The Navy Rule of Orchestration

I’ve probably shared this before, but I was talking to our high school composers here at CMU for music camp and this mantra came up.

I studied orchestration as an undergrad with James Barnes at KU. He taught 2 semesters and it was really influential. He stressed the basics, practical ranges, and turned to Romantic music a lot since “they make the orchestra sound sooooooo goooooood!”

Anyhow, he shared this idea in class one day:

Ensigns in the Navy really only do 2 things. One is paint. Those giant metal ships don’t stay grey sitting in salt water all by themselves. So they paint everything all day long. Now anyone walking by is of higher rank than them so they have to stop and salute. Life of an ensign is how you should treat your music: “If it moves, salute it. If it don’t, paint it.”

There you go. It might help if you say it with a southern Kansas/Missouri an Oklahoma twang. Basically, if something is important – salute it. Make it special, noticeable, emphasized. If it isn’t important – paint it. Do less of it if it isn’t really important.

This is the same man who taught me “Horn = pudding.” Search my blog here and I’m sure that story will surface. And if you feel the need to point out factual errors of what ensigns in the Navy do or how ships really resist rust, then you are missing the point. I don’t want to hear from you.


I couldn’t find reference to the “Horn = pudding” lesson. Here it is. We were tasked with orchestrating a Brahms intermezzo. I scored the first extended phrase for strings. I have to relate his advice by trying to replicate his accent:

“I’ma simple country boy. You wanna know my favorite dessert? Plain yella cake with chocolate icin’. You wanna know what I like morenat? Yella cake with puddin’ in the mix with chocolate icin’. You put horn 1 doublin’ violin 1 at the openin’ an that’s puttin’ the puddin’ in your yella cake.”

The only notes I took that day were “Horn = pudding.” Years later, in a graduate orchestration course at a different university, we were tasked with orchestrating a Brahms intermezzo (different one). I did the opening in strings, put the puddin’ in the yella cake, and got a Nice! from my professor.

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One Comment

  1. Joseph Eidson
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    Yes, love it! I also remember the concept of “man your battle stations” — as you approach orchestral tutti, each instrument should do what they are designed to do, all scored in a good range.

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