How to structure your Score

The goal of any good score is to tell a story. Like a story written in a book, the score can be divided into different parts. The beginning should allow the listener to understand the mood, the theme, and the emotion as quickly as possible. While the track progresses, these emotions and feelings should be improved and brought up to the next level. As seen in theatrical structures scores can have a high point of emotion, after which it collapses and fades out. But sometimes you can find a surprise and end with another feeling than you started.

Of course, you could compare structures of orchestral music with modern song structures. But that’s usually not the intention. Orchestral pieces follow a certain path. Repetitions in the sense of a recurring chorus are widely used but in a different constellation and a different variation.

In today’s orchestral music two main structures are established: “AAA” and “AABA”. The two letters stand for motifs and how they are followed up. Both structures have their usage, and it’s in the composer’s hands to get the most out of its repetitions. The beauty of the score lies in the variation, contrast, and growth within these motifs.

AAA – Structure

The AAA structure is a one-part form that consists of a recurring motif. Throughout the entire track, this one motif gets repeated and increases in intensity and complexity. Interesting variations can be achieved by adding layers at every repetition or by focusing on growth and contrast.×DISMISS ALERT

It might seem easy, but the AAA-Structure is one of the hardest types of scores to write. The idea is, to have only one theme, which gets repeated throughout the entire soundtrack. The most popular attempt in this category would be “Time” by Hans Zimmer, from the movie Inception (2010).

The signature of this track are the recurring piano chords. In every repetition the theme grows and increases its intensity by adding new layers and becoming more complex.

You can listen to it here:

How the theme develops in “Time”

The main structure of the track is easy to understand and begins with the iconic piano chords. The powerful growth is achieved in many different ways. One of the most obvious ones is by adding new instruments and by doing that increasing the complexity. This gives a powerful feeling for growth. The new layers don’t only increase the volume; they increase the number of voices and rhythms. The E-Guitar adds a simple but effective ostinato; the cello and later the french horn add this dramatic and fulfilling counter melody. Synthesizers and drones give a basic rhythm in the bass line.

Besides the obvious, the track does an excellent job of showing the power of dynamics, not only by starting quiet and becoming loud and powerful but by playing a simple crescendo and decrescendo within every repetition twice. At 1:00, you can hear how this dynamic growth and decrease gives life to the simple melody. 

Another trick is the orchestration itself. As the track progresses, the pitch range gets wider and wider. This is done, of course, by adding new instruments too, but also by changing the pitch of instruments already in. The violins are an excellent example starting quite low with the melody and going up an octave so that the track has a broader spectrum.

As I said it might seem easy, but writing a Score in AAA-Structure requires understanding music on a very high level. Therefore this shouldn’t be the structure to choose if you are writing your first tracks. If the contrast and growth of a track aren’t developing enough you risk having a boring and flat-sounding result.×DISMISS ALERT

To get around this danger, you need to analyze your key elements and check if they make the maximum impact possible. Generally, we are speaking about rhythm, dynamics, Instrumentation, complexity, atmosphere, etc. If you want to take a deeper lock into this topic, I suggest the article “Scoring Elements – Keep your Music interesting

AABA – Structure

The AABA structure consists of two melodies. This comes in handy as the second melody is used to release tension from the track and set it in a different mood for a short time. This benefits both growth and contrast, as the release feels natural and organic. The quieter second theme gives room to the most powerful repetition of the Main Theme at the end.×DISMISS ALERT

Having a repetition in the beginning, is to set the mood properly and have the first progression. You want to implement the orchestra step by step and don’t run straight into it with its full force.

Once the theme gets repeated the first time, it’s good to change a few attributes. At this point, it’s widespread to have the theme fully laid out but not quite on the maximum intensity. The last part should stand out and is usually either the most powerful or, depending on the genre, the most fragile and intimate one.

The B-Section is the reason this Structure succeeds and is by far the most common structure used. If you already wrote a few tracks, chances are really high that you accidentally followed the AABA – Path without even knowing what it is. It is such organic and natural, both for telling a story than listen to one.

The secondary theme can be whatever you want it to be. One of my first tracks ever written (before knowing that things like structures even exist) follows the AABA-Structure. In my head, I had the idea of pirates (A) encountering danger on the high seas (A). They escaped and are following the sinking sun on the horizon. There a love theme for the sea develops (B). But the sea doesn’t stay calm forever, and they are getting thrown into the next adventure (A).

ABAC – And others

As in every aspect of music, every pattern, number or structure I give you is purely made up. Music can’t be forced into logic; therefore, these patterns aren’t law. You can combine any number of themes you want. The question is, if it’s necessary and beneficial.

The ABAC – Patterns might be a nice final addition to our list. As I said in the beginning, you want to tell a story. And a lot of good stories have a different reason to be told at the end, than when you started. The C-Section can serve us in many ways but I love the idea of having a bit of a surprise at the end, or having a big theme that comes out of the fight between theme A and B.×DISMISS ALERT

Besides that, feel free to combine what ever you want. But when you are starting out, its highly recomendet to do so by following the general path of the AABA – Structure.