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Orchestration and Aesthetics

I remember asking my music teacher back in the late 1980s “why are the Beatles so successful?” and her immediate reply was, “because George Martin’s a good arranger”. She admitted to being unable to compose music herself but loved arranging music (and was very good at it) so I thought her comment was slanted even though I did understand the significance of musical arranging to an extent. But it was an epiphany I had some years later that confirmed it.

I had a part-time job as a restaurant pianist where I played through a book of “100 easy listening classics” which included the George Harrison Beatles song “Something”. At the time, in the early 1990s, the Beatles weren’t as big as today and following the synth pop of the 80s were even a bit old-hat. I had never heard “Something” and this was before the days of YouTube where you could just call it up. I thought, looking at the version for piano that I had in front of me thinking “what a tediously slow song, it goes nowhere”, and I remember thinking: how could you possibly arrange and orchestrate this song to make it sound any good? I thought it must sound good on the actual record otherwise it wouldn’t have made it into the book. Anyway, sometime later I heard “Something” – that is, I heard George Martin’s arrangement of George Harrison’s tune – and I was stunned. I thought, that’s genius, what an absolutely amazing arrangement of that song - I could spend a lifetime trying to arrange that song and would never get anywhere near to the brilliant orchestration created by George Martin. I had no idea it had the potential to sound like that. At that moment it became clear to me just how important orchestration and musical arranging is in the success of a piece of music. In fact, it’s often more important than the song itself. People perhaps think that the arrangement of a song has been there as long the song itself without appreciating that someone has to sit down and actually create it from scratch. Having pondered the orchestration of Harrison’s song and then hearing George Martin’s version of it was an amazing revelation as to the significance of orchestration in music and to the key role that Martin had in the success of The Beatles.

One of the first Beatles songs they did in the studio without thinking about its performance was Penny Lane and George Martin’s arrangement of it is amazingly original and brilliant using all manner of musical instruments and special effects. Yet, though a well-known and respected contributor to The Beatles and others, and a wealthy man, George Martin has not received credit for his work in proportion to its value when you consider that Paul McCartney has a fortune worth hundreds of millions of pounds. Without such a great musical arranger it is unlikely The Beatles would have been anything like as successful.

Martin virtually created a new sound world with Penny Lane. McCartney chipped in with the trumpet solo and other aspects but the core arrangement was Martin’s. The credits for Penny Lane might read something like this:

Penny Lane
by Lennon/McCartney
(orchestrated & produced by George Martin)

but this regards the orchestration as a mere afterthought. I believe it ought to be more like:

Penny Lane
by George Martin
(on a theme by Lennon/McCartney)

Another of my favourite Beatles records is John Lennon's “Tomorrow Never Knows”. It is a brilliant record, but is probably one of John Lennon’s most mediocre songs. John Lennon had brilliance in clever harmonies and middle sections of songs, but it is not evident in this song. The tune is not great and it stays on the same chord for most of the song. Its greatness as a record is in the studio sounds, the sitar and drum beat, the vocal effects - NOT the actual tune and words of the song itself. As Paul McCartney said in the Beatles Anthology, 'John had this song where he was strumming rather earnestly on the same chord......I was wondering how George Martin was gonna take it'.

(that's not to say that everything George Martin did was as great; I believe "A Little Help From My Friends" is a great song but the original Beatles version of it does not really do it justice - Joe Cocker's cover is a far greater version)

Right at the start of the Beatles recording career they had a song by John Lennon, "Please Please Me", and, as legend has it, Lennon thought it should be a ballad in the style of Roy Orbison. Martin thought differently and suggested they speed it up and it became their first substantial hit. I'm not suggesting that the Beatles themslves played no part in the arrangement of their songs, especially in the earlier days when they were playing live; my point is that musical arrangement, whether it's by the songwriter themselves or a separate producer, is an element in musical greatness that is significantly undervalued.

Sometime later I was listening to a Mozart aria from one of his operas and thinking much the same thing. The tune was rather mediocre, the harmony was very ordinary, and yet there was a tremendous and beautiful sound coming across. I have come to believe that Mozart’s single greatest composing talent is orchestration.

