Color vs. Content

Color vs. Content

As I’ve been asking composers what their creative process is, I’ve noticed a curious pattern related to orchestration. Most experienced composers tend to put the specific and painstakingly complex task of orchestration on the back end of their process, waiting until the piece in the abstract is sketched out (especially if it is a large ensemble work, where they have a great deal of timbral flexibility). Even those who feel comfortable composing “direct to score” on a large work will wait until they have a very good sense of what the piece is about conceptually before making orchestration decisions. In any event, experienced composers in general tend not to allow the colors of a work to drive the content of the work.

Now younger composers, just starting out, tend not to think this way—in fact, many composers early on place much more focus and weight on the colors they are using in a piece during the front end of their creative process, and it is only years later that they shift their process to composing material without the timbres being a forgone conclusion. Having taught orchestration classes to both college and pre-college composers, I’m to the point where I can guess when their eyes will glaze over (ranges, transpositions, fingerings, etc.) and when their eyebrows will lift and ears will perk up (anything that adjusts the color of an instrument—mutes/pizz./tasto/ponticello/harmonics or other extended techniques). It seems as if I am giving them the recipe for alchemy, and in some ways I guess I am; knowing how an instrument works seems pedantic to a young composer, but knowing how to change an instrument’s sound from its default to some new color is an extremely enticing notion. Once they have been given the musical equivalent of Crayola’s 64 box-set, it is almost inevitable that they will attack their next works from the direction of color, often to the exclusion or detriment to all other musical parameters.

There are two aspects to these patterns that I find interesting and which may even correlate to how audiences interpret a composer’s work. First, the consistency with which young composers are drawn to color before more abstract musical concepts; anyone who has heard or looked at works by most young composers would note the lack of dynamic, phrasal, articulative, or even harmonic variation. Second, the point at which a composer switches from thinking of their music in terms of timbre to melodic/harmonic/conceptual parameters is different for everyone, but sooner or later it does happen. The more we understand how and why these evolutions happen, we may be able to better interpret and understand a composer’s output throughout their career.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome!

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16 thoughts on “Color vs. Content

  1. Steve Cohen


    Your observations are astute, and they’re borne out by my own experience. A young composer getting his hands on a symphony orchestra is like a teenage boy getting the keys to his father’s big, fast and powerful car. His first thought is “Let’s see what this baby can do on the open road.”

    I had the very good fortune to study orchestration with the late, great Nicolas Flagello at Manhattan School of Music in the 1970s. I remember one assignment where I decided I’d show off and I went absolutely nuts with all the “color instruments,” like harp, celesta, glockenspiel, piccolo and string harmonics. Mr. Flagello took one look at the first page of my score, and I watched the smile on his face curdle. He said, “Cohen, would you like a little coffee with your sugar?” and handed the score back to me. Lesson learned.

  2. Kelly Fenton

    I find this to be true not only with large ensembles but small ones as well. And I myself am guilty of it, too! (In fact I enjoy the art of orchestration and coloring far more than any other aspect of composing that I often wonder if I should have focused more on being just an orchestrator rather than a composer.)But I often find listening to the plethora of jazz originals today a lack of melody or rhythmic direction in favor of sound painting or coloring (particularly in the rhythm section). While this can be interesting, especially in creating a certain vibe, it can be overused to the point of boredom for the listener. Melody (true, singable melodies) and intentional, written-out rhythms, not always relying on the drummer to react in a certain way, are, in my humble opinion, still the core of what makes a solid composition. However, I don’t think orchestration and coloring should be an after-fact either. With color in mind, the composition process will be more accommodating, and therefore just stronger (in that if you decide this section is to express a certain color, by deciding exactly what instruments or techniques are to be playing or applied, you can take technicalities-ranges, difficulties, etc., into consideration rather than trying to force them in later). This balance is no doubt achieved through compositional maturity.

  3. Cole T

    It seems like that can be an issue with any musical parameter, but orchestration, being a technician’s game, seems particularly susceptible to overshadowing other aspects of a young composer’s work once they get a taste for it. I think an interesting point in a composer’s development is when they gain the self awareness of what their strengths and weaknesses are and are then able to work towards a style that highlights those strengths. Not every composer will have a completely balanced style, with equal interest being invested in color, harmony, rhythm, melodic contour, etc. The mature composer, however, has learned where his strengths lie and is able to work the other parameters around those strengths in a supportive way rather than an inferior one.

