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Hello Colleagues,

I am investigating writing something for orchestra, which I haven't written for before. In doing some basic research, I've found lots of different possibilities for instruments to include. I'm curious if anyone has an opinion on a basic instrument set to start with. The only parameter I have at this point is that a piano will be included. From what I have read, it seems like winds, brass, strings, and percussion are commonplace inclusions. If anyone would care to share what they think about what to include in those categories (which winds, which brass, etc.) or any other suggestions, would appreciate to hear from you -



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I believe Rimsky Korsakov said that there is no such thing as bad orchestration (or words to thst effect). I take this to mean that the orchestra will always sound good regardless of what they are playing.

This gives you carte blanche to experiment with the instrumentation, which is just as important as the orchestraion. there are a lot of good texts out there to help - look at this list:

I have copies of the first two and have read the third (but it costs an absolutre fortune to buy). 

What worked for me was to write a melody and then orchestrate it using all the string sections (I used pizzicato in the basses to keep it simple), all the woodwinds and all the brass and then experiment pairing them from each section and then taking some out. That helps with the instrumentation side of things. I was all a bit random at first but I got better at it with practice.

Orchestration is meant to be assigning parts to instruments, I found that leaving a gap between sections of the melody - say a couple of bars - prompted me to write a connecting phrase using different instrument pairings. I learned a lot from this. i also learned to alternate phrases - strings then winds then brass an mixes of the three.

Once I was a bit more sure of myself I started including percussion.

I think that once you start you will quickly learn what works and what doesn't.

On a purely personal note I would not include a piano to start out with - it is too easy to become too reliant on it and use it where other instuments in pairs would sound better or be more appropriate.

Have fun, Colin.

Thanks very much Colin, those are excellent tips!

I believe the section size is correlated with the number of string players so a small string section would be drowned by a large brass section of coutse. I recomment finding concert footage of orchestra and ensembles and working out how many players there are. A Mozart orchestra will be different to a Strauss.

As a rough and very fluid starting point.

Small string section ~ 20 players or fewer,
1x flute oboe clarinet bassoon

2-4 horns
2 trombones
Bass trombone or tuba?

2-4 timpani
1-3 percussion though available instruments depends on your orchestra

Large string section, ~50 or more

2x flute oboe clarinet bassoon. Optional extra flute doubling piccolo. Bass clarinet. English horn.
1x contrabassoon?

2-4 trumpets
4-6 horns
2-3 trombones
Bass trombone

4 timpani
2-5 percussion


Colin those are some good points but while there are no hard rules there are some unisons and textures and orchestrations best avoided or only used when fully certain. Low close brass intervals for example. Avoiding excessive divisi. A GOOD orchestra can make almost anything sound good but thats no excuse to get ambitious and ignore conventions that have worked for centuries. I agree that piano or harp with their wide polyphony can be a crutch to fill in space and make orchestrations sound stronger than they really are. Bass pizzicato can be a gift.

Thanks Charles, those numbers and points will definitely help!

Hi Gav -  Trying to assemble a digital orchestra has been a problem for me but I'll make suggestions anyway! :)

Maybe try a chamber orchestra first, here's one possible lineup.

1- flute; 1- oboe;  1- English Horn;  2- clarinets, 1-  bassoon ,1-  contrabassoon , 2- horns , 2 -violins; 1- viola; 1-  cello ,1-  double bass.

Find a quality recording of a similar style and lineup to use as a reference guide of what kind of sound you should be listening for.

If you want a piano, consider a concerto style piece where the piano and orchestra alternate presenting themes and development with little actual harmonization of the two together.

Just some thoughts, good luck!

Modern orchestra

2–4 flutes (1 doubling piccolo or alto flute)
2–4 oboes (1 doubling cor anglais or bass oboe)
2–4 B clarinets (1–2 doubling E clarinet, alto clarinet or bass clarinet)
2–4 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon)
(1 or more saxophones of various types)
4–8 horns (double horns) in F/B
3–6 trumpets in B
3–6 trombones (1–2 bass trombones)
1–2 tubas
(1 or more baritone horns/euphoniums)
(1 or more Wagner tubas)
4–5 timpani (one player)
snare drum
tenor drum
bass drum
wood block
tubular bells
mark tree
drum kit (in some works)
Other percussion instruments, including ethnic or world music instruments specified by composers
pipe organ
1–2 harps
16 1st violins
14 2nd violins
12 violas
10 cellos
8 double basses
(1 or more classical guitars of various types)
As required by the compositions in the program, various electric instruments or electronic instruments may be used in the orchestra. These performers are not typically permanent orchestra members. They are typically freelancers hired on contract for one or more concerts. Instruments may include:

Thanks Bob

Thanks Ingo and Bob, these are great tips too! I can kind of see a strategy developing based on all the great information everyone is giving. I actually have some themes already in mind and am going to start experimenting with some of the configs you all have mentioned. Sure do wish Apple still made those vertical monitors they used to have, I’m seeing a lot of scrolling in my future!

For heavens sake Gav. If you've never written for orchestra, start small. Experiment with just strings first. Then add a flute, oboe, bassoon, french horn, maybe timpani.  Much can be done with that combo. It's easy to get drunk with the power of a huge orchestra, but not always needed.

Thanks, Bob, appreciate this feedback, and yes, I am wanting to start w/as small a set as possible!


This is certainly a big subject but also fascinating and rewarding. I agree with Bob, start small but maybe section by section (see attached example scores) so you can learn what sounds are good in combination (any book on instrumentation will give you a feel for this). Learn the playing compass for each instrument, how they transpose (if not in concert pitch), what are their 'comfortable' tessitura. Some combinations clearly work better than others - one of the first rules of orchestration I learnt was that single reed e.g. clarinet and double reed e.g. oboe don't sound too brilliant together - I've been breaking that rule ever since but that's what rules are for - to be broken - if what you've written sounds good to you then it almost certainly is good.

Interesting what Colin says about writing a melody first then orchestrating that same melody for different sections of the orchestra - as good a way of starting out as any I would say if you want to become a proficient orchestrator.

Some of this smacks of hard work - but I think I know you well enough to believe you will find the whole learning process fascinating, satisfying and good fun.

I've attached a couple of files as examples of the degree to which orchestration can differ, depending on the aim of the composer.

Good luck, Stephen

Another attachment to follow in a moment.

UUUURMMM, no it won't. I emailed you a few days ago to say that files are not attaching for some reason and they still aren't....any ideas? Instead I will email them directly to you.


Apropos what Stephen has just said about scores not attaching, I've had that problem for a few weeks now.


Test of uploading SIB files: Film%20Orchestra.sib

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