The Art of Orchestration: A Sonic Painting

Hello again, Larry here! It’s been a bit of a while since we last updated, but rest assured the team’s been working hard starting 2016 off right. We’re chugging away at building our demo level that we hope to share with you this spring, so bear with us while we’re under construction!

In the meanwhile what I wanted to share with you since we last talked is how the music has changed from just a mere piano sketch to a full-blown orchestral fury. I knew the music was going to be big, but man. This thing has grown to space-epic proportions.

If you’re a composer in my shoes, and you’re commissioned to write a piece of music for something, where do you start? The first and most important thing is that the music must tell the story. Therefore, as the composer it’s important to first conceptualize and internalize the emotions and drama that have to be captured and expressed. The notes on the page function to serve this purpose.

The second thing to be sensitive to is once the notes and themes have been sketched out, how do you want these notes to actually sound? What instrument should play them? Each instrument (acoustic or synthetic) has what musicians call a timbre, a particular color that makes the sound unique and identifiable. You could very easily make the metaphor that timbres are like tubes of paint. As the painter, you’re interested in not only which tubes you’ll choose to start off with, but also how you’ll combine these to create subtler or more vibrant shades. A good orchestrator has a good ear for not only what instruments sound like independently, but how well they would blend with another for a specific intention in mind.

There are many reasons to want to blend instruments with one another:

  1. Having multiple instruments act as one gives that musical line greater strength simply due to its compounded loudness. The more instruments there are that back a particular musical line, the more prominent that line becomes. This is why domineering melodies are not usually just a soloist but a whole army of instruments, whether they are the entire string section or an alliance from other sections such as the winds and brass as well. (Maybe you were wondering what happens to the flute melody after the cymbal swell… in fact, a clarinet, trumpet and French horn join in and change its hue and increase its loudness to the upcoming climax).
  2. Another similar but important reason to point out is that blending instruments can help add clarity to the musical line. For example, if your musical line is played by predominantly sweeping sustain notes from the strings, it may help to punctuate the attacks of each note by including percussion as well, whose sharpness would help cut through the other parts of the music. (Towards the climax signifying the arrival of the final section in the excerpt, the snare drum plays the exact same rhythm as the strings to help bring out their fast arpeggiated passage closer to the ear).
  3. Blending instruments helps to minimize the number of independently moving musical lines. This is important because… Generally you should aim to have 3-4 distinct musical lines at max. These act as your foreground (melody), middle ground (counter line), and background (harmony). People can only keep so much straight when you unleash your full orchestra onto their unsuspecting ears, so it’s good practice to make the effort and organize your sounds just like a well balanced painting. Know what you want the listener to pay most attention to (foreground), have something interesting in the periphery (middle ground), and create a contextual space for these to reside in (background).

Generally these are some rules of thumb that I try to keep in mind when I go about fleshing out my meager piano sketch into something symphonic. It is very much like creating a painting, being sensitive to textures and colors that are at your disposal. The biggest thing, however, is realizing the vision in your mind with the tools at hand. In this case, the priority is the narrative and the prospective gameplay experience. What that narrative and gameplay will be… we hope to reveal soon!

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