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How to Write for Brass Bands
What you will read is based on theory, my experience with both stronger and weaker bands and my opinion.
Music is an art, not a science. Much of what you read below on the topic of writing, composing and arranging for brass bands is a personal view gained from many years playing in, conducting and writing for bands of all levels. Whilst there are many parts which are factual, the instrumentation for example, you will find many items here that are open to debate. I make no apologies for holding some views that differ from the norm, nor do I make any apologies for expressing them; to create discussion and experimentation is one of the most enjoyable aspects of being involved with music, it helps us to grow personally as well as to move the movement forward.
I'm going to make the assumption that the reader has some basic knowledge of music theory, harmony and counterpoint. You don't need to be an expert in writing Bach fugues, but you will need to know basic four-part harmony and simple concepts of musical form. This article won't tell you how to write a march, but it will help you to orchestrate one for brass bands.
I'm also going to assume that the reader either plays in, or is familiar with, the British style of brass bands. I shall expect the reader to be able to recognise a euphonium, cornet, baritone and so on, but they may not be familiar with the instrumentation such as the number of players on parts or even what the parts are called. Having said that, a reader asking questions such as "What instruments does a brass band contain?"; "My tuba players can't read treble clef parts yet, I need to be able to change their parts to bass clef while they learn"; "How do I Write for a Brass Band?"; or "What musicians are involved in a brass band" should find their answer here. Those with little or no experience of writing brass bands will gain from this article; here you will learn how to arrange a simple hymn tune for brass band.
If you aren't familiar with the instruments of a brass band then I suggest that you make contact with your local band(s). I believe that whilst listening to band recordings can give you an insight into what bands sound like as an ensemble, there is no substitute for listening to a band live to learn what makes that ensemble sound as it does. You will be likely to gain most by attending a rehearsal. Band conductors will be able to give you a guidance on the sound of each instrument in the band, and it's much better live, where you can ask questions, than on a CD where you can't.
Any suggestions of what you'd like to see would be appreciated. I will be adding musical examples later.
All brass bands, whatever their standard and wherever they are, use the same instrumentation. This is the first of many surprises that the newcomer to writing for this genre will have to be ready for. Orchestral writers are accustomed to using whatever orchestration they expect to be most appropriate for the music; except for the percussion section, banding composers and arrangers, however, need to stick to the given instrumentation. I am fudging the issue a little because the instrumentation used by Salvation Army bands is slightly different from that used in contesting bands. I shall return to that later.
As is the case with many of the peculiarities of banding, the reason for this is set in history that is beyond the scope of this article. The interested reader may wish to consult one of the many books documenting this history. A fuller reference will appear later.
Now that contesting is so important to many bands it is unlikely that bands' instrumentation will change in the foreseeable future. Contesting requires that bands are fixed in their instrumentation in the sense that football teams are restricted to 11 players, one of which is the goalkeeper. Maybe more innovative use will appear in the future on concert programmes; this author, however, sees no pressure for it to happen. Many composers and arrangers have sought to bypass this restriction by concentrating on newer percussion instruments, where a more liberal attitude prevails. When discussing percussion, I shall cover only the instruments that the composer and arranger should reasonably be able to expect in most band-rooms.
Apart from the bass trombone and percussion which are written at pitch in the bass clef, all parts are transposing and written in the treble clef. Except where mentioned otherwise, any notes in this article refer to written rather than sounded notes. This is the usual practice among bands. Brass instruments are pitched in Eb or Bb, which means that when a player sees a note on the 3rd space of the treble clef, he calls it C and plays a C, but the note that comes out is Bb or Eb. Hence, every note sounds different than written.
The theoretical written range of each of the brass instruments that are written in treble clef is low F# to top C, but the full extent is not usually used because of tuning and stamina problems.
Since I expect much of the audience of this paper to have a musical training that is not necessarily brass band related, I have tried to use generally accepted terms rather than brass band related terms. For example to most musicians the term middle C relates to the note that is one ledger line below the stave on the treble clef (middle between the main clefs and central to a piano). However many bandsman mistakenly call this note low C; to them middle C is the note on the third space of the treble clef (middle to their range). If you see the term middle C in this paper it will be used in the former sense (below the treble clef stave).
