Good Books for Composition/ Orchestration

Sometimes I’m asked for book recommendations.  Some that come to mind.

Traditional Orchestration

1. “The Study of Orchestration” by Sam Adler

A great book. Includes CD recordings of all examples. Expensive but worth it.

2. “The Technique Of Orchestration” by Kent Kennan

Also a great book. More concise but just as effective as the Adler. I believe there are versions published that include recordings.

3. “Orchestration” by Rimsky-Korsakov.

A good “second” Orchestration text. It has some weaknesses (percussion is covered in two paragraphs, brass is described as “cold and unemotional”), but it has some other insights that aren’t found in the other books. 

MIDI Orchestration

1. “The Guide To MIDI Orchestration” by Paul Gilreath

Structured like traditional orchestration books, but addresses everything from the vantage point of samples. Very good book.


1. “Harmony” by Walter Piston

This is a great book for traditional tonal harmony (dominant/tonic functionality, etc).


1. “The Rest is Noise” by Alex Ross

This book goes through all the concert music composers of the 20th century and tells their stories…what kind of worlds they lived in, what they thought about, etc.

2. “Lessons in Music Form” by Percy Goetschius

This book is a good introduction to classical forms.  It starts small–motives and phrases–and builds up to an explanation of Sonata form, Rondo form, and others. It talks mostly about cadences, thematic material, and key movement when going from section to section. There’s a legitimate argument that form can include a lot more than that…but it’s a good start. The text is free, and the examples used are all classical pieces (Beethoven, etc) which are on  So, it’s an inexpensive study as well. 

3. “Conceptualizing Music” by Lawrence M. Zbikowski

This is a different kind of music theory book.  It talks about recent studies on the brain and how we process information.  Some of the more interesting sections are on categorization–how we deal with large amounts of information by creating categories and subcategories to classify things.  

The book takes these recent brain studies and applies the information learned there to someone analyzing music.  Sort of…theorizing about music theory, if you will.  It’s very densely written, but some of the observations on how the brain deals with a lot of information are interesting.  

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