(Always) Teaching and Learning

How Does a Composer Write Music for 100 Instruments? (Video)

In the third Young People’s Concert, “What is Orchestration?” Leonard Bernstein explains that composing good music for an orchestra is like choosing the right clothes to wear — only harder:

“Good orchestration means not only clothes that you put the music into, the way you wear a dress or a suit to keep yourself warm. It’s got to be the right orchestration for that particular piece of music, like wearing the right suit or the right dress. Bad orchestration would be something like putting on a sweater to go swimming. It’s just ridiculous.”

Bernstein and members of the New York Philharmonic performed excerpts of numerous pieces to exemplify the concepts, including: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnole, Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres midi d’un faun, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #3, and, among others, one of Bernstein’s favorites: Ravel’s Bolero.

In this excerpt, introduced by Whoopi Goldberg, Bernstein describes the challenge of selecting suitable combinations of instruments, ensuring that one instrument does not drown out another.

The right music played by the right instruments in the right combinations at the right time: that’s good orchestration.

Imagine yourselves sitting down to orchestrate a piece you’ve written, and there are 107 instruments sitting there waiting for you to decide who should play when and what!

You know how hard it is sometimes to decide something – like what would I rather have for Christmas: a pair of skates or a bicycle or whatever it is. Sometimes it takes you days or weeks to make up your mind.

Well, imagine how hard it is for a composer to make up his mind and choose — not between two things, like a pair of skates or a bicycle — but among all those instruments, to say nothing of the hundreds and millions of possible combinations of all those instruments…

… But a good composer always knows, deep down in his heart, what the right choice must be, because if he’s good, his music will make him choose right!

The right music played by the right instruments in the right combinations at the right time: that’s good orchestration.

– Leonard Bernstein, “What is orchestration?

Photo gallery (from left): Young People’s Concerts Scripts: What Does Orchestration Mean? [outline/notes, p1, p9; manuscript, p1, p5; typescript p1, p2]. Credit Library of Congress, Music Division. View more of Bernstein’s draft sketches of this concert in the Library of Congress Bernstein Collection: outline/notesmanuscript, or typescript.

About this content

Bernstein conducted 53 programs of Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic between 1958 and 1972. Produced by Roger Englander and directed by Charles S. Dubin, “What is orchestration?” was originally broadcast on the CBS Television Network on March 8, 1958. Complete episode available. © 1990, 1993 The Leonard Bernstein Office Inc.

Support provided by:

Newsletter Signup

Sign up today for updates from Classical.org, the premiere classical music digital entertainment experience, debuting January 2018.