The hidden secret that makes a musical great

Orchestration is fun!

In light of recent posts, I know you’re probably asking, “What’s with all these theater posts, Kevin? Have you stopped doing all things musical?” Well, it is true that writing about music has gotten short shrift on this blog recently (I’m still writing for The Jazz Gallery, so check out their blog), but I’ve in no way hung up my music cleats this spring.

In addition to my regular composing, drumming, and teaching duties, I got to embark on a fun new project in March: teaching studio orchestration to undergrads of the Princeton Triangle Club.

Studio whah?

Oh. You don’t know what studio orchestration is. I see.


Well, I might be exaggerating on that point. But I will say that it is quite an underappreciated aspect of any film or musical. There are advantages to that of course. Nobody blamed the orchestrator for the flops of Spiderman: Turn off the Dark or The Lone Ranger. However, the orchestrations for a musical or movie score can have a vital subconscious impact on how you take in the whole work.

Oh. So I still haven’t told you what orchestrations are? Let’s rectify that.

The music you hear during a film or musical doesn’t magically stem from the mind of a single person. For various reasons, a team of musicians creates the score for a film or musical. In the case of film scoring, the reasons have mostly to do with time—composers usually have an extremely limited timeframe in which to complete the score. This means that the main composer will write what’s called a short score, where the all the melodies and harmonies of each scene are worked out, but not assigned to particular instruments of the orchestra. It is the job of the orchestrator (yes, that’s me and my students) to make those assignments. It’s as if the composer drew black and white outlines of figures and the orchestrator colors them in. This isn’t to say that film composers can’t orchestrate. Many composers like Howard Shore do like to orchestrate their own work when possible, and many others, including this year’s Oscar-winner Steven Price, begin their careers as orchestrators.

In the case of musicals, lack of time is one reason why composers don’t orchestrate their own work, but another stems from the particular skill sets of these composers. People like Richard Rodgers, Frederick Loewe, and Stephen Sondheim are terrific melodists, and spend their time and effort crafting memorable and expressive tunes. Rather than slaving through orchestrations on their own that will probably end up on the bland side, these composers hand off responsibilities to someone who’s good at creating textures rather than melodic through-lines. Some contemporary musical theater writers do orchestrate their own material (Jason Robert Brown won Tonys for both score and orchestrations this year for his Bridges of Madison County), but in most of those cases, the pit orchestras are generally stripped down to a rather limited number of instruments (Bridges featured a folk-rock band plus small string section).

Jason Robert Brown (R) looking excited with his Tonys for Bridges of Madison County

Whether orchestrating for film or theater, the orchestrator’s job is to bring the lead composer’s skeleton to life. That doesn’t just mean dressing it up in bright colors, but filling out the structure in a way that is holistic and organic. The orchestrator has to read the mind of the song or film cue in order to figure out how that skeleton wants to be dressed up.

Now that we’re clear on what an orchestrator does, we should talk about what makes a particular orchestration good. In my workshops with the students of the Princeton Triangle Club, we came up with three characteristics that are common to all good orchestrations.

1. The orchestration must feel like it’s an organic part of the song or film cue, as if the composer conceived the whole thing as a single entity. It should not feel tacked on.

2. There should be a sense of counterpoint between the main melody and the accompanimental melodies. Things in the background should come to the fore to create a sense of musical drama and momentum.

3. There should be variety of colorful musical textures used throughout the piece that continually refresh the ear.

If an orchestration has all these characteristics, it can really help pull the listener into the drama that the music accompanies. A well-constructed texture will perk up the listener’s ear and grab attention, while the counterpoint helps create a visceral sensation of movement and development to heighten the drama. However, if an orchestration does these two things but feels artificial, overly manipulative, and tacked on, the listener will become intuitively aware of the manipulation and the whole scene will fall flat. In an orchestration, it certainly is possible to have too much of a good thing.

Making sure an orchestral arrangement has these three characteristics is easier said than done. Even in a film with high music production values, orchestrations can be very good, or simply slapdash and mediocre. To see what I mean, let’s take a listen to the orchestral arrangements of two classic Disney songs that you’ll recognize—“A Whole New World” from Aladdin, and “Let It Go” from Frozen. Since you probably already know the tunes, try to focus your attention on what’s going on behind and around the tune to see if all of that stuff adds up to a good orchestration.

