Books on Orchestration, Film Scoring, and Music Theory

Below, I’ve listed quite a few books that I’ve found useful, some of which I continue to use for reference. Most of these are readily available, with hotlinked titles to Amazon pages. With one exception, I have avoided listing any books that are part of applied for-profit courses, as it isn’t my place to make a critical evaluation on such works, or promote them on behalf of their authors.

Recommended Orchestration texts

Piston & Adler

I’m listing these two books together, as I’m constantly asked which books a beginning orchestrator should read. Here is my perennial reply: get the Piston text first. It is clear, concise, and well-laid-out, giving you valuable, usable information in simple, memorable words. Read it many times, and try out some of the assignments. Then, when you are absolutely certain that you have the willpower, desire, and aptitude to get serious about your training, then and only then should you invest in the Adler. The Adler is state-of-the-art – but for that, you will have to pay university books store prices, even on Amazon. Get the recordings along with it, those are essential for reference.

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Other Books on Orchestration

I’ve found the books listed below quite interesting to help round out my knowledge of orchestration from different perspectives.

Anatomy of the Orchestra by Norman Del Mar

I’ve read this book many times, for enjoyment as much as information. The wit, superb writing style, and breadth of information are all breathtaking as an orchestrator and professor takes you on a tour through the orchestra. But it’s really not an orchestration manual, in that it doesn’t lay out sample after sample with hard facts and systematic information. Rather, Del Mar has a system of his own, that’s more like taxonomy than orchestration. Highly recommended.

Artistic Orchestration by Alan Belkin

Belkin has a series of e-books on composition, which are available for free download on the internet, covering Form, Harmony, and Counterpoint. This particular book isn’t really a manual, nor is it essentially systematic. Rather, it’s a monograph in the old style, a collection of observations about a particular topic, that stretches out over 65 pages. What I really appreciate about Belkin is his approach to orchestration as a series of understandings about character and craft. It’s definitely worth a read, though as part of a reading list of many perspectives and approaches. Click through for a free download.

Creative Orchestration, by George Frederick McKay

George McKay turns the table on most orchestration manuals, by getting all the ranges, registers, breathing, bowing, and other hard details of instrumentation over and done with in 34 tersely written pages – and then following this with a generous, 177-page treatise on the theory and philosophy of orchestration. As a theorist and philosopher myself, I don’t necessarily share all his conceptualisations – and yet there’s solid, usable advice and information. The biggest thing this book will do for an orchestrator is to tell them how to organise and categorise their thoughts about texture, and such a simple and direct approach is desperately needed. Like William Lovelock’s answer to Gordon Jacob, the publication of this book was a gamble, betting on the hope that its new, radical approach to thinking about orchestration would become the new norm for university instruction. With that in mind, the book is organised around a series of exercises and assignments, all of which would be immensely useful for the student orchestrator. But like most such gambles, this one didn’t win the toss scholastically, and therefore it’s a rare book. So if you want to buy it, act quickly – there are a few, scant copies available for sale on the internet, some of these priced far beyond any reasonable budget for an actual working musician. See if your library owns a copy first. UPDATE – a subscriber has very kindly pointed out that McKay’s estate has now published many of his compositions and writings on music. Please click through the link to order his book.

Orchestral Technique by Gordon Jacob

This book was written by composer Gordon Jacob as a kind of a “how-to-orchestrate” book rather than as an orchestration manual per se. There are thumbnail guides to instrumentation, but what Jacob really wants to do is get you to see how those instruments are used in practical, effective ways. Then he gives you very useful assignments with each chapter. Absolutely worth reading and studying.

Orchestration: A New Approach

Norman Ludwin teaches the next generation of film composers and orchestrators as a faculty member of the UCLA Extension Film Scoring Program, has orchestrated such blockbusters as Jurassic World and Star Trek Into Darkness, and has the inside perspective as a veteran of many concerts and film/TV scoring calls. But more than that: he’s a great explainer, with a very thorough level of understanding in the way the orchestra works. His approach, out of all other orchestration text writers I’ve read, is the closest to my own. And yet his direction is unique, original, engaging, and quite thorough. He has a series of six e-books titled Orchestration: A New Approach that comes with detailed illustrations breaking down the functions of a page of orchestration, backed up by audio samples. Anthologies for score-reading and analysis cover the great orchestrators and composers from the classical era to today. Supplying contemporary scores for study is always rare and precious, and for that monumental effort alone, Ludwin deserves high praise. Highly recommended.

