A Bit (More) About Melody
Last time we discussed how melody is affected by the chords accompanying it. You can take a melody and change its perception or mood depending on where your chords are going or how much they're doing. Today -- I'd like to focus on how melody can be affected by its orchestration.
Don't be scared by the term though. Orchestration is how you treat the overall sound of any piece/song.
Let's cover some basic facts:
If your melody sounds like it's not quite standing out, it's an orchestration problem!
Don't bother trying to add +5dbs to the trumpet mix to help it stand out because you're just putting a bandaid on a broken leg. If the orchestration is fundamentally flawed you'll end with flawed results. Go back to the drawing board. Your strings might be cool as hell but if they're harming the melody they're useless. Sometimes you can solve a swallowed melody with an accentuating instrument, piccolo and flute for instance. It's possible that this is your only problem (although in this example if the trumpet can't cut through that's usually a bad sign!). Re-orchestrate and learn your lesson, it's honestly faster to just do it again and fix the issue.
Let's examine some possible solutions first off, we'll look at depth.
Depth and Weight can cross pollinate easily. For now we'll define depth as unisons and octaves and how they're layered. A melody can easily be given more depth by doubling. Almost any instrument pairings can achieve this but be careful because your surrounding instruments will effect the perception of this. As an example, oboe can be used to brighten up a trumpet in unison in many situations but if the orchestration is moving around a lot the opposite occurs, the line disappears and blends too much into whats happening around it. It's important to watch out for these instances. Pay close attention to what sections are fluttering around. The woodwinds will blend with the oboe (obviously) and that is what causes this problem. The easiest way to add depth of course is to layer within your section. Trombone in octaves is the most obvious choice although horns blaring in unison with the trumpet (mind your range though!) can be a sensational sound. The point here is to listen to your sections and let them help each other, its easy to tell where and when you should layer either within the sections or cross-section if you pay attention to the timbres.
Have a listen to the unison horns and trumpets in this adventurous piece (they start at :23):
For weight we look upon the more difficult side of orchestration. This is where composers really understand why we hire orchestrators: it's damn hard. Weight to me is defined as surrounding the melody and supporting it. You hear this all the time even if you don't realize it. Chordal movement that moves with the melody is what we're talking about here. This is when taking copious notes about your chords in use is incredibly important. I come from a guitar background so I generally use chord shorthand above the staff for quick reference. Now one school of thought here is to keep the melody on top, which is definitely a gold standard and often the quick and easy route. Sometimes thats not going to cut it though.
Let's look back at our trumpet. I want to support the melody by adding some weight to it but I'm not really feeling a three part trumpet line. Too militaristic! The first place I'll look to is the winds because they can firmly stay behind it and still add character to what's happening. Often, for me, I'll stick to simpler triad work to keep from distracting from the main line. You can approach this via: high winds (picc. + fl.1+ fl.2 or fl.1-2 + ob.) which adds a cluster-y texture above, or the mid-winds like the clarinets up to oboes. While there isn't a rule saying you can't use low winds it should be noted that in most cases they'll begin to cloud things up. Even using bassoon as a weight usually results in staying in its mid-to-high range for clarity's sake. Winds are for the most part my go to section for this kind of stuff for the reasons I've stated; the next section I look to though is the strings.
Strings are difficult to keep reeled in when you're adding to another instrument. There's a lot of 'em. On top of that you have five sections of a lot of 'em. Ignoring the contrabass (sorry!), that still gives you four sections and upwards of 22 musicians when it's a small orchestra! While our trumpet is possibly the loudest member of the group you should still watch your dynamics and err on the side of simplicity to avoid the strings completely taking over. Again, I tend to lean towards simple triads following the melodies movement. Try to leave the melody alone in the middle or on top of the harmony so there's a hole there to shine through.
That brings us to our next option, rather than thickening a melody up leaving a gap is a quick way to ensure that it stands out. The basic concept here is you surround the melody with NO common tones in the same octave. Literally build your orchestration around the extremes on each end, high and low. Or, conversely, if you leave your melody up high, build your accompaniment in the low end and vice versa. You're creating a free space for your melody to live inside. This easily creates a thick bed for the melody to thrive over which makes it feel thicker and broader because it has it's own space to play in.
Obviously these are all very dependent on what your piece is trying to say. Don't try to pigeonhole something in just for the sake of it, there's nothing worse than a piece losing momentum because the treatment of the orchestra changes for no reason, so be diligent! Carefully consider what is happening before and after the section you're working on and you'll start freeing your melodies.
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This is my blog relating to all things composition. I'll cover orchestration, composing concepts, working with films and with filmmakers.