We’ll start with “A Whole New World.”

Question 1: does the orchestration feel like an organic part of the song? I’d say unequivocally yes. The first thing to notice at the beginning of the song is how it seamlessly comes out of the music from the preceeding scene. The soft, spare textures there create musical tension that mimics the awkwardness of Aladdin’s and Jasmine’s interaction, a tension that is relieved when Jasmine gets on the magic carpet and off they go. In the flashy intro to the song, orchestrator Danny Troob introduces all the different textures that he will bring back at different points in the song—soaring strings, athletic woodwind runs, and regal horn chords. By doing this, Troob motivates every gesture that he uses in the arrangement, growing them all from a common seed.

Question 2: does the orchestration have a sense of counterpoint between the main melody and the accompaniment? Another unequivocal yes. What smart orchestrators like Troob know is that when you have a solo voice to bring out, it’s important to give it space, and not clutter it with instruments playing in the same range. So when Aladdin begins singing in a range around the middle of the piano, Troob accompanies him with strings and woodwinds a few octaves higher. Because of the space between voice and accompaniment, Troob is able to write lots of little melodies for the flutes, oboes, and violins that pop in and out of the nooks and crannies of the main tune without having them get in the way of understanding the words. These melodies help propel the song through its different scenes and capture the excitement of flying.

Good orchestrations make Aladdin and Jasmine happy!

Question 3: does it use a variety of textures to refresh the ear? Yes again, but this is a little harder to hear than the first two characteristics. Certainly Troob uses a lot of high strings and woodwinds throughout, but he does make additions to his palette to give certain sections a different weight and affect. At the beginning of the second verse (when they’re flying with the stork-y birds), Troob adds glittering glockenspiel to take the color saturation point up to 11 before accompanying the “soaring, tumbling, freewheeling” line with a flute and violin line that does just that. Then in the ensuing chorus, Troob brings back the regal horns from the song’s intro to give it more weight and breadth. So even though Troob does rely heavily on high violins and woodwinds throughout the song, he tweaks just enough from section to section to prevent the textures from getting stale.

Ok, so onto “Let It Go.” You might have an idea of where this is headed.

Question 1: the organic factor. This is probably the most problematic part of the orchestration for me, but I’ll say that it’s not completely orchestrator Dave Metzger’s fault. From the very beginning, it’s very clear that the song is some kind of ‘80s-style power ballad (I say Madonna’s Live to Tell is the apotheosis of the genre)—you have the moody piano riff, the broad 138 bpm tempo. The song seems to cry out for some Mark Knopfler guitar and Yamaha DX-7 synth patches.

Instead, we are greeted with a high string pad and some barely-audible glockenspiel notes. Over the course of the song, more and more orchestral instruments are added, but they never feel comfortable or have musical motivation to be there. When Queen Elsa magically builds her ice castle, we are blindsided by a curious bridge led by the French Horns and featuring clunky marimba filigree in the cracks, an instrumental combination that sounds cool in the abstract, but again doesn’t fit with the affect and aesthetic of the song. In the end, the arrangement feels tacked on, like asking Cyndi Lauper to wear the Good Witch Glenda’s dress from The Wizard of Oz—the song doesn’t wear the arrangement well.

But to reiterate, these problems aren’t just the orchestrator’s fault. Metzger has the unenviable task of taking a stylistically-schizophrenic set of songs by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson Lopez and unifying them with a single orchestral sound. While songs like “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and “The First Time in Forever” are classic musical theater numbers that take to an orchestral arrangement nicely, the others feature styles as wildly divergent as pseudo-Latin jazz (“He’s a bit of a Fixer-Upper”), old-time soft-shoe (“In Summer”), and bubblegum pop (“Love is an Open Door”). While having such diverse styles works in a broad comedic musical (like what the Triangle Club does every year), it doesn’t work as well in a piece with a strong, central drama like Frozen. In order to create a sense of musical unity throughout the movie, Metzger had to make orchestrational compromises and force certain songs into a sonic box that they weren’t meant for.

Question 2: counterpoint. While Metzger does pepper “Let It Go” with plenty of little countermelodies in various instruments, the melodies themselves are more square than those in “A Whole New World” and tend to occur in predictable points at the ends of phrases. Unlike in “A Whole New World,” the countermelodies tend to act as filigree and ornamentation rather than pushing the song forward from section to section. In “Let It Go,” the energy comes from Idina Menzel’s belting and the insistent drum groove, not counterpoint. In the end, the song can feel oddly cold and static, something that overwhelms the listener with sheer force of will rather than getting them caught up in the character’s feelings and dramatic situation.

