With the rise of orchestral sample library sales we now have a large group of learners who don’t read music wanting to learn orchestration. Two questions emerge.

First, how do you teach non-notation readers orchestration?

Second, what aspects of orchestration can you teach non-readers that also includes readers? Is there a connective link?

Over the summer of 2012, I thought about this a great deal and these were the 3 training answers I came up with.

1. Since around 1834 or so we’ve been teaching not so much orchestration, but instrumentation out of a book. Books contain instrumentation notes and score examples with music notation. Thus the “book” has been the control document for training. So what was needed was a control document that would function as a common source of training. The most logical candidate was the Spectrotone Chart which already contained instrumental ranges and tone color changes across each instrument’s range. To this I added a keyboard with Cs labeled with middle C as C4, MIDI Note Numbers and Hz frequencies next to each pitch for EQ’ing and communicating with recording engineers, and a tool that has not been included in any American text, but influenced French, German, and Russian schools of composers since 1863: span of orchestration. Thus was born the 70th Anniversary Edition of The Spectrotone Chart, and a tool that non-readers could use to learn the fundamentals of scoring.

2. The answer to this next question is as plain as the nose on your face. Do you know what the number 1 tool is we use to learn orchestration? The ear.

Yes, Rimsky-Korsakov did say that orchestration is composition. But there’s a step that precedes that, namely, that before orchestration becomes composition it is first ear training. Knowing an instrument’s range is a factoid of music instruction, and therefore can be memorized. But the heart of what we do isn’t measured in real scoring by knowing memorized ranges, but by knowing what each instrument sounds like in its low, medium, high and very high ranges and the tone colors for each individual instrument across its range.

This is aural. Readers and non-readers alike, ideally, should know this for each instrument. And this is important because most/many of us write/produce what we hear in our minds.

3. Finally, the ultimate tool is our musical imagination. So how does our musical imagination get trained? Two answers: focused listening and score reading. Of the two, the non-reader by default is omitted from score reading, but not from being taught focused attentive listening to understand instrumental selection and usage over span of orchestration. This shouldn’t be too surprising if you’ve ever played in a rock band where the guitarists, who couldn’t read music, spent hours listening to guitar parts doing “take downs” by ear to learn the parts to perform live. Thus, out of these three observations I created Visual Orchestration I: The Spectrotone Chart Course.

The Teaching Challenge
The teaching challenge now becomes getting guitarists (and others), who are among the largest purchasers of orchestral software, to take the skills they’ve already acquired, and retask them.

The tool of retasking is the Spectrotone Chart which students use to “take down” melodic themes and instrumental assignments and identify the both the instrument and the register it’s been placed in.

Span of Orchestration
If you know jazz arranging, you may be familiar with Dick Grove’s Arranging Concepts where he explained his concept of span of orchestration and density.

Well, my definition of span of orchestration is somewhat different, it’s: the division of the orchestra from its lowest note to its highest note divided into the sub bass, low, medium, high, and very high registers. In short, span of orchestration is counterpoint applied to the orchestra as a whole using the Spectrotone Chart to also identify similar and contrasting tone colors.

Since both types of Learners take Visual Orchestration: The Spectrotone Chart, I start them off with something more orchestrally accessible to show how focused listening using the Spectrotone Chart works, Sayuri’s Theme by John Williams from Memoirs of a Geisha.

The piece (after the ad!) runs about 1:37. It starts out with low strings and solo cello (here, YoYo Ma), 2-parts. By comparing to the Spectrotone Chart, register placement and tone colors are learned. In the theme’s restatement, the piece becomes 3-parts, as now a flute is introduced to play the theme over the low strings, with the solo cello performing a counterline.

As you can see, with this simple approach, both the ears and the musical imagination begin to be trained.

The Color Thing
I’ve had my fair share of profs and a few unidentified commentators on forums “dis” the idea of using colors for orchestration instruction. Well, don’t, and here’s why.

You’ll recall, no doubt, that when Rimsky-Korsakov created his version of the instrumental range chart with each instrument’s range divided into the low, medium, high and very high registers, that for the woodwinds only, he used words to describe the tone colors across the four range breaks. Unfortunately, he only did this for the woodwinds. Strings and Brass were omitted. He also omitted doing range breaks for the brass, too.

Here the full genius of Arthur Lange is on display (below, Dmitri Tiomkin is on the left and Lange is on the right. Courtesy Dmitri Tiomkin Estate).

With his Spectrotone System of Orchestration, Lange not only finished what Rimsky-Korsakov started, but he went to the next step by showing how to create four types of instrumental combinations: perfect, close, complementary and remote. These four combination types range from least contrasting to most contrasting. Readers and non-readers alike can learn this.

