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:
- Prepping your song: Basic tools you need, how to analyze and prep your song and choosing your ensemble.
- Voicings, harmony and polyphony: Different techniques to arrange your basic chords into something bigger
- 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!
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 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.
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.
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!
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.