April 26


How to Compose Orchestration for Metal Music

By Ken Candelas

April 26, 2024

As the composer of epic cinematic metal project, Homerik, I have grown quite familiar with orchestration. It wasn’t always easy, and truth be told it never is, but I learned as I was developing my songwriting and storytelling skillset.

In this blog, I want to discuss and show you what you’ll learn:

  • Sub genres and bands in Metal that are known to have Orchestration
  • Guitar Riffs vs. Orchestrations
  • Using Music Theory for Writing Orchestral Arrangements
  • The Process of Composing Your Orchestral Parts
  • Mixing Orchestra Arrangements with Metal Guitars
  • Metal Songs to Listen to with Orchestration
  • Final Tips for Writing Orchestral Metal
Symphony X.

Sub Genres and Bands in Metal Known to have Orchestration

Many sub genres exist in the Metal umbrella. Let’s highlight a few that like to incorporate some kind of symphonic orchestration:

Power metal is known for its fast tempos, uplifting melodies, and emphasis on fantasy themes in its lyrics. Bands like Blind Guardian and DragonForce are iconic in this subgenre, often incorporating elements of classical music and creating an epic, theatrical sound. Symphonic elements make this genre feel as big as an anime or cinematic soundtrack.

Symphonic metal combines metal with symphonic elements, such as orchestral arrangements and choirs, creating a grand and atmospheric sound. Nightwish and Epica are notable bands in this genre, blending heavy guitar riffs with orchestral instrumentation and operatic vocals. There is another version of this genre, Symphonic Black Metal, which highlights themes of the underworld mixed with guttural vocals.

Melodic rock focuses on catchy melodies, harmonies, and strong hooks in both vocals and instrumentation. Bands like Journey and Foreigner are classic examples, often blending rock with pop sensibilities to create memorable and accessible songs. Symphonic elements are usually romantic in their style of orchestration.

Gothic metal combines the heaviness of metal with dark, gothic themes and atmospheric elements. Bands like Type O Negative, Evanescence, and Lacuna Coil are prominent in this sub genre, often incorporating elements of gothic rock, symphonic metal, and doom metal to create a brooding and haunting sound that is just downright creepy.

In other ways, even a band as big as Metallica (which isn’t necessarily using symphonic elements in their music) had a collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. The song, “No Leaf Clover,” showcases the band’s ability to blend their thrash metal roots with orchestral arrangements, creating a dynamic and unique musical experience that bridges the gap between metal and classical music.

Guitar Riffs vs Orchestration: Which Comes First?

Blending guitar riffs with a symphonic orchestra can create a powerful and dynamic musical experience. When writing guitar riffs for this kind of fusion, it’s essential to consider the role of each element and how they can complement each other to enhance the overall sound. Here are some key considerations:

  1. Melodic Interplay: Guitar riffs and orchestral arrangements can work together melodically by harmonizing or playing complementary parts. This interplay adds depth and richness to the music, allowing the guitar to interact with different sections of the orchestra, such as strings, brass, and woodwinds. Experiment with layering melodies and motifs to create a cohesive and memorable sonic landscape.
  2. Textural Contrast: Utilize the contrasting textures of the guitar and orchestra to create dynamic shifts in the music. For example, you can start with a heavy guitar riff accompanied by a lush orchestral backdrop, then transition to a softer section with the guitar playing arpeggios while the orchestra provides gentle harmonic support. This contrast adds drama and interest to the composition, highlighting the versatility of both elements.
  3. Arrangement and Dynamics: Pay attention to the arrangement and dynamics to ensure a balanced blend between the guitar and orchestra. Use orchestration techniques such as crescendos, decrescendos, and orchestral swells to build tension and release throughout the piece. Incorporate moments where the guitar takes the spotlight with soaring solos or intricate patterns, while the orchestra provides a majestic backdrop or rhythmic support.
  4. Theme Development: Develop thematic ideas that can be shared between the guitar and orchestra. This could be a recurring melody, chord progression, or rhythmic motif that ties the different sections of the composition together. By weaving these themes throughout the music, you create cohesion and unity while allowing each element to shine in its own right.

An excellent example of blending guitar riffs with a symphonic orchestra can be heard in Homerik’s music. Here I combine heavy guitar riffs with epic orchestral arrangements, creating a cinematic and immersive listening experience. In my compositions, the guitar riffs often serve as the driving force, while the orchestra adds depth, emotion, and grandeur. This fusion highlights the versatility of both rock and orchestral elements, resulting in a unique and captivating sound, paired with a narrative experience.

