Detailed information regarding the capabilities of instruments has been offered to this point to ensure that each part is practical to play, that awkward technical difficulties are avoided, and that the notation and transpositions are correct. Information regarding the tone qualities of the instruments in the various ranges is valuable in anticipating the ensemble blend. A quality that all successful orchestrators share is a well-developed aural imagination. Listening to recordings of a wide variety of music and analyzing scores are excellent ways to improve timbral conception. However, attending a live performance gives a much clearer impression of the real effects of scoring techniques than does listening to a recording. Performing in ensembles and attending rehearsals can be educational for the orchestration student if the ear is focused on the texture. One of the best ways to learn about scoring is to transcribe music for an available ensemble and to observe the performance.


Transcription is the art of scoring music for instruments other than those designated in the original composition. A successful transcription, which captures the musical ideas and the spirit of the original work faithfully, requires that the arranger understand the piece thoroughly. A good understanding of the medium for which the transcription is intended is also necessary. Often the most important element is translating idiomatic figures for an ensemble other than the original with a comfortable, playable result. An initial practical consideration must be whether the original key is suitable or if a transposition would put the new ensemble in a more easily negotiated key. Determine the tessitura and range of the piece, and compare it to the capacities of the instruments to be used. Piano literature provides a wealth of suitable material for transcription, and there are many ways to translate pianistic devices for orchestral textures.

The piano often executes a rhythmic succession of notes outlining the harmony. This is chiefly due to the rapid decay of its tone. To a certain degree, performers can compensate for this by using the damper pedal. Low tones, usually harmonic roots, are frequently sustained by the pedal while upper harmonies are arpeggiated. This technique, along with alberti bass and tremolo patterns, are common means by which a piano sustains or motivates harmonies. Consider pedal markings when transcribing note values, and lengthen bass notes in the transcription accordingly.

The pianistic texture can be replaced by more natural figures for a combination of monophonic instruments in many ways. Depending on the context, it will be necessary in the transcription to apply a judicious combination of sustained tones, repeated notes, and partial arpeggiations. It will often be beneficial to respace vertical sonorities if low pitches are grouped closely together in piano music. When assigning low harmonies to winds, wider intervals in the bass regions are preferable. Close voicing for wind sections is recommended in the upper register to avoid isolation and undesirable exposure of the top voice.

Harmonies need to be filled in without leaving the large gaps often found in piano music. Be certain to identify the harmonic content, and be aware of which scale degrees are doubled. Keep subordinate figures in the background. The strings are well suited for all types of accompanimental duties, with wind instruments or first violins given the melody. Tremolo and broken octave figures work well with string combinations. Octave transposition may be applied to a line to place it in a suitable range on the instrument by which it is played.

Examples of original piano versions of a composition orchestrated by the composer offer a good insight into how to preserve the musical content while switching media. Some of these include:

1. Brahms, Hungarian Dance No. 1 (four hands originally) and Variations on a Theme by Haydn (two pianos originally)

2. Dvorák, Slavonic Dances (four hands originally)

3. Ravel, Pavane pour une Infante Defunte (two hands originally)

4. Copland, Orchestral Variations (Piano Variations originally)

Transcriptions were commonplace in the nineteenth century. Liszt transcribed all of Beethoven’s symphonies for piano. One of the most famous and effective twentieth-century transcriptions is Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Another exemplary transcription is Schoenberg’s orchestral setting of the Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor. A master at transcription, and also at making borrowed material fit his purposes, was Igor Stravinsky. His transcriptions cross style periods and draw from a wide range of original media.

Music written for organ does not always present the idiomatic problems often associated with piano music. Registration indications in organ music are analogous to orchestration decisions. Concert pitch is represented by eight-foot stops, the octave above by four-foot stops, and the octave below by sixteen-foot stops. Diverse color combinations are possible, and organ manuals are utilized in the same way that choirs of instruments are utilized in the ensemble. Identify the role of the pedal in the composition, and preserve its function in transcription.

Transferring musical ideas from one medium to another necessitates understanding the basic nature of the original sound. Although both string and vocal literature can be set for winds, homogeneous groups of instruments will be needed to achieve the high degree of blend found in the original.