Instrumentation (orchestration/transcription)

  • Tutor: Dr Martin Suckling
  • Level: C/4 (1st years), I/5 (2nd years), H/6 (3rd years)
  • Modules codes:  MUS00054I, MUS00049C

Aims and content

Instrumentation is not a simple matter of technique, of remembering ranges and registral characteristics, of understanding idiomatic writing, of distributing notes around an ensemble in an effective manner, though of course this ’know-how’ is important. Rather, it is creative — discovering new sonorities; analytical — clarifying (or disguising) structure; and transformative — often entailing significant recomposition resulting in a new work at some remove from the original.

Orchestration is generally considered in terms of expansion, but when conceived more broadly as instrumentation it also encompasses reduction and transcription: from the virtuoso solo tradition, to the arrangement of symphonies for domestic consumption in the days prior to broadcast and recording media, to chamber versions of large-scale works designed for the concert hall.

All of these processes of instrumentation require attention to the following questions which are at once analytical and creative: What is essential in the music and what can be discarded? To what do I wish to draw a listener’s attention? What is special about the instrumentation and how can I exploit it? Through the study of scores and a series of practical assignments, this course will encourage participants to form their own answers to these questions.

This module is suitable for conductors and instrumentalists as well as composers. All participants must be prepared to play in a class ensemble for which several of the assignments will be written. These assignments will cover ’traditional’ orchestration, transcription, and recomposition. The course will be conducted through a series of lectures, workshops, and individual tutorials.

NB: This course will not cover orchestration involving electronic media or virtual instruments; it is not acourse in music production (though of course the skills explored are transferable). The abilityto make minute alterations to balance, timing, spatialisation and timbre in a computer-basedarrangement (amongst many other parameters) enables a set of possibilities that are not alwaysrealisable with live instrumentalists. In short, just because it sounds good on Sibelius doesn’tmean it will sound good in real life. The intention of this course is to foster the ability to imaginesounds for real performers, who are both more flexible and more temperamental than electronicresources.


  • Class assignments (25%)
  • One of the following (75%):
    1. ’Traditional’ orchestration of a solo or duo work (c.5 minutes).
    2. Recomposition of a solo or duo work for either chamber ensemble or orchestra (c.5 minutes).
    3. Essay (c.3500 words), title chosen in agreement with project tutor.
    4. Recital (c.20 minutes) of transcriptions for candidate’s instrument, one of which must have been written by the candidate themselves.

Student’s choice of option, source music, target instrumentation, essay title, recital programme to be agreed with project tutor.

Reading and listening


  • Adler, Samuel. The Study of Orchestration. New York; London: W.W. Norton, 2002.
  • Gould, Elaine. Behind Bars: the definitive guide to music notation. London: Faber Music, 2011.
  • Mathews, Paul (ed.). Orchestration: an anthology of writings. New York; London: Routledge, 2006.

You should familiarise yourself with standard procedures in 18th- and 19th-century orchestral music.  Get to know the symphonies of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms – listen, and follow along with the score (easily available on IMSLP, also plenty of copies in the library).

  • Recompositions / transcriptions:
  • Benjamin: Piano Figures / Dance Figures
  • Benjamin/de Grigny: Récit de tierce en taille
  • Berio: Sequenza VIII / Corale
  • Berg: Seven Early Songs
  • Boulez: Notations
  • Ernst/Schubert: Erlkönig
  • Liszt/Wagner: ‘Liebestod’ from Tristan und Isolde
  • Schoenberg (compl. Riehn)/Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde
  • Webern/Bach: Ricercar a 6
  • Zender/Schubert: Winterreise

Learning outcomes

All students, on completion of the module, should have:

  • acquired a general knowledge of orchestration technique;
  • more detailed knowledge of the orchestrational approach taken in some individual works;
  • arranged music for a variety of instrumentations;
  • the ability to present score and parts impeccably;
  • experienced a variety of orchestrations from the instrumentalist’s perspective.

First years: in their independent work, students should demonstrate Learning Outcomes A1-10 & A12

Second years: in their independent work, students should demonstrate Learning Outcomes B1-10 & B12

Third years: in their independent work, students should demonstrate Learning Outcomes C1-10 & C12