We’ll dive deeper into the intricacies of blending guitar riffs with symphonic orchestra arrangements as we explore different musical techniques and examples later.


Using Music Theory to Write Orchestral Arrangements

Music theory serves as a foundational tool for composers when crafting orchestral arrangements, offering a structured framework to organize musical elements effectively. One of its key benefits lies in understanding harmonic structure. Composers can use music theory principles to construct chord progressions, determine harmonic relationships, and create a sense of tonal stability or tension within their compositions. This knowledge allows for the development of harmonically rich and satisfying orchestral arrangements that support the emotional narrative of the music. For example, knowing how to modulate between keys can add depth and complexity to an orchestral piece, guiding the listener through various tonal landscapes.

Additionally, music theory provides insights into counterpoint and voice leading, essential elements in orchestrating intricate and engaging textures. Composers can employ counterpoint to weave multiple melodic lines together, creating interplay and dialogue between different sections of the orchestra. This technique adds depth and complexity to the arrangement, enhancing its overall musicality. Voice leading principles ensure smooth transitions between chords and melodic phrases, contributing to the coherence and fluidity of the orchestral composition. By adhering to these principles, composers can achieve clarity and expressiveness in their orchestral arrangements, allowing each instrument to contribute meaningfully to the musical tapestry.

Another aspect where music theory proves invaluable is in orchestration techniques. Understanding instrument ranges, timbres, and orchestral colors enables composers to make informed decisions about instrumentation and balance within the orchestra. For instance, knowing the capabilities and characteristics of each instrument helps in choosing the right combination of instruments for specific passages, whether it’s highlighting a solo melody with a particular instrument or blending different sections for a fuller, orchestral sound. By utilizing orchestration effectively, composers can create dynamic contrasts, textural variety, and emotional depth in their orchestral arrangements, enhancing the overall listening experience.

Furthermore, music theory aids composers in structuring and developing their orchestral compositions. It provides guidelines for form and arrangement, such as using thematic development, variation, and repetition to create cohesion and unity throughout the piece. Composers can use music theory concepts to craft compelling introductions, transitions, and climaxes, shaping the overall arc and narrative of the orchestral arrangement. This structured approach ensures that each musical element serves a purpose within the composition, leading to a cohesive and impactful musical journey for the listener.

In summary, music theory is a powerful tool that empowers composers to create well-crafted and expressive orchestral arrangements. By leveraging its principles in harmonic structure, counterpoint and voice leading, orchestration techniques, and composition structure, composers can elevate their orchestral compositions, resulting in engaging, coherent, and emotionally resonant musical works.

The Process of Composing Your Orchestral Parts

When composing symphonic orchestral parts, a structured approach is crucial to effectively assign melody, harmonies, layers of instrumentation, and balance within the arrangement.

Begin by establishing the main melody or theme, which serves as the focal point of the composition. This melody sets the tone and emotional context of the piece, guiding subsequent musical elements. Composers often use music theory to develop and vary the melody, incorporating motifs and variations to add depth and interest.

Harmonies play a vital role in enriching orchestral compositions. Composers can assign harmonies to different sections of the orchestra, such as strings, brass, and woodwinds, to create lush and textured soundscapes. Understanding chord progressions, cadences, and harmonic relationships helps in crafting harmonies that support and enhance the main melody, adding color and harmonic depth to the arrangement.

Layering instrumentation is key to creating dynamic and compelling orchestral parts. Composers can strategically assign instruments to different roles within the arrangement, such as providing rhythmic support, carrying melodic lines, or adding textural embellishments. By layering instruments effectively, composers can achieve a balanced and cohesive sound, with each instrument contributing to the overall musical narrative.

Balancing all these elements requires careful attention to orchestration and arrangement. Composers must consider instrument ranges, timbres, and dynamics to ensure that each instrument is heard clearly and serves its intended purpose within the composition. Techniques like orchestral swells, dynamic contrasts, and instrumental solos can be used to add variety and interest while maintaining a sense of balance and unity.

Throughout the process of composing symphonic orchestral parts, continuous refinement and revision are essential. Composers often iterate on their ideas, experimenting with different orchestrations, harmonizations, and melodic variations to achieve the desired musical expression. By staying mindful of melody, harmonies, layers of instrumentation, and balance, composers can create intricate and compelling symphonic orchestral parts that resonate with listeners.

Dimmu Borgir.

