Music Instrumentation and Orchestration
Paul Mathews
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0270


Instrumentation and orchestration refer to the body of technical knowledge required to arrange musical content for instrumental forces as well as the creative act of applying that knowledge with compositional intent. The usage of the words instrumentation and orchestration has not been consistent over time or between the European languages. For the purposes of this article, instrumentation refers to the body of knowledge about instruments: the mechanics of sound production and the techniques of performers. Orchestration refers to the use of technical knowledge to assign musical content to instruments in an ensemble to achieve a sonorous effect. Early writing on instrumentation is commingled with the related topics of organology, composition, and the professional duties of a Kapellmeister. By the early 19th century, ensembles coalesced into the familiar combination of manufactured instruments. The contemporaneous proliferation of conservatories created a market for useful handbooks written by composer-practitioners for a musically literate readership. As the title suggests, Hector Berlioz’s Grand traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes combined both instrumentation and orchestration in a single publication that has remained arguably the most influential text of its kind, especially following the later revision by Richard Strauss. Conversely, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov’s Principles of Orchestration with Musical Examples Drawn from his Own Works presumes prior study in instrumentation to focus entirely on orchestration. In the 20th century, textbooks authored by specialists and educators with a firm grounding in pedagogical methods supplanted treatises by independent composers. More recent titles include style-based studies of repertoires broadened with techniques from historiography and research in music cognition.

General Overviews

Lavoix 1878 is the first published history of orchestration and essentially follows the plan of Berlioz’s Traité. Coerne 1908 follows Lavoix’s plan but dispenses with a section on instrumentation and treats only the full orchestra. While shorter, Carse 1964 remains the standard overview of the history of orchestration, especially in English. Both Becker 1964 and Jost 2004 are more recent surveys of the subject with a particular emphasis on the 20th century.

  • Becker, Heinz. History of Instrumentation. Edited by K. G. Fellerer. Translated by Robert Kolben. Cologne: Arno Volk Verlag, 1964.

    Volume 24 in the Anthology of Music Series, it consists of an essay and seventy-six examples outlining the development of the instrumental palette. Over a third of the examples are drawn from music that predates J. S. Bach.

  • Carse, Adam. The History of Orchestration. New York: Dover, 1964.

    Originally published in 1925, Carse is comprehensive but concise. A century later, it remains unchallenged as a history of orchestration in English.

  • Coerne, Louis Adolphe. The Evolution of Modern Orchestration. New York: Macmillan, 1908.

    A revision of his 1905 dissertation, Coerne’s survey extends Lavoix’s history into the early 20th century and contains 103 score examples.

  • Jost, Peter. Instrumentation: Geschichte und Wandel des Orchesterklanges. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 2004.

    Jost provides an essay on the evolution of orchestral sound with special attention to recent changes to instrumental technique and instrumental palette. There is also a Spanish translation.

  • Lavoix, Henri. Histoire de l’instrumentation, Depuis Le XVIe Siècle Jusqu’à Nos Jours. Paris: Firmin-Didot et Cie, 1878.

    Lavoix wrote this survey to fulfill a commission by l’Académie des Beaux-Arts. Following a brief overview of instrumentation Lavoix takes a brisk pace through the history of orchestration since the 16th century. The chapters on 19th-century French opera are especially strong and benefit from the context of the earlier chapters.

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