How to create an orchestral song #3: Putting it all together

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How to create an ochestral song #1: Putting it all together •

Hey guys,

Today is the third and last part of the how to create an orchestral song series! I hope you’re really fired up now, because today is the day we will put it all together: your musical choices, your preferred ensemble and of course the ways you want to shape those chord progressions into a beautiful orchestral accompaniment.

Missed an episode?

  1. Prepping your song: Basic tools you need, how to analyze and prep your song and choosing your ensemble.
  2. Voicings, harmony and polyphony: Different techniques to arrange your basic chords into something bigger
  3. Putting it all together: After theory it’s hands-on time! I present you my action plan for producing this baby.

Don’t forget to download the awesome checklist I’ve created for you!

Download your orchestral song checklist and get started right away! •

Creating an orchestral template

The first step you need to take is to open a new and empty project in your DAW, add some MIDI tracks and load all the virtual instruments you need. This is your very personal orchestra!

When you load your instruments, be sure to pick the “master keyswitch” version of every instrument. This way you don’t have to add all the different playing styles manually. Don’t be surprised if opening and loading your project takes at least half an hour afterwards – that just comes with high quality samples and is totally worth it. Whenever you want to work on this particular project, just open the file and go make a pot of tea or something.

I find it easy to work with multi-timbral tracks and load every orchestra section on a different track. They told me it saves CPU. (I’m not a computer geek. I’m a musician.) When you use this trick, assign every instrument in a section to a different MIDI channel, otherwise they will all play every part.

Recording and editing the song basics

Before actually starting to orchestrate your song, you actually need to record the song basics. Start with your usual guitar or piano part and then add all the vocals. Edit them the way you’re used to (cutting off startings and endings, a bit of tuning here and there, etc). Also immediately record all additional vocals, so you know immediately if an orchestral part goes well with it.

Creating all orchestral parts

Just take it section by section. Sometimes I just use strings, other times I add woodwinds or brass. A great way is to play the complete voicings on your MIDI piano, copy it to every instrument in that particular section, mute all notes and then unmute every melodic line for the right instrument.

Finishing touches

Now you have all MIDI parts recorded, let’s make them sound their very best.

Key switches

First things first: add keyswitches. These are notes outside the instrument range that change the playing style. Very handy if you want staccato or legato parts, or bowed versus pizzicato phases.

When opening your virtual instrument plugin, you should see a list of all keyswitches and their effects.


Then, check all parts for velocity. Make sure musical phrases are all in the same velocity range and add or enhance accents.


If you didn’t record the parts with a MIDI keyboard, but added all notes with your mouse, this is a good time to select every damn note and humanize the position. I strongly advise against humanizing velocity, because that ruins your hard work from the previous step.

Download your orchestral song checklist and get started right away! •


The separate parts are done now! Time for some light mixing. Pan all instrument sections globally to their normal position in a live orchestra.

Then add a nice reverb. I prefer one that’s impulse response based, because it is the easiest to actually work with. More dry signal for instruments in the front, more wet signal for instruments in the back. It’s not difficult at all!

Don’t forget to also mix in your vocals and piano/guitar part, if that was’t only for sketch and support for playing the orchestral parts.

Here you are, a very great sounding demo of your first orchestral song!

If you’re really good with the technical details and mixing is your strong suit, you can take it from here yourself. Otherwise, go find a nice mixing engineer to team up with to make it sound perfect (and to make a new friend!).

Want more? Become my Patron and get access to the complete “How to create an orchestral song” ebook with additional content, extra worksheets, tables, and examples.

Download the complete guide to how to create an orchestral song •


How to create an orchestral song #2: Voicings, harmony and polyphony

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How to create an ochestral song #1: Voicings, harmony & polyphony •

Hey guys,

In this second part of how to create an orchestral song, I will show you tons of ways to transform your basic guitar or piano chords to interesting harmonizations.

Did you miss a part of these series? Here you can find everything at a glance:

  1. Prepping your song: Basic tools you need, how to analyze and prep your song and choosing your ensemble.
  2. Voicings, harmony and polyphony: Different techniques to arrange your basic chords into something bigger
  3. Putting it all together: After theory it’s hands-on time! I present you my action plan for producing this baby. (Online 27/4)

Don’t forget to download the awesome checklist I’ve created for you!

