The Spectrotone Chart is an exciting tool to use in the classroom where only one semester of orchestration is taught. And really, that course isn’t orchestration, but really instrumentation with a tadpole’s worth of orchestration tossed in for good measure. As a comp major who had such a course, I can tell you by the hard experience of competing in Los Angeles post-graduation, you didn’t learn anything about orchestration because true orchestration instruction involves developing the musical imagination.

When I arrived in Hollywood I was able to get one conversation with John Williams’ orchestrator, the late Herb Spencer. Herb’s one sentence career directing advice – you have to learn 1000 orchestral combinations to really be successful.

Orchestration class usually teaches exactly zero.

This is where the highly visual multi-color Spectrotone Chart comes in. The student is immediately confronted with seeing there’s more to orchestration then knowing the flute range and a few handy-dandy facts about the flute before pushing on to the oboe.

Created by four-time Academy Award nominee for best film score, Arthur Lange, the Spectrotone Chart visually picks up where Rimsky-Korsakov left off in his woodwind chart by breaking the instrumental ranges into 4 breaks using one word to aurally describe each break. But Rimsky-Korsakov went no further. He developed his own breaks for the strings with no one word descriptions, and nothing for the brass.

As an historical footnote, Rimsky-Korsakov was not the first to create range breaks across each instruments range. That honor goes to Francois Auguste Gevaert who did so in 1863, first with three range breaks, then again in 1885 with four range breaks per instrument. Rimsky-Korsakov simply adjusted the range breaks from his perspective. Interestingly enough, neither orchestration teacher explained why they chose the breaks they did.

Not so Arthur Lange who had literally thousands of hours in front of orchestras conducting them, along with working near daily with the best musicians in the world at the time – the Hollywood studio musician. Ignoring the traditional range breaks, Lange meticulously worked out where across an instruments range, a color change took place. To start, Lange worked out the 10 colors that appear to the left of the Spectrotone Chart. Then for each orchestral instrument, he determined where the tone color breaks occurred and finally, the color assignment.

Let’s just start here. Using a piano at chart bottom, each instrument’s range is laid out. Ranges can then be compared to the piano keyboard. And all ranges are worked out “where sounds” not where written. Each piano key has next to it its matching MIDI note number and Hz frequency, making the Spectrotone Chart a useful tool for not only teaching talented folk who don’t read music well, but also beginning recording engineers who learn instrumental ranges by Hz frequencies.

Many of the instruments have two bars, one labeled Basic and the other Complementary. I’ll explain both shortly, but my own teaching experience is that in the beginning stick with Basic only.

Here’s why.

Basic represents the tone color scheme of each individual instrument, whereas Complementary is additive, but not primary. So on one piece of paper you have:

  • the instrument’s range
  • tone color breaks across the range
  • where by pitch and Hz each tone color change takes place
  • MIDI note numbers
  • Now I want to give you two new terms. I made them up, so don’t bother looking in a music dictionary for them. The first term is horizontal registration. This term refers to the linear range of each instrument and its tone color scheme.

    The second term is vertical registration, or what I more musically refer to as Span of Orchestration. Vertical Registration is the range of the whole orchestra from the lowest note on the organ, C0, to the highest pitch thus far on the piccolo, C8.

    At the very bottom of the Spectrotone Chart, you see Sub Bass, Low, Medium, High, and Very High. These terms represent the five ranges for the whole orchestra as determined by Gevaert in his 1885 New Treatise on Orchestration. His 1863 edition, Treatise on Orchestration which was translated into Russian by Tchaikovsky, divided the orchestra into three parts. Twenty-two years later he expanded from three to five parts. And here we have a framework for score study, and yes, even mixing.

    The Spectrotone Chart + Span of Orchestration, or more academically, linear registration + vertical registration tells a visual story about a score that can deepen, and potentially speed up, the development of a student’s musical imagination and points to how and why they should continue studying scores post-graduation.

    At this point, the student needs a reference book covering playing techniques. Obviously, I’m recommending my own Professional Orchestration series, but also one book that I feel is critical for students is Henry Brant’s Textures and Timbres: An Orchestrators Handbook.

    With these tools, using the full page/full score examples in Professional Orchestration, the next step is showing students how to transpose to concert key and then do a condensed 3-4 stave score, from
    which later they can learn to compose with. Professional composers who make the big big bucks take scores, transpose them to concert key, and then reduce them to a 3-4 stave condensed score. This is where the secrets are revealed and the Spectrotone Chart the microscope that makes them visible.

    Just this much and the student will learn lots, especially if our teaching approach is followed by having a weekly composition due of two minutes in length for each solo instrument.

    But if this isn’t practical, and depending on the make-up of your class, you could go direct to score study with one or more short scores to be condensed. Short complete scores give a sense of accomplishment while immersing a student into an accessible score.

    Some suggestions in our publication of Alex North’s cues for 2001 (projected Late Fall 2014), all of which Henry Brant orchestrated. So now you have a real learning system with the Spectrotone Chart, the 2001 scores and a book by the movie’s orchestrator.

    I can also suggest as strong study candidates our forthcoming publication of Bruce Broughton’s True Women score (from the 1996 mini-series), Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, my How Ravel Orchestrated: Mother Goose Suite, Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes by Britten, and Debussy’s Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faune.

    All of these works are musically accessible, they sound modern, and have techniques adaptable to MIDI mock-ups. Additionally, many have been recorded live and posted on YouTube.

    And then there’s the highly affordable Digital Concert Hall from the Berlin Philharmonic where hundreds of performances have been videoed. This visual experience helps to demystify string bowings and points out real situations students will confront post-graduation.

    OK – now the rest of the Spectrotone Chart.

    Once the student is familiar with tone colors across an instrument’s range, and has done some score analysis to see this in action, if you have time within the semester, you can cover how orchestral combinations are created.

    Lange outlined four types. The most commonly used are Perfect and Close Combinations and these color combinations are listed on the right side of the Chart. In my own research, I’d say that 80% or better of all orchestral combinations are Perfect and Close. The other two types are Complementary and Remote. Also be aware that the Spectrotone Chart can be used for big bands, concert bands, woodwind ensemble and other types of ensembles, too.

    Just be aware that the more contrasting a combination is, the more you tend to hear the individual instruments within the combination. The best way to understand this is through score analysis so the student sees and hears as a single act.

    One thing to be aware of. Students often misuse the Spectrotone Chart because they’re looking to use it for magic formulas and to avoid developing their musical imagination. Consequently, I get emails asking me if certain combinations are right or wrong. It’s not about right or wrong, it’s about how dramatically effective the combination is when it’s heard.

    Here’s an example you can see for yourself.

    Using Basic only for the clarinet, and the low strings, look at page 1 bar 1 of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony #5 First Movement. If you transpose the A-clarinet to concert pitch, you’ll find that the clarinet and strings as an ensemble are a close combination.

    And what you’ve also learned is that combinations aren’t just for unisons, they’re also for ensemble creation, too.

    OK, this is my primer. For more detailed instruction, please see my video lecture course, Visual Orchestration 1: The Spectrotone Chart.

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