The basic brass band format has 25/26 brass players with 2 or 3 percussionists.
The collective noun for the repiano, 2nd cornet and 3rd cornet parts is "back-row cornets". In this context the solo cornet line is often called the "front-row cornets".
I have written a brief overview of each instrument in use in the modern brass band and an indication of the range of notes playable. A more detailed discussion appears in the parts section.
As noted above, with the exception of the bass trombone and the percussion section all the instruments of a brass band play off transposing parts. A written middle C sounds as Eb on an Eb instrument, and as Bb on a Bb instrument:
The cornet is pitched in Bb, sounding a major second below the written note.
The written range of the cornet is F# below middle C to C on the second ledger line.
Notes below a Bb below middle C should be avoided because of tuning problems, and weaker players will tend to have tuning difficulty above E on the top space. Notes above "top C" are possible for advanced players. though the use of modern large bore instruments has increased the difficulty. A soloist may occasionally be expected to play high Eb or E but such extreme notes should be avoided except when the player is known to have this range. When starting to write for cornets, the range should be kept between low B and G a 13th above it.
The soprano cornet is pitched in Eb, sounding a minor third above the written note.
The written range of the soprano is F# below middle C to C on the second ledger line. However, notes below G on the second line should be used sparingly because of tuning problems and notes below middle C should be avoided at all costs. Long stretches above G above the top line should be avoided because of the physical strain put on the player. When starting to write for the soprano cornet, the range should be kept to G on the second line to G an octave above it.
The flugel is pitched the same as the Bb cornet and has the same written range. Its larger bore changes the sound to a darker, more mellow timbre and moves the playable range down. Notes below a low A and above a top G should be avoided. When starting to write for the flugel, the range should be kept to low Bb to D on the 4th line of the treble clef.
Some flugels have a fourth valve, however the composer should not rely on its availability.
The tenor horn is pitched in Eb, an octave below the soprano cornet; that is, it sounds a major sixth below the written note.
The written range of the tenor horn is F# below middle C to C on the second ledger line, or possibly higher with an advanced player.
The larger bores of more modern instruments have been a mixed blessing for the tenor horn player. In the stronger player there is no doubt that the sound will now come through more easily, lessening the horn's balance problem (see below). This improvement, however, has come at the price of a more restricted range. Notes below middle C should be used sparingly and notes below Bb should be avoided since they are difficult to play and are rather sharp. Notes above a top G rarely appear although it is the author's opinion that notes up to Bb should be considered acceptable on the solo horn part. When starting to write for the tenor horn, the range should be kept to middle C to F on the top line.
In America this instrument is called an alto horn.
The baritone is pitched in Bb, an octave below the cornet; that is, a major ninth below the written note.
The written range of the baritone is F# below middle C to C on the second ledger line, or possibly higher with an advanced player. Notes below middle C should be used sparingly and notes below Bb should be avoided. Notes up to a top C are acceptable for all but the weakest of players. When starting to write for the baritone, the range should be kept to middle C to G above the top line.
In America this instrument is sometimes called a tenor horn.
The tenor trombone is pitched in Bb, the same pitch as the baritone. When referring to the instrument, the word "tenor" is usually dropped.
The written range of the tenor trombone is F# below C to C on the second ledger line, or possibly higher with an advanced player.
In older music, the trombone was often non-transposing, written in the tenor clef, similar to many orchestral works. However this has become obsolete and tenor trombone parts are now always transposing using the treble clef.
Many trombones now include an attachment that will pitch the instruments in F which extends the range down around an octave. However the composer should not assume that players are using this type of instrument. The fundamental of the instrument (known as pedal C - sounding low Bb below 2 ledger lines of the bass clef) is playable by many players.
When starting to write for the tenor trombone, the range should be kept to middle C to G above the stave.
Composers who play valve instruments and are unaware of slide positions would do well to learn the slide positions given in the table below. If you are unsure about which lines are difficult on trombones that have no trigger, the simple rule is to avoid too many fast passages that involve movements from 1st to 5th, 6th or 7th positions and vice-versa. This generally causes concern between middle C and D.