The Forgotten Man
I would love to announce myself as being the original creator of span of orchestration.


But that applause rightfully belongs to Francois Auguste Gevaert, the true father of modern orchestration instruction, and the first, not RK, to divide each instrument’s range into, first, three range breaks (1863), then four (1885), which we use today. He was also the first to create span of orchestration by dividing the total orchestral range into three parts (1863: low, medium, and high), then five parts (1885: sub bass, low, medium, high, and very high).

Lange built on the work of both Gevaert and Rimsky-Korsakov. In his original Spectrotone booklet, there is the most brief mention of dividing the strings into 3-part span of orchestration (which can be seen on the Spectrotone Chart).

That the Spectrotone System was published originally in 1943 suggests the level of common knowledge known by the great film composers, many of whom had fled to the US from Eastern Europe and by those who came and also taught the American contingency: Ernst Krenek and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco to name two.

When you realize that Tchaikovsky’s college music comp teacher had him spend the entire summer translating Gevaert’s 1863 work into Russian, and that Hugo Riemann had it translated into German, you can begin to see the widespread impact of Gevaert’s teaching approach, even well into the Twentieth Century (as seen in Charles Koechlin’s 1937 four-volume Treatise on Instrumentation where Gevaert is fully acknowledged). And so, even if Gevaert’s name wasn’t mentioned, his influence and what he taught was clearly common knowledge known by some in the Hollywood scoring community. Yet when reviewing American orchestration textbooks, you don’t see these common sense principles taught.

But now with the 70th Anniversary Edition of the Spectrotone Chart, I’ve re-deployed this powerful tool, that once grasped and applied, enables the Learner to create and orchestrate with greater precision – regardless of whether they create by ear or with notation.

Compositional Application
Each tone color has a specific set of instruments available and a specific set of pitches per instrument. As such, each tone color has its own sound which can be used to create unique instrumental combinations and ensembles by tone color with which to create unique compositions. Again, something both readers and non-readers can take advantage of.

Use In The College Classroom
I can report as a former comp degree major that having the material taught in Visual Orchestration would have made a world of difference for me in the classroom which is why I recommend Visual Orchestration: The Spectrotone Chart Course as an addendum to existing orchestration curriculum since the video lectures can be viewed by the student any time.

For the college student, Visual Orchestration ties counterpoint more effectively into the compositional/scoring process. Over time you do figure this out. But with Visual Orchestration, I think students will get it quicker. Second, since the standard orchestration course is really instrumentation with some orchestration added in, Visual Orchestration provides the young composer with advanced tools for knowledgeably creating combinations, a subject rarely taught in the college classroom. Third, it gives a wonderful set of tools by which to approach score study. Fourth, with today’s heavy emphasis on recording that composers must know, Visual Orchestration puts learning how to EQ into a musical, orchestration perspective that’s certainly applicable with 3, 5, and 6 band parametric EQs, since it was Gevaert who codified the Sub Bass, Low, Medium, High, and Very High Registers in 1885.

Recording Students
Even recording engineering students will benefit from Visual Orchestration for at least four reasons. First, engineers learn instrument ranges by Hz frequencies, which are on the Spectrotone Chart next to each piano key. Second, with the Spectrotone Chart, recording engineers and students have clear consistent definitions by Hz frequencies, of the Sub Bass, Low, Medium, High and Very High Ranges. Scan the Internet and scan recording textbooks, and you’ll find a variety of definitions of these registers which at times, can contradict each other. The Spectrotone Chart can provide stability for these definitions. Third, recording engineering students have a tool by which to communicate to those who can provide them work: composers! Fourth, engineering students can obtain greater insights as to how eq’ing an instrument impacts tone colors.

And remember, engineering is aural. So again, Visual Orchestration: The Spectrotone Course offers important insights to engineers who do all their work by ear.

Experienced Composers
Experienced composers, those who read and those who compose by ear, can also benefit from Visual Orchestration as it presents a fresh way of viewing things thus creating new ideas that could prove to quite useful both compositionally and in sound design since even sounds have register placement via span of orchestration.

Learning orchestration is a daunting task. Not only must you learn what instruments and instrumental combinations sound like, but when working electronically, you must also know what they don’t sound like. Additionally, one comes to discover that within orchestration being composition, one must learn creative decision making. The combined work of Francois Auguste Gevaert and Arthur Lange blended in Visual Orchestration I: The Spectrotone Course, makes the discovery a lot easier.


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