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Hello Colleagues,

In the last couple of years or so, I've been writing for small classical ensembles (string quartets, wind quintets and the like) to familiarize myself with how they work. I'm also working on an orchestral score based on things I've learned. I previously came to this forum with this piece and asked some questions about adding percussion to the score and got some good suggestions, which I have incorporated into this latest version. Now I have a different question, about doubling. I get that you do it to "thicken" up the sound, but is that the only reason? What are some good general guidelines of when to double and how best to do it? If you are doubling a flute, what instrument do you double it with? More flutes? Another instrument? Both? How about french horn? Don't tell me "it depends on your goal" because I don't know what the goal is yet! Score embedded in the YT and comments invited on anything, not just doubling >

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The two reasons I know for doubling are to reinforce the sound - necessary in things like a full orchestral tutti with brass blaring away; or to create a new timbre. Whether you double at the unison, the octave or two octaves depends on the instrument and what's going on. Like, you may double the top line of a brass ensemble playing ff with a flute (octave above) and piccolo (two octaves above). Worth mentioning to choose the registers of woodwind instruments according to the loudness required. In a full tutti it isn't useful to put the flute in its bottom octave or oboe in its top one, for instance - too weak.  

In cases below ff where for instance you're doubling to thicken the sound, take account of how the instruments blend. Likewise, doubling at the octave. Some instruments go well together, others don't. Oboes are better with trumpets than horns. Horns go with almost anything. Most instruments can double with strings at the unison or octave, no matter what dynamic (except the flute will get drowned out below its low G - that's a generalisation. If the volume is pp or p they can be made to balance. 

I wanted to add - sometimes 3 or more instruments can be doubled at the unison to create a dense timbre - example: cellos, horns; cor anglais and clarinets. (edit ran out of time).

Strings double well at the octave; ethereal at two octaves. But bear in mind the last movement of Franck's Symphony where (IIRC) there's a passage where strings "double" in four octaves (each an octave apart) creating this huge wall of melody. 

That is some very solid information, and quite helpful, thanks Dane!

There are three ways to get this information: books, scores and listening. I have found Rimsky-Korsakov's "Principles Of Orchestration" very helpful. He goes in depth on various blends, like flute + oboe, trumpet + horn etc. Also, he illustrates these effects with extensive examples from his own scores, such as Scheherazade, where in the third movement you first hear the theme of the young prince on just strings, then strings + Eng horn, which gives the strings an edge.

Another book I love is Piston's "Orchestration." He mentions that the Eng Horn does not blend well with other inst's, but does blend well with muted trumpet. You can hear that effect at the start of Debussy's La Mer. Still another of my favorite books is George Frederick McKay's "Creative Orchestration."  It's more of a macro analysis, going into principles of clarity, transparency, contrast etc. Looking at the orchestra as whole. This book may be hard to find but it is a gem. He gives you a nice chart showing the equivalent dynamic markings for woodwind, brass and strings. So you know how to mark them correctly for a score.

By listening I have discovered that the unison of harp and flute gives a wonderful new sound. If your ear is good enough, just listening can suffice. I can tell, for example, when there is a double-octave doubling of bassoon and flute. As opposed to a single-octave doubling. If the ear is not so good, score study will help you pinpoint it. Violins are obviously doubled for power very frequently, as are cellos and basses.

Thanks so much Michael!

Gav, I forgot to actually listen to your piece, which is very good. I especially like the horn part, although the sound of that particular horn has a rather bassoon-ish feel to it. Which calls to mind the fact that bassoon and horn blend very well. Alone, the bassoon would perhaps be submerged in that register, but if you used it to double the horn at the unison, you would then get a unique sound. As I have one of those minds which associates sound with color, it would give the horn, which for me is a bluish instrument, more of a brown color. Maybe blue with a brown outline. Thinking like this helps me figure out these blend things, but if this makes no sense to you just scratch your head and forget it. Just me being weird again. But a cool piece, very transparent orchestration, not an easy thing to achieve. At least not for me.

