An Orchestral Character Glossary



The aim of this glossary is to show the beginning orchestrator a certain approach to his craft. Once he knows how to write for instruments effectively and idiomatically, and once he understands the principles of orchestral balance, and how orchestration interacts with musical form, the orchestrator’s task is then to select the most appropriate sound combinations for given musical situations. This selection is made mainly according to musical character. In this glossary you will find a list of character words, and orchestral suggestions for how to express them.



Character words are approximate. A word like “lyrical” can imply many different emotions, each of which would be orchestrated somewhat differently. Used simplistically, the combinations given here easily become clichés. Clichés quickly lose their effect, and can even become inappropriately comic. (Think of the diminished chord tremolos signifying danger, in silent films.) The best use for a glossary like this is as a point of departure, rather than as a recipe book. Orchestration is not the only aspect of musical character. Other aspects of the music, like harmony, tempo, rhythm, etc., are equally important. For example, the entries below under “terrifying” and “brilliant” are rather similar; the resulting effect will depend strongly on the kind of harmony used. It is important to look to all aspects of the music for their expressive potential. Indeed, one could make similar glossaries for these other musical dimensions. The composer needs to use every available resource to create the desired character. One characteristic of weak music is the way certain aspects of the music contribute nothing, or even distract from the desired effect.



This character requires two elements: a soft background, usually sustained strings, and another element to add “light”:

  • Soft, medium-high trumpets or horns.
  • Flutes, medium-high, not too loud.
  • Touches of high metal percussion (e.g. suspended cymbal, glockenspiel), again, not too loud.

Mystery comes from lack of clarity. Appropriate sounds include very delicate background resonance (sustained sound) and/or very quiet movement, not too thickly spaced:

  • Muted strings.
  • String harmonics.
  • Low flutes.


Certain sounds, often starting softly and making a crescendo, which evoke natural threats (e.g. earthquakes, eruptions) are very potent:

  • Low drums: rolls or rhythmic patterns, create an almost primeval, threatening effect.
  • Low, closely spaced strings and/or woodwinds, muted brass.
  • Extreme low sounds, soft: tam-tam, bass drum.

Terrifying, angry, savage 


Loud and piercing sounds, which often resemble animal cries, harsh and strident:

  • High, dissonant woodwinds and/or brass, perhaps in insistent repeated notes or trills.
  • High, dry percussion (e.g. loud xylophone), cymbal roll crescendos.



Often suggests a certain virtuosity, speed:

  • Brass in their respective high registers, open intervals, in fast figuration, e.g. repeated notes, trills.
  • Brass crescendos.
  • Fast, rising lines in strings, woodwinds.

Splendid, rich, triumphant 


Requires a mass of instruments, suggesting generosity and richness: Tutti, with sustained brass, closely spaced in upper-middle register (especially horns, in the range of the alto voice), along with high strings, in 8ves.


Sudden contrasts in register, timbre, and dynamics.


Heavy, dragging sounds, suggesting a mourning procession:

  • Low register: Brass and winds playing slowly.
  • Timpani or bass drum dotted rhythms.

Playful, funny 


The key here is lightness, unless a grotesque effect is wanted:

  • Lots of rests.
  • High, staccato sounds.
  • Avoid sustained sounds in brass.
  • Pizzicato.
  • Bassoon staccato.
  • Caricature (grotesque): Instruments playing passagework characteristic of others, e.g. a tuba playing a comic line which would normally be given to the bassoon.

Sad, melancholy, poignant 

Often suggests an individual (solo) lamenting, or discouragement, weakness:

  • Slow, sustained strings in lower register.
  • Wind solo (especially oboe or clarinet), or low flute, over sustained strings.


Introduction: Why this book?
Preliminary considerations

  • Remarks on instruments
  • What is poor orchestration?

Basic notions, part 1

  • Orchestration and form
  • Rate of orchestral change
  • Degree of continuity/contrast
  • Interpreting the phrasing
  • Orchestration and dynamics
  • Register
  • Color
  • Sustained vs. dry sound
  • Fat vs. thin sound; unison doubling
  • Balance: simultaneous and successive

Basic notions, Part 2

  • Musical lines vs. instrumental parts
  • Planes of tone
  • Contrapuntal orchestration
  • The tutti

Orchestral accompaniment
Summary: What is good orchestration?
Appendix: some pedagogical ideas

  • Examples from a character glossary
  • Outline sketches as a teaching tool
  • Learning orchestration from the repertoire
  • Scales of contrast

Conclusion, acknowledgements, bibliography
Character glossary