Download your orchestral song checklist and get started right away! •

The orchestration process in a nutshell

What you will be doing through the entire orchestration process is basically the following:

  • Pick a section of your song;
  • Decide on the ensemble section you will be using for the basic accompaniment;
  • Pick a voicing;
  • Pick a rhythmic form to execute said voicing;
  • Repeat to thicken your arrangement;
  • Add additional polyphonic elements if applicable.

As a general rule of thumb the verses are more straightforward and simple, choruses are fatter and more elaborate. Try not to give everything away in the first time a section appears, but build it up to a climax or anticlimax.

Picking a voicing

Chords played in a higher range sound lighter than chords played in a lower range. However, if you take your chords too low, they sound muddy and incomprehensible. Based on the natural harmonic series, you can simplify your chord to a power chord or just a unison octave.

If you’re self-accompanying on piano, chances are you already do this instinctively, to keep your songs bright and clear. Great job! Now remember this when you start to write your orchestral harmonies. Based on this principle I made a small list of voicings that ALWAYS work.

Of course, this is not a set of rules – experiment and find your own signature voicings!

High & narrow

Played in a high range and with the chord notes as close together as possible. This sounds really light and fragile. I usually pair this with a bass note in a medium range, to keep it cohesive.

Medium & narrow

Played in a medium range and with the chord notes as close together as possible. This is a really straightforward way of accompaniment. I use it almost all the time when I’m singing and playing the piano simultaneously. On the piano I pair this most of the time with unison octaves or power chords in my left hand.

Medium & wide

Played in a medium range with notes spaced apart. Not exactly a really convenient way of playing the piano, but when used in strings or brass, it sounds quite epic.

Low & wide

Basically the same as above, but in a lower range. This has more body and goes very well with strong voices.

Power chords

Power chords are chords without a third. I use them as a pianist quite often in my left hand as bass. These are really convenient as a filler to give an arrangement instantly more body.


When you’re in a really low range, even power chords can start to sound muddy. To give my bass some extra body, I use octave doubling quite a lot. When used in very high ranges, it has a little spooky effect, especially when used with string harmonics. Octave doubling is also very useful in flute/piccolo parts to make them stand out more.

Download your orchestral song checklist and get started right away! •

Rhythmic form

It’s kinda boring if you pick a nice voicing and just play whole notes, as some kind of pad. Sometimes it’s xactly what you need, but more often it’ not. Time to make it more interesting!

The quickest and easiest way is to add some kind of rhythmic component to your voicing. I’ve listed a few for you:


As described above, this is a very basic way to add an orchestral touch to your song: just let some section (usually strings) play long notes and you immediately crate some romance or drama.

Pulsating pad

This is one of my personal favourites: just rhythmic pulsating of the same notes, usually in eighths. Harmonically it is very calm, but because of the repeating staccato notes, it still has some kind of drive.


Instead of playing all notes at once, try arpeggiating them, one after the other. It gives some sense of movement, even with only one instrument. It’s even more fun to layer arpeggios, this can create a very cool effect!

Rhythmic motifs

Instead of just a pulsating pad, or a simple arpeggio, you can also create small, repeating rhythmic motifs. A bit like a guitar riff. You can let all the instruments in a section play the same (or a similar) motif, but you can also mix it up to create something that sounds more polyrhythmic.

After creating the basic orchestral accompaniment, you can fill in the details by adding ornamentation, chord additions, and countermelodies.

Of course you are not bound to just using one method, or only the ways shown above. Combine, freestyle, customize and find your own signature sound! This is just a starting point.

Download my super-actionable checklist for an orchestral song to transform your song into something super epic!

Download your orchestral song checklist and get started right away! •

How to create an orchestral song #1: Prepping your song

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How to create an ochestral song #1: Prepping your song •

Hey guys,

I’m really excited because this is the first part of a mini series on how to create an orchestral song! Writing a full-bodied orchestral accompaniment for your song isn’t difficult at all, and in the upcoming couple of blog posts I will teach you some of the basic skills you need:

  1. Prepping your song: Basic tools you need, how to analyze and prep your song and choosing your ensemble.
  2. Voicings, harmony and polyphony: Different techniques to arrange your basic chords into something bigger.
  3. Putting it all together: After theory it’s hands-on time! I present you my action plan for producing this baby. (Online 27/4)

And of course I have created a very practical and actionable checklist for you to go with it all!

