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Composing and Orchestrating Through Relative Range

Even though John Williams is mostly known for his big epic orchestral writings, he has also proven to be a fine writer of choral music.

In several of his scores he uses vowels and vocal effects to support the orchestra. These have become common usage for film music composers of many generations.

However, John has also been using the choir as the main element of his music in many situations and he sometimes uses the relative range technique to create a more dramatic and lyrical effect.


First, let’s briefly identify what relative range is.

Looking at the following E note, how would you classify it in terms of range?

Is it high, middle or low?

For a music composer this note doesn’t mean anything until it is assigned to an instrument.

So, for a concert flute this E is considered low and weak but for a trombone it is considered high and piercing.

So, by relative range we mean the different tensions each instrument can produce over the same pitch.

Relative range can also be graphically analyzed in a score.

See how the graphical representation of the flute in a G clef is much lower than the trombone which would be written in C clef.


In Star of Bethlehem and Padme’s Funeral cues, there are many places where the lower sections (men's choir) sing in their upper register while the higher sections (women's choir) stay in their middle/low register.

Right in the second bar the tenors sing in unison with sopranos and altos. Even though in unison, men will overpower the female voices because they are singing in a higher relative range than the upper section.

In traditional choral writing we are not supposed to overlap voices because it creates an unbalanced sound. In the modern writing, however, it is acceptable as long as the contour of voice leading justifies it.

It is important to note that due to their more contrasting range, relative range works better with non adjacent sections. For example: tenors singing in a relative range higher than sopranos works better than altos singing higher than sopranos.

In the following video, pay attention to the highlights where the tenors are graphically written higher compared to the altos and sopranos.

They not only tend to dominate the sound in some of the chords but create a dramatic effect which would’t be possible with standard writing.

This freeing kind of writing creates beautiful effects of “fake counter melodies” which can be observed in the following two excerpts.


As you can see, sections share almost exclusively the same rhythms throughout both pieces which create a perfect underlying texture for using relative range effects.

It is also important to mention that this kind of effect depends on the conductor’s/composer’s requirement.

In fact, the maestro has to instruct the lower section to “come out” (if not written in the score) in order to make the effect clear.

Usually, singers and players try to match and blend with each other and, if not requested otherwise, they will try to produce a homogeneous sound which is not what we are looking for in these cases.


Applying Relative Range

This technique can also be extensively used in the string section.

The huge range and versatility of the orchestral string section provides an even greater palette of colors for relative range.

Just like with the choir, the relative range technique requires the composer/arranger to work with non adjacent sections to be effective.

The most common combination used is cellos playing in a higher relative range than violas and violins.

In the following video, note how relative range has been applied to Star of Bethlehem arranged for strings. The highlights in the second part of the video help you to visualize each section standing out.

Even though this beautiful theme has been completely arranged for strings from scratch, the original melody and harmony has been kept the same and it is a good example of The John Williams Modulating Themes.


Relative Range and Subconscious Movement

Relative range and subconscious movement (chapter 6) form a great combination especially for string writing.

When both are applied new inner melodies can be created. These melodies can’t be heard clearly by the listener and they don’t even function as melodies but are rather interesting for the player's point of view.

Since players tend to like playing melodies, the purpose of writing such lines is not only to provide movement to a chord but to have a better commitment from them.

Now go to the full score of Star of Bethlehem for strings and play each line of each section separately. How would you feel if you were playing them with the rest of the section?

OBS: the book The John Williams Compositional Techniques has not been released yet.

2017 is a good time for great development of this project and if you want to keep updated about it subscribe to my Blog and my YouTube Chanel.

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