A History of Band Orchestration

The wind band has had a long history.  In some regards, it’s history is longer than that of the orchestra.

Medieval and Renaissance

The earliest music for band probably dates to sometime in the Medieval period.  Wind instruments were used for outdoor music as they were louder than strings and more portable than the organ.

This scenario stood throughout the Renaissance era.  Instrument development slowly became more advanced and new instruments were developed.  Many of the instruments developed in the Renaissance are the fore bearers of the instruments in the modern wind band (such as trombones, bassoons, and oboes).

As far as actual orchestration goes, very little can be said of the wind music of these eras due to the fact that the music was written in such a way that the actual instrument used was of little consequence.

What you would have were “loud” and “soft” ensembles.  Loud ensembles were meant to be played outdoors, whereas soft ensembles were for small indoor spaces.

A “soft” ensemble

A “loud” ensemble.

Water Music

It wasn’t until the middle of the 18th Century that we get a band work of some note.  Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks is the first real masterpiece for the medium of wind band.  Handel, against his will, scored for an ensemble of all winds and percussion.

  • 24 Oboes
  • 12 Bassoons
  • Contrabassoon
  • 9 Trumpets
  • 9 Horns
  • 3 Pairs of Timpani
  • Snare Drums

The Turks

The strong association of wind bands and the military comes from several sources.  One is the use of trumpets to signal troops. This is an age old practice.  There is also the tradition brought by the Turks into Europe in the form of Janissary bands, which were formed of the elite members of the Turkish army.  The core of these bands consisted of Bass Drums, Cymbals, and Timpani: all of which came into western music through these Turkish bands.

Militaries began using wind bands influenced by the Jannisaries in the middle of the 1700s, which further influenced the great classical composers (Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven).

Wind Serenades and Quintets

Perhaps the most sublime of all wind band works is the Gran Partita of Mozart.  It is one of his longer purely instrumental works (longer than any of his symphonies).  This is the first time we encounter clarinets in works for wind ensemble (though not historically the absolute first).

  • 2 Oboes
  • 2 Clarinets
  • 2 Basset Horns
  • 2 Bassoons
  • 4 Horns
  • Bass (sometimes played on Contrabassoon)

Other serenades by Mozart use 2 Oboes, 2 Bassoons, and 2 Horns and 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets, 2 Bassoons, and 2 Horns.

At the same time, the concept of a wind quintet is being developed, most notable by Anton Reicha.  This is the first standardized wind ensemble.

  • Flute
  • Oboe
  • Clarinet
  • Bassoon
  • Horn


Both the wind serenades of Mozart and the quintets of Reicha fell under the concept of Harmoniemusik.  These were all wind groups founded under the reign of the Emperor of Austria in the 1750s and kept for his personal use.  In the early 1800s there are two works by Mendelssohn that exemplify this format: the Overture for Winds and the Trauer-marsch.

The Trauer-marsch is scored for:

  • 1 Flute
  • 2 Oboes
  • 2 F Clarinets
  • 2 C Clarinets
  • 2 Basset Horns
  • 2 Bassoons
  • Contrabassoon
  • 4 Horns
  • 2 Trumpets
  • Alto, Tenor, and Bass Trombones
  • Bass Horn

To this, the Overture adds a Piccolo, Snare Drum, Bass Drum, Triangle, and Cymbals.

A modern edition of the Trauer-marsch retaining the original orchestration.


In 1840, the great French orchestrator, Hector Berlioz, too the Harmonie to perhaps its grandest level in his fourth symphony, the Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale.  It was written for a large marching band to be performed at a solemn ceremony.  This is perhaps one of his least performed large works due to the large ensemble required.  To make it more “accessible,” Berlioz later added parts for Violins, Violas, and Choir.  Go big or go home.  The addition of the optional string parts does not take away from this being a true band piece.

  • 4 Piccolos
  • 5 E-flat Flutes
  • 5 Oboes
  • 5 E-flat Clarinets
  • 14 1st B-flat Clarinets
  • 12 2nd B-flat Clarinets
  • 2 Bass Clarinets
  • 8 Bassoons
  • 1 Contrabassoon (opt.)
  • 12 Horns
  • 8 Trumpets
  • 4 Cornets
  • 4 Alto/Tenor Trombones
  • 6 Tenor Trombones
  • Bass Trombone (opt.)
  • 6 Ophicleides
  • 8 Military Drums
  • Turkish Crescent
  • 1 Pair of Timpani
  • 3 Pairs of Cymbals
  • Bass Drum
  • Tam-Tam
  • 15 Cellos (opt.)
  • 10 Basses (opt.)

In addition to this, there is a solo Tenor Trombone in the 2nd movement (which is almost a quasi concerto).  The optional Violins, Violas, and Choir are added in only in the last movement.

Note how Berlioz is explicit in his demands.  This is one of the few times in all of band literature that we see a composer specify the exact number of instruments that are to be on a part (composition that use a single instrument per part excluded).

This recording from the Berlin Philharmonic is as close to the original instrumentation as seen.  There are strings, but they have been reduced in number and put in the back of the ensemble.


Perhaps no one individual is more responsible for the sound of the modern band than Adolphe Sax.  Sax is responsible for the modern Bass Clarinet (and subsequent designs of all clarinets lower than the soprano), the saxophones, tubas, Euphoniums, Baritone Horns, and others.  At least half of the instruments in the band benefited from his innovations and inventions.

