instruments sitting there waiting for you to decide who should play when and what! You know how hard it is sometimes to decide something - like what would I rather have for Christmas: a pair of skates or a bicycle or whatever it is. Sometimes it takes you days or weeks to make up your mind.

Well, imagine how hard it is for a composer to make up his mind and choose — not between two things, like a pair of skates or a bicycle — but among all those instruments to say nothing of the hundreds and millions of possible combinations of all those instruments. For instance, I'm sure you all know the famous flute solo at the beginning of Debussy's "Afternoon of a Faun". It goes like this:

[FLUTE: Debussy - Prelude a l'apres midi d'un faun]

Now that's perfectly beautiful. It's exactly right. But what made Debussy decide on the flute - just the flute - to play that piece, to begin that piece? Well Debussy knew what he wanted - or more exactly he knew what his music wanted, what the music demanded, and that meant the flute, with its sweet, pale, airy sound. If he had picked, let's say, the trumpet to do the same tune, it would have sounded all different - too fat, and too rich, and not at all delicate and afternoonish the way the flute is. Let's listen with the trumpet doing it.

[TRUMPET: Debussy - Prelude a l'apres midi d'un faun]

Not the same thing is it! It's just the wrong piece of clothing. He's going swimming in a sweater. Or take the beginning of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue". You know that peculiar sliding wail on the clarinet that opens the piece.

[CLARINET: Gershwin - Rhapsody in Blue]

and imagine that tune played, for example, by a viola.

[VIOLA: Gerswhin - Rhapsody in Blue]

Pretty silly, isn't it? Although beautifully played. But the whole feeling of jazz has gone out the window. Or take a Bach Brandenburg Concerto, like this one for strings:

[ORCH: Bach - Brandenburg Concerto #3]

Now let's imagine that marvelous piece played by brass instead of strings.

[BRASS: Bach- Brandenburg Concerto #3]

Well, that's not so bad either. But it sure is not what Bach meant by his music. So you see, an important part of a composer's job is to choose his instruments and to choose them right, because it is those instruments which have to carry his music to your ears. And there are so many possibilities.

Now just to give you an idea of how many possibilities there are, let's try an experiment together and let us try to orchestrate something ourselves, just you and me. We're going to make believe we're all a great big orchestra, all of us capable of giving out any kind of sound we want. Let's take two simple notes, in harmony. These two notes. Every body downstairs I want to sing the bottom one,


and everybody upstairs to sing the upper one.


Now. Let's sing the word "glue" to these notes; it's as good as any other word.


All right. Let's hear the downstairs people do it.


Now the upstairs people.


Wonderful, now let's hear it altogether,


Wonderful. You're beginning to sound like an orchestra already. Now we're going to orchestrate these two notes in different ways by making different sounds to the same notes. For instance lets try; to sound like an organ by simply singing very softly "oo" on the notes instead of "glue". You sing Downstairs people "oo", and Upstairs people "oo". Let's hear that, softly.


Even more softly.


Now that's exactly like an organ . Up here, if you were standing here, you would believe you were hearing an organ. Now let's try another sound, let's try to sound more like strings singing softly, and to do that let's not say anything, let's just hum. Not any words at all. Downstairs people "hm", upstairs people "hm". Okay softly.


Sounds exactly like strings. Really, you're wonderful. Perfect strings. Now let's try to sound like loud strings. And a good way to do that is to buzz instead of hum. Downstairs "bz", upstairs "bz". See if you can do it.


Marvelous. Exactly right. Now I tell you what, since you're so good, let's try a couple of more. Let's see if we can imitate woodwinds by going "tick, tick, tick, tick, tick," short and sharp over and over, t-i-c-k. "Tick" downstairs, "tick" upstairs. Let's hear it.


No but you have to be with me and you have to be very short and sharp "tick, tick, tick, tick" like that.


Wonderful, that's exactly like woodwinds. Let's try just one last one. How about being brass big loud brass, let's say "takata". "Takata" and go downstairs "takata". Let's go.


You weren't together.


