An orchestra is a truly versatile beast. It may be most associated with symphony halls and top hats, but it can take pretty much any music to the next level. I guess it’s not surprising — you’re adding somewhere between 30 and 100 musicians to your band, splitting them into sections like softball teams, and then asking them to wail on instruments so beloved they’ve been around for hundreds of years. If a band is playing with an orchestra, it’s guaranteed to produce an epic experience.
Inspired by the launch of our brand new Signature Course “Orchestration for Strings” next week (Feb 2nd!), I decided to take a look at some of my favorite songs and albums that are transformed by the addition of orchestral instrumentation. Many of the listening examples in the course come from the standard classical repertoire, but there’s no reason you have to only create arrangements for a traditional quartet or quintet. Ian Davis, the instructor for “Orchestration for Strings,” has arranged songs for indie acts Feist, Daniel Rossen, My Brightest Diamond, Landlady, and more, and in the course he takes students through the basic techniques for composing and arranging original works for strings in a way that works for any style of music.
In creating this list, I realized that some of my all-time favorite songs from outside the classical sphere feature orchestras, chamber ensembles, or other orchestral instrumentation. I would even argue that we’re going through a kind of orchestral-indie golden age right now, with popular artists such as Bryce Dessner (of The National) and Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead) going back and forth between orchestral compositions and rock music, and popular composers such as Nico Muhly arranging simultaneously for opera houses and pop artists.
In a bid to inspire the orchestral composer within you, here is a list of some of the greatest times non-classical bands played with orchestras (or at least a selection of orchestral instruments). Take a listen, add your favorites in the comments below, and sign up to start arranging string parts of your own!
Concerto for Group and Orchestra by Deep Purple
This amazingly psychedelic collaboration between mustachioed Brit rockers Deep Purple (remember “Smoke on the Water”?) and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is a classic. Performed in 1969, it’s a delightfully overwrought, 45-minute deluge of guitar solos and orchestral wanderings that pits Woodstock-era hair styles against the tuxes and tails of the philharmonic. The piece comes out of the gate with what basically amounts to a battle of the bands between the group and the orchestra and ends with a fully integrated prog-rock movement that would make Frank Zappa proud. This performance would go on to influence a ton of rock bands to pursue similar collaborations, including Paul McCartney, Roger Waters, Metallica, and KISS (who, unsurprisingly, made the entire orchestra wear face paint), but Deep Purple’s performance still stands out as the best. It starts around three and a half minutes into the video above.
Med sud I eyrum vid spilum endalaust by Sigur Rós
This album vacillates from explosive, barely contained energy to thoughtful reflection, and in both extremes, they use orchestral instruments to deepen the emotion and depth of their music. Sigur Rós has always had an operatic streak to them, so it’s not surprising their music would work well with strings and brass. The standout track for me is “Ára Bátur,” which was recorded at London’s famous Abbey Road studio with the London Sinfonietta chamber orchestra and a choir. The strings and choir tip-toe into the background before taking over toward the end in a series of chordal swells that support, amplify, and develop the vocal melody. I dare you not to look wistfully into the distance when listening to this one. (PS. Check out this interactive tour of Abbey Road that shows you how this track was recorded).
“No Cars Go” by Arcade Fire
“No Cars Go” has always been the standout track to me from Arcade Fire’s second album Neon Bible. The very first notes set the stage for what’s to come with a layered orchestral crescendo. From there, the drumbeat takes over, driving the entire song toward a choir- and brass-dominated finale. Arranged by Owen Pallett and Régine Chassagne, this song remains one of the models for how an orchestra can bring a rock song to the next level.
The Piramida Concert by Efterklang
I was sold from the first moment I heard this collaboration between Danish indie group Efterklang and the Copenhagen Philharmonic. The swirling strings and horns provide the perfect backdrop to Efterklang’s somewhat heady and atmospheric songs and Casper Clausen’s deep vocal lines.
Live at the Royal Albert Hall by The Cinematic Orchestra
The Cinematic Orchestra — not actually an orchestra on their own — present a more jazzy take on an orchestral collaboration, complete with funky keyboard solos, soulful vocals, and smooth, syncopated drumming. The 24-piece Heritage Orchestra — a real orchestra — join in, adding, among other things, amplification to certain melodic lines with the horns and a stable, chordal string pad to fill in the space.
“Climax” by Usher
You’re not going to believe me when I tell you that Nico Muhly arranged the string parts for this track. Take a closer listening at how they use the orchestra about midway through the track to create a build that ultimately psychs you out by pulling back into a more minimal chorus. All that said, Usher’s falsetto really steals the show on this one.
So There by Ben Folds and yMusic
Last year Ben Folds teamed up with the all-star sextet yMusic to produce the album So There. For me, this album is all about the incredible artistry of the musicians involved, including Ben on the piano. The songs are typical Ben Folds’ fare, with his airy vocals and romantic sensibilities, but the addition of violin, viola, cello, flute, French horn, trumpet, and other chamber instruments add bursts of flare and substance to the album that make it a delight to listen to. Plus, the whole thing ends with a piano concerto performed with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.
Illinois by Sufjan Stevens
Sufjan Stevens performs more than half of the instruments on this whimsical album full of fluttering flutes, tittering trumpets, and vibrating violins. Not exactly a full orchestra, but the orchestral instruments make this album what it is and provide a great example of how to use classical influences to create a bouncy and uplifting vibe.
Roseland NYC Live by Portishead
Portishead recorded this album at Roseland Ballroom in New York City in 1997 as a one-off collaboration with strings. The strings are performed with plenty of tremolo and vibrato, adding tension to the slinky, dark atmospherics of Portishead’s electronic trip-hop music and complementing Beth Gibbons’ quavering voice.
“Come With Me” by Puff Daddy and Jimmy Page
Saving maybe the best for last. What could be better than Puff Daddy raging over the top of an orchestral arrangement of Led Zeppelin’s classic tune “Kashmir”? Made for the truly awful Godzilla remake in ’99, I’ve always had a soft spot for this track with its slowly climbing string and horn lines, over-the-top instrumentation, and building tensions. Plus, the video features multiple explosions, an AWOL Jimmy Page projected onto the side of a building, and Puff Daddy getting blown into the sky in an elevator before combusting into a flock of doves that somehow turns back into Puff Daddy who drops from the sky onto a stage in front of the orchestra.