Are You Really An Orchestrator?

Orchestrator. An increasingly nebulous term, these days. In the past, the job’s essence was to save the composer’s time by handling some of his more menial notational duties, duties which still required significant stores of knowledge, awareness, and experience. These days the overall philosophy hasn’t changed much, but technology has compartmentalized so many of the tasks that 10 different assistants can make 10 varying contributions (from simple midi translation all the way up to ghostwriting) and still be called “orchestrators.”

To reliably navigate where and how your career is going, however the industry labels your duties, you need periodic and unvarnished reality checks on who and what you really are inside. Take my following 4-part (by-no-means-exhaustive) Orchestrational Aptitude Test (OAT), and perhaps discover where you really stand. Score +1 for every “yes” answer and -1 for every “no.”


1. Do you often find rehearsals, with their potential for orchestrational disassembly and microscopy, more interesting than the performances they precede?
2. If you find yourself at a garage/estate sale or used book store, do you find yourself weeding through piles of publicational claptrap on the very off chance of finding a musical score to practically anything?
3. When watching film, do you often find the dialog getting in the way of the orchestration?
4. When you hear classic (not classical) songs by the likes of (Sir) Elton John or the Beatles, does your attention drift away from the vocals to discern the makeup and voicing of the small but colorfully effective ensembles which so often spiced up the tracks?
5. (Followup to #4) In general, do you find yourself more familiar with the arrangement of a pop song than the lyrics or even the melody?
6. Bonus point: Can you orchestrationally describe the underscore to the narration in The Moody Blues’ “Nights In White Satin,” especially if you can’t recite the words?
7. In a comparison between original or recreated recordings of film scores and “pops orchestra” versions (despite their larger forces or better recording quality), do you usually find the original more compelling?
8. When you tune in classical music on the radio. do you immediately look for something else upon hearing either solo piano or anything with harpsichord in it?
9. Do you ever find yourself killing one side of a stereo ensemble recording, just to approximate the experience of standing against the wall of a session while it’s going down?
10. If given a choice between the printed score and the recording (assuming you are not on a desert island,) would you more often than not choose the score?


11. Could you hold your own in a game of instrumental trivia? (How big a store of orchestration anecdotes from the history of music and/or film do you carry around in your head like a comedian’s jokes?)
12. Is it no longer necessary for you to look up transpositions or ranges for the instruments you use?
13. If blindfolded, could your ear differentiate between the registers, timbres, articulations and special effects of all the standard orchestral instruments?
14. Are you familiar enough with such elements to imagine them combined in ways you have not yet encountered?
15. Can you roughly intuit (preferably through some form of experience) the sensations of actually playing these sounds?
16. Can you clearly imagine the sound of an unfamiliar score?
17. Can you flip the coin and mentally reverse-engineer what such a score would look like if just given the audio?


18. Given that instrumental color is as integral to an orchestrator’s listening experience as the pitch, have you done a significant number of takedowns in your career? (Audio, not midi.)
19. At recording sessions, do you routinely forego precious breaks to grill great players for insights and informational tidbits about their instruments?
20. Do you seek out such information even though you may have no immediate need for it?


21. When you orchestrate, do you actually imagine and experience (and hence meticulously detail) the music on scores you produce more thoroughly than even the subsequent session players?
22. Do you resist letting your samples’ capabilities dictate what gets written for them?
23. Are your scores reliably recorded with a minimum of muss, fuss, rehearsal time, and “takes?”
24. Have you ever gotten any of your scores (hopefully ones more sophisticated than “Mary Had A Little Lamb” in whole notes) nailed on the first take?

Assessing your aggregate score is simple, as a positive one leans toward revealing the heart and soul of an orchestrator. A negative one might be more indicative of something else. Either way, the questions themselves might set you to thinking.

Just what does that amalgamation of teamwork, variety, power, and sheer artistic force known as “the orchestra” mean to you anyway?


  • Liz Finch
    March 3, 2010 @ 1:11 pm

    As usual, an insightful and helpful contribution!

  • March 9, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

    OMG. It’s official. I’m an orchestrational nerd.

    I kept shouting ‘YES!’ at my monitor as I read this.

    You lost me a bit there with ‘Knights in White Satin’ however. I mean . . I’ve heard the song and the strings and everything, but I don’t think one needs to be in their 50s to be a good orchestrator. I went ahead and gave myself +1 since at least I knew what you were talking about.


    Thanks for the awesome article. :]

  • March 12, 2010 @ 11:21 am

    Great set of questions! It took me back to my youth and the years I spent
    tearing apart Bob Farnon scores ( via attempted takedowns ) to acquire the
    “Guv’nors secrets ”

    one question I’d like have seen the responses to:

    ” Do you find it more difficult to re-orchestrate for a live ensemble the
    work of a MIDI composer with little ( or no ) knowledge of how live instruments
    sound and /or perform ? “

  • John
    March 27, 2010 @ 7:15 am

    I agree with the ethos of this post, However, far too many directors, especially new, require sampled music (with libraries i mean) which completely changes the orchestrational landscape as they actually don’t make any real sense. They are thin, weak and soulless, living the composer and orchestrator do unrealistic things to make them sound real. I feel the question is, if things will progress like this, will we need orchestrators for films?? I at least hope so!!

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