When writing for the tenor trombone, the composer needs to allow for the possibility that one or either of the parts will be played on an instrument without a trigger.
This table also applies to the bass trombone.
Each slide position is a semitone away from the either side of it. For example, the 2nd position is a semitone lower than the 1st position.
The table will also prove useful as a guide to which notes can be best combined in a slur. It is best to avoid slurs across slide positions, though of necessity this is more a guideline than a rule. When deciding if a slur is possible, remember that trombone players tend to be more familiar with alternative positions than valve players are with alternative fingering. For example a C on the 3rd space is playable on 5th position, so a slur to or from an Ab on the second space is possible.
The part is held back to an extent in technical difficulty because of the lack of valves, especially in the lower ranges. Trills must be lipped which is only possible in the upper range, and by a virtuoso player. When learning, the new composer should avoid fast passages, especially those below G on the second line. All notes higher than Bb on the middle line can be played on the first three positions, though many players avoid using the first position in fast passages where possible. With more experience, the writer will become more aware of "alternate shifts" which ease, for example G to Ab, which can be played 6->5 rather than 1->5.
Tenor and bass trombones are the only brass instruments capable of quarter-tones, although their use toward the end of Etude is a rare example in brass band writing.
The bass trombone part is always written in concert pitch in bass clef. The range is from Db below the stave to around F above two ledger lines of the bass clef.
Traditionally the bass trombone was a trombone pitched in G that needed a handle attachment to the slide to reach the furthest positions. However this instrument has been nearly completely phased out, being replaced by very large bore tenor trombones with an attachment operated by a rotary valve, commonly known as a plug, to re-tune from Bb to F and often by a second valve to Eb and/or D, in so called 'double-plug bass trombones'. In modern writing, the composer can safely assume that the part never will be played on either a G or G/D trombone.
Pedal notes are obtainable by most players. Accomplished players will be able to extend the range, in extreme cases to F, four ledger lines below the stave; and possibly extend the range upwards. Thus the bass trombone is second only to the euphonium in the extent of its range.
When starting to write for the bass trombone, the range should be kept to Eb below the stave to Bb just above the stave.
The euphonium is pitched in Bb, the same pitch as the baritone and tenor trombone. In America this instrument is called both a baritone or a euphonium.
The written range of the euphonium is F# below middle C to C on the second ledger line, or possibly higher with an advanced player. It is safe to assume that nearly all euphoniums have a 4th valve, which, in the hands of all but the weakest players, can be used to extend the range of the euphonium down, usually as low as D, four ledger lines below the stave. Pedal notes are playable but rarely written. Notes above top C are playable by stronger players, extending the range up a major 3rd. The full range of the instrument can be used.
When starting to write for the euphonium, the range should be kept to Bb below middle C to F on the top line.
In orchestral scores the instrument is called a tenor tuba, but so are other instruments such as the wagner tuba, so if you see a tenor tuba called for in a score it may not necessarily be a euphonium.
The Eb bass is pitched one octave below the tenor horn.
The written range of the Eb bass is F# below middle C to C on the second ledger line. It is safe to assume that nearly all Eb basses have a 4th valve, which in the hands of more accomplished players can be used to extend the range of the Eb bass down as far as pedal notes, though notes below an F natural aren't used very often. Notes above an E on the top space are best avoided because of tuning problems.
When starting to write for the Eb bass, the range should be kept to Bb below middle C to C on the third space of the treble clef.
Instruments used in a brass band tend to use piston valves rather than rotary valves which impedes dexterity on the large instruments where a long valve action is involved.
In orchestral scores this instrument is called a tuba, though an orchestra tuba could be pitched in F, Eb, or occasionally low C, depending on country of origin and the preference of the player.
The Bb bass is pitched one octave below the euphonium.
The written range of the Bb bass is F# below middle C to C on the second ledger line. Many Bb basses have a 4th valve, which in the hands of more accomplished players can be used to extend the range downwards; its use however should not be relied on in music written for weaker bands. Writers need to be aware that similar to the four-stringed double bass in orchestral writing, where a band is using three-valve instruments, players will raise by an octave those notes that would require a fourth valve, see later for a more detailed discussion of this. Pedal notes are only obtainable by the more accomplished players. Notes above an E on the top space are best avoided because of tuning problems. The range of the Bb bass is the smallest of the brass section of a band.