Download your orchestral song checklist and get started right away! •


First things first, I want to make two things clear:

  1. You need a great song to start with.
    Make sure it is a good song with just a melody and a basic accompaniment on piano or guitar. Elaborate orchestration can make a bad song sound fancy, but it can’t make a bad song suddenly become great.
  2. You don’t need an entire orchestra to get an orchestral sound.
    Not only are there excellent digital replacements for actual orchestras consisting of 60+ human beings (imagine how expensive THAT would be), I mean this also in the sense that you don’t need all the instruments to play at once, or even make an appearance in a song. Maybe you only need strings and some woodwinds, for example.

Tools you need

Your voice

Your instrument of choice

These two go hand in hand. Not only do you need these to create the basic outlines of your song, of course you will record the final vocals and probably your favourite accompanying instrument will still play a role.


A Digital Audio Workstation is just a really long term for your favourite software to produce your songs. Mine is Logic Pro, but if you use something different, that totally okay too! However, it needs to be able to do the following things:

  • Recording audio
  • Recording MIDI
  • Editing your audio and MIDI takes
  • Compatibility with some high quality virtual instruments
  • Compatibility with plugins for reverb, equalizing, etc

If you’re using Logic or Cubase, then you’re totally fine. I know that Pro Tools has really great recording and editing options, but I have no experience with their MIDI processing and compatibility with virtual instruments. I do not dare to give a verdict there. However, your average free recording software doesn’t really cut it at this stage.

MIDI keyboard

This is essential if you want to create your orchestral parts quickly. I once used the point and click method, but that takes ages. Additional benefit is that you can skip the step of humanizing your parts, because they’re already played by a human.

Virtual instruments

For a great orchestral sound, you need a realistic orchestral library. Virtual instruments are a gift from the gods when it comes to orchestral music for broke composers. Nowadays, the libraries are of such high quality that in the hands of a pro, you can’t distinguish samples from a recorded score.

My personal favourite is East West, but others swear by Native Instruments or Vienna.

Basic home studio setup

I assume you’re reading this, because you already are a songwriter, know how to write and produce a basic song, and now want to take it to the next level.

However, for those of you who aren’t: You can’t produce a song without some form of studio. It doesn’t have to be big and super-duper-professional, but I recommend the following basics:

  • Computer with above mentioned DAW and virtual instruments
  • Audio interface
  • High quality monitor speakers
  • Studio headphones
  • Cables to connect everything, including instruments, microphones and MIDI keyboard.

Now you’re all ready and set, let’s get to work! (Finally!)

Download your orchestral song checklist and get started right away! •

Analyzing your song

To create a suitable orchestration that actually makes sense, you need to analyze your song a bit. No, you don’t need to do a full chord function analysis. That’s really too much of a hassle and not necessary at all. Howver, you DO need to hav a clear view of the following:


What is your song about? What is the subject? What is the feeling of the song? A song about a walk in the woods needs a totally different ensemble than a song about anger.

Song structure

What parts does your song have? How many verses, how many choruses? Do you have an intro and an outro, a bridge or an instrumental solo part? Write them all down in order. This will help you to build up the intensity of your orchestration.


What chord progressions do you use for all those parts? Write down the entire chord structure of the song, so it’s easier for you to create all the voicings and separate parts.

Choosing your ensemble

A traditional orchestra basically has 4 sections: woodwinds, brass, percussion and strings (I named them in this particular order because that is the order on a written score. Lots of pop songs use strings to add a classical touch. Brass is also used a lot, but more in a bigband setting than in an orchestral way. A lot of big classical pieces also have a choir added to their orchestra.

Besides these traditional parts of an orchestra, there are two sections I always consider when creating an orchestral song: band (electric bass, guitars, drums, keys) and exotic instruments that you don’t find in your regular symphony orchestra, such as theremin, or celtic or asian instruments. Yes, these do fit in categories such as woodwinds or percussion, but I group them apart because of their particular sound.