Mixing Orchestra Arrangements with Metal Guitars

Combining metal music with symphonic orchestras requires a thoughtful approach to ensure that both elements complement each other effectively. One key aspect is finding moments where the metal instrumentation and orchestral arrangements can seamlessly blend or contrast to enhance the overall musical experience. For example, during intense and climactic sections of a metal piece, the symphonic orchestra can amplify the drama and power by adding grandeur through strings, brass, and percussion. This collaboration creates a larger-than-life sound that heightens the emotional impact of the music.

The use of other instruments, such as keyboards and synthesizers, also plays a crucial role in bridging the gap between metal and orchestral music. These instruments can provide atmospheric textures, orchestral sounds, and electronic elements that complement both the metal instrumentation and orchestral arrangements. By layering these elements strategically, composers can achieve a rich and immersive sonic landscape that fuses the aggression of metal with the sophistication of orchestral music.

Timing is key in determining when to let metal and orchestral elements shine individually or in unison. For instance, during quieter passages or introspective moments in a metal composition, the orchestral instrumentation can take the forefront, adding depth and emotion without overpowering the metal elements. Conversely, during intense guitar solos or heavy riff sections, the orchestral arrangements can provide a dynamic backdrop, enhancing the overall intensity and energy of the music.

Ultimately, making everything fit between metal music and symphonic orchestras requires a delicate balance of arrangement, instrumentation, and musical intuition. By carefully orchestrating moments of collaboration, contrast, and synergy, composers can create cohesive and compelling musical pieces that transcend genre boundaries and captivate listeners with their depth and complexity.

Metal Songs to Listen to with Orchestration

Listening to other songs, especially within the symphonic metal genre, can be a great source of inspiration and ideas for crafting your own compositions. By immersing yourself in the work of other artists, you gain insight into different musical techniques, arrangements, and thematic elements that can spark creativity and guide your own musical journey.

One way listening to other songs can inspire you is by exploring diverse instrumentation and orchestration styles. Pay attention to how symphonic metal bands integrate orchestral elements with traditional metal instrumentation, such as guitars, bass, and drums. Analyze the use of symphonic textures, choirs, and symphonic arrangements to create a cinematic and epic sound.

Additionally, studying song structures, dynamics, and melodic motifs in symphonic metal songs can provide ideas for developing your own compositions. Take note of how these songs transition between different sections, build tension and release, and develop thematic material over the course of the music. You can also explore how symphonic metal bands incorporate storytelling, mythology, and fantasy themes into their lyrics and musical concepts, offering a narrative framework for your own creative expression.

Here’s a list of metal songs and their respective bands that you may find use orchestration in interesting ways:

  • Nightwish: “Sahara”
  • Epica: “Architect of Light”
  • Dream Theater: “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence Suite”
  • Symphony X: “Paradise Lost”
  • Ensiferum: “Victory Song”
  • Wintersun: “Time”
  • Leah: “Archangel”
  • Ghost: “Deus In Absentia”

Final Tips for Writing Orchestration for Metal

When writing orchestral music in the metal genre, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind:

  1. Balance and Blend: Ensure a balanced integration of orchestral elements with metal instrumentation. Use orchestral textures, such as strings, brass, and choirs, to complement and enhance the heaviness of guitars, bass, and drums. Experiment with layering orchestral and metal sounds to create a cohesive and dynamic sonic landscape.
  2. Embrace Dynamics: Utilize dynamic contrasts to add depth and drama to your compositions. Explore softer orchestral passages juxtaposed with intense metal sections to create tension and release. Pay attention to transitions between dynamics to maintain a fluid and engaging musical flow.
  3. Melodic Development: Focus on melodic development to create memorable and emotive themes. Use orchestral instruments to introduce and develop melodic motifs that can be echoed or harmonized by metal instrumentation. This interplay adds richness and complexity to your music, making it more engaging for listeners.
  4. Thematic Consistency: Maintain thematic consistency throughout your orchestral-metal compositions. Develop themes and motifs that recur and evolve over the course of the music, creating a cohesive narrative and musical continuity. This thematic approach enhances the storytelling aspect of your music and adds depth to the listening experience.

If you find yourself wanting to learn more, I go into the orchestra in my music theory course, Metal Music Theory. I built this course to help metalheads overcome challenges like these. As a professor who has taught music and audio technology, I go in depth from basics to more advanced theory and how it can be incorporated as well as exercises that you can look through yourself to get practice!

Ken Candelas

About the author

Professor, pro audio engineer, creator of symphonic cinematic metal opera Homerik, and co-founder of Metal Mastermind.

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