Orchestration: Score Layout

What’s The Score?


First things first – the title should be at the top centre of page one and the name of the composer and arranger on the right. It is a good idea to indicate whether the score is transposed or not (on the left). Individual groups of instruments or sections (e.g. Brass, strings, saxophones, choir) are bracketed together down the left hand side of the staves, on every page. The names of the instruments are written to the left of each stave on the first page. There are conventions as to the order in which the instruments appear from the top of the score, e.g.:


  • Woodwind
  • Brass
  • Percussion (Timpani, non-pitched, pitched
  • Keyboards etc
  • Strings

Orchestra Score

Jazz Orchestra (Big band)

jazz orchestra score

  • Saxes (Woodwind)
  • Trumpets
  • Trombones
  • Rhythm section

Each family of instruments is given its own staff. Where there are more than two parts to a staff, two or more staves may be used. Clarity is very important at this stage especially if your score is to be copied into individual parts by a copyist, who must be able to understand your intentions. Three or four instruments playing block chords may be written on one staff, but where complex polyphony would make this difficult for the copyist to decipher use another staff. A good rule is to imagine that you didn’t write the score, then imagine yourself having to copy the score onto individual parts. When writing for an unconventional line up it will probably help you to put the highest instrument at the top of the score and work down the page to the lowest, while keeping the rhythm section at the bottom. Notes and rests should be written so that each beat is vertically aligned on different parts.

Planning the Score

Useful tips:

  • Make a rough sketch of the arrangement. E.g. intro, statement of theme, backings, counterpoint, solos, ensemble passes, modulations, restatement of theme, climax, coda. Decide on instrumentation for various sections and choose keys appropriate to the instruments. Use the ideas we mentioned for composition regarding unity and variety. Having planned the entire arrangement don’t be frightened to change as you go along if you feel inspired.
  • Fill in the melodic lines and make a note of the harmony in chord symbols throughout. With vocal scores fill in the vocal line and lyric. (The latter is more important than it first appears as you may wish to make a musical comment on certain words)
  • The same ideas regarding variety and unity that apply to composition can also apply to your arrangement whether it’s an entire symphony or an improvised jazz arrangement. Just as we think of the melody creating and releasing tension the shape of the entire arrangement can do this as well. For instance we can think of repeated verses building tension and a chorus bringing release. In the case of jazz arrangements the composer will often rely on an improviser to develop the material. Here the improvisation is just an extension of composition, the good improviser thinks (either consciously or subconsciously) about building and releasing tension, repetition and development of ideas.

More about this section:

  • Arranging & Composing

    Why learn arranging & composing? Jazz composition and arranging, whether for small band or big band, is not an easy art to pin down. As with pop and rock, many jazz performers become composers purely to write music for their own ... Read more…
  • Ranges & Transposition

    Jazz Arranging – Chart of Instrument Ranges You’ve probably all seen, and heard, a big band in full flight come to the end of their showcase number. The lead trumpet goes for a high note and maybe a tenor player decides ... Read more…
  • Jazz Reharmonising

    Reharmonising – Changing the Chords Often you may want to do some reharmonisation before arranging for jazz orchestra or combos. Most sheet music for popular music standards of the 30s, 40s and 50s will include chord symbols, but in some cases ... Read more…
  • Block Voicing

    What is Voicing? Voicing means harmonising a melody (or lead) with one or more instruments or voices, either with a similar instrument from the same section or with a combination. Block voicing is where the inside or harmony parts always move in ... Read more…
  • Jazz Arranging: Backings

    Chordal accompaniment (aka pad) When writing sustained chordal backings for a solo instrument or unison line, you can use instruments of the same or different section playing sustained chords. The lead line of the chordal accompaniment should move smoothly paying attention to ... Read more…
  • The Rhythm Section

    Arranging for Rhythm Section Piano and guitar parts are often very basic in jazz, pop & big band writing and are just to supply a rhythmic backing (comping). It often works to give the player some freedom, but there are times ... Read more…
  • Become a TV/Film Composer

    How do You Actually get Work as Composer? I wish I could answer this question, or at least get paid every time someone asks it. Initially I was interested in composing music for TV commercials. After a long time taking my ... Read more…
  • Writing for Strings

    Ensemble Sizes The string section consists of violins (1st & 2nd), violas, ‘cellos (or ‘celli) and double basses. There are conventions as to the ratios of the different strings; e.g. a large orchestral ensemble may consist of 16 first violins, 14 ... Read more…
  • Orchestrating for Woodwinds

    What You Need to Know about Woodwinds Woodwinds are so called because the tone is generated by the player’s breath and originally all instruments were made of wood. The main woodwind instruments in modern western music are: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon ... Read more…
  • Orchestrating for Brass

    The Wonderful World of Composing for Brass Brass instruments are capable of great power, but also subtlety and variety, especially with the use of mutes, which are placed in the bell. The sound is produced by vibrating the lips together against the ... Read more…
  • Recording

    Most of our recording pages have moved to our other site at Media Music We still have the recording saxophone and mixing saxophone pages on this site. At Media Music: Recording Microphones Home Soundproofing Home Studio Acoustics High Frequency Absorbers Compression Reverb Logic Tips Logic Pro: Getting Started Score Tips Logic MIDI Audio Tips Logic EXS24 Editing ... Read more…
  • Composition: Hints & Tips

    Useful Composition Tips Know when to use rules of composition, and when not to. Think about the genre and whether you need to be “correct” or can bend the rules a bit of even completely throw them out of the window Think ... Read more…
  • Developing Melody with Motifs

    Very often a large part of composition involves expanding a very short simple phrase (or motif) into an entire work. This may be just a few notes, but careful development can make a little go a long way. Development may be ... Read more…
  • Tension & Release in Composition

    Unity and Variety, Tension & Release Two very important factors in music, as well as most other art forms, are the creation of tension and release. Let’s look at how tension and release can be created by combining unity and variety. ☛ Unity does not ... Read more…
  • Modes in Composition

    Modes in Modern Pop & Commercial Composition Before reading this make sure you are familiar with the basic concept which is covered in the modes in jazz article. I prefer not to think of modes as relative to a major scale (e.g. ... Read more…
  • All About Copyright

    Copyright in Music Compositions Copyright decisions often it come down to a judge, and is therefore very unscientific so judgements can be very tenuous and inconsistent. Guidelines: Copyright is a Three Legged Stool. If all 3 legs are in position, the case for ... Read more…

Orchestration: Score Layout
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