How do you decide the scale of a piece and subsequently the libraries etc?

I don't make music for a living - I do it just to tell my story and love to write music in a theatrical manner. For example, Cornucopia is a story of a person who is still processing a recent trauma. As he walks the roads by himself, he comes across a town that is celebrating a festival in full swing. This composition is about the imbalance between the internal feelings that he is still processing (represented by the strings) and the external celebrations (represented by the woodwinds). There’s a cornucopia of joy and festivity around him but how he struggles to balance the internal and external is the theme of this track. My question to you all is: once you decide the theme, how do you decide the scale of the piece?

Here is my piece for reference and for your feedback:


  • @Sai I think improvisation on a keyboard or an idea from another piece of music helps someone decide what scale to use, whatever sound they like and think they can build on or do something new with. In my opinion, though, a key signature, time signature, and tempo are best to have decided first so you can build a foundation for the score.

    Of course, you can change key signatures and other things as you see fit at any time during the score. This is just my personal system for writing music, but whatever process you develop as a composer will suit you best. I'm sure every musician has their own way of deciding how to score and write their own music to bring the music in their mind to life.

  • Oh, and as for libraries, you should choose the one that suits your score best. If you're going for the big "epic" style music, then a library with a bigger sound space, like Spitfire Symphony, might be best suited. But if you're going for a more detailed and intimate sound, something like Spitfire Studio Orchestra or Chamber Strings might work better to get the sound you're looking for.

    If you have a song imagined in your mind, listen to how it sounds and try to find a library that closely matches your imagination.

  • Hello :) I didn't mean scale as in major or minor scales :D I meant selecting the number of players, the space - as you said: Hans Zimmer Strings v/s Chamber Strings v/s Solo Strings. I wanted to know the general thought process behind selecting one of these scales. What is the thought process that gets you to arrive at "more detailed" or "intimate" or large-scale.

  • To be honest I am pretty sure, from a composer's point of view, that this is a matter of intuition rather than decision and, even if you think you have "decided" on the scale, chances are you have intuited it and are reverse engineering the logic to support your intuition. Take a film scene where the main character is having a hard time deciding between cereal or egg and toast for breakfast. If the main character is being played by Benedict Cumberbatch (now) then you might intuit a dry-ish chamber library is the answer. If the main character is being played by Al Pacino in his Scent of a Woman era prime then you might intuit something more "epic". But how do you encapsulate in pure logic the "Cumberbatchiness" or "Pacino-iness" that influenced that? I would suggest you can't, and the answer might be different if it was Godfather-era Pacino or Pacino today...

    And I think the same is true (when not composing to picture) of melodies, riffs and motifs - you might subjectively intuit that your motif is "epic" and take that to its logical conclusion and have a reasonable argument that that was the only logical conclusion, but along comes another composer, hears the same motif, and writes a perfect string quartet (e.g. compare Hallelujah as covered by Jeff Buckley to the original Leonard Cohen version, Outkast's "Hey Ya" vs the Obadiah Parker cover version or, if you want to really go to town, listen to all the things Beethoven did with Diabelli's little piano Waltz).

    In short, I am not sure it matters as long as once you commit to "epic" or "chamber" you follow the idea through consistently (but maybe that doesn't matter either - where is it written in stone that you can't have a piece with Spitfire Symphony Orchestra on the A section and Spitfire Studio Orchestra on the B Section... if you come up with a musical solution that blends them without being jarring then it is probably fine, but also, if the contrast is jarring, but in a way that aligns with your "composer's vision" and gets the message across clearly then that is probably fine too...).

  • I understand :) As someone who has worked only with samples, intuition is how I do it and I can always reiterate if the sample's scale and space don't match the sound in my head. I wondered how classical composers with actual experience did it - when they didn't have the constraints of a movie score. Just blank paper.

  • Well I suppose for a movie score the big constraint is what the Director and Producer want (with the secondary, but still major, constraint being the budget) - if they say they want, or can only afford, "Chamber", and that's what they are paying for, then...

    Where you are your own boss and writing concert music for yourself then I do wonder how useful the answers you get to this will be though - I can't imagine any two composers would have the exact same ideas about the scale on which to work out any particular theme, and, indeed, the same composer might not have the same ideas on two different days (or even before and after the first coffee of the morning😁). More to the point, since it is your music, why not work it out several ways (e.g. do arrangements for string quartet, solo piano, and full symphony orchestra, etc) and publish them all? If you ever read his letters, you'll see that Beethoven used to do this quite a lot (I think mainly because it got him extra money from the publisher).

  • Hello,

    Yes I agree with the above, but consider also reverb. Sometime by adding reverb alone can add so much emotion and scale.