Film Music 101: Orchestration and cues

Of all the components that go into creating a film score, few are more important than orchestration.

Orchestration is the process whereby a musical theme is transformed into a full-fledged orchestral score. When a composer is hired to create a score for a specific film (like John Williams for Star Wars) they begin the process by watching rough cuts of the film (or storyboards, depending upon how far along the film is in production) and getting a sense of the story the director wants to be told. From there, the composer will go to the studio, sit at the piano and begin to sketch out various musical themes.

The musical themes of a film score are organized into cues. So if you looked at the score for Star Wars you might see “Cue 1: Main Title, Cue 2: Princess Leia, etc.” A film will tend to have about 20-80 cues.

Once the main draft of the score is finished, it is written in what musicians call a piano score, meaning everything is written (for now) for the piano. So, the Imperial March (which has been discussed before on this blog), would look something like this:

It looks like the theme you know, and on the piano it would even sound like the theme you know from The Empire Strikes Back, but your ears would tell you it’s not quite the same, the depth of the orchestra is still missing. So, the next step is to send the piano score off to an orchestrator (or sometimes a team of orchestrators): musicians/composers who are tasked with fleshing out the piano score into a full sized orchestral piece. Generally the composer will leave notes for when certain instruments should have certain themes, for example there might be a note saying “Horns should have main theme at measure 20” or something of that nature. Some composers (for example the late Jerry Goldsmith or even further back Bernard Herrmann) did the composing AND the orchestration all on their own. But with all the demands on a composer’s time, it is now far more common for the music to be orchestrated by someone else.
Once the process is completed, the final score now resembles something like this:
Quite a difference, isn’t it? It’s amazing how complex the world of film music really is, hope you enjoyed it!
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