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The Orchestral Default

In order to notate in a clear and concise manner, one has to understand how an orchestra will interpret any particular dynamic, rhythm or articulation. For instance, what happens if you give the violins a naked whole note and a piano dynamic marking? Even with a minimum of information, the orchestra will impart some life to that note; there is an organic trajectory to all phrases. Now what if you add an articulation or hairpins? How about at shorter rhythms? What will a pattern of eighth notes sound like at different dynamics or with different articulations? Keep adding and taking away all possible dynamics and articulations and think about how they modify the default. When you develop a better understanding of what orchestral players will do naturally, you will discover a lot of the things you have been writing in are not necessary.

When we put something new in front of an orchestra, they have no performance practice reference, as they would in the case of Mozart, Tchaikovsky, or Prokofiev. We must understand then how the orchestra will interpret the notation when they have no reference; what is the default? Defaults are a little different for each instrument, as they are based not just on how players read the notes, but also on the physics of their instruments.

Having orchestrated hundreds of hours of music and conducted hundreds more in the studio from both my scores and others’‚ I have a pretty good idea of what needs to be on the page and what can be dispensed with. I have done experiments where I take the same section of music and write it a few ways to see what happens. By leaving some sections with minimal dynamics and articulation marked, I have worked out the default performance style.

What you will find is that the orchestra does not need to be programmed like a computer, where you must fill in every line of code or it will stop. It is a living organism that thinks for itself and is capable of filling in many details, in ways we could never even notate. The programming, in other words, has already been done. The best part about this is that it means the orchestra is very predictable. The art lies in knowing how to trigger and exploit these predictable behaviors to get the musical results you want.


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  1. Thank you so much for these great blogs, Tim! I’m a student from Brian Ralston’s Business of Film Music class. Brian recommends us to read all your articles. And I find them super helpful. Thanks!

  2. Tim, this is a really valuable place for composers who are attempting to orchestrate their score. Thank you for sharing your hard earned knowledge.

  3. Hi Tim:

    A more general question, not directly related to this blog or any other blog. When you are the orchestrator, in general it is up to you to decide which lines to give to which groups / instruments, etc. I assume there are obviously budgetary restrictions as to how many people the contractor can hire, but aside from that, do you get to decide what instruments are to be used and where (eg bars 15-24 to an English Horn player plus two clarinet players rather than two oboes, etc)? What if the composer has laid it out in his midi score, do you generally try to respect that or do you sometimes make alternative suggestions like this would work better if you’d do it such and such, etc.? I imagine some composers are more experienced than others when it comes to writing for orchestra, and what comes out of a computer isn’t going to sound the same as what comes out of a live orchestra. Have you had situations where you recorded different version, eg one as suggested by the composer and one as you suggested (and then just let everyone listen to the result and the best version would obviously stand out), or is there not enough time for that generally?


    • Every composer is different when it comes to how much I can put it. I am working on a movie right now and as the composer has assigned each woodwind instrument to a character, he does not want me adding to or changing anything. Others like to show up and be surprised by what I have done. I have worked for Alan Menken and he just gave me piano and the temp score so I decided who was playing what and he did not change a thing. Being able to know when to add and flesh out and when to leave it alone is an important skill. We often add cues to fill in things, that way we can put it back to what it was easily by not playing them. I work for some people who know as much about the orchestra as I do and some that do not, that is why they hire me. I do often get something in the mockup that is impossible to play as it is programmed. My job is to make it happen or tell the composer and come up with something close. The most common issues are brass chords or phrases that have no places for breaths and string parts that jump from high melody or tremolo to playing a riff in the lower register. Somethings can be orchestrated around, for others we just have to stop and restart. Sometimes there are impossible tempo changes so we have to stop and start. I will make note of these and mark it in the score so we are ready for it.

  4. Your friend Robert Puff guided me to your blog. I can’t thank you enough for freely posting such valuable information. Just what I’ve been looking for as I’ve been composing both jazz and modern classical music for larger and larger ensembles. Thank you so much.


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