Soon after he began to create his new instruments, the French bands began to adopt these new inventions.  This is most evident by looking at scores from the Garde Republicaine band of Paris.  The following is a list of instruments used in Schmitt’s Dionysiaques.  Instruments affected by Sax are highlighted.

  • 2 Piccolos
  • 2 C Flutes
  • 2 Oboes
  • 1 English Horn
  • 2 Bassoons
  • 1 Contrabass Sarrusophone in C
  • 2 E-flat Clarinets 
  • 2 Solo B-flat Clarinets 
  • 12 1st B-flat Clarinets 
  • 12 2nd B-flat Clarinets 
  • 2 B-flat Bass Clarinets
  • 1 B-flat Contrabass Clarinet
  • 2 Alto Saxophones
  • 2 Tenor Saxophones
  • 2 Baritone Saxophones 
  • 1 Bass Saxophone
  • 2 C Trumpets 
  • 2 B-flat Cornets
  • 2 F Horns
  • 3 Tenor Trombones
  • 1 Bass Trombone
  • Timpani
  • Percussion
  • Glockenspiel
  • Xylophone
  • Celesta
  • 1 E-flat Sopranino Saxhorn 
  • 4 B-flat Soprano Saxhorns 
  • 3 E-flat Alto Saxhorns
  • 2 B-flat Baritone Saxhorns
  • 6 B-flat Bass Saxhorns  
  • 6 B-flat Contrabass Saxhorns 
  • 2 String Basses


In the late 19th Century, the American Band was one of the most popular forms of entertainment.  Professional and amateur bands were the primary means of conveying the popular music of the day to the masses.  The makeup of these bands could sometimes vary widely.  Patrick Gilmore was known to use novelty instruments in his ensemble.

However, the most influential name of the time was John Phillip Sousa.  Sousa’s band was very similar to our modern band.  His exact instrumentation varied throughout the years.  In addition to what we know today, we would often find and E-flat Cornet and Baritone Horns as well as Euphoniums (Sousa confusingly called these B-flat Tenors and B-flat Baritones respectively).  Sousa also used E-flat Horns (presumably Alto Horns) in place of F Horns.  Sousa would also bring a Harpist with him on tour when performing orchestral transcriptions.

The English

Across the pond, Gustav Holst was trying to take the concept of a military band seriously.  His two suites and Hammersmith are cornerstones of the modern repertoire.  However, the actual instrumentation, and thus the original orchestration, has nearly been lost due to modern editions that have bloated the clean and concise colors Holst originally wrote.  This will be a common theme in band orchestration.

Holst’s original instrumentation for the First Suite:

  • Flute and Piccolo in D-flat
  • 2 Oboes (opt.)
  • 2 E-flat Clarinets
  • Solo B-flat Clarinet
  • 3 B-flat Clarinets
  • Bass Clarinet (opt.)
  • 2 Bassoons (2nd opt.)
  • Alto Saxophone (opt.)
  • Tenor Saxophone (opt.)
  • 2 B-flat Cornets
  • 2 E-flat Trumpets (opt.)
  • 2 B-flat Trumpets (opt.)
  • 2 E-flat Horns
  • 2 F Horns (opt.)
  • Baritone Horn (opt.)
  • 2 Tenor Trombones (2nd opt.)
  • Bass Trombone
  • Euphonium
  • Tubas
  • Percussion

Note the preponderance of instruments marked as optional.  Also note the use of only two saxophones and both Baritone Horn and Euphonium (placed apart from one another in the score).


Then, came Grainger.  Grainger could be thought of as the Berlioz of the wind band world.  He had strong ideas on ways to improve the wind band through expanded instrumentation.  His music is, to this day, some of the most colorful in the wind band world.

A classic example of his scoring is his Children’s March:

  • Piccolo
  • 2 Flutes
  • 2 Oboes
  • Bass Oboe
  • E-flat Clarinet
  • 4 B-flat Clarinets
  • Alto Clarinet
  • Bass Clarinet
  • Soprano Saxophone
  • Alto Saxophone
  • Tenor Saxophone
  • Baritone Saxophone
  • Bass Saxophone
  • 2 Bassoons
  • Contrabass Sarrusophone
  • 4 Horns
  • 4 Cornets
  • 3 Trombones
  • Euphonium
  • Tuba
  • Timpani
  • Percussion (including parts for Xylophone, Bells, etc.)
  • Double Bass
  • Piano

In addition to the expanded instrumentation, Grainger calls for the members of the ensemble to sing (originally for all male voices, though modern performances are achieved quite effectively with mixed genders).

Read more about Grainger’s band orchestration ideas.

American School Bands

Then came the schools.  In the middle of the 20th Century, there was a push to standardize the American concert band.  This would make everything uniform from band hall to band hall, from publisher to publisher.  This push left some instruments out to dry.  Instruments like Alto Clarinet, Soprano and Bass Sax, Flugelhorn, Baritone Horn, and even the Cornet found themselves shown the door.

In some ways, the standardization led to a massive reduction in color and orchestrational brilliance.


However, at the same time, the great director Frederick Fennell introduced a new concept, the wind ensemble.  A wind ensemble is a band that is designed around the concept of a single player on a part.  There would be no more guesswork in how many players would show up, or what instruments would be available.  A wind ensemble is in some ways, the opposite of the school band.  School bands are performer driven.  They serve an educational purpose.  The wind ensemble, though, is composer driven.  They exist to make art.

And that, should be the highest purpose of any musician.

Next: The Band as an Educational Ensemble

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