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Writing A Symphony?

How would one go about writing a symphony? And what are the standard instruments for one?

~Drakhan Valane~

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #1
My suggestion for a first step to symphony writing would be to listen to a lot of symphonies. As to what constitutes a symphony, that's changed a lot over the years. When the form was invented around Haydn's time, it had a definite structure and instrumentation; as time went on, more and more possibilities were explored, even by Beethoven's time the "four movements" rule was starting to be broken, and other instruments came into accepted use. Nowadays, just about anything goes - "symphony" essentially meaning "sounding together." The idea being that the orchestra is treated as a single instrument, played by the conductor.

Assuming that you want to write a symphony in a classical style, a typical instrumentation might be (I'm sure someone will correct any errors here...)

Woodwinds: 2 each flutes, oboes, bassoons. Sometimes a pair of clarinets. Cor Anglais also a possibility.

Brass: 2 French horns, sometimes alto and/or tenor and/or bass trombones, sometimes trumpets. Timpani.

Strings: 2 groups of violins, consisting of four-six per section; violas (2-4), cellos (2-4), basses (1-3). The number depends partly on how many other instruments you have, and how much noise they're making. The strings are the backbone of the orchestra.

Hope this gives you a starting point.

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #2

A difficult question. Perhaps if I rephrased it as "How
would one go about writing a novel? And what are the
standard characters in one?" it might help you appreciate
how open ended it is.

Although Fred's literal definition is correct, "a
symphony" has a fairly well defined meaning in music theory.
It's not so much a "form" as a "style" of writing, but
one thing that is common to the majority of works with
the title "symphony" is called "sonata form". It's difficult
to define in this type of forum, but in essence, it's a
stylistic framework in which to play with thematic material.
There are a number of fairly loose rules about themes
(usually two), harmony, development and structure. Sorry
that's a very imprecise description, but it's not a very
precise subject!

I'd recommend find a book on music theory, and, rather than
listening to lots of different symphonies, choose just a
few (that you like!) and either find someone elses detailed
analysis, or try and produce your own (though it might be
a good idea to avoid Beethoven or later composers as things
started getting very complicated).

Not being a composer myself, I can't give you any advice
from experience, but I suspect the most important
prerequisite to writing ANY music is to have some sounds
inside your head trying to get out. They don't have to be
long or complex (look at how simple the themes in most
of Beethoven symphonies are).

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #3
>>> How would one go about writing a symphony? And what are the standard instruments for one?

The real answer to these questions is that if you have to ask, you're not ready. The first step, as Fred says, is to listen to a lot of symphonies. Ideally, IMHO, you'd familiarize yourself with *at least* the following:

- the last 6 Haydn symphonies (99 through 104)
- the last 3 Mozart symphonies (39-41)
- all 9 Beethoven symphonies
- the 4 Schumann symphonies (particularly #4)
- the 4 Brahms symphonies
- the last 3 Tchaikovsky symphonies
- a smattering of other Romantic symphonies, including the Berlioz "Symphonie fantastique", the Franck, the Saint-Saëns 3rd, one or more by Mendelssohn, Dvorak and Borodin.
- several Mahler symphonies, including #5 and #8
- the Sibelius 2nd and 7th symphonies
- symphonies by Shostakovich (#1, 5, 10) and Prokofiev (#5, 6)

In addition to listening, you should also acquire study scores (some libraries have them) and follow along. When you're done with this, you'll have a very good idea of what instruments can be used, and - if you've really been paying attention - how symphonies are constructed. For more information on the construction of symphonies, it pays to do some reading too. There are many fine books of music theory that have descriptions of the major musical forms, including several that are very important in symphonies, such as the "sonata-allegro", song, and rondo forms. You might also look up a 2-volume Penguin paperback called "The Symphony", edited (IIRC) by Robert Simpson, which has critical discussions of a large number of works by a much broader range of composers than I've mentioned above.

Only after all of this will you be ready to write a symphony that's anything more than a toy.

[Fred: You are basically describing the orchestration of the Classic and early Romantic periods, i.e. before about 1820 or 1830. If you can find a cor anglais in any symphony of that period, Berlioz perhaps apart, I'll eat my hat. <If I can find my hat.> As late as the 1880's, the mandarins at the Paris Conservatoire were insisting that Franck's symphony couldn't rightly be called a symphony because it contained a cor anglais part.]

