Skip to main content

Composing for Piano, Marimacho, and Oboe

Chris Joye

Composing for Piano, Marimacho, and Oboe

One of the many obstacles a composer faces is how to write for various instruments.  Doing so can be tricky, and this obstacle is one of many reasons why composers choose to work with orchestrators or arrangers who will take, for example, the composer’s piano sketch and complete it for a jazz big band or a full orchestra.  Composers have a few options to help realize their musical sketch: (1) walk down the (potentially dangerous) road of buying these instruments and learning them, (2) spend some time studying the certain characteristics and limitations of various instruments, or (3) pay someone to arrange or orchestrate their composition or sketch.  The first scenario can be time consuming and expensive, but is ultimately extremely rewarding and fun.  In addition, when you calculate the savings from not hiring an orchestrator or arranger, the cost discrepancy is not as significant.  The second scenario allows composers to save some money on instrument purchase, but still allows them to write compositions that sound better and more realistic on either real instruments or virtual-based ones


I have traveled down the purchasing road many, many times on various trips around the world.  I’ve always been fascinated with instruments from different regions of the world, trying to determine good ways to fuse them into various genres of Western music compositions.  When I find myself in another country, I try to find some hole-in-the-wall shop or luthier, avoiding the touristy shops that sell mass-produced instruments.   For example, while visiting Cuzco, Peru, we discovered a quaint guitar luthier’s shop buried behind some buildings, off an alleyway.  Sabino did not know any English, and I did not know any Spanish, but, luckily, a British traveller was there who translated for us both.  The end result?  I bought a Marimacho that Sabino had made with nothing more than a few hand tools—a 16-string guitar, tuned like a ukulele, with four sets of four strings tuned identical.  I have used it on many recordings and, although the construction is a bit rough, it sounds beautiful, adds a very unique color to a composition, and sounds way better than a mass-produced instrument designed to trap tourists.  Many percussion instruments are easy to learn too, if you have a good sense of rhythm.  Get creative and sample them in different ways that may not exist in your sample library. 


There are plenty of self-help websites (free and paid) that will guide you in the art of arranging and orchestration.  Keep in mind that real instruments and virtual instruments have much different limitations (at least in most cases).  Typically, only the higher end virtual instrument libraries will limit an instrument’s range – we all understand that a real oboe played by a real musician cannot reach a note lower than Bb below middle C.  Unfortunately, in the computer world, some libraries will map the samples to be played anywhere on the keyboard.  This is usually because the higher end libraries sample every note and variation separately, rather than the cheaper libraries which take one note and “stretch” it to fit notes a step or two away.  If you are not careful, and are writing a MIDI mockup to be recorded later by a real instrument, you could easily write a note out of its’ range, which could lead to timely, costly, and embarrassing corrections in the middle of a session.

Articulations, accents and dynamics are a universal way of expressing how an instrumentalist should perform a piece of music.  Some of these language marks cannot carry over to other instruments (for instance, a down bow symbol for a stringed instrument, means nothing to a flautist).  A composer needs to learn how to write for specific instruments, either by conducting a Google search or (a better idea) investing in an orchestration textbook.


If you do not have the time to buy instruments and learn how to compose for each of them, or if you just do not have the time to learn how to write for a particular instrument, there are plenty of orchestrators and arrangers available to help.  As many of us in the film scoring world end up on a tight time frame, it might be beneficial to include this line item in your budget.  There are many local and national arrangers and orchestrators available for hire, or you can check with your local union to find one.


Many composers think of the partial or full instrumentation before starting write, so hiring an additional person to do this job may not be necessary.  However, to get to this point, one needs to learn how to write for various instruments, and the best way to start doing this is to dive into some educational books and begin arranging and orchestrating.


Chris Joye is a Denver-based film and television composer and multi-instrumentalist. A dual-major graduate of Berklee College of Music in Film Scoring and Bass Performance, he has credits in numerous feature films and documentaries, television and web commercials, and has music being licensed with companies such as Red Bull Media House UK, The New Yorker, MTV, and VH1. He is currently studying and researching how to write for bagpipes and Native American flute for an upcoming Colorado-based short film, Wrong Side Up.