  4. James Sproul

    Great article as always Rob.

    I find it particularly interesting as I believe I have been making the shift myself over the last several years and how the whole way of composing shifts when you begin to pay attention to orchestration. The music itself changes dramatically and for the better in my case (and opinion).

    I think many young composers must think about extended technique as part of the overall functionality of a given instrument rather then a novelty of making something simply sound like something else. Just my two cents. (and the realization that not everyone can do every extended technique, particularly in large ensemble work)

  5. Mark Winges

    Hi Rob:

    Very resonant post for me personally, and I kind of wish I’d read something like this a few decades ago. It took me a while to realize that my own thinking about timbre / color was related to the fact that my main instrument is the organ – where you have to select the stops before you can play anything. Meaning that color always comes first. It also affected my lack of dynamics early on (the organ doesn’t “do” dynamics at the micro level), although at least I had an undergrad teacher who spotted that part of my inner aural baggage, and got me to be more intentional about dynamics.

    The color thing also plays out differently for me in the choral world, where timbre doesn’t have the same meaning (“extended” vocal techniques and non-sung vocalizations notwithstanding) as it does in the instrumental realm. And “orchestration” is a much more fine-grained part of the process (e.g. “sopranos or altos?” is only relevant to certain kinds of material and only in certain ranges).

  6. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    Rob- this is a wonderful post! A truly relevant issue for me at 27, and I suspect for other older and younger.

    In my first year of grad school, most of my ensemble pieces were roughly one pitch at a time, with lots of coloration. I wanted to intentionally remove as much “musical” content from it as possible, in order to emphasize the color. My teacher defended my music during my juries, asking “isn’t timbre a fancy word for complex harmony?”

    I am excited to realize that I am developing into a composer who is concerned with pitch. But I often can’t extricate one element of music from the other. I am a “compose-to-score” kind of guy. For instance, right now working on a 2 piano/2 percussion quartet, I am writing harmonies I would NEVER write for strings. Just like a director wouldn’t cast certain actors in certain roles, nor can I bring myself to scribble some counterpoint and then dish it out to the ensemble.

    You have a great insight into why young composers often gravitate towards the coloristic approach. But color isn’t necessarily just sugar coating. I am wary of swinging too far in the other direction as we age. The worst orchestration is that which is either subservient to the notes, or that which treats the coloring as a chance to provide “variety” in a piece. Just my thought, but color should have as much meaning as harmony, and so far it’s gotten a bad rap.

  7. Mark

    I understand that this article is mainly aimed at young composers and so I’m very grateful—even just reading some of the comments has had me all bashful and reflective. Still, doesn’t this contradict some of the greater experienced composers—like Feldman? Mr. “I’m done once I’ve picked my instruments” Feldman? I mean, you can argue that in his later music it’s fine because he already has such a perfectly developed sense of form and structuring, but what about in his earlier sumptuous semi-aleatoric works?

    1. Rob Deemer

      Hey Mark – great point! I should have been a bit more specific in my post…I was speaking less of instrumentation, but of orchestration. I don’t think any of the composers I’ve spoken to would want to begin writing a piece before they knew the forces they were writing for (not just the instruments but the performers themselves if at all possible), and I think they would all agree that they would write a piece differently if it was for solo piano, chamber ensemble, or large ensemble. That being said, they still usually wait until they have a solid idea of what the piece is before assigning specific lines to specific instruments (more so in large ensemble works) and subtle colorations of those instruments. What I’ve witnessed with many younger composers is writing with the colorations as the end goal, which becomes problematic if they’re not considering other musical concepts as well.

  8. Joseph Eidson

    I completely agree with the premise of the article and am enjoying reading the other comments besides Rob’s excellent (as always) writing. If I might interject a bit of the “negative internet commenter” vibe here, it seems to me that the same three young composers who are currently winning the commissions / awards are very focused on color over content. How do we reconcile the disconnect between wanting to write music with substance and wanting to be recognized and rewarded by the few orchestral prizes that appear each year?