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #4
A broad topic indeed. To Grant's excellent recommendations of symphonies to listen to and available resources, I'd like to point out that there are several symphony movements (both classical and contemporary) on the Scriptorium. Just go to NWC Scriptorium and enter "Symphony" in the search field.

I stand corrected on the Cor Anglais issue, I incorrectly assumed that since Wolfie used one in Die Zauberflöte (which is of course not a symphony) that it would be considered acceptable in symphonic work of the period. /NOT/.

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #5
He unaccountably slipped my mind when I was listing important symphony composers to know & study, but Anton Bruckner should certainly be on the list - not only for the quality of his symphonies, but because he did some things no other symphony composer has ever done, and if you don't know his work you'll have missed something important. The first movement of the Bruckner 7th Symphony is on the Scriptorium, and it's a fine example of his style. You might also look up the 4th ("Romantic"), and, for a real wild ride, the 8th ("Apocalyptic"!).

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #6
According to Chuck Berry ("Rock and Roll Music"), when modern jazz is played too darn fast, it sounds "just like a symphony."

Mr. Berry's music has been very popular, and he must have made a lot of money from it, so I trust his judgment.

On the other hand, he also recorded the "Ding-a-ling" song.

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #7
I agree with most of what has been said so far - except for the crack about Chuck Berry!!
A couple of other thoughts:
1. Get a good book on Orchestration. I have Alfred Blatter's "Instrumentation and Orchestration" and am quite satisfied with it. I think I heard about the book on this message board a long time ago. Also, try to talk to some people that know about this subject. The book will get you part way there, but it's easy to make mistakes. I'm in the middle of composing my first Symphony now(first and second movements done - third started). After I finished the first movement I gave a copy of the score to the music director of the local orchestra that I play in (I'm the principal cellist). He pointed out a few mistakes that made my piece almost impossible to play for some wind and brass instruments. Being a string player, I didn't know much about the wind and brass instruments. One mistake I made was the range for my french horn parts. I was using the book's ranges as a guideline and what I wrote was within the limit, but I had the first horn playing in the highest three or four notes possible for the instrument for too long a period of time. He told me that the horn players would probably throw things at me if I handed them a part like that-nearly impossible to play. Also, I had some important lines for flute too low in their register. Flutes are easily covered when playing in their lower range, so you have to be very carefull not to cover them with the other instruments playing at the time. Another thing that was pointed out to me was lack of articulation marks on the wind instruments. To sum up, he told me to "look at lots of scores".

The list of works to study in one of the previous messages was good - I would add two Symphonies by Schubert - the "Unfinished" and the "Great C Major". IMO, Schubert took what Beethoven did and brought it to a new level with these two works.

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #8
I think everything said here is correct and certainly useful. But I think you shouldn't follow too much rules if you write music - not nowadays. Mozart and Haydn, even Beethoven sometime, did it because the musical style of their time demanded it. However, you don't have to follow rules anymore. Listen to some really modern music and you'll get my point. I'm currently writing my tenth symphony, available on the NWC Scriptorium in the classical section, and the only rules I follow are concerning orchestration. Like how one chord should be followed by another of this kind and that chord should be followed by the opposite and such. I'm not interested in rules, because - I wouldn't follow them anyway.

That's just my opinion...

Martin Segerstråle, composer, 15 yrs.

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #9
Hey Martin,
I just listened to Movement 2 of your 9th... I love it!

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #10
In addition to Grant's list -as a second step:

Szymanowski Symphony no. 3
Berlioz Symphony Fantastique
Webern Symphony, op.21
Messiaen Turanghalila Symphony

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #11
the first step to write a symphony is to buy finale or sibelius or music press.

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #12

What's this, advertising competing products on this board? Noteworthy Composer works quite well with large scale pieces.

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #13
Now why would I buy another product? Why would one need Sibelus or Finale?

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #14
That's impossible to understand. NWC does need more features but it's capable of undertaking large projectswith its current condition. I completed a whole music for a stage play with only "minimal post processing" such as implementing microtonality and adding some files together, with 1.55b!
I've been trying many different notation procesors such as ones notated in the post and others ie Lime, Mozart etc. but all of them are =very hard to use=. In addition, except for Mozart which seems to have borrowed many things from NWC [ ;) ], require a midi keyboard or you have to battle with your mouse! The only important (to me) feature that Finale, Lime and Sibelius have and NW lacks is microtonal accidentals and I'm currently working on a font wich will temporarily solve the problem.

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #15
What are microtonal accidentals, and why do you need them?