You don’t need the entire orchestra when writing an orchestral song, as I said. You can choose certain sections, or even parts of sections, for example strings, low brass and a xylophone. Or all woodwinds except the flutes, plus your acoustic guitar. Get creative!

Want to get hands-on already? Download my super-practical step by step guide to creating an orchestral song to transform your basic song to a fully orchestrated version!

Download your orchestral song checklist and get started right away! •

A beginner’s guide to Schönberg’s twelve tone technique

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A beginner's guide to Schönberg's twelve tone technique •

Today’s blogpost is about twelve tone technique. I still remember my first reaction to the assignment in my first year at the conseervatorium: “Why would anyone want to write that kind of music, without any recognizable (and catchy) melody?”

But atonal music, and twelve tone technique with it, is a reaction to the romantic period: some classical composers felt that everything new that could be done with tonal music (music with a clear tonal center: a tonic, dominant, etc) had already been done. Tonality became more and more unclear and after a much needed and long retreat, a now very important composer in history named Arnold Schönberg came up with his twelve tone technique.

So what on earth is this twelve tone technique?

It is a very rigid, one could even say obsessively ordered system where every note is equal to another. There is no way to indicate a tonic or dominant or leading tones. There are strict rules about the notes you use. However, you are totally free in choosing your rhythmic motifs.

The result is (in my ears) totally unpredictable, even though there is a lot of mathematical logic behind it.

Why and how should I use it?

Of course, we are long past the experimental phase of this music, the period where this technique was new and interesting and artistic and innovative. I even wonder if there are any composers out there at the moment who still use this technique to write complete works.

In my eyes, every artistic and innovative technique in any form of art, becomes a gimmick over time, and after that, it becomes a way to achieve some kind of effect. Usually film music is heavily romantic music, but tons of film composers nowadays know exactly how and when to use techniques from 20th century classical composers, or the contrary: when to use composing methods from the classical or baroque period.

But not only in film music you can use this quirky twelve tone technique. Years ago, my friends Ruben once analyzed a very weird guitar solo from a certain progressive metal band (sadly can’t remember the name) and he discovered it was written using this method!

And my boyfriend Paul listens to progressive and technical rock and metal too, such as Last Sacrament. They use techniques such as microtonality, so I wouldn’t be too surprised if they used twelve tone technique as well.

The basics of twelve tone technique

Create a tone row

A beginner's guide to Schönberg's twelve tone technique •

Let’s create a tone row to start with. It will be a series of all the twelve chromatic tones, no more, no less. You can put them in any order you like (but just a chromatic line might be a bit boring). Octaves don’t matter, so it’s easiest to just put your notes in the middle of the staff without the hassle of ledger lines.

Add the basic transformations of your tone row

A beginner's guide to Schönberg's twelve tone technique •

  • Retrograde: Your tone row backwards.
  • Inversion: Your tone row upside down. This means you invert all intervals: a major third up will become a major third down. That way of thinking.
  • Inversion of retrograde: Your rtrograde tone row upside down. You know the trick.

You may use any transposition of one of these tone rows in your work, so you have 4 x 12 = 48 variations of your tone row to work with. When you start with one, you have to completely finish it before picking another variation.

Some rules to keep in mind

Of course, just like any method, this one comes with a certain set of rules. But they are quite flexible!

• • •

1 – Every note you write, may be transposed any number of octaves up or down.

• • •

2 – You are completely free in choosing which variation of your tone row you use. They are all equal. This also applies to the prime tone row you started with.

• • •

3 – You can use multiple variations of your tone row at once, or overlapping. This also means you can stack the notes to build a chord.

• • •

4 – You may repeat a note, chord or motif multiple times, as long as you finish your row before picking a new variation.

• • •

5 – When your next tone row begins with the same note your previous variation ended with, you don’t necessarily have to repeat it. You can “glue” the two variations of your tone row together with that one note.

• • •

You can also combine these rules: maybe you use half of your tone row to create a repetitive motive and the other half as a chord or a melody.