Sounds and Scores by Henry Mancini

This is a great book for getting a look at some classic television and film scores, and seeing the approach of one of the acknowledged masters in the field. It comes with a reference CD of all the samples, which is priceless for a beginning orchestrator.

Textures and Timbres by Henry Brant

A life’s work in codifying the principles of orchestral texture. In some ways, it’s a very narrow view into one specific element of orchestration, and it also is a somewhat personal set of guidelines for Brant’s own profound compositions. And yet it’s a good sourcebook for composers playing with ideas, and wanting to understand timbral relationships. Highly recommended, after you’ve done quite a bit of other foundational reading.

The Elements of Orchestral Technique by William Lovelock

This book was written at a time when the Gordon Jacob text above was out of date, and composer William Lovelock wanted to offer an alternative. Unfortunately for Lovelock, Oxford University Press updated the Jacob, and his publishers couldn’t compete. The result is that this precious, remarkable book is now a collector’s item, and I apologize for making it the first item of my Orchestration Book Club video series. It’s not quite worth the hundred-dollar+ price tags I’m seeing. But it has great advice, applied orchestration, and assignments that I feel are even better than in the Jacob.

The Orchestra by Paul Bekker

A superb, short treatise on the history of the orchestra, from its 17-century origins all the way up to Schoenberg and Stravinsky. The real value here is in understanding the context in which the orchestra developed. Bekker is strictly old-school, but his information is excellent and his view on the modern direction of orchestration quite generous and informed. A very quick, fun read that improves your understanding of what you’re hearing immediately.

The Technique of Contemporary Orchestration, by Alfredo Casella, edited by Virgilio Mortari

Like most books and courses with the title “Orchestration,” this tome focuses only the building blocks of instrumentation, and not the actual “technique,” whatever the title may claim. And yet its perspectives are novel, and many bits of advice are priceless. It opens with a rare section on the science of tone production, and leads from there to a top-down analysis of the orchestra in score order: winds, brass, percussion, harp, and strings. But one must realise that this is a uniquely Italian perspective on orchestration, and limited to a sector of culture and period – in this case, Italy of the late 1940’s. For instance, there’s the classification of saxhorns (called “flicorni”) with tubas, perfectly reasonable from an instrument-builder’s perspective as both are whole-tube instruments in principle. Saxophones are placed after this in order in the book, rather than right next to their single-reed progenitors, the clarinets, probably because of their use in marching bands along with saxhorns. Interestingly, the authors spend a whole chapter discussing jazz style and arranging, which does them enormous credit. However, it’s very old information, gleaned from a distance. Their idea of modern jazz is Glenn Miller, and this tragic lack of hipness was not updated when the book was revised. So I can recommend it as a supplementary text, with the caution that its data is a bit on the weathered side.

Classic Orchestration Texts

Grand Treatise on Instrumentation by Hector Berlioz, updated by Richard Strauss

To read this book is to step deep into the history of orchestration and instrumentation. It’s really the first manual of its kind and speaks to the enormous vision and originality of Berlioz. The updating and commentary by Richard Strauss make the book much more readable, though it’s still no kind of manual upon which a modern orchestrator could base a career. Available in the original French, and of course English and German. There may be some copyright restrictions for the Strauss edition in the European Union.

Orchestration by Cecil Forsyth

This book laid the foundation for all other English-language orchestration manuals, both in organization and in wit. But despite Del Mar’s zingers, this book remains the funniest, most insightful read on orchestration. It left a deep imprint on a whole generation of American and English orchestrators. Highly recommended.

Principles of Orchestration by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Many orchestrators still feel this information is relevant today, and if you do a Google search you will find sites that have recorded the samples and offer courses based around the original text. What’s valuable to us here is that one of the greatest orchestrators ever, and incidentally Stravinsky’s teacher, preserved his working knowledge and approach to the craft. Every serious orchestrator must read this book and should own a copy. The free IMSLP link contains texts in English, German, and the original Russian.

The Technique of Modern Orchestration by Charles-Marie Widor

Widor was a great organist and teacher. During church services, he used to have improvisation contests with his assistant, a young Gabriel Fauré. His book was created as a supplement to the by-then outdated Berlioz Grand Treatise above. It’s useful mostly for its outlook and its charts of different techniques, like trills, tremolos, double-stops, and maximum tempos of pizzicato etc. Some of these values have changed, but most are essentially the same. Always check with a modern manual before following his advice, though.