Mediocre orchestrations make Elsa sad.

Question 3: textural variety. There is certainly plenty of textural variety throughout “Let It Go,” but it’s even less apparent than it is in “A Whole New World.” While Metzger uses a wider variety of instrumental combinations than Troob does, these shifts don’t refresh the ear in the way that we would expect. Much of this problem is due to how the song is recorded and mixed, something that’s completely out of the orchestrator’s control. In “A Whole New World,” the voices are mixed in a way that they sound like they’re in the same room as the orchestra (though they’re actually recorded in isolation booths). While the voices don’t pop out of the speakers in an aggressive way to grab your attention, they feel very connected to the music around them, which in the end makes them feel more powerful and affecting. However in “Let It Go,” Idina Menzel’s voice is mixed very high in the mix and with very little reverb. The orchestra on the other hand, feels artificially quiet, and has a very different resonance, making it clear that it’s completely separated from the voice. This mixing compresses the sound of the orchestra in such a way that even when it changes significantly, the overall sound of the song remains very much the same. Throughout, the listener is pummeled by the drums, piano, and Menzel’s voice, which tires the ears by the end of it.

So now that we know what’s wrong with the orchestration of “Let It Go,” what could be done to fix it? Well, firstly, a different mixing job that boosts the orchestra and makes Idina Menzel’s voice feel less harsh and detached would help a lot. But in terms of improving the actual orchestration, I see a couple of options. The first would be to treat the song like the ‘80s power ballad it wants to be and just replace all the live instruments with guitars and synthesizers. That would solve the lack of organic feel issue, but could feel really disconcerting in the context of the movie.

Instead, a better approach would be to use orchestral instruments in a way that give them the affect of electric guitars and synthesizers. In David Metzger’s “Let It Go” arrangement, he generally has instruments of same family play together (violins play with violas, flutes with oboes), rather than mixing unlike instruments together. While doing this helps with achieving a clarity in orchestration, it limits the kinds of textures one can make. When an orchestrator mixes unlike instruments together, especially winds and brass, the ensuing textures are complex and pungent, and can sound downright electronic in the right context.

Let’s listen to an arrangement of Kurt Weil song “My Ship” by the big band composer/arranger Gil Evans. Evans was a master of creating rich, blended textures, exponentially increasing the expressive possibilities for the jazz big band.

Nowadays, composers and arrangers are using Evans-style harmonies to make acoustic instruments have the complexity and affect of a synthesized sound. Take a listen to “The Neighborhood” by the composer Darcy James Argue. The piece is inspired by the song “All My Friends” by the electronic dance band LCD Soundsystem. Listen closely to how Argue blends instruments in surprising ways and captures the feeling of LCD Soundsystem’s music without synthesizers.

Using these Gil Evans-inspired textures as a starting-off point, one could make an arrangement of “Let It Go” that unites it texturally to the rest of the score, but also develops organically from the character of the song itself.

So we somehow got from talking about what orchestration is to how Gil Evans is awesome. I guess that means I should recap everything we’ve talked about.

1. The role of the orchestrator in a film or musical is under-appreciated. Their job is to take the skeletal film cues and songs from the composer and flesh them out.

2. There are three keys to a good orchestration: it sounds organic and of a piece with the song itself, it features strong counterpoint between the main melody and accompaniment, and it uses a variety of textures to refresh the ear.

3. “A Whole New World”: good orchestration. “Let It Go”: not so good orchestration.

4. The problems that “Let It Go” presents to an orchestrator can be handled by creating novel textures that mix instruments from unlike instrument families.

So that’s the crash course in orchestration appreciation. While I don’t expect anyone watching a movie or musical to focus on the orchestrations (you really shouldn’t, at least the first time around), they do play a surprising role in how we can get caught in the work. Orchestrations are that extra little bit of pixie dust that can make a film or musical really take flight.


1 Comment

Filed under Think Pieces

One response to “The hidden secret that makes a musical great

  1. Noah

    This is great. I’m a freshman studying composition right now and these orchestration techniques you bring up are pretty much exactly what my teacher is saying.

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