That's wonderful. We could go on like this for a week imitating different sounds, but the point is just to show you there are so many ways those simple little two notes can sound. They can have so many different colors, that's really the word, musical colors of course, but really like real colors. Like when we sang the "oo"-sound like an organ, I immediately saw the color blue, and when we did the humming it seemed darker and warmer, like a sort of red. And when we did "takata", I always see fiery orange for this brass sound. I don't know if you see colors when you hear music, but lots of people do. I know I always do. So with all these millions of colors to choose from, the composer really has a tough job. How does he go about it? There are two ways to go about it: one is what we could call a family way - that is by writing only for instruments that belong to the same family. This would mean writing for an orchestra only of strings or an orchestra only of woodwinds, or something like that. The other way is to mix up the instruments, putting members of different families together. That would be more like the regular symphony orchestra you see here.

The first way is more homey, it's like family relations getting together and the other way is more like friends getting together from different families.

What do we mean when we say "families"? Well, I'm sure most of you must have heard that word "family" used over and over again whenever the orchestra was being described to you. You're always hearing about the woodwind family, with Mama clarinet, and Grandfather bassoon:

[BASSOON: Prokofieff - Peter and the Wolf]

You all know that one. And little sister piccolo, and big sister flute, and uncle English horn, and auntie oboe. And all the rest of the family. Well, in spite of all that baby-talk, it's still true that these woodwinds are a sort of family. They're alike because they're all played by blowing wind into them, and they're all - well, almost all - made of wood. So they're called woodwinds. They all sit near one another, and behave like a family. And they have all kinds of cousins, too, different kinds of clarinets, for instance: like the little E-flat clarinet, and the bass clarinet. And then there are saxophones, and alto flutes, oboe d'amore, and contra-bassoons. Oh, it's a long list. Thank you. And there's even a group of sort of second cousins, called the French horns. And they're second cousins because they're made of brass, and they really should belong to the brass family; but they blend so well with either the woodwinds or the brass that they are related to both families - so that they're kind of in-laws, I guess. Here is a French horn.


Thank you. Now that we've met this big winds family, let's see how they can be used in orchestration. The minute one of them begins to play - even one of them playing all by himself, all alone - then we're already dealing with orchestration. Like that part in Prokofieff's "Peter and the Wolf" where the cat is being described - you all remember that funny little melody in the clarinet.

[CLARINET: Prokofieff - Peter and the Wolf]

I'm sure you remember that tune. But that's already a piece of orchestration because we would say no other instrument in the whole woodwind section is so perfectly right for cat music.


It's so velvety and dark and cat-like. So Prokofieff had to make a choice: and he chose the clarinet, and when he did that he was orchestrating and he was orchestrating well. But now, things get more exciting, as we begin to put together different members of the family together in groups. Here's a part of a piece by the German composer, Hindemith, for five wind instruments - a great, jolly piece; and listen to how fine these five relatives sound together: The flute, the oboe, the clarinet, the bassoon, and the French horn.

[QUINTET: Hindemith - Kleine Kammermusik]

It really sounds like a family, doesn't it? They're all so alike, and they go with each other so naturally; - and even though they all have different sounds, or different colors, they're enough alike so that they blend.

Now we go on to even a bigger family of winds. Here's a bit of a Serenade by Mozart for thirteen wind instruments. And listen to what a delicious sound they make!

[WINDS: Mozart - Serenade for 13 instruments]

Marvelous isn't it? And this family is now getting so big that it's beginning to sound more like what we think of as an orchestra, not just a little chamber group. But it's still a family orchestra - they're all woodwinds.

Now the great modern composer, Stravinsky, has written a Symphony for an entire orchestra of winds only, and he really invented some brand-new colors in this one. Just listen to these final bars of it.

[WINDS: Stravinsky - Symphony for Wind Instruments]

Aren't those wonderful, cool colors.

Well, that's enough of the wind family for a while. Let's have a look now at this enormous family gathered around me here -the strings - and let's see how they can be used. We use four kinds of stringed instruments. The violins, of course, of which we have 34, count them. The violas, which look like violins but which are a little bigger and sound a little lower. And the cellos, which are even bigger and lower. And then the double-basses, which are the biggest and the lowest. Wave or something so we can see you. That's good. Thank you.

Now again, it's the same story; even if one lonely violin is playing, the composer has to orchestrate for him. This may sound silly to you - orchestrating for one lone violin, but it is orchestrating in miniature, because even with one instrument the composer has the problem of choosing. First he has to choose the violin itself, instead of any other number of instruments and then he has lots of other choices to make. Like when the bow should move up and when it should move down, or whether the bow should jump. Would you show us what I mean by jump.