When starting to write for the Bb bass, the range should be kept to Bb below middle C, with the occasional bottom A, to C on the third space of the treble clef.
The choice of piston valves causes a similar problem on the Bb bass as with the Eb bass.
The percussion section is the only section where different instrumentation may be used from piece to piece; and it is the section to have seen the most radical changes over the history of the brass band movement.
Modern brass bands can be expected to have two or three percussionists, often split between tuned and un-tuned instruments, though many still only have one player who uses a drum kit. All but the weakest player should be expected to play all instruments in the section, though inevitably they will have instruments upon which they are more comfortable.
Composers and arrangers can assume that a brass band has timpani (2 drums), glockenspiel, snare-drum, triangle, ride and crash cymbals and a drum kit. Stronger bands will also have a tam-tam, clash cymbals, a bass drum and a 3rd tympanum. Other common instruments are xylophone, wind-chimes and various tuned and un-tuned, effect instruments.
When starting to write for percussion, the composer should write only for 2 timpani (G to F) with little retuning and a drum kit that includes one ride cymbal, one crash cymbal and two tom-toms.
The parts are listed here in the order that they appear on a brass band score. However, I would suggest that the reader leaves reading about the soprano cornet until after the solo cornet part.
The soprano cornet is often likened to the piccolo found in orchestras and military bands. Unlike a symphony orchestra which is "top heavy" because of the large number of treble and sopranino instruments, many of which have an extremely high range, the brass band is bass heavy. Bands have the equivalent of 4 tubas, and when coupled with timpani and the bass trombone tends to give a sound that is "bottom up".
Whilst only slightly higher in pitch than the cornet, and unable to play long high passages because of the physical stress on the player, the soprano has an almost unique ability to brighten the tone colour of a band single-handedly.
When starting to write for the soprano, many composers fall into the trap of using the player merely to back up the solo cornets, either in unison with their higher parts, or an octave up with their lower parts. This is fine as far as it goes, since it helps to ease a high solo cornet line; and it adds weight to present a strong melody in octaves.
However, I encourage a more sparing use of the player. In practice, many players will rest when playing in unison with the front row (solo cornet) line, and the composer needs to be aware of this. Writing notes that may or may not be played, depending on how the lip of the player is, will lead to a loss of control of the balance of the band from the composer. By sparing use, we can ensure that the player plays when needed and that we know when the player will play.
I suggest that the soprano part only be used in solo passages or when playing a part that is in some other way important; such as a part that is an octave above the solo cornet or a counter-melody perhaps in octaves with the repiano cornet, or solo horn. Playing a few notes in unison with the solo cornet line at the end of the previous phrase, where possible, and at a dynamic level down, will help the player's confidence and ability to tune in with the band before starting the more important phrase.
When a piece of music ends with a ff note, the soprano will sit well on a very high note to add excitement to the chord. Ending like this on a top C or Bb is fine, but otherwise be very sure before writing notes above the stave.
The solo cornet part is the principal melodic line of the brass band. Despite the word "solo", it has the most players of any part, 4 or possibly even 5 players. The strongest player is known as the principal cornet; as the primary soloist of the brass band they fulfil the same role as leader in an orchestra.
Parts rarely go below middle C (known in brass band circles as bottom C) and often have extended passages where many notes appear toward the top of or above the stave. I would not suggest extending the number of consecutive notes above a top G to many phrases.
It is possible to call for the players to play different notes: often lower notes are used to boost the parts of weaker players on the "back row" parts, that is the repiano, 2nd and 3rd cornet parts. However, such split parts do not tend to extend very long. Usually there is no need to write the word divisi on to the part, the music will show that the players will be playing different notes, only state divisi where there may otherwise be some confusion. Only if the rhythms of split parts are very independent should separate staves be provided, and the practice favoured by some arrangers of providing separate desk parts for 1/2 and 3/4 solo cornets should be avoided except in exceptional circumstances such as found in the transcription of Bach's Allegro Assai. If the parts are very different this usually means that the writing won't work for the majority of bands and the scoring needs to be reworked.
