For many young film composers, including myself, John Williams is the guy when it comes to orchestral film music. His scores are lush, complex and exciting. Although we all strive to have a unique voice in our music, there is plenty to be learned by taking a close look at the techniques Williams uses to achieve his orchestral sound.
In this article I’ll discuss five observations on the orchestration from the piece “Flight to Neverland”, from his score to Hook. This article is by no means comprehensive, but there are some valuable lessons that typical orchestration books (95% of which should be relabeled “instrumentation” books) wont teach you.
1. Use Percussion for Accents, Not Grooves
Perhaps it’s a result of my background in rock and jazz, but I have a tendency to put a ride cymbal or hi-hat pattern behind just about everything. So one of the first things that jumped out at me about this piece is that the percussion never plays a groove.
With the exception of the pitched percussion instruments which occasionally play melody lines (or the timpani occasionally supporting the bass), the percussion section is used for accents, fills and flair. There are no driving ostinato patterns or drum-set like beats.
Here is an excerpt from the score of a typical use of percussion from bar 52 (about 1:20):
Just simple accents, like a little bit of seasoning on the important rhythmic moments.
One of the reasons to not have a driving percussion rhythm is that it evens things out too much. Rather than the section being constantly on the move and pushing forward, a static percussion part can bring things down to an even and flat level, destroying part of the excitement.
But if we aren’t using percussion, how can we keep the rhythm actively moving forward?
2. Maintain a Constant Pulse
The most important lesson you can take from this piece of music is that there is always a constant pulse. The division of the beat, in this case 8th notes, is in at least one instrument at pretty much all times.
Bar 1 (0:00):
Bar 14 (0:24):
Bar 148 (3:41), which also has 16ths:
These parts are significantly more interesting than had the harmony just been assigned to whole notes. They are not only more interesting to play (see #4) but they also keep the rhythmic pulse alive and active. The piece feels much more exciting because there is always a driving energy bubbling beneath it.
There are only a few moments of a few measures in length that do not have this 8th note pulse, and their absence is felt. When the pulse is missing there is a feeling of suspension and it is usually used for a rallentando or just before a big section. It’s important to keep in mind that a lack of pulse is the exception and only used for purposeful special effects.
3. Be Generous with Accents and Fills
The score is littered with percussion accents, suspended cymbals, harp glissandos, woodwind runs and other accents and splashes of motion and color.
Here are some typical examples:
Bar 13 (0:23):
Bar 73 (1:50):
Often the ends of phrases are filled out with counter-lines:
Bar 71-74 (1:47):
Scarcely a phrase goes by that doesn’t have an accent or fill at the end of it.
The accents and fills serve two very important functions:
- They give you something to listen to at all times. Even if the melody is taking a breath there is something else to hold your attention for a few beats before it starts up again.
- They pull you constantly forward into the next phrase or section. This keeps the piece perpetually marching forward which maintains interest but also keeps up the excitement.
4. Keep the Accompaniment Complex but in the Background
One of the more characteristic aspects of John Williams’ style is that it’s very busy; there are always a million little ideas flying around at all times.
The genius behind this is that no matter how busy the overall texture is, you can still hear the theme clearly and distinctly without any confusion. One of the reasons for this is simply dynamic markings. Another is that the melody is put in the stronger registers of the instruments playing it, while the accompaniment instruments are playing in weaker registers.
But one thing that does definitely NOT contribute to the separation of melody and accompaniment is having the accompaniment play simple and inconspicuous parts.
Consider these few bars of accompaniment:
Bars 107-110 (2:40):
There is a lot going on there!! Ten different instruments are playing four unique ideas (assuming we count the viola section as only “one” instrument”). So what are the reasons for having such complex parts?
- It keeps it interesting for the listener. Even if your mind happens to wander away from the lovely theme, you are still going to find plenty to listen for in the complex texture driving along behind it.
- It keeps it interesting for the player. It’s very easy to think “I have the melody and I need an F major chord behind it. Hmm how about whole notes to stay out of the way of the theme?”. While whole notes will certainly stay out of the way of the melody, they will also put your players to sleep. Keep your players on their toes and give them fun and interesting parts to play, and they will perform with much more energy and passion.
How do we make our accompaniment busy without it getting in the way?
Besides the already mentioned idea of putting the accompaniment instruments in weaker registers than the melody instruments, most importantly is that the parts are very repetitive. Although they are all quite active, we essentially have the same thing happening over and over and then adjusted to fit the chord.
Also important to notice is that the parts are mostly block chords, arpeggios and scale runs, as opposed to distinct melodies or things that could be heard as particularly attention grabbing.
5. Everyone Plays Most of the Time
One of the more interesting observations from the piece is that there are relatively not a lot of rests. Wind players are given the occasional chance to breathe, but in general they are playing the entire time. It was mentioned in #4 that if you keep the parts interesting for your players they will do a better job performing the piece. Another way to do this, other than interesting parts, is to have them constantly playing.
There are several reasons for doing this:
- Giving your player something to do is better than giving them nothing to do. There are few things worse for an orchestral player than seeing a rest with the number 147 written above. Chances are, 147 bars later they will have already fallen asleep or gone out for a smoke. Keep them involved as an integral part of the piece.
- Particularly in a style like that of John Williams, a big thick orchestral sound is crucial to the effectiveness of the piece. It only makes sense that you need as much support as possible to create a large sound.
- Orchestras are expensive. No one wants to pay a musician to sit there and count rests!
- This idea is not always relevant, sometimes you will have very soft and quiet sections and will need space. But if you are generally going for a full orchestral sound, make use of the full orchestra.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at the orchestration from “Flight to Neverland”. If you have a chance to listen to the piece, please leave your own observations in the comments!