Do that again please.


Fine. Or whether the bow should go smoothly,


or maybe the bow should not even be used at all.


Then he has to decide whether to have more than one note sounding at a time,


and a lot of other choices like that. Now these choices may sound to you like small potatoes, but they're all terribly important to orchestration. For instance, if a violinist plays "America the Beautiful" on the D-string, it would sound like this:

[VIOLIN: Ward - America the Beautiful]

Good. But if he plays exactly the same notes, no higher, no lower, but on the G-string, it would sound completely different - richer and fatter.

[VIOLIN: Ward - America the Beautiful]

Fine. So you see, there is another important decision to be made.

Now let's get some of these string cousins together in a group - into a string quartet - two violins, a viola, and a cello. Now listen to how Beethoven actually orchestrates this Quartet - making it so full of different colors, by using devices like pizzicato, which means plucking the strings with the finger, and ponticello, that's a hard word, which means bowing the string, but way up, near the bridge.

[QUARTET: Beethoven - Quartet, opus 131]

Now you see, that really takes a master hand, to orchestrate for four stringed instruments and get all those different kinds of sounds. The great composers were always looking for new and different sounds, and to get them they wrote for all kinds of different combinations of strings - and each combination has its own kind of blend. For instance, listen to how gorgeously Schubert makes this melody sound in his Quintet - which is the same combination as the Quartet we just heard, but with one more cello to make it richer.

[QUINTET: Schubert - Quintet in C, opus 163]

That's one of the most beautiful melodies ever written. And how it sounds on that cello! I think it's my favorite melody in the world.

Well, we've heard a Quartet and a Quintet; and there are also sextets like one by Schoenberg, and there are octets by Mendelssohn and others, and so it grows until finally we get to a full string orchestra — all the strings you see here on the stage. And it's absolutely amazing, the variety of sound you can get from an orchestra that has only strings in it! Listen to this sound that the British composer Vaughan Williams gets by dividing the string orchestra into two half-orchestras, and notice how the two groups sneak in and out of each other, and change colors like a chameleon.

[STRINGS: Vaughan Williams - Fantasia on a Theme of Tallis]

Now here's a completely different way of writing for string orchestra — a more rugged, athletic way. This is from an American symphony by our old friend, William Schuman — you remember him from our last program about American music? Well, here's that same old vitality we were talking about - that same American pep, only now its for only string orchestra.

[STRINGS: William Schuman - Symphony for Strings]

Now where were we? Ah yes, we have visited two families already: the winds and the strings. Now let's take a quick look at the other two families in our community here: the brass and the percussion. The brass family isn't very large, compared with our strings, but boy, do they make themselves heard! The members of this family consist of the trumpets, the trombones, and the tuba, and, of course, those 42nd cousins - or was it in-laws, or whatever we said - the French horns, which are both brass and wind. Thank you.

Now you'd be surprised how many different colors you can get from these brass blockbusters; they don't always have to be loud, for instance, take the music by an old Italian composer named Gabrieli. Listen to how beautiful it is.

[BRASS: Gabrieli - Sonata per octi toni]

Pretty beautiful, isn't it? Of course the brass can also make a more familiar sound:

[BRASS: Sousa - Stars & Stripes]

Thank you. We know that. That's enough. Now just relax while we visit the percussion family next door - and this is really a big family: it would take a week to name all the percussion instruments; but that's only because almost anything can be a percussion instrument: a frying pan, a baseball bat, a steam-whistle, or a cow bell, or anything that makes noise. Now the head of this family is, of course, the tympani,


and he is surrounded on all sides by all kinds of other drums and bells and clickers and tinklers and other noise makers. But they're all a family, too — and there are pieces that are orchestrated and written just for them. Like this canon which was written by our very own timpanist Mr. Goodman:

[PERCUSSION: Saul Goodman - Canon for Percussion]

Now. We have now been introduced to all the four families; and now we come to the more complicated business of orchestrating for what we call a symphony orchestra - this whole aggregation. And here's where the family spirit gives way to the big friendly social spirit, and the members of the different families begin to mix together. Starting with the smallest combination - two people, sort of shyly getting together to see how they will get along, we can see the whole story in this little nut shell. Here's a part of a Schubert Sonata for Viola and Piano - two instruments from very different families; but as you see they get along very well, indeed.

