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What Is an Orchestra Hit?

By Wanda Marie Thibodeaux
Updated May 23, 2024
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An orchestra hit, also called an orchestra or orchestral stab, is a musical effect. Musicians create it by having many different instruments found in orchestras playing one note or a chord very briefly, normally for the duration of one beat or less, at the same time. In essence, an orchestra hit functions as a musical accent or emphasis, so normally they are used at the beginning or end of measures or phrases. The sound may be real or synthesized.

In terms of content, an orchestra hit can use any combination of orchestra instruments. Composers and arrangers generally try to include instruments from all families of the orchestra, but the sound the composer or arranger wants ultimately dictates the orchestration. By altering the instruments used and how the instruments are voiced — that is, the register in which they play — the composer or arranger exercises great control over the final sound and power the hit has. Regardless of what instruments and voicing the composer or arranger selects, the goal is to make a hit that is well-suited to the mood of the overall piece.

An orchestra hit traditionally is part of regular composition and part writing, meaning that the composer writes the hit directly into the score, dictating each pitch for every instrument on the musical staves. During real performance, players take the music that comes just before and after the hit as a reference for how to attack and release the pitches. The conductor also has some control over how the musicians perform the hit, as does the performance space. For instance, if the conductor likes a crisper hit, he may have the musicians play the hit slightly shorter than the duration actually written, so as to leave more time between the hit and the next note. Similarly, if the performance hall echoes badly, the conductor may have the players perform the hit shorter so as to keep the music from sounding too muddy.

Orchestra hits that are physically written in orchestra music typically are used sparingly, as too many hits can detract from the melody and overall concept of the work. In this sense, an orchestra hit rarely is the focus, but rather is a supporting musical element. A few exceptions exist, however. Perhaps the best example of the use of orchestra hits used beyond simple effect is within the opening bars of the "Dies Irae" of Giuseppe Verdi's "Requiem." This movement opens with four massive orchestra hits in a row, which cease to become an emphasizing element and instead become a musical statement or theme in themselves.

During the 1980s, musicians took advantage of advancing technology to develop a new palette of synthetic sounds. They experimented with different ways of layering instrumental pitches and timbres in the studio, using software instead of live musicians to create distinct hits for different musical situations. Many of these synthesized hits were saved in digital audio libraries, which the composer or arranger accessed at will based on the sound he was trying to achieve. Whereas hits before were directly incorporated into physical scores, composers and arrangers now could simply remove or add hits via computer based on their preference after the initial composition was done.

Many different software programs were and are capable of producing a synthetic orchestra hit. No matter which program the composer or arranger uses, it still is necessary to define what instruments will play and at what octave. The programs allow the composer or arranger to digitally define the length of the hit by entering the numerical value of the time every instrument is supposed to play, often to precision of hundredths of a second. The programs also allow the composer or arranger to add other effects such as echo or make the hit sound like it is within a particular performance area, so creating a new hit is a complex and often time-consuming process.

The use of synthetic orchestra hits were enormously popular in hip hop, pop and rock music for roughly a decade. By the 1990s, however, synthetic orchestra hits had become almost cliché. Composers and arrangers stopped including them in their work with such high frequency. For this reason, people can use the presence of many orchestra hits as a way of dating popular music as belong to the 1980s.

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Discussion Comments

By Inaventu — On Jul 16, 2014

I think a lot of people my age would recognize the 80s synth version of an orchestra hit by listening to "Owner of a Lonely Heart" by the group Yes. There's one part of the song where the keyboardist plays a series of orchestra hits going up the scale. When I got my own keyboard, I used to play that part just to show off. I think they went a little overboard with that particular voice, however. A good orchestra hit should be used sparingly, like a musical exclamation point.

By AnswerMan — On Jul 15, 2014

I have an electronic keyboard with an "orchestra hit" voice. It sounds mostly like a lot of violins hitting a very high note with a lot of force. I can also hear a few horns, flutes and a tympani drum. I don't really know what I'd ever use that voice while playing, but it's an interesting voice for songwriting. The effect is like a punch or a sting. I hear it sometimes in theme songs like Hawaii Five-O.

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