Welcome, readers of 100 Orchestration Tips! If you’ve caught an error, lack of clarity, or feel that a particular perspective needs to be added, please check to see if it’s been noted below. If not, please use our contact form, and we’ll read your correction. If it’s valid and adds significantly to the information, we’ll be sure to update the page. In addition, we’ve added many notations from different readers of the book, including professional musicians who helped to proof the final draft. Some of these notes are fun to read, or just funny. Enjoy!

TG: Thomas Goss
TD: Tim Davies
AB: Alan Belkin
KH: Kim Hickey
MC: Merran Cooke

Correction: Clarification: Note:


Woodwind Section

Tip 1

TG: Examples of phrasing in elocution.

Martin Luther King: "I Have a Dream" speech

Sir Laurence Olivier: "To Be or Not To Be" soliloquy

MC: Oboists can play for a long time without needing to inhale due to the tiny amount of air going through the reed. Sometimes oboists need to plan time in the music to breathe out the excess stale air before they can inhale new air. Oboists face challenges with lip stamina, ie embouchure, which is not a problem experienced significantly by the other woodwind instruments. In that respect the oboe is more like the horn or trumpet – oboists need breaks so their embouchure doesn’t wear out. In other words, the problem with playing lots of long phrases straight after each other isn’t so much a problem with breathing, it’s a problem for the embouchure.

AB: Glissandos in woodwinds are also worth discussing. So often I get students writing impossible things because they somehow think that an oboe can do a gliss the same way a violin can.

Tip 2

MC: Rather than use the word “squawk,” I’d say the lowest oboe notes tend to be loud and are difficult to control. The notes are quite resistant so they can be explosive: either nothing happens or they come out far too loud and harsh. It’s difficult to cushion the sound on the low notes. I wouldn’t encourage taking the oboe up to the top A in the chart. Admittedly it is possible, and probably I played it when I was a student, but now I don’t even know the fingering. I’ve played a top G once or twice in my orchestral playing, a G sharp maybe once.

Tip 3

MC: I completely agree, oboes in unison on a solo is entirely undesirable! Although it does work in the New World Symphony. There’s one solo entry in the first movement at the start of the Allegro with both oboes together that works well. It’s declamatory rather than lyrical, which is why I think it works. That’s the only famous oboe unison solo I can think of right now. On the other hand, oboes playing in thirds are fabulous and blend really well – some of my favourite oboe solos are in thirds – it’s why I love Mozart oboe parts so much. Other examples are Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, Mahler 1 third movement, Tchaikovsky Capriccio Italien…

I also agree that doubled oboes within the texture can be ok. Sometimes a bit of unison is handy so the players can take breaks and spell each other – though if the part was better suited to the oboe it wouldn’t be necessary to cheat and take breaks!

Tip 4

KH: I’ve had some STUPID changes in show music. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve stayed on one instrument and changed the octave. Depending on tempo, you need more than two or three measures to switch. Please don’t do this, we will talk about you, tweet about you, curse you, light candles and put xxx’s on Marie Laveau’s tomb if you do this to us – and in the end we will play it the way it works for us.

MC: It’s very helpful to keep changing of instruments to a minimum. From an oboist’s perspective, the pitch, embouchure and reed will be different between the oboe and the cor anglais. The reed will also have dried out if it hasn’t been played for a while, so time is needed either to dip it in water, or to hold it in the mouth for a while to moisten it. Coming in cold on a solo on a new instrument is always very risky. Ideally the switch to the auxiliary instrument would occur a few bars or lines before the solo so the player has the chance to adjust to the different instrument and make sure it’s working. I’ve played plenty of parts where this doesn’t happen, and of course as a player you cope because you have to, but in an ideal world you would have plenty of time to switch between instruments and the chance to play a few notes before the solo.

Tip 5

KH: Bass flute needs 10 times the air the flute does. As the pitch descends, the air requirement increases exponentially. Also in the low register it won’t carry [against an orchestra], no matter how good the player. So amplification is a consideration.

MC: I’ve played hecklephone, and used to play oboe d’amore when I was in Germany. It’s a lot of work to get set up to play a different double-reed instrument because you need to make the appropriate reeds.


Tip 6

KH: Bach is a bastard. That is all

Tip 7

No notes as yet.

Tip 8

KH: A good player can project in low register but not against a full string and brass section. Don’t be afraid to use the low register, just don’t overwhelm it either. It doesn’t have to solo, but it shouldn’t be buried either.

Tip 9

KH: Don’t ignore the low/middle register of piccolo – it is a sweet and haunting sound that can be heartbreaking.

Tip 10

KH: Don’t be afraid to use the full range of alto and bass flute, all the way up to high C. When these instruments go up there, they sound like violas or cellos playing high up on the fingerboard. It’s a strained but beautiful sound in the hands of a capable player


Tip 11

MC: There’s quite a bit of debate as to where oboe vibrato comes from: abdomen, diaphragm, throat, lips, or some combination. That aside, different speeds and intensity are appropriate for different music, and different players will all have different approaches.

