Score Reduction



Orchestral scores appear in many forms. Apart from miniature study scores, which most musicians come to know as students, there are conductor’s scores (larger format) and reduced scores. Here we will clarify the various types of reduced scores in common use.
A word needs to be added about what I call “condensed scores”, i.e. scores where two or more instruments of the same type are combined in the same staff, to save space. An example might be flutes, playing in unison doubling, written on one staff, “a 3”.




Reduced scores can be divided into two main categories:

  1. Those which contain all the same information as the full orchestral score, but in a visually simpler form. We will term these “full reductions”.
  2. Those which re-arrange the information (and which may even delete some of it), for specific purposes. We will term these “performance reductions”.




This category is used mainly by composers, while working, and by students, for study. Its basic principle is reorganization: The information in the full score is simplified. The two basic types of organization are:

  1. by instrumental families.
  2. by musical elements.

Both the above have in common that they eliminate most or all transpositions, and they do not write out doublings in full, but rather indication them with text (e.g. “fl. 1 + ob. 2”). Typically this makes reading the music (and working on it, in the case of the composer) easier. They only use the minimum number of staves required at any given moment.




This second category of reduced scores (re-arrangements) varies a good deal depending on the purpose of the reduction. Typical situations where reduction is needed are:

  1. opera scores and concerti: The orchestra part is arranged for one piano, so that the singer or the soloist can get to know their part.
  2. conducting classes: One or two pianists follow a student conductor.
  3. music for private entertainment: The orchestra part is arranged for one or more pianos, or for some other combination of instruments which the user has available. This was very common as a social activity, in the days before recording and radio; now it is quite rare. However, it is an excellent way to get to know music in detail, and deserves to be revived.

Normally the reduction is prepared in advance, and written out. The reduction may be for any level of performer, from fairly elementary to advanced. Typically, the less skillful the player, the more modifications to the score will be required. In previous generations it was not uncommon for a conductor or a composer to reduce a score at the piano directly from the full score. This skill is less common than it used to be; however those who have seen it done live retain a certain awe at the mental gymnastics involved. In the case of score-reading virtuosi, the job was sometimes done at sight!
In any event, the hard parts of the job (apart from reading the transpositions, mainly a problem when playing directly from the full score) are:

  • Knowing what to omit. This implies a good deal of knowledge about orchestration: What is foreground and what is background; what is present mainly for accent or for resonance; what is being used to fill out the instrumental parts. This is an excellent technique for studying orchestration in depth.
  • Knowing how to suggest things, which are not playable in their existing form, on the new instruments, . This requires knowing what is idiomatic for each instrument, and seeing how it can be translated into something reasonably idiomatic for another instrument.

There are some standard rules and recipes for this sort of translation:

  • Keep the main melodic line and the bass line intact.
  • Keep the harmony intact; redistribution of the inner parts is acceptable. (Spacing almost always has to be changed.)
  • Keep the intended level of rhythmic activity wherever possible. However, the details of the figuration will often change, e.g. quick repeated notes can become tremolos on the piano, and arpeggios are often re-spaced. Keep accompaniment motives consistent within the arrangement.

When secondary parts contain notes which strongly color the harmony – typically non-harmonic tones – maintaining them may be quite a challenge. It sometimes can be achieved by incorporating them into other parts.