[DUET: Schubert - Arpeggione Sonata]

You see, now we can begin to enjoy the blend of a mixture - it's in a way a new sound, because the pure family lines have been broken down, and a new mixed sound has been born. Now let's enlarge this new social spirit to include seven people, and listen to a little bit of Ravel's "Introduction and Allegro" for a mixture of harp, flute, clarinet, and string quartet. That's a real mixed-up mixture.

[SEPTET: Ravel - Introduction and Allegro]

Now here's an even more mixed-up mixture - by Stravinsky again. we're going to play you a march from his ballet "The Story of a Soldier"; and again you are going to hear seven instruments; solo violin, clarinet, a bassoon, a trumpet, a trombone, a double-bass, and percussion - which is one man playing thirteen different percussion instruments. Now this is a really orchestral mixture, because there is at least one member present of every family: there are two strings, there are two winds, there are two brass, and our drummer-boy. It makes a marvelous sound altogether.

[SEPTET: Stravinsky - L'histoire du soldat]

That's fine. And so, little by little, we grow up to the regular big symphony orchestra we all know and love; seven players become seventeen, and then seventy, and finally, 107. And you can imagine what a composer must go through to choose from all the possible combinations there are in this mix-up of families. But a good composer always knows, deep down in his heart, what the right choice must be, because if he's good, his music will make him choose right! The right music played by the right instruments in the right combinations at the right time: that's good orchestration.

Now I've been racking my brains for days to try and decide what big piece to play for you to illustrate all these points - a piece that would really show you what good right orchestration means. And while I was thinking I realized that almost any fine piece of music would show this - any symphony by Mozart or Brahms or Haydn or Tchaikovsky of Franck or Beethoven or Stravinsky -and I thought: well, what will you young people really learn from hearing one of those symphonies? You would hear beautiful orchestration all right, but you wouldn't know why it was beautiful, unless I took hours and hours, or maybe weeks, to explain it in all its details. Then we'd have to learn to read music, and study every instrument - it would be like a whole course at a conservatory.

So what I've decided to play for you is a piece that maybe is not the greatest example of composing in history, but probably is the most exciting orchestral exhibition in the history of music, the famous "Bolero" by Ravel.

We're going to play the Bolero because it's such a marvelously clear example of how this big symphony orchestra can be used. And that's practically all it is; it's just one long tune repeated over and over, with the orchestration changing on each repeat, gradually getting bigger and louder and richer, adding to itself, growing and growing until it finally ends in the biggest orchestral scream you ever heard. But while it's going on, it gives you a chance to hear the orchestra in all its parts, in all its special combinations, and that it does in a way that no other piece can.

The "Bolero" is built up in a very simple way - almost like something you can make with an Erector set. First of all there is a bolero dance rhythm that goes on and on, never changing, in the snare drums.

[ORCH: Ravel - Bolero]

[remaining text is spoken over music]

Now over this rhythm that never stops, we hear a tune -


a long, smooth, snaky melody, sort of Arabic - like very high-class hootchy-kootchy music. This tune is in two parts, which we'll call part A and part B. This is part A, you're hearing now on the flute. Then part A again, a little richer and fuller by the clarinet.


Now comes part B, way up high on the bassoon.


Now part B gets repeated on the little E-flat clarinet.


Now, that makes one full section; and that's all the music there is in the whole piece. There's the oboe d'amore, playing part A now. Remember him, that woodwind cousin we talked about? Over and over again we'll hear part A twice and part B twice, and part A twice again, and so on, only with different instruments until the whole orchestra has been used up and shown off and tired out.

But before it's over, you'll have heard all kinds of strange sounds, colors and combinations. And each time the orchestration changes, like now — trumpet and flute — it gets louder and richer and bigger, until by the end everyone gets together for the big scream. It makes a really very exciting trip through the world of orchestration. So, bon voyage, and I hope you have a good time.

[ORCH: Ravel - Bolero - to end.]


© 1958, Amberson Holdings LLC.
All rights reserved.

Come On, Deliver...
the latest Leonard Bernstein news... to me!