    Don’t get me wrong – I love a good low brass cluster + crescendo and crotales played with a paperclip just as much as the next guy, but I would also like to be able to remember more than 10 seconds of your latest 15-minute orchestral masterpiece, Mr(s). Successful Composer Dude(ette).

  9. Phil Fried

    For myself setting music to the orchestra is like setting text to music. The words must scan and so my orchestrations must present my musical ideas clearly. The color, then,is in the ideas. I have orchestrated from a short score and direct to full score as well and I’ve had good results both ways–I do try to develop a style. I’ve been told I pretty good at this. As an orchestrator what is interesting for me is the combinations of instruments and creating new parts by heterophony. (For those who don’t know me I am an contrapuntalist). Sometimes practical considerations become important. For example weighting elements towards the stronger players in an ensemble. Anyway, I suggest orchestrating historical music in historical styles first- that’s how I learned.

  10. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    I think we should be careful to distinguish between color and orchestration. From my experience many young composers, myself included, are very interested in color. We have a habit of laboring over how to meticulously shade the tone of a single pitch or chord, with less attention given to the notes of the chord itself. That said, many of my colleagues and I are only now coming to orchestration.

    Everyone admires Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” for its orchestral colors, but we should remember that it was primarily a study in harmony, and to a lesser extent, counterpoint. That said, what impresses us the most about that piece is the textures, the sense that orchestration IS the piece.

    My feeling is that what sets “Atmospheres” apart from much of the music being written today, (for instance, what Joseph Eidson mentions), is that Ligeti’s piece creates a unified sonic environment. As a composer who utilizes color on a small scale as a major tool, my biggest complaint about extended techniques in practice is that they are so often misused and misrepresented, added to “weirdify” a sound. Both harmony and color/orchestration can be the primary material, provided they’re done well.

  11. Brigton

    Didn’t rimsky korsakov say the same thing in his orchestration book- all his students wrote for harp, then used too much percussion. : )

  12. MarkNGrant

    Hey Rob, tremendous job you do with “The Composer Next Door,” both in concept and in execution. I love it. Is it still on the air or available on podcast? I can’t seem to find it anymore.

    Strangely, nobody in the above thread mentioned the first composer who used color as a compositional parameter systematically– Arnold Schoenberg– nor the term he invented for the process, klangfarbenmelodie. But Schoenberg, a radical modernist who was also a radical traditionalist, would have been appalled at the notion that aspiring student composers would want to start with color manipulation without even an inkling of feeling for melody, harmony, and form. A instinctual feel for the “melodic/harmonic/conceptual parameters” is really the quintessence of musical composing talent. I’m puzzled at how a student whose very first impulses are to jiggle the special effects knobs can be lead back to possessing such an instinctual feel for melody, harmony, and form if it wasn’t there in the first place. It would be like an aspiring novelist in a creative writing class who has a colorful vocabulary but is palpably bereft of story-telling or character development talents. I don’t think you can suck blood from such a stone.

    Timbre and color should not only evolve out of idea and form– that’s the case with Schoenberg’s klangfarbenmelodie no less than with Ravel’s ultracolorful orchestration– but should be indissoluble from line, melody, phrase, etc. Imagine the loss to music if the opening bars Beethoven’s Fifth were known to the world only in as arrangement for vibraphone.

    1. MarkNGrant

      Sorry for the typos in the last sentence above. Corrected, it should read: “Imagine the loss to music if the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth were known to the world only in an arrangement for vibraphone.”

  13. Phil Fried

    Thank you Mark, but I thought we were talking about the living. In any event since I am a follower of Schoenberg I think my comments align. Besides that I try to stay out of the hypothetical.

  14. Kevin Wilt

    Hi Rob,

    Wonderful article. I can easily say that, as a young composer, I have fallen prey focusing on orchestration above other musical aspects. I wonder if you think this has been amplified as of late due to the ease of notation or sequencing programs paired with ever better sample libraries. With an assortment of articulations, mutes, etc. only a mouse click away, it seems almost too easy to get caught up in color.


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