Writing for Strings: Lushness
Updated: Feb 27
Orchestrating strings with focus on lushness is important when scoring many types of scenes, as it can convey warmth, love, calmness, longing and much more depending on how you are handling the melody, harmony, and voicings. Contrary to popular belief, it goes way beyond just adding more violins onto the pile. Here are some tips, tricks, and concepts I was able to try out with an orchestra.
Lessons from Ravel:
Drone: The passage is built upon a tonic drone, which makes it feel like the music is steady—it’s not moving anywhere. This kind of thing is great for scenes where players are just roaming around. A tonic drone (built on the 1st scale degree) feels comfortable, a dominant drone (built on the 5th scale degree) feels tense.
Harmonies: This excerpt is based on the Lydian mode, which means there are no notes to avoid harmonically. It consists of chords moving in parallel over a drone, an A in the celli and double basses. The result is chords that are highlighting A’s tensions, and that by itself makes the passage feel lush and cloudy. Whole-step dissonances (#11 - 3rd, Major 9th - Root, Major 13th - 5th) especially adds to the cloudiness, without dissonances that are too harsh like minor 2nds, minor 9ths, or minor 13ths.
The VII-minor and II-major chords are the ones responsible for the bright lydian sound, as the 5th of the VIIm chord and the 3rd of the II chord are D#, or the #11 of the key and drone, A.
Note: This doesn’t mean you should just lay down a pad and call it a day. Activate your chords/drone, make it interesting and worth listening to.
Range: This passage peaks at G5. Reach further, and chances are your strings will start to sound shrill instead of warm.
Doublings: Melody is doubled an octave below to keep the melody line from sounding too thin and help it stick out in the mush. When Violin 1 reaches G above middle C, the doubling switches to the Violas since G Below middle C is the lowest note a violin can play. This isn’t as much a problem if you work with samples, but a good technique to keep in mind when planning to record live strings.
The Violas start by doubling Violin 2 for 2 measures, then begin filling out the harmonies. Celli and Double Basses are in unison/octaves, as one would expect, except half of the celli go on to fill out harmonies as well in measure 3. This is a great arranging trick: use fewer notes to begin with, by leaving them out or writing unisons, then gradually expand. The harmonies now crescendo by themselves in an organic sounding way!
The pizzicati are simply there to accent the beats, but they do add something to the feel of this piece. Pizzicati generally sound innocent, mellow, and playful. Unless you really snap that string like Bartok.
Melody and Dynamics: A lot of modern media composers will use swells when writing for strings, but most of the time they will be whole tones. This is either just lazy or suggestive of a time crunch depending on the composer. Look how the melody follows the dynamics! The louder it is, the higher the pitch, with G5 being the loudest.
Harp: The function of the harp is to add accent and color to every chord change. It is very likely that Ravel wrote this first, together with the drone, and wrote the orchestration from the harp part.
Takeaway/TLDR: Drones are comfortable, and makes the use of chord extensions (degrees 7, 9, #11, 13) easier. Lydian harmonies - use them for lushness. Swell both melodically and through use of dynamics/expression.
Lessons from George Gerschwin:
Drone: The figure held by the celli in measure 12 and 15 is often repeated for 4 to 8 measures, i.e. used as a drone..
Doublings & Harmonies: Violin 1, Violin 2, and Viola play various triads in close position, meaning the notes are generally less than an octave apart. Violin 2 doubles Violin 1 a third below (except on the 2nd beat of bar 13 and 14). Doubling the melody in thirds practically always sounds sweet and lovely.
Dynamics: As with the Ravel, in measures 13, 14, and 16 you can see how the dynamics follow the melody for greater intensity. This way of handling dynamics sounds natural, especially for wind instruments.
Pro tip: When writing thirds that descend by step, double the top note as in measure 12 while making it descend chromatically. The doubling turns into the 5th of the chord. Neat!
Applying these concepts:
Can you use this when writing for games? Sure you can! They are all different tools to convey different feelings and emotions. Just do it in good taste and where appropriate.
In 2017 I wrote a piece for a film while attempting to use these ideas and I ended up performing it live as well. You can listen to it here: Oliver Getz - Flow
Dynamics: This one is a bit more subtle than Ravel and Gershwin, but dynamics still follow melodies.
Harmonies: You might notice the G#s in there, which in the key of D is the #11. That makes this, you guessed it, D lydian: the lushest of all keys!
Doubling: Here I make use of the Gershwin’s close position chords while doubling the Basses in the Celli.
Dynamics: Another example of following melodic contours with dynamics, but here it is in flute and clarinet instead. It’s super effective!
Dynamics: Again, dynamics follows melody. The F# here is also the highest note the strings play in this entire piece!
Harmonies: Also lydian, but in the key of C after some modulations happened. These are also close position triads, and a reverse of measure 16 in Gershwin’s piece—at least conceptually.
Bonus tip: This trick doesn’t work with samples (at least none I’m aware of) - When writing a low-ish melody for Violins have them play the melody on the lower two strings (G & D). These strings produce more frequency content when bowed and melodies in their upper register sound absolutely captivating!
I hope you got something out of this read. If you have thoughts on writing for strings that differ from mine, leave a comment!
Use dynamics/expression (CC11) in accordance with Melody.
Lydian harmonies are lush.
Thirds are sweet.
Tonic drones are great for stability and a flowing feel, dominant drones are good for creating tension.
Limit the upper range of your melody, and have your string players use strings I and II in higher positions.
Violas double Violin 1+2, cello provide harmony.
Harp doubles string harmonies in 2 octaves.