Orchestrating Songs: Adding Solo Acoustic Instruments

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” E-book Bundle
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French hornThere’s nothing like the natural beauty of an acoustic instrument. While we should feel blessed that we can have what to most people sounds like a symphony orchestra at our fingertips, the artificial nature of synthesized sounds cannot compete with the exquisiteness of the real thing. But writing for real instruments requires a bit of experience. Here’s some general guidance.

Acoustic guitar and saxophone are probably the most common add-ons to the basic keyboard/guitar/drums ensemble. In general, with players of these instruments you can give them an idea of the song, and they’ll make up their own part that works.

But hopefully you want to branch out even more, and consider other instruments that can really add to the mood and colour of your song: French horn, trumpet, violin, oboe/English horn and flute are wonderful instruments that can add flavours that will take your music to the next level.

All of these instruments are attainable with professional sound samples, and so if you don’t have the money to hire a player, sampled sounds may be your only option. But nothing beats (in my opinion) the beauty of the real thing.

But if you aren’t familiar with those instruments, how do you create something for them to play? If you don’t read or write music, you’ll need to work with someone who does in order to communicate to the player what they must play; the players of those instruments typically will play from sheet music, with the part accurately written for them.

But assuming that you can write the part, or can at least get someone else to write it down for you, here’s some basic advice:

  1. All instruments have aspects of their sound that you’ll want to focus on. For example, oboe and English horn both have a somewhat naturally melancholy character, so use those instruments if you want to portray a gloomy or introspective mood. Always use instruments to their best effect.
  2. Ask the player of the instrument you’re hiring what their “practical range” is. That will let you know the best range to stay within when you write the part.
  3. French horn sounds a perfect 5th lower than their written music, so if you want the horn to play a middle C, you need to write a 2nd-line G. Trumpet, clarinet and tenor sax need parts written one whole tone higher than sounding pitch.
  4. Brass instruments (French horn, trumpet, trombone, etc.) need rests when they play. When you write a part for these players, take as a general rule that they need to rest almost as much as they play. Don’t have them play constantly throughout the song.
  5. Wind instruments (anything that makes sound by breathing into it) need places to breathe. Don’t give these instruments long notes that last for more than 8-10 seconds.
  6. Pizzicato is a nice effect for a string instrument – the plucking of a string. Keep in mind, though, that this plucking motion has speed limitations. At 120 BPM, it becomes risky to do more than two plucks per beat.
  7. Many players of these types of solo instruments are Classically trained, so don’t necessarily expect that they’ll be able to improvise in a pop genre. Be prepared to give them written parts.

And as a last suggestion, always take advice from the player of a specialized instrument. Remember, they want to sound good when they play, and they will usually have good suggestions. Last summer I composed a work for choir and string quartet, and I benefited greatly from the advice of the quartet. I showed them the music well ahead of time, and made adjustments according to their suggestions.

Adding acoustic instruments can be that little detail that will set your song apart from the other songs in your chosen genre. It may take a little planning and a bit of time to get something that works well, but the efforts will be well worth it!

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  1. i want to write a solo for my french horn and dont know where to go so i can do it on a computer im doing it for my senior project

    • Hi Brandon:

      MakeMusic has a product that is quite inexpensive, called Finale NotePad, and I think you should be able to notate french horn parts using it. It costs $9.95. Remember that french horn parts need to be written a perfect 5th higher than sounding pitch. So if you want a middle C, you need to write the 2nd line G.


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