Composition vs. Orchestration: Examining the Melody of Schindler’s List

As a film score composer, one thing that I’ve observed in studying films and the way their scores interact is the way the composition and orchestration of the music operate, often independently.

For those who aren’t familiar with music terminology, composition refers to what you probably already understand and assume film scoring to be—it’s the melodies, harmonies, rhythms, dynamics (i.e., volume) and overall musical statement being made in any given moment. Orchestration is the decision of which and how many instruments are playing the melody and which ones are playing the harmony, the overall density of the music, what register each instrument is playing in (for instance, a clarinet playing its lowest notes gives a considerably different tone than one playing its highest notes), and things of that nature. One way of thinking of this is, if the composition is considered the subject of a painting, the orchestration is the palette being used.

A composer and an orchestrator have two different jobs, and these jobs are often done by different people (depending on the size of the score and if budgets allow for separate hires). A typical scenario would see the composer write out all of the melodies for a given piece of music—or cue, as it’s known in the film scoring world—with some general ideas penciled in for harmonies. Many composers work at the piano and create a reduced piano version of their intended musical goal. It’s the orchestrator’s job to flesh those melodies and harmonies out to the different instruments and create a full-bodied work that can be performed and recorded.

These two distinct roles are crucially different! Here’s why: The composer dictates the mood being set by the score. For many scores, his job is narrative in nature, in that the composition of a score over a full film is telling a musical story that often parallels the script. The orchestrator’s job is, however, in a sense, cinematographic. The orchestrator places the composition in the setting of the film and more closely follows the nature of the camerawork, the cinematography, and the “implied elements” that aren’t directly derived from the script (more on that later).

Let’s take a look and listen to an example familiar to many people, from the film Schindler’s List. (Be sure to listen to it in 480p!)

Beautiful, right? It’s one of the most well-known and emotionally entrancing melodies in film history. What makes it that way? The two different elements at play, composition and orchestration, work together to form a haunting, tragic piece of music. If we divide the elements, we can see the effect that each one has on the result.

Here’s the melody, starting at 0:16:

Melody of Schindler's List

Compositionally, what’s happening here is that the melody is revolving around one repeated idea that occurs five times, that being the two repeated downward intervals at the beginning of every other bar, starting with the first one. This repetition gives anchor to the melody. It doesn’t come across as wandering or confusing, but at the same time it doesn’t feel repetitive.

If we look at it closely, we can see that each of the odd measures is very similar. It’s the even bars in between that fluctuate and change, giving rise to the tension and feeling of growth and decay. The B and C on beats three of the first and third bars serve as appoggiaturas of sorts, which, as has been pointed out by people smarter than me, is a fancy term for the real source of tearjerker moments in music. The C in particular has a strong effect, because it’s the highest note of the whole melody, and its resolution is one half-step further than the one coming off of the B. In other words, the drop from B to A in the first measure is a half-step, meaning that the two notes are right next to each other on a piano. The drop from C to B in the third bar, though, is a whole step, because the notes are separated by two half-steps. These different characteristics set up the strong, heartfelt emotions evoked from the melody.

So what’s happening orchestrationally, then?

First, before the melody even begins, the introductory line is played by an oboe, often a go-to choice in film scoring for emotionally weighted moments. One of the issues with the oboe, though, is that its overtones are strong in the 2,000-3,000 Hz range, which is the same frequency range that the human voice produces consonants in. If an oboe is being featured underneath dialogue, it becomes distinctively harder to understand what’s being said. Understandably, dialogue takes precedence over just about every other sound in a film, so a score that has prominent oboe during speaking scenes is bound to be severely quieted in the mix.

During the melody itself, the choice of the violin is key, and not just because Itzhak Perlman is one of the world’s greatest violinists (though it’s worth noting that that linked video of an interview with Itzhak should be watched for Gene Shalit’s mustache alone). One of the great things about string instruments are their wide ranges, and in this case the melody can be stretched and grown over the whole piece to go from its starting register to the very last note: a high A, just over three octaves higher than the lowest note of the initial melody.

Speaking of the lowest note, that’s important too. That low G that occurs in the second and ninth bars is the lowest note on the violin, and the only way to play it is open, meaning that the violinist doesn’t put down any fingers on the fretboard. Open strings on all of the stringed instruments have a distinctive sound that some describe as rustic, or earthy. One of the reasons for this is that a violinist can’t use any vibrato on the pitch, since his finger is not on the string. This sound is generally avoided in classical-type playing, but in this case, those few instances of playing the open G provide a brief feeling of humanity, like a character in the film might be playing this solo.

Here are the four open strings of the violin. If a violinist had no fingers on his left hand, these are the only four notes he could play:

Interesting… In looking further, the other open strings give us a hint that Itzhak might be playing the D and/or the A (e.g., the very first notes of the melody!) open as well, for the same reason of providing that earthy, authentic tone.

For these reasons, the violin is the perfect instrument to use in this setting and the key that the piece is placed in sets the violin up perfectly for its range and open strings. Certainly John Williams and his orchestrator John Neufeld had these things in mind when scoring Schindler’s List.

But what of even having a soloist in the first place? Why not use the full violin section? This is where the “cinematic” nature of orchestration starts to come into play. A soloist in a film score, especially the main theme, means something. It always does. This something might be left up to interpretation, but typically a highlighted solo instrument in film scoring represents a singularly isolated character. Likewise, two different soloists might represent a pair of characters, e.g., a romantic couple.

The full violin section playing this melody throughout the piece would simply not have the same gravitas in this setting, and again not just because of Itzhak’s beautiful playing. The whole section playing would give a certain degree of emotional and cognitive removal from the music—listening to a group perform is a different and less personal experience than hearing one musician perform individually. That removal and more widely-engrossing sound is the goal in some instances, but not this one. With a full section playing, we wouldn’t be hearing a lamenting, weeping violin tone, but a lush, fully resonant section sound; again, that’s not something to necessarily avoid, but in this case it wasn’t what was sought after. Clearly John (both Williams and Neufeld) chose very specifically to have the violin solo to highlight some important theme of the film, and the result is one of the most effective film scores in history.


In a later post, I will go into further detail about how orchestration can relate directly to cinematography and how this correlates (and differs) with composition. Any thoughts or comments are certainly welcome below.


nick November 30, 2012 John Williams, Orchestration, Violin