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #16
Microtonal accidentals would be a way of specifying pitches that aren't part of the standard Western 12-semitone scale. These would be notes that fall "in the cracks" between the keys of a piano, such as C half-sharp, A quarter-flat, and so on.

As to why you would need them, it depends on what you're trying to do. Traditionally in Western art music they're not necessary. However, many non-Western styles of music use microtonal intervals, and so does some 20th-century Western music, notably the music of Alois Haba (a pioneer in this respect), Harry Partch and Ben Johnston. Other composers who generally stick to the 12-note tempered scale will occasionally make use of microtonal intervals, Bartok and Bloch being two examples. Microtonals also have a place in jazz, although they're generally not notated as such (e.g., the "blue" third). I understand there is some experimentation with non-traditional tunings in pop music as well, but I don't know any details.

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #17
Grant appears to supply satisfactory information and I can only add some names such as Ivan Wyshnegradsky and the remarkable Mexican composer Julian Carrillo (and of course some contemporaries as Fred Nachbaur).

In my spesicifical situation, microtonal accidentals are needed to notate Turkish-Middle Eastern 17 note scale, which needs an additional flat and an additional sharp symbol.

I can also suggest some www resources on microtonality such as
and a search through popular engines will supply more.
For 17 note Turkish system, you can download and listen to the VQF files at
and for comparison between the Arabic implementation, I would suggest

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #18
I don't know if any of my suggestions will help, I'm not a professional or anything but I figured it wouldn't hurt to put in my two cents! :O)

about 3 years ago when I was in 8th grade, I wrote my first song then got a little ambitious and tried to make a full band arrangement (which by the way, didn't work very well, partly because my teacher wasn't increadibly helpful...) but also because I didn't know much about the different insturments I knew alot about woodwinds because I play clarinet and flute, but the rest was a different story. I asked my classmates what range they could play in and that helped, but I didn't really know what kind of parts a specific instrument played in a band arrangement. so, my suggestion to you is, in addition to what all these other suggestions are saying (which by the way, are all very good) learn about the instruments and get to know them. not necessarly learn how to play them, but learn about them and understand them. it's kind of hard to write for somthing you know nothing about, (believe me, I know this from experiance!!!) :O)

so anyway, that's my two cents, take it for what it's worth...


Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #19
I've just finished a 35 minutes symphoinie, it's easy:
Slect as many instruments as you like,
You must have at least three movements:
1 fast
1 slow
1 faster

after that, you select the theme, each part must have a different theme and the others may interfere, but the theme
must be visible to the audience.

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #20
beware, now you're making up rules. Don't. First of all, to say it's easy to write a 35 minute symphony is easy if you just follow rules. But to make it more interesting (here we go again), don't follow *any* rules.

That's my opinion.


Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #21
I said that because I made in four months 796 mesures
The musicians order specify that you must have that, the key signatures must be like this also: (Tonic-Subdominant/Dominant-Tonic)(C-F/G-C).
my symphonie is like this:
1st movement:E, 144(per quarter), 5 minutes (98 measures)
2nd : A, 92, 4'55'' (118 measures)
3rd: E, 60, 5'5'' (71)
4th: E, 144,60,160,100,160, 10 (328)
5th: E, 52,100,52,100,52,160 (181)
If you like, it was an old rule (not necessary anymore) the measures numbers must be divible by 4!

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #22
forgot to add:
in the 3rd movement is like this:
60, 42,60

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #23
Agreed with Martin.

Those obligations were broken as early as from Beethoven's #6 on.

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #25
How to write a symphony? It's a difficult question. In the discussion I've seen pretty much every possible opinion, so I guess I'll add my own.

Do listen to as many symphonies as you can, getting the scores and following along, if possible. However, also get a book on music theory and study that. It will make the "rules" more clear.

Taking into account that one doesn't have a bottomless wallet or infinite time to listen to symphonies, these are my suggestions:

* Beethoven: 3,5,6,9
* Borodin: 2
* Bruckner: 4,9
* Brahms: any of the 4
* Copland: 3
* Franck: 1
* Haydn: The London symphonies
* Kalinnikov: 1
* Mahler: 1,2,5,9
* Mozart: 40, 41
* Rachmaninov: 1,2
* Saint-Saens: 3
* Schubert: 8,9
* Sibelius: 2,3,7

Sorry, I tried to keep it short. If I had to pick the 3 most important to listen to, I'd say Beethoven's 9th, Bruckner's 9th, Rachmaninov's 1st (or one by Mahler).


