Realistic Music Through Realistic Playing

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Usually I write about the business side of film music, but for this column I thought I’d delve a bit into music – specifically how my experience as a pianist created some unexpected challenges in film & TV music. Next week, back to business…

There are some great film music education programs in our industry today, but a great many composers are still self-taught when it comes to orchestration – the art and craft of writing music for orchestral instruments. And even with college orchestration classes, 26 hours is hardly enough time to understand, much less master the complexities of writing for orchestra.

I was speaking to Peter Alexander, author of the multi-volume “Professional Orchestration” series, who related to me that at one time in LA, “the” orchestration teacher was a European refugee named Mario Castelnueve-Tedesco, and he was the one who got “new guys” like Henry Mancini studio writing gigs during which time they would build on what arranging knowledge they had from the big bands and the Army by having open access to every other composer’s scores who was under contract to that studio. In Mancini’s case, that was Universal.

But it’s in the area of orchestration where newer composers often “hit the wall” and turn what often is good writing into awful sounding music. Why? There is no single reason, but today I want to talk about one of the primary reasons I see this happen: orchestral instruments being “played” in a way that is simply not natural for that instrument. There’s more to realistic sampled orchestral scores than using realistic sounding samples – you have to write and orchestrate the music in a way that is realistic as well.

Special note: Masters of orchestration like Scott Smalley have my upmost respect – orchestration is an art and my limited orchestration skills are nowhere near those of many composers. My point in writing this is not to take on the role of an orchestration teacher, which I am clearly not qualified to do, but to relate my experiences as a pianist as I moved into the world of orchestral composing and realized that as a pianist there were more than a few “traps” I fell into as a result of approaching music from a pianistic point of view. Let’s take a closer look.

The biggest culprit when it comes to unrealistic orchestration tends to be “pianistic” playing – that is, playing a sampled orchestral instrument on a keyboard in a way that is more like a piano or organ would be played than how the actual live version of the instrument is or can be played. Many composers come from a background of being a pianist – myself included. I spent years touring the country as a jazz pianist before I decided to move to Los Angeles and study film composing, and while my jazz piano background gave me some advantages, it also put me squarely into the “keyboard player syndrome” which created some big problems for me when it came to composition and writing.

Keyboard player’s syndrome often results in composers playing and orchestrating music in a pianistic way – a way that is compatible with 10 fingers and 2 hands on a keyboard. And when it comes to orchestral instruments, this can result what I’ll call the “3 Pianist’s Sins of Orchestration” – things that pianists should consider when moving into the realm of orchestration.

#1 The Sin of Multiplying Strings – Multiplying, instead of dividing string section samples when more than one note is played simultaneously

Many newer composers who write with string section samples don’t stop to consider that when you have a sampled string section such as a violin section play 2 notes at once, many string section samples end up doubling the number of “players” by assigning the full section to each of the 2 notes. More advanced string sample libraries such as the DVZ library from Audio Impressions, Hollywood Strings Diamond, L.A. Scoring Strings and the new Vienna Instruments PRO player have the capability of “dividing” the section in cases of multiple notes rather than “multiplying” the section. It’s a critical difference especially when a composer has a live orchestra perform a score that was originally written using string section samples.

#2 The Sin of Unrealistic Duration – Playing notes on sampled instruments of unrealistic duration

While a string section can, as a group effort, sustain a note very smoothly for a long period of time (“footballs”, as the string players like to call whole notes), sampled string sections often sound terrible when played this way. How many times have you seen a “B” movie score where the composer simply sits on one or more string notes for what seems like hours on end, to the point you hear the sample looping and repeating?

It gets even worse when this is done with brass samples – trumpet and trombone players cannot hold notes forever, and need to breathe. There’s nothing worse than a keyboard player playing some sort of an awful combo brass sample like an organ – it’s a sickening, muddy mess that cheapens whatever quality the writing has into a soupy mess.

