X. Orchestration

Orchestration (a.k.a. instrumentation) is a large and unwieldy topic that doesn’t always find its way in to music theory textbooks at all. This section of Open Music Theory is going to attempt (rather ambitiously, in a few short chapters) to provide a very quick introduction to some useful principles for creating orchestral scores. We won’t spend much time on basics like all the multi-lingual terms and instrumental ranges because you can find out about them in any number of other contexts, including online.


This section assumes a familiarity with some topics covered in the Fundamentals and Diatonic Harmony parts, especially concerning the spacing and voicing of chords.


The three chapters focus on:

  1. Core principles of orchestral writing, organized into matters of succession (what follows what) and simultaneity (what goes together at the same time).
  2. Subtle color changes, taking a closer look at some more detailed aspects of those core principles.
  3. Transcription, begin with a discussion of how to adapt piano music for orchestra in principle, and then turning to four case-studies.

Further, we’re going to focus throughout on:

  • skills and techniques associated with writing effective and idiomatic music for orchestra;
  • enhanced familiarity with and understanding of the orchestral repertoire;
  • repertoire from the eighteenth century to the present day, with a focus on late nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century repertoire, and primarily on tonal music.

Other info

Speaking of repertoire, there will be many examples for you to explore. Images will be included to illustrate short, summative ideas; for longer works, there will be links to the relevant page on IMSLP.org. All works receive a full title except symphonies which are often abbreviated by symphony number (upper case) and movement number (lower case): e.g. Beethoven 4/iv.


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OPEN MUSIC THEORY by Mark Gotham, Kyle Gullings, Chelsey Hamm, Bryn Hughes, Brian Jarvis, Megan Lavengood, and John Peterson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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