It is possible to indicate the number of players playing the line, the reader may choose to use this in chamber parts to avoid balance problems. Indications such as solo, 2 only, and tutti are often used. The term solo should only be used for a lead line: if only one player is required for reasons of balance, a better term would be one only. Carefully think if you mean solo or one only.
The solo cornet line is one of the more technically advanced lines of the brass band. Often the principal cornet will be the strongest player in the band, and parts can be expected to reflect this. The first two players will be the strongest cornet players in the band.
Where stamina is a problem, for example in repeated technically difficult or high parts, the composer can use the high number of players on the part to his or her advantage by clever use of dovetailing.
The solo cornet part should be expected to have the full range of notes from top C to low Bb, though you should think before writing long passages above top G.
Although the word "repiano", being a misspelling of the musical term "ripiano", would seem to indicate otherwise, the rep part will be played by only one player.
Despite not being on the front row, the repiano player is usually the third strongest cornet player of a band, and the composer should be prepared to write to that level. The rep part is a highly prized position among cornet players, including as it does melody, counter-melody, solo, harmony and accompaniment. As such it is possibly the most varied, interesting and challenging parts of a brass band: truly a dark-horse part.
As a melodic part, it tends to duplicate the solo cornet part when all of the band is playing. The very highest notes may be missing, since traditionally the rep part does not go above a top G or possibly A.
Often the part is used to provide a counter-melody where the writer wants to utilise the cornet sound. The part will sit happily either on its own or joint with other players to a melody that is played in either the front row or soprano. For a particularly important counter-melody, it would be worth considering utilising the rep and soprano in octaves as a counter-melody to the tutti solo cornet line.
I would not consider using the repiano as a solo part in itself. Some writers use the player as a kind of "principal back row". Why not use the principal cornet player for this? Or if that player needs a break, use the "number two" player of the front row by marking that part "2nd player only". However, the player should be seen to be strong enough to play trios with two of the front row cornets.
There are some "exceptions that prove the rule". Firstly, variations. In both "air varies" and situations such as the third verse of Gary Bricault's Praise to the Lord where the solo cornets embellish the melody, the repiano can be used effectively by playing the original theme. This may mean that the melody comes in ahead of the embellishment, especially if the latter is a descant starting on the second or subsequent bar. Secondly, in a fugue, the repiano may play the alto part, entering before the solo cornet line and strengthening the 2nd and 3rd cornet lines, ( O Worship the King figure R).
In addition the repiano part is equally at home providing harmonic support to any instrument, or providing the top line of an accompaniment part, the other lines being provided by the other back row cornet parts. ( Ilkeston Sonata bar 3 and following of figure C).
On a final block chord, if the soprano has been written an octave above the solo cornets, it may be worth considering filling what otherwise could seem a large gap, with a 3rd or perhaps a 5th played by the repiano. At other times, avoid the temptation to write the repiano above the solo cornet line.
Salvation Army bands tend to call this part 1st cornet, and often have two players.
The 2nd cornet part is the first part that we have covered in detail that plays the alto line in four part harmony. Traditionally an accompaniment part, it will be called on to provide harmonic and counter-melodies similar, though with a lesser degree of intensity, to that of the repiano part. The part is usually played by two players in unison and with similar abilities; it is, however, possible to split or mark "one only" if needed.
In marches the part is often playing line with the solo horn which is consistently a 3rd or 6th below the melody. This idea can usefully be extended to other musical genres often most effectively at cadences.
The part should normally not go above an E or below a C. This range, a major tenth, is very limiting and it is tempting to break it, but this temptation should be avoided except when writing for the strongest bands.
The 3rd cornet part is the lowest of all cornet parts.
New writers are often tempted to dismiss this part as a part for learners and only give it parts that on the surface are trivial. However this will unfairly gloss over the hidden difficulties of the part. The part centres around middle C, C#, D, D# and E which implies the need for a strong 3rd finger - traditionally a difficulty since in the human hand a single tendon connects both the 3rd and 4th fingers to the wrist. Also, on cornets without triggers these notes are often rather sharp.
