Orchestration Tips: Flute and Piccolo Realising Overtones

Interested in learning tips for orchestration and scoring, for both MIDI & "real-world"? This excerpt from Thomas Goss' book on 100 Orchestration Tips that accompanies his Ask.Audio videos is for you.  

Recently, I completed the book 100 Orchestration Tips, a collection of advice, insight, and practical approach from my decades of work as an orchestral composer and arranger. Ask.Audio is running a series of chapters excerpted from the book to celebrate the release of Orchestration 102: The Wind Section and as a prelude to the release of my upcoming course Orchestration 103: Wind Instruments. These sister courses, to be released later this year, will introduce the wind families and examine how they work together orchestrally, with many audio and visual samples of top players at work. That information can work in conjunction with tips such as the one below, putting the principles of orchestration into practice.

For more information about 100 Orchestration Tips, visit its page at the Orchestration Online website.

Tip 9: Think of the bigger picture when scoring flute and piccolo as the top voice of a harmony, in how their timbre fulfils the inherent spectrum of overtones.

It’s instructive to score-read and listen to Classical-era wind band compositions, particularly those without flute. Mozart composed several, including his most famous, the Serenade in B-flat K.361 (“Gran Partita”). Have a listen to a few movements from a variety of such works, focusing on the overall sound picture, especially in homophonic passages with fully-scored harmony. Haydn also wrote several divertimentos that feature winds without flute, which also apply in this regard.

What you may notice from this study is that the full wind ensemble without flutes has a pungent character, a chesty, earthy type of sound. It’s not only that oboes and bassoons abound, but also that they form upper and lower boundaries to the sound picture. The bassoons form the root of the harmony, and the oboes complete it as the top voice. This textural resonance, though fascinating, has its limits, which explains the eventual ascendancy of the flute by the end of the Classical period (not to mention the addition of the clarinet).

The wind section as it exists today is a nicely balanced set of timbres. Each general timbre of each wind family contributes to an overall harmonic texture with a smoother, more colourful mix. Bassoons provide a bass rich with potentially complementary overtones. Clarinets sit very well at an octave or octave-and-a-5th above the bassoons, while encouraging overtones above of a major 3rd, 5th, or 9th. Oboes clarify any unevenness that might be developing between bassoon and clarinet overtones with a quite penetrating, direct sound. Finally, flutes sit atop all, fulfilling the combined potential of all the overtones. The more consonant (similar to the harmonic series) these relationships are devised, the clearer the sound. Of course, subverting that clarity can be much more interesting; and yet, such subversions sound more informed when the composer knows where they’re departing from.

Fig 9a/9b

Fig 9a/9b

The Mendelssohn excerpt above illustrates a keen awareness of wind instrument resonance, and the flute’s role in making it radiant. Read the short-score version I’ve provided along to a decent recording. Note how the flutes start simply, then gain in richness of overtones as they rise until the whole harmony glows with a pearly luminescence. Though it looks quite straightforward on the surface, this passage is a nightmare for players. It’s very exposed, and requires an expert sense of intonation. The second horn part is notorious for throwing the last two chords off, as it carries the most resonance on the fifth of A minor, and then immediately jumps down to the same note two octaves lower as the fundamental of the resolving E chord. The slightest discrepancy can ruin everyone else’s day, as the horn has to underpin the narrow intonation at the top of both chords.

The piccolo takes this radiance to a starshine, with overtones that can reach in and twist our eardrums around. Often a composer will score high register piccolo at the same dynamic level as the rest of the orchestra in a crashing tutti, and then find at rehearsal that the conductor (or the player on their own initiative) has taken this screaming sound down a notch or two. It’s not that the high pitch is essentially louder; it’s that the power of the highest overtones dominates in registers we cannot exactly hear but will still feel somewhat painfully.

Yet for fulfilment of overtones inherent in harmonic passages, nothing beats the piccolo. Its shorter length and slimmer bore restrict the range of overtones, leading to a thinner, more piping sound, exactly the narrower timbre one might need to balance a larger harmony. This limitation can be used to excellent effect in substituting middle-register piccolo notes at the same pitch as high flute notes. In the opening to Holst’s Neptune from The Planets, the piccolo plays the top D-sharp of a G-sharp minor triad with two oboes. The piquant overtones of the oboes match perfectly with the veiled iciness of the piccolo. The underpinning A minor trombone chord three octaves below makes the harmony gleam all the more, because the wide separation catches the conflicting brass overtones right at their strongest high partials.

Fig. 9c: Gustav Holst, Neptune, bars 3-4

Fig. 9c: Gustav Holst, Neptune, bars 3-4

One last observation about this quality of the flute family is that audibility may sometimes be less
of a concern than presence. I’ve occasionally scored an invisible flute or piccolo line with intention of bringing more life to the overall texture. This is very similar to passages in Classical scores like Mozart’s Symphony no. 40 in G minor, where the single flute gets swallowed by the resonance of the strings an octave below. It’s scored to be felt more than heard.

Watch all the complete courses on MIDI orchestration in The Ask.Audio Academy HERE.


Thomas Goss is a professional composer and orchestrator who has been commissioned by such diverse artists as erhu soloist Xiaofeng Zhang, Australia’s premier vocal quartet The Idea of North, and the San Francisco Symphony Chamber Ensemble. His compositions and arrangements have been performed by orchestras in six different time zones. ... Read More


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