Anyways, the basic movement structure (with examples) of a symphony is:
1) fast -- Allegro (in sonata form)
2) slow -- Adagio
3) fast -- Minuet or Scherzo
4) depending on era
very fast -- Allegro

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #26
[continuing on as if I didn't accidentally submit the message]

Classical era would have the 4th be a very fast (like Allegro assai)

Romantic it would be slower and more victorious

There are also conventional breaking of these rules, such as having 5 movements (by inserting an extra in the middle), reversing the order of the Adagio and Scherzo, or just having a single movement symphony.


I won't expound on orchestration; it has already been done. Suffice it to say that if you study the various scores of the reccommended symphonies, you should figure it out. As a note to Fred Nachbaur, they did use the English horn in classical symphonies, although rarely. The example being Haydn's Philosopher symphony (somewhere around his 50th). Books on orchestration I reccommend are Walter Piston's, and those by ??? Del Mar.


In conclusion, just write what comes to you. It will turn out fine. Write as many symphonies as you can paying no attention to length or perfection. After you have done this, then you can make it long and perfect. No offense, but the response "I you have to ask how to write a symphony, you're not ready" is very stupid (in addition to being paradoxical unless someone teaches it to you without you asking.)

Well, I hoped this all helped. I look forward to seeing you as the next Beethoven or Mahler.

- Jospeh Sowa

P.S. - By the way, don't break the rules, just bend them.

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #27
We shouldn't confuse rules with obligations. The points listed as rules hitherto have appeared to be obligations only. In fact, I need to repeat that, there are no such strict rules in musical composition. I know many theoricians who dictated rules, non of whom are -musically- alive but almost all of the "giants" of music history are those who "broke the rules".

So, there are no obliging rules but some guiding information or structural frames which can easily be learned from books as well as reviewed online.

I can suggest two resources for beginners from Penguin Music books:

1) Introducing Music
2) Introducing Modern Music

both by Otto Karolyi [I earn no commissions :) ]

In addition, here is an online composition course for beginners:

And here are some other useful links:

Furthermore I, a self taught/teaching composer, will be glad to share any kind of knowledge or ideas if requested.

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #28
How do you write a symphony?

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #29
RE: Reply 28. See the original question at top.

"And the music goes 'round and 'round ..."

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #30
A very good question. It's about time someone had an opinion on the subject.
A good example of rules meant to be broken are Bach's rules on harmonization. He didn't write the rules, he just was so consistent in what he did, that people who studied Bach's work 'discovered' his rules. He broke his own rules whenever he felt like it.
Rule 1: A symphony is a piece written for orchestra.
Exception:Unless you want it to be for something else. Then just use the word symphony in the name (e.g. "Symphony for 8 ocarinas").
Rule 2: A symphony must have 3 or 4 movements, usually in trio-sonata form.
Exception: Do whatever you want. But a single movement symphony might be more traditionally called a 'Sinfonietta'

Ahh.. tradition. That's the crux of this thread, I think. The rules that some have stated are traditional, almost statistical observations on the conventions used by 18th and 19th century composers. As Ertugrel put it, don't confuse this with obligations. The only real obligation is that you observe range limits and notation conventions for the individual parts, if you want to be able to perform it other than with Midi.

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #31
I'm not knocking the conventions, mind you. The sage advice above about listening and reading scores should not be underestimated. NWC is a great tool. 20 years ago (when I was a yout'),notation was an acquired skill, and learning about theory and conventions came with that skill. Now one can learn to notate in an afternoon, but the ear to brain connection is a much slower learner.

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #32
I see that many of you sugest some symphonies to hear, specially Beethoven's ones, but I think that you are sugesting only the 3, 5, 6 and 9th because these are the most famous, but some (like the 7th and 8th) are far richer (if there's such a thing) than the 5, and I think that if one is going to learn from hearing sich symphonies, do as I did, buy the conductor scores for ALL nine and watch his evolution listening to ALL of them. I recommend Beethoven's nine because they are easy to comprehend and because they are not many.
PS I agree greatly with #25 and #26.

Re: Writing A Symphony?

Reply #33
All you budding symphonist should take time to study the Simple Symphony by Benjamin Britten. A masterclass in writing for strings.
Anyone interested in symphonic form should look at what Mahler has done in his middle symhonies. Compare No.5 to No.6 you will find the latter in a traditional 4 movements and one of the greatest symphonies ever written.