Short score is the musical information of a composition condensed into a piano version, it is like an Artist who does a charcoal or pencil sketch of their painting before even thinking of applying paint to canvas. The analogy of painting works well when thinking about orchestrating short score, this is because the instruments of the orchestra are what we would consider to be our colour palette, hence the term tone-colour is often used when describing orchestral pieces.

For todays example I have chosen to use examples from a composition made for the Third Challenge in the Composer Competitions Facebook group. The guidelines for this composition have been set by the winner of the last competition, Tim Girard.

A final boss battle between a hero/heroine and his/her polar opposite (think Link vs. Dark/Shadow Link, Flash vs. Reverse Flash/Zoom, Spider-Man vs. Venom, etc.). The villain’s theme should be recognizable as a twisted, “dark mirror” version of the hero’s/heroine’s theme.

Let’s have a look at our rough sketch and see how it comes to life with colour!


Shortscore of the intro
Short score of the intro

Hearing the notes being played by the same instrument helps with hearing the composition in its raw form and lets you focus on the musical information. From this information, the process of orchestrating can begin. For the intro, the String and Brass sections play the descending parallel minor 7th chords, with Tympani playing the root notes. The melody line is a Shakuhachi.

If it is not already obvious, I love Joe Hisaishi. If you think of Hisaishi’s brilliant score from Miyazaki‘s masterpiece, Princess Mononoke, then you will recall the use of parallel chords from the String section, I purposefully used the Strings moving in parallel to capture this feeling. The Shakuhachi gives an exotic feel, which feels more mysterious than using a western flute.

Parallel Chords

Once again the String, Brass and Tympani play the parallel chords.

When the parallel chords are rising in pitch, it gives the “Zelda sound” and is a staple of the amazing adventure franchise.

Bring back the Melody!

The composition is starting to gain momentum and the melody from the intro is expanded and played over the rising Minor 7th chords.

The melody is played by the Shakuhachi and doubled an octave higher with Piccolo. The chords are played by the Strings, Brass and Tympani, because…if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

I need a Hero!

Short score of the Heroes theme
Short score of the Heroes theme

What would a hero be without a triumphant, proud melody? French horn is a very heroic sounding instrument and this introduces the heroes melody. The Strings have staccato rhythms and a Snare Drum is heard, giving the heroes theme a militaristic sound. The Shakuhachi and Clarinet plays the melody for the second time and is a hint as to where the hero comes from, probably a forest or woodland village.

Orchestral version of the Heroes theme
Orchestral version of the Heroes theme

In the picture above, the MIDI sequences are colour coded, the instruments that correspond to the colours are;

  • Brass/Dark Blue
  • Strings/Green
  • Tympani/Orange
  • Piccolo/Light blue
  • Shakuhachi/Light Green
  • Clarinet/Red
  • Snare/Purple

Sometimes the short score can’t be just copied onto the instrument you would like to play and the Strings in this section are an example of that. I wanted the harmonies of the short score but needed the Strings to be playing a rhythm and this is the beauty of MIDI, notes can be copied and manipulated to whatever you can imagine with relative ease. Obviously the Snare Drum wasn’t in the short score, I added it because that is what I had imagined when I listened to the Piano version. Orchestration is mostly about being able to imagine what you would like the piece to sound like from listening to the short score version. It is important to understand instrument physics and range, as well as utilising the instruments natural “character”. Horns are triumphant, Bassoons are comical and the Celeste is mysterious, so it makes sense to use the natural sound of these instruments when the musical information calls for a particular emotion.

Join the Darkside!

Remembering the criteria for this composition, we needed a Hero theme and an Anti-Hero theme. Working inline with the previous statements about using an instrument’s natural character to convey emotion, I used Xylophone and Celeste to achieve the Anti-Heroes sound, which is a dark, twisted version of the heroes theme. I didn’t want the Anti-Hero to have a proud sound, or for it to sound militaristic like the Heroes theme, so I did not use Horns or Snare. Clarinets also help to give a sinister feeling and the absence of Piccolo and Shakuhachi suggest that the “light” of the Hero does not exist in the Anti-Hero.

This is just a brief outline of the methods I use when composing for an Orchestra. Using short score allows me to compose quickly and efficiently, for in the moment of inspiration, getting the ideas onto “paper” is the most important thing. Like many of the great Artworks, the finished piece is the result of multiple drafts, sketches and scribbles and thinking of music as if it were a piece of art (which it is!) helps to take ideas from a concept to reality. Until next time, stay creative and here is the finished piece, enjoy!


Published by

Sam McLean

Australian Composer and Audio Engineer.


  1. Very instructive to hear the orchestration process. The funny thing is, that after you have developed the orchestration there might be in future a conductor, who transforms it back to the basic piano short score by playing from the score

    Liked by 1 person

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