So this is the basic knowledge you need to compose using twelve tone technique! The funny thing is that everyone who can read notes, can write twelve tone music using this set of rules. It’s a very mathematical way of thinking. Of course you are not bound by these rules, you can twist and turn this technique any way you like to achieve a certain effect or desired result. And that is where feeling and musical talent come in.

When we had to create a piece of twelve tone music for our teacher all the way back in 2008 (I feel ancient now…), my tone row was really chaotic, but one of my fellow students created a neat set of 3 similar motifs of 4 tones. He already created some recognizable, transposed pattern in the tone row itself.

But why use the traditional 12 tones? Maybe you want to use quarter tones as well and you end up with a 24 tone row! Or you choose an exotic (or less exotic) scale and order those notes using the twelve tone system. Anything is possible!

How would you use twelve tone technique? Don’t be afraid to discuss in the comment section! 🙂


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How to transcribe a piano piece to string quartet

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How to transcribe a piano piece to string quartet •

Do you ever think by yourself: “What a beautiful piece of music, if only it was written for my instrument!”

Well, how about arranging it yourself? It’s not difficult at all, you just have to keep some simple things in mind and be familiar with your own performing skills and and those of the other people in your ensemble.

Today I will teach you how to arrange a piece of piano music for string quartet! 🙂

Some basics to keep in mind

Of course, there are a few rules you have to live by.

1 – Choose a suitable piece of music

Some pieces are too easy, or just have not enough layers. For example, a piece with only a melody in the right hand and arpeggiated chords in the left hand is less suitable, because it only has 2 parts.

For this example I chose the first Promenade from “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Modest Musorgsky, because it shows different amounts of layers already in the first 8 bars.

2 – Know your instrument

What are the highest and lowest notes you can play? Can you play 2 or more notes at once? Ask the same questions to the other people in your ensemble.

3 – Keep an eye on the level of difficulty

You may be able to play fast notes or big chords, but maybe your fellow musician is not at that level yet, or just doesn’t have big hands.

These basics not only apply to a string quartet, but to all musicians, instruments and ensembles.

Learn how to transcribe piano music to strings in 4 easy steps! >> Click To Tweet

Transcribe from piano to string quartet in 4 steps!

1 – Melody

First, start with the melody. Usually, this lies fairly comfortable within the G clef range, and can be played by the first violin. When it goes below the lowest G on a violin, you can assign this melody to the cello or viola.

2 – Bass

Then, check out the bass. You can assign this safely to the cello. Watch out for notes that go below the lowest C on a cello. If this is the case, transpose the entire phrase, or maybe a set of phrases.

3 – Inbetween voices

Now it gets interesting. When there’s 4 notes in a chord, it’s obvious. Just assign the leftover 2 notes to the second violin and the viola. Maybe you need to do some transposing, but most of the time it just fits the range perfectly.

When there’s more than 4 notes in a chord, you can do 2 different things:

  • Simplify to 4 notes per chord, or
  • Get savvy with double or multiple stops.

When you want to simplify the music, take a good look at it. Are there any separate voices and melodies? Try to follow those as close as possible. Is it just chord-filling? Look at what notes you already have in melody and bass and what notes are doubled. You don’t necessarily need to add all 3 G’s in a certain chord, make sure you have the B and D as well.

When you want to keep the music’s complexity, check for every. single. fucking. double stop if it is actually possible to play. For example, you can’t play a low A and C on a violin, because they both can only be played on the G string. Unless you let the violinist play the whole piece with a differently tuned violin.

In bar 3 you can see I assigned the highest and lowest of the “leftover notes” to the viola, and the middle one to the second violin. This is because neither one could practically or comfortably play the otherwise resulting third.

4 – Articulation

This is what makes transcribing from piano to strings so much fun: you can play with different articulations! With a piano, the hammer hits the snare, and you can do that soft or loud. But on a violin you can bow or pluck or bounce, you can bow at different parts of the snares, there’s so much more going on!

How to transcribe a piano piece to string quartet •

(Clicky for larger picture!)

It’s as simple as that! You just need a little bit of patience, because it takes a little time. But I guess that double checking all those double stops goes a lot faster when you’re a string instrument player yourself!

If you have any questions, just leave them in the comment section below 🙂

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