For the past few years, I have been getting a lot questions about my orchestration techniques from people all over the world. I’ve been teaching composition/orchestration privately, and students always complain at the lack of practical exercises and performing opportunities at educational institutions, and the lack of a real orchestration book for beginners and self-learners, since most orchestration books focus mainly on instrumentation. When I started to learn orchestration, what I wanted to know most was how composers start from an idea (or whatever they have in the beginning) and orchestrate to the final score, and organized orchestrational techniques and examples of their applications in various styles.

            In my opinion, until students have some orchestrational or conducting experiences to draw upon, looking at existing scores is not very helpful. To fulfill the needs of my students, I started to write a book just about orchestration and process of orchestral composition. Unfortunately, writing a book takes much time and money, so for the time being, I made this page to show what kind of book I’d like to write. I hope you feel this page and content are helpful.

Kentaro Sato (Ken-P)

Los Angeles, California, USA

Feb 6, 2008

Updated on March 4, 2008

A Practical Approach to Orchestration by Kentaro Sato   ©2008 Kentaro Sato

I. Sato’s Law of Orchestration

II. Process

I. Sato’s Laws of Orchestration

            The goal of orchestration is to have desired musical effects performed and ultimately heard by an audience. Orchestrators are people who can accurately achieve this goal with given or minimum musical resources available; e.g. the number of instruments available, the level of performer’s musicianship, amount of rehearsal time, etc. Therefore, we should try to avoid any waste or misuse of resources at all costs.

            When scientists do something, they refer known laws of physics as a guide. Fortunately, I also have my own guide for orchestration that act in a similar fashion, which I call “Sato’s Laws of Orchestration.”

First Law: Loud notes tend to be heard, and soft notes tend to be covered.

Second Law: Outer voices tend to be heard, and inner voices tend to blend.

Third Law: Unique timbres tend to be heard, and similar timbres tend to blend.

Forth Law: Moving lines tend to be heard, and sustained lines tend to be covered.

Fifth Law: High notes hardly ever mask low notes, and low notes rather easily mask high notes.

Sixth Law: Musicians cannot play lines beyond their level of musicianship.

Seventh Law: Musicians cannot play lines beyond the capacities of their instrument.

Eighth Law: Musicians tend to play given lines with the minimum effort required.

Ninth Law: Musicians play most musically when musical lines are not given to, but written for their instrument.

Tenth Law: Wrong and/or unclear notations and instructions lead to wrong and/or unclear performances.

            Laws one through five are about the physical side of orchestration, specifically masking effect. Sonically masked lines are ultimately a waste of resources, so we should try to avoid masked lines at any cost. These first five laws are also about the concept of foreground and background. Unless the music is monophonic, foreground and background will be there, because that is how our brains “hear.”

            Laws six through ten are about the human side of orchestration. For whatever reason, beginning composers/orchestrators tend to underestimate the effects of these last five laws. We should always remember that music is a social activity.

            I will discuss each law in detail in my book. For the time being, you should review your knowledge and experience of orchestration/orchestral music using these laws.

II. Process


            This will be one of the main topics of the book; a systematic process of orchestral composition/orchestration from an idea to the live performance. I will give you one example here. In my book, there will be more examples in the different musical styles and approaches.


            Suppose that I come up with this melody.  I say this is a fine melody.

EX-1a (Listen)



            Since I do not want this piece to be monophonic, I start to consider harmony. After some trial and error, I come up with this basic chord progression.

EX-1ba (Listen)



            At this point, I start to think about which instruments will play this melody. After some thoughts, I decide to give this to flute.

EX-1b2 (Listen)

            I start the process of “instrumentalization.” This is the process of rewriting a line (often simple or vocally oriented) for a specific instrument according to the ninth law; Musicians play most musically when musical lines are not given to, but written for their instrument. This is where knowledge of instrumentation should come in. What kinds of lines are traditional and/or idiomatic for flutes? What kinds of lines do flute players like to play? What kinds of lines fit comfortably in their hands/fingerings? I will discuss this in detail in my book.

            Guided by my knowledge of the flute, I’ve instrumentalized the melody into the following example.