Mozart’s piano music and string quartets are, in my opinion, no greater than Haydn’s; in fact, I find Haydn’s much more thoughtful and interesting. Mozart’s sound a little like they are written by a computer algorithm. Haydn’s feel like he put 100% effort into everything he did. I find the development section of the first movement of Haydn’s 104th symphony one of the most exciting development sections of any sonata-form movement. Mozart’s development sections, on the other hand, typically feel like he rushed them off with minimum effort and just wanted to get back to the recapitulation where he could just copy out the exposition.

Haydn is the equal to Mozart in solo piano and small chamber composition because there isn’t any orchestration, but for symphony, concerto and opera Mozart is in a class of his own. I believe this is down to Mozart’s supreme ability to orchestrate music. When he is writing for strings, wind and horns there is no other composer that can match the quality of sound. Other composers that come close are, in my opinion, Brahms, Richard Strauss and the lesser-known English composer Frank Bridge. I once went to a performance of a work by Bridge and said, ‘well there wasn’t much of a tune but the orchestration was absolutely magnificent”. Brahms rarely writes grand sweeping melodies but you get absorbed in the wall of noise that comes across simply in the brilliance of the orchestral sound. The theme played on the Horn and Flute in the 1st Symphony, for example, is such a bland tune when played on the piano but reaches a sublime level following Brahms’s orchestration. Mozart could take a mediocre tune and create musical greatness simply by scoring it beautifully.

Having done a music degree I can state that there is a lot of musical analysis of form and structure, but almost nothing about orchestration. There are rules and methods for orchestration, but if it was as simple as following rules then everyone would be able to create sounds as beautiful as Mozart. Wagner described orchestration as a “public process”, but it was all very well for Wagner, one of the finest orchestrators ever, to make that assertion because he obviously found it quite easy. Rules on orchestration can get you so far but to create a sound like Mozart obviously requires a special talent that has not (yet) been reduced to a set of rules. And creating musical arrangements for a pop song offers a further challenge because you are not just restricted to certain orchestral instruments.

The other aspect of popular music is the quality of the singer. A great voice can render the most uninteresting song in a warm and expressive way. Likewise, can a great actor. It follows on to other aspects of human nature. They say that making people laugh is in the way you tell the joke rather than the joke itself. The Mona Lisa has the unusual smile effect because Leonardo knew that areas around the central focal point of vision influence what you perceive at the focal point of vision. A politician can pull the wool over people’s eyes by delivering a speech well rather than actually saying anything worthwhile (Hitler understood that). On political debate shows a well-presented but mediocre point typically gets more response than a poorly-delivered but very valid point. Likewise Feng Shui is all about a sub-conscious feeling of security in one’s surroundings.

This is because so much human communication is by facial expression and vocal tone. The last part of human communication to evolve was the words themselves. It is believed that words evolved as a way of clarifying gestures. Therefore it might seem logical that the way a speech is delivered is more important than the words because vocal inflection goes back further in our evolution. The structure of music is broadly the same as language and the melody line is analogous to the spoken word; your attention is focused on the melody line but it’s what is behind it that really makes it valuable or not.

The advertising industry understands this. A TV advert is mainly concerned with making the product look sophisticated rather than simply extolling its particular virtues. That’s because the image of a product is so important, especially when there is a lot of competition such as for cars, chocolate bars and alcoholic drinks. It’s about creating a brand, an image and a feeling about a product so that when you come to look at it your subconscious mind has an impression of it that might not be a true reflection of its tangible value.

This highlights the significance of the subconscious in art appreciation and how it links to aspects of life in general. Architects should consider more the setting of their buildings within their surroundings, and interior designers how the sub-conscious feeling of a place affects the occupants. I believe a greater appreciation of the value of orchestration in great music is long overdue, and from it a new branch of psychology and aesthetics concerned with understanding how the focal point of the mind’s attention is so heavily influenced by what surrounds it.