Manuals on Notation and Copying

Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation by Elaine Gould

A lot of composers I know rave about this text. My feeling about it that it’s really for hardcore notation junkies, libraries, and university professors. It’s an enormous tome and isn’t too concerned with jazz arranging conventions and so on. And it costs a bundle. Yet it provided the notational standard for Sibelius and possibly other notation software as well. A truly terrific book, but not for everyone (including me).

Music Notation in the Twentieth Century by Kurt Stone

This is the Piston of music notation: clear, concise, well-laid-out, and memorable. I use it frequently. It has an approach that seems more aware of certain American music publishing conventions than the Gould text below. Its sections on percussion, harp, and brass special techniques are especially clear and detailed.

The Art of Music Copying by Clinton Roemer

I cannot imagine a single copyist who would have the income to drop over $700 on a book like this, which is what’s asked on Amazon. And yet if you work by hand for a living, then it’s the best book that I’ve ever read on the subject. Clean, clear, concise, and precise. If you see a copy at a yard sale, snag it! But Google around for some other guides – Berklee has a couple, I think.

Film Scoring

Complete Guide to Film Scoring: The Art and Business of Writing Music for Movies and TV by Richard Davis

This is a much much cheaper option than “On The Track,” but it’s quite a different book. It’s got some extremely informative interviews with top pros, and then a course approach to the process of film scoring. If you’re going to Berklee, this is the book that you’ll use – and even if you’re not, you’ll run into a lot of people in the industry who have, and continue to refer to it. So it deserves a place on your shelf as well. Some readers find the introductory history of film composing to be a bit of a bore. For that, read a book like one of those I list below.

Film Score: View from the Podium by Tony Thomas

This book is likely to be hanging around gathering dust in your public library. If so, go check it out, and on the way home pick up some popcorn – because after reading through the history, perspective, and interviews with these film composers, you’re going to be doing a lot of screening of classic films. The book starts with Aaron Copland and Miklos Rozsa, and goes from there up to Jerry Goldsmith and Fielding, hitting Henry Mancini and Bernard Herrmann along the way. Absolutely essential reading for getting some historical perspective.

How Film and TV Music Communicate, Volumes 1 & 2, by Brian Morrell

This is simply an enormous boon to the aspiring film and television composer. Morrell has collected theory, philosophy, musicology, and history into two huge volumes – the first alone is almost 400 pages! It’s hard to think of a topic that he doesn’t cover in this two-part work, but just in case he might have forgotten something, he devotes a final chapter in his first volume on “Film Music in Context.” This last is an exhaustive grab-bag of answers to the types of questions you read on Facebook group threads: “Sampled vs. the real thing;” “How to stimulate your intuition;” and “Relying on the click.” And his advice throughout is sterling, speaking with confidence about every step of the process. It’s simply unbelievable that this much quality information is just sitting there in a couple of PDF’s to read for anyone who wants to click on it.

On The Track: A Guide to Contemporary Film Scoring by Fred Karlin and Rayburn Wright

This book is the “Behind Bars” of Film Scoring, with every detail of the process carefully considered and clearly laid out for both university students and working professionals. Though it’s even more pricey than Sam Adler’s “Study of Orchestration” listed above, I’ve heard some film orchestrators say that John William’s introduction to the book alone was worth the price. I wouldn’t go that far myself, but there’s no denying that this is really a thorough text on the subject, with numerous samples and assignments to help composers polish their skills and approaches.

Music Theory

Counterpoint by Walter Piston & A Treatise on Counterpoint in 40 Easy Lessons by Friedrich J. Lehmann (free from Project Gutenberg)

You can’t go wrong with Piston. He combines the practical with the visionary here. The Lehmann Treatise is also very fun, and it’s interesting to read the two texts and compare information and approaches.

Form in Tonal Music by Douglass M. Green & Sonata Forms by Charles Rosen

Both the above texts deal with traditional form for the most part. The Green is a university text, but used copies are always turning up here or there, as it’s a heavily assigned book that results in a lot of resales. The Rosen book helps to put a lot of Green’s information into context. His book “The Classical Style” is also worth a read.

Harmony by Walter Piston Modulation by Max Reger Theory of Harmony by Arnold Schoenberg Twentieth-Century Harmony by Vincent Persechetti

An advanced understanding of harmony is essential to any working orchestrator. Start with the basic, useful, and well-written Piston book. Then check out Reger’s treatise to see how such information can be applied. Schoenberg goes even deeper, to the atomic level, and yet keeps his feet on the ground for the most part. Then Persechetti goes past common practice to demonstrate the modern language of harmony.