What is Film Score Orchestration?

In technical terms, orchestration is the process of assigning, in the form of a musical score, a composition complete in form melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically. The task is to designate melody, harmony, and countermelodies to the instruments in the orchestra.

Today, there is a broad agreement among composers and orchestrators that orchestration is the process by which the composer’s MIDI mock-up is translated into music that can be performed by live musicians. Orchestration nowadays is a lot about how do you make sense of something that a music producer wrote on the computer with the use of samples that now needs to translate to a real orchestra. It is taking a MIDI file and then making it work for the orchestra. Moreover, orchestration is more like taking the MIDI file and translating, refining, and essentially fleshing it out so the score is complete. With the production of detailed demos being standard practice in the contemporary industry, orchestration can mean almost transcription. Consequently, orchestration can be a little bit more like transcription if the programming is really good.

The primary route into film-score orchestration appears to start with a good musical education. Nevertheless, specific musical schooling is not a particular requirement.

Union’s Definition

The America Film Market’s (AFM) Basic Theatrical Motion Picture Agreement (AFM 2002b) and Basic Television Film Agreement (AFM 2002a) contain common text providing the Union’s definition of orchestrating. These texts define orchestrating as the art of assigning, by writing in the form of an orchestra score, the various voices of an already written composition complete in form. A complete composition fully represents the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic structure. Arranging represents any alteration of or addition to the structure of a composition.

Relationship with Arranging and Composing

The relationship between orchestrating, arranging, and composing are complex. However, it is possible to establish some general standards with regard to the contemporary film industry. It is true that transcription is the basic level activity necessary to prepare a cue for further work. However, orchestrating is not of greater importance or higher standard than arrangement. The greater compositional element of arrangement might place it above orchestration in some sort of hierarchical structure. However, the music must be arranged before it can be orchestrated. This enables an alternative reading of arrangement as a preparatory step for orchestration. While they are closely related, the two tasks are different. They fulfill quite different functions in the contemporary film-music industry.

Orchestrator’s Job

Previously written music needs to be arranged or orchestrated for the ensemble to be able to perform it. The nature and level of orchestration vary from project to project and composer to composer. Still, in its primary form, the orchestrator’s job is to take the single-line music written by the composer and “flesh it out” into instrument-specific sheet music for each member of the orchestra to perform.

Some composers, notably Ennio Morricone, orchestrate their scores themselves, without using an additional orchestrator. Some composers provide intricate details about how they want this to be accomplished. They will provide the orchestrator with copious notes outlining which instruments should perform which notes. This consequently gives the orchestrator no individual creative input whatsoever. He only re-notates the music on different sheets of paper as appropriate.

Other composers are less detailed, and will often ask orchestrators to “fill in the blanks”. This means they have to provide their own creative input into the makeup of the ensemble. Furthermore, they need to ensure that each instrument is capable of performing the music as written. In many cases, time constraints determined by the film’s post-production schedule dictate whether composers orchestrate their own scores. Also, it is often impossible for the composer to complete all the required tasks within the time frame allowed. Over the years, several orchestrators have become linked to the work of one particular composer, often to the point where one will not work without the other.

Once the orchestration process has been completed, the sheet music is materially printed onto paper by one or more music copyists and is ready for performance.

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