Thanks again Michael, when I start my next round of edits, I will come back here and review this last statement. I don't expressly think in colors as you are describing, but I have encountered many composers who use a similar language and I do believe I get what you are saying. Thanks also for the good words about the music, as you know, a kind word is sustaining!



Sorry, no time to actually listen to the clip at the moment, but generally, I'd say that besides thickening the sound, which is sometimes necessary if the instruments in question are too weak compared to other instruments playing at the time and wouldn't be heard (or heard clearly) otherwise, doubling also serves to change timbre for artistic purposes. Think of it like mixing a color palette. Your instruments are your basic colors, but sometimes the basic shades aren't enough, so mixing them gives you more different colors to work with.

In fact, in orchestration it's often useful to think of doubled instruments no longer as separate instruments in their own right, but "virtual" instruments with a new timbre and new characteristics. A solo violin, for example, has a very different timbre from an ensemble of violins playing in unison, even though they're all violins (perhaps even the same ones). Furthermore, the interval of the doubling will produce a different timbre: two flutes playing in unison will have a very different timbre from two flutes doubled at the octave. There's a virtually limitless number of combinations available, all of which function as essentially "new instruments".

As to which instruments mix well with which other instruments, that's a huge topic worthy of several chapters in an orchestration textbook. :-P But mainly, listen to a lot of repertoire and experiment on your own to learn what sounds good and what doesn't. With experience, you'll get a "feel" for what works.

With respect to doubling for new tone colors, I seem to remember reading something to the effect that, in general, pure tone colors are to be preferred, mixing should be done sparingly. I certainly am no expert on this, being like many (if not most here) a hobbyist. But NRK (i.e. Rimsky...) definitely did a lot of mixing, and may be the greatest orchestrator in history, with Ravel a close second (IMO of course, although I bet many would agree).

Another way, however, to obtain new colors for your palette is to use auxiliary instruments. Eng Horn, Oboe D'Amore, Eb Clarinet, etc. Also saxes, especially the soprano, which in itself sounds like a blend of oboe and clarinet. Add a cornet for a slightly different trumpet sound. Then there is the alto trombone. And the Wagner tubas, and the Cimbasso. Acquiring samples of some of these inst's may be a challenge, however. But they would expand the palette, without the uncertain results of mixing.

Thanks for that great additional information H. S. and Michael!

Since books have been mentioned may I also recommend Gordon Jacob's Orchestral Technique ?

This was recommended to me as a mentor/friend noted I always composed in short score first - in those days at the piano - so transforming something into an orchestral piece so it sounded like it was written for orchestra was daunting. It takes the sections of the orchestra one by one (at least: strings; woodwind; brass; chamber orchestra; full orchestra) and talks about instruments in these sections. As doubling and dovetailing is important in "arrangement" Jacobs goes into a fair bit of detail.

As a new book it's quite expensive considering its age but copies of the original hardback can be picked up on abebooks for nigh on a tenner. When I later bought Piston's book it came over as a good reference for examples but was rather pedestrian, dwelling a lot on fingerings and stuff which can tie a student arranger in knots of low-level worry!! Well, it started to for me so I just used it to look up examples. 

However, I'm much with Michael on the study of scores. I was advised that for woodwind writing, Beethoven is hard to beat. 

Hi Gav,

Kennan's 'The Technique of Orchestration' deserves to be mentioned here, I believe.

After so many notes above on doubling, I would like to note that the beauty of doubling

is not only determined by its absolute value but also the context it is used.  Doubling

quality may vary according to the registers of the instruments that are used.  Also the

octaves between as Dane has mentioned.  I believe, the character of the melody

may determine the beauty of the doubling also.

Last note Gav, I have a feeling that your works have a certain 'empfindsamkeit' that

you sought after.  Too many points to ponder about your work, not enough space here.

All the best for the New Year and past Merry Christmas to all.


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