Tip 12

MC: The oboe can do much more than just lyrical solos. Other examples of famous staccato/tonguing solos include Rossini’s Silken Ladder, Mussorgsky/Ravel’s “Dance of the Chicks in Their Shells” from Pictures at an Exhibition, and Bartok’s “game of pairs” duo from his Concerto for Orchestra. Double tonguing is possible though very challenging because of the pressure required to start the note – it’s much easier on the flute. Short bursts of double tonguing, i.e. two to four notes in a row, are easier than long passages. Oboists can produce quite a range of different sounds if they’re encouraged to do so. Generally for classical orchestral playing, oboists are trained to cushion the naturally harsh tendencies of the oboe – you’re constantly working to hold back the sound and make it sweet and beautiful. It can be very liberating as an oboist being asked to make an ugly harsh sound.

Tip 13

MC: As above, I’d characterise low oboe notes as loud and difficult to control, i.e. explosive. Parts calling for low, quiet, textural notes on the oboe can be terrifying (e.g. the second oboe part in Dvorak’s Cello Concerto). That said, the low notes can be fantastic, particularly if the oboist can choose their own dynamic. The duck from Peter and the Wolf is a great example – I’ve always really enjoyed playing this solo because you can play as loud as you like and really fill out those low notes.

Tip 14

MC: It’s worth reiterating the challenges of stamina and embouchure on the oboe. On that topic, Bach oboe parts are notoriously tiring to play. The example from the Brandenburg Concerto is a bit higher than the middle of the sweet spot. Starting on a high A is always difficult because it’s an unstable note, and B flat is also challenging. It’s very reed dependent – I would be choosing my reed very carefully to play that part. An example of a solo I often play if asked to demonstrate the oboe is the Scheherazade solo at the start of the second movement. That would be my ideal example of a solo right in the middle of the comfortable range – it’s lyrical but also has plenty of little articulated stopping points to give your embouchure a break, without needing to breathe. As observed about the Bach excerpt, it’s also mainly moving step-wise so it’s easy to get it smooth and flowing.

Tip 15

MC: The cor anglais’ best range starts at low F rather than E (ie a fingered C). Although Stravinsky uses the low B in Rite of Spring a lot, that solo is pretty scary. The B on the cor anglais tends to be flat and reluctant to speak. While I agree low notes on the cor anglais are easier than on the oboe, and they do have a great sound, they are still quite scary, particularly if they are quiet. A solo starting in the middle of the range (e.g. Berlioz Symphony Fantastique or Dvorak’s New World Symphony) is much safer than one starting at the bottom of the range (Rite of Spring or Kinder Totenlieder).

Tips 16-25

No notes as yet.


Brass Section

General comments

AB: Having taught this stuff for over 30 years, I know the most common mistakes, like setting up wind chords with no blended timbres. In the brass, often beginners use the horns like bass instruments or soprano instruments, whereas their best range is the tenor-alto range. Another really common mistake is to write high notes in the brass with no preparation. Yesterday a student showed me a score with a trumpet hitting a high E after being silent. They see these ranges in books, but they don’t realise how difficult it is for brass instruments to just pick a high note out of the air.

AB: One thing occurred to me, which might be worth mentioning more explicitly: the brass instruments’ affinity for open intervals, i.e. the way the limitations of the classical brass were turned into an advantage. Mozart will use a couple of horns or trumpets sustaining an octave or a fifth as background, since both the interval and the lack of activity allow them to support other instruments discretely. Interesting also to note how Brahms, while he does of course write for the valve horn, nonetheless maintains this older technique at times.

Tips 26-28

No notes as yet.

Tip 29

AB: In Koechlin’s treatise (Traité de l’Orchestration) he mentions that instrumental balance doesn’t work by arithmetic alone: what they’re doing is just as important as how many there are.

AB: Apart from brass being placed in the right registers it’s important that they not move around too much. Keep the support parts low-profile (not too much activity, not too many pitch changes, no fancy rhythms). In classical orchestration when brass is supporting, it’s pretty much always held or repeated notes. Although in those days of course it was also due to the lack of valves, it’s still a general advantage, since it’s less likely to steal the limelight.

AB: I really do think this is worth mentioning. I’ve seen so many beginners just write pp on any brass passage at all, and then they think the brass will automatically be quiet! Or another common problem: students will think that they just have to mark some instruments down a step to make things balance. I keep telling them "orchestrate your dynamics", don’t just write letters in the score.

Tips 30-50

No notes as yet.


Percussion Section

General comments

AB: There are basically two ways percussion can be used: as an independent element in the texture or as enhancement. A xylophone counterpoint would be an example of the first, and a passages where xylophone doubles the piccolo would be an examples of the second. When using percussion as enhancement, score your instrument in the same register as what you’re enhancing. Enhancing the cellos is not a job for the glockenspiel, and enhancing the piccolo is not for the bass drum.