And let’s not even talk about when this is done with instruments likes sampled saxophones – what should have been a score is instead turned into a bleating mass of musical cheese.

#3 The Sin of Limited Intervals – Writing or orchestrating harmonies or intervals for a family of instruments based on the limits of your hands, not the instruments

When a keyboard player or pianist sits down to compose, he or she tends to work out ideas as a pianist would, with the limits of how far his hand can stretch and how many notes can be played at once. This is fine, but what “feels good” and is workable for a pianist to play in terms of how many notes he can reach and what intervals he can create as a pianist often make for lousy orchestration when it comes to live instruments. Orchestras – both within the instrument families of the orchestra and between those groups, are not limited by a reach of a pianist’s hands and fingers, yet so many newer composers churn out orchestral music that sounds like a church organ hymn simply dumped onto the orchestra.

A great example is the octave – since the safe limit for piano music in terms of the reach of a hand is an octave, especially played loudly or quickly, the octave is used in a great deal of piano music to create passages that are loud, forceful, and have great impact. Debussy and Rachmaninoff were masters at the use of the octave in piano music. But when reaching an octave, especially in faster passages, pianists are limited by their hands in what notes they can play within the octave. Generally speaking, the faster and/or louder the passage, the fewer notes within the octave can be played effectively. But this limitation of course does not exist for the orchestra, yet how many times have you heard amateurish film score music written loaded with octave passages intended to give the same effect as happens with piano music? While there are certainly reasons for octaves and octave doubling – most obviously when the cello and double bass are involved – there is an entire world of harmony and orchestration that opens up when pianist-composers forget about the limitations of their hands and expand their musical horizons to take advantage of what an orchestra can do – whether it be a sampled orchestra or a live one.

Most experienced orchestral composers will say that composing for sampled instruments is different than composing for live ones, and this is good advice. There are many things you cannot do on a sampled instrument that can easily be done on live instruments, and vice versa. But by the same token, some of the best sampled orchestra music I’ve heard is music where the composer and orchestrator has respected the abilities, limitations and characteristics of the corresponding live instruments when composing and orchestrating. And for pianists, this can mean taking some extra steps to move beyond the limitations of the piano and embrace the endless possibilities of sampled and live orchestras.

One of my favorite orchestration reference works is Professional Orchestration: A Practical Handbook published by Alexander Publishing, who publishes an entire range of orchestration references and study materials. For complete information on this, visit:

Happy composing and orchestrating!


  • January 13, 2011 @ 11:17 am

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge. I’ve just started making my move into the world of orchestral composing and your advices are already helping.

    Greetings from São Paulo.

  • gregg-alan
    January 25, 2011 @ 10:43 am

    Good words, Mark, and not easy to hear. This discussion needs to be kept in front of us. I’ve attended Scott’s class twice and always derive new knowledge. He is the undisputed master-teacher in my opinion.
    I attended a video-game conference. In one of the music breakouts, the person speaking referred to how he “stacked orchestras”. Wouldn’t that be interesting to see in the real world. It exemplifies a complete lack of appreciation for our musical heritage. Many, and please let me hasten to add not nearly all, of contemporary commercial composers look only to last week for inspiration. Our western orchestral heritage reaches quite a bit farther back. Instead of looking at John Williams (certainly worth high praise), look at his inspiration; Holst, R. Strauss, Mahler. Instead of emulating James Horner (again, great stuff), look to Benjamin Britten, Shostakovich. Of course there are composers, within the game world as well, who embrace this heritage and learn from it. But on balance, we are experiencing a derivation of that which is already derived from something else. We need to “raise the level”. Scott S., Goldsmith, Herrmann et al, have created crucial pivot points to the development and evolution of mass-media music. Thank you for airing this, Mark. This virtual world of new instruments is a great opportunity, but we mustn’t continue to deaden our ears with the likes of “stacked orchestras” believing that to be “orchestration”. We have much to learn. Our teachers, alive and not, are waiting to hear from us.

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