EX-1c (Listen)


            With melody set, it’s time to reconsider the harmony. There are many techniques that can be used in this process, and I will discuss each of them in my book. In this example, I added the seventh (and possibly the ninth) of the chords, since the melody already implies these extended chords. It is usually helpful to be aware of whether melody notes are chord tones, tension notes, or avoid notes in a given chord/scale in order to minimize the unnecessary crush between the melody and the harmony. In this example, G Ionian, C Lydian, and E Aeolian are present, and all melody notes are either chord or tension notes. The detailed theory and application of reharmonization will be in my book. For the time being, I make a note to myself that there are some notes in this melody that might need special attention when I realize the harmony. For example, G (the root of G major seventh chord) will create the minor ninth interval with F# (the seventh of the chord), which may or may not be an issue when I harmonize.

EX-1d (Listen)


            As the second law states, outer voices are likely to be heard, and therefore need the most attention. In this example, the melody and bass are obviously outer voices, but the top part of the harmony is also an “outer voice.” The third law also supports the audibility of the top part of the harmony, since it’s a different timbre.

            Often, this presents an opportunity for countermelody. A detailed discussion on how to write countermelody will be in my book.

            With this in mind, I’ve written the top harmony part and bass below.

EX-1e (Listen)


            The rest of the harmony is realized according to the chord progression. If there are passing chords or melody notes that are “avoid notes” in the chord/scale, I will make necessary changes to the harmony. The technique of part writing and sectional writing can be used here according to the style of the music and your taste. Practical advice on part writing and sectional writing will also be in my book.

EX-1f (Listen)


            I’ve instrumentalized the harmony and bass part for specific instruments. In this example, I’ve given the harmony and bass parts to strings. Note the combination of octave pizzicato between the cellos and basses and arco violins and violas are very common in this style. You will also notice trills in the violas. That is a good example of the fourth law; moving lines tend to be heard.

EX-1g (Listen) live performance


            Orchestral variations are as important as compositional variations.

EX-01h (Listen) live performance

EX-01i (Listen) live performance         

            Skilled composers/orchestrators might do most of the process mentally and subconsciously. For students, that may appear to be “genius.” However, I believe that most compositional and orchestrational process are skill-oriented; skills that can be learned through education and practice. I hope my book will help students improve their skills as both orchestrators and composers so that they may eventually find their own voice in music.

            I want my book to be as complete as possible for students. Therefore, I would like to include audio and video recordings of all the examples, processes, possibilities, and audio experiments. Also I would like to include topics such as vocal/choral writings, conducting for rehearsal, concert hall, and recording studio, score preparation, recording, acoustics, and other information that composers/orchestrators might need to realize their musical creations; from their first musical idea to the final performance in today’s concert and commercial music world.

            If you have opinions and suggestions of topics you'd like me to cover, feel free to contact me via e-mail.

Feburary 8, 2009

About a half year has passed since I posted this page, and I have received many e-mails from people all over the world. First of all, I would like to thank them very much. Their opinions and questions will be reflected into the contents of the book.

Many people who e-mailed me seem to share same questions.  So, here are some answers to such questions...

Q1. Do you take new private students who would learn over the internet?

A1. Yes, I do. (As of 2012, due to my busy schedule, I am no longer taking new students over internet.)

Q2. What do you teach to your students?

A2. That totally depends on what a certain student want to learn from me. However, I do teach following subjects most of the case; part-writing technique (harmony), sectional-writing technique (more pop/jazz oriented harmony), music history and style, form and developmental technique, and orchestration.

Q3. Can you teach me so that I could pass the entrance examination on music theory (harmony and counterpoint) to the music conservatory that I want to go?

 A3. I could, but probably I will not take you as my private student for that specific purpose. The reasons are that I believe that there are more suitable teachers than me for that purpose and my hope is to teach skills and applied knowledge so that students can realize what s/he wants musically.

PS. Here, I am talking about certain music conservatories in Europe and Asia which ask prospective composition major students to pass very difficult harmony and/or counterpoint examinations. Here are two examples from “UNDERGRADUTATE” entrance examination for Tokyo University of Arts (Tokyo, Japan).

Do not be discouraged if you have no idea to solve these examples. Many composition-major students around the world, both undergraduate and graduate will find these examples difficult to solve (or maybe impossible).

Having the skills to solve these problems is great, however it is not the prerequisite for composition.

String Instruments




Woodwind Instruments







Brass Instruments





Percussions and Harp




            I would like to thank my good friend Jon Timpe for help me articulate my writing.

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