Tip 51

TD: Personally I prefer using a 5-line staff for all my percussion parts; then I can put multiple instruments on the one staff and stave space. This works better for one player who does multiple things but there is also no problem with say bass drum and cymbals and or SD all being on a single staff and 3 guys reading off it. I grew up playing in brass bands and concert bands and a lot of it was like that.

Tip 52

No notes as yet.


Tip 53

TD: I think every pro/pro-am/youth/ decent school orchestra these days has 4 drums, the lowest of which is 32” – so the C is a viable note. Obviously some sort of explanation of its flabby nature is warranted, but it is still a good sound and can be used with some thought.

Tip 54-55

No notes as yet.


Tip 56-57

No notes as yet.


Tip 58-59

No notes as yet.

Tip 60

TD: TI totally disagree with Sibelius’s drum kit notation defaults. I would never put a cymbal on the line (F). I use E for hi-hat and G for ride, A for crash. The note head for the cross stick makes no practical sense, is pretty hard to see what it really is, looks like a toner/ink leak, and would need to be explained and is for sure not standard. Using a plain x for cross stick seems to be what I see most as a drummer and what I use as a writer, and makes the most practical sense. The hi-hat is always written with a ‘x’ notehead and the o above for open and the + for closed (default being closed), just like it is for the other instruments of the orchestra. A hollow diamond crotchet is not musically/mathematically correct, the crotchet version is the x.

TG: More on drum notation from Tim’s perspective and experience as both a drummer and film composer can be found on his post from deBreved.

Mallet Instruments

Tips 61-62

No notes as yet.

Tip 63

TD: It’s worth mentioning the difference between the xylophone and marimba, such as the shape and width of the bars. Also the tuning of the xylo to the octave and a fifth harmonic, thus giving it is particular color, especially down low – and the marimba being pure octaves.

TIPS 64-70: HARP

Harp Tuning

Tips 64-66

No notes as yet.

Harp Technique

Tip 67

No notes as yet.

Tip 68

TD: Everyone I’ve ever worked with prefers and assumes the harmonics sound an octave above written. I think this is the default and its use should be advocated more strongly. One of my issues with the Gould notation book is she gives examples of both but does not commit to one way or the other. (TG note: I completely agree, and wish that I could lay down a rule about it, and yet I still see professional harpists run into problems with second-guessing composers of less experience. So the only way to be absolutely sure of accuracy is to mark it as such.)

Tip 69

TD: I hate it when I have to write repeated notes that can’t alternate enharmonically.

Tip 70

No notes as yet.


String Section

Tip 71-77

No notes as yet.

Tip 78

TD: Flautando may be mostly bowed where it’s marked in the diagram, ie closer to the fingerboard, but it can also be done over the fingerboard. It’s really a faster bow speed with less pressure. The two do produce a softer tone, but apart from that, the desired result and technique are not related. Even players can get confused on this one give you different answers.


Tips 79-81

No notes as yet.

Tip 82

TD: Professional-level 2nd violin players may take offence to the notion they’re not as good as the 1st violins. This is the sort of ‘fact’ that gets blown up and repeated and next thing you know it ‘is’ some sort of fact. (TG: I completely agree here – please note the explication in the previous tip)


Tips 83-88


Tips 89-92

No notes as yet.

Tip 93

TD: The hand stretch limits the use of the touch-5 harmonic in lower positions and the use of thumb position.

Tip 94

No notes as yet.

Double Bass

Tips 95-100

TD: I’ve found the 5th string is tuned to B0 by default. Some may tune to C but the assumption in Europe and Australia is B.



General Comments

AB: A problem I notice a lot for student composers is not having a clear idea of the level of the ensemble they are writing for. They will have, say, brass parts which requires one of the world’s best orchestras, beside string parts which are baby stuff. An orchestrator needs to know what is harder and what is easier to play, to write realistically for the ensemble in question.

Tip 101

TD: In film scoring, always use a percussion score.

Tips 102-106

No notes as yet.

Tip 107

AB: When discussing this issue I like to point out the rather odd fact that a section of strings can get closer to "nothing" than a solo string player. With one player you can’t help hearing the first friction of the bow on the string, whereas the coordination of a section is never perfect, so that the attacks seem to average out, which in practice makes it possible to start from silence.

AB: A colleague who plays clarinet for the Montreal Symphony told me (and showed me) that there exists a technique of starting a note on a wind instrument without the tongue at all. He says that it is fairly common in Germany (that’s where he learned it) and it even applies to oboe and bassoon on their lowest notes! He says the 1st bassoonist in the MSO can actually play that Tchaikovsky ppppp opening in that way. But it is virtually unknown in the US, for example (according to him). so one cannot rely on all players being able to do it.

TG: Alan Belkin mentioned a tip that applies to niente: “Take away instruments during a diminuendo, if you want a really soft passage choose the instruments and registers which will make it happen.” This is echoed by Tim Davies excellent post in deBreved.

Score Preparation

Tips 108-110

No notes as yet.

Tip 111

TD: I always suggest printing and proofing this way too. Amazing what pops on paper that does not on the screen.


Tips 112-113

No notes as yet.