The part provides a foundation to the entire cornet line, often working well at the bottom of a fanfare for cornets. Perhaps in this context it may be strengthened by a player from the front row.
The range is from low Bb to C on the third line. Much old music goes lower: do not follow this lead, except when writing for the strongest of bands and players. It was traditional to share parts with clarinets in so called wind and reed bands, and arrangements appear to have been written by composers who understood reed better than brass. Clarinets are happy playing down there: cornets are not.
Salvation Army bands do not have a 3rd cornet part.
There is only one flugel horn player in a band, providing a secondary soloist. Harmonically, it bridges the gap between the tenor horns and cornets. It is best seen as an extension of the horn parts upwards, though it can also work well with the trombones.
The instrument is best used in melodic themes which are too high for the tenor horn. It is not usually given a technically demanding role.
The flugel should not be written very high, since its large bore and bell can lead to tuning and stamina difficulties. The best range is low Bb to high G.
Recently many bands have tended to use American flugels which being aimed more at jazz, tend to be bright so they often have difficulty merging with the horns. However, recently there has been a backlash, with large bore and belled instruments finding favour with an increasing number of bands.
It is only over the last 30 or so years that dedicated parts for the flugel have become the norm. Before then the flugel and repiano parts were printed on one sheet, with occasional markings such as "cornet only" when the flugel should stop playing and "flugel" when the repiano should stop playing. Quite often it was left up to guess work when both should play again! Often the flugel wouldn't get a mention and a set of music would just include two parts marked as repiano. Fortunately this practice has now ceased, as a budding composer or arranger you will be expected to provide separate parts for the repiano and flugel and to think of them as separate instruments, which of course they are.
Unlike the solo cornet part, the solo horn part is covered by only one player. The solo horn is a secondary soloist bridging the gap between the cornets and euphoniums or trombones.
The part is usually at the top of the triad formed from the three horn parts. The solo horn is generally used for accompaniment but it can be used for counter-melodies; and in march trios it often mirrors the melody down a third or sixth, often in unison with the second cornet. The part will also often double the second cornet when used in accompaniment: the infamous tedious um-chucks that form the back bone of much simpler music.
For the novice writer it is usually safe for the solo horn to double the second cornet in the way that the flugel doubles the repiano, though it would be worthwhile that the budding composer does not dwell too long on this since it too easily ignores the differences in tone colour between the instruments and strengths of the players.
The instrument blends well with the baritones and euphoniums as the top of an ensemble; and with the trombones as the top of a quartet covering what the composer would prefer to be played by an alto trombone (not used in brass bands) or a third trombone (only found in Salvation Army bands). The possibility of duets with the flugel horn seems a largely unexplored possibility within the brass band. ( Silent Night).
Older music sometimes has the soprano and solo horn playing the lead in octaves, presumably because they are both in Eb, though this practice is now rarer. The author can see the advantage in a piece in sonata form. In the exposition, the second subject could be presented by the soprano and solo horn, then in the recapitulation the change of key could lend to a similar doubling in the solo cornet and euphonium parts. In this way the music could be kept within the tessitura of all four instruments. Using the soprano and solo horn in octaves in a counter-melody can be effective, provided it is not overdone.
One of the difficulties of tenor horn solo writing is the question of the instrumentation for the accompaniment (I shall deal with this later in the section on ensemble writing), the problem being that its tessitura lies across the cornets, euphoniums and trombones. With the bells often facing away from the audience, projection of the soloist's sound needs careful consideration.
In a slow, melodic passage, the solo horn works well by doubling the solo cornet in the last phrase or few notes of the melody, provided that the notes are in the range A to D. The instrument will add extra sweetness and tone to round off the melodic line.
When studying scores you may see the horn help the euphonium when the euphonium has the lead and goes high. This is presumably to help the weaker euphonium section; in this register, however, the horn and euphonium do not blend well, unless the horn is written quieter than the euphonium. This practice is best avoided, unless a particular effect of tone colour is wanted.
Technically, the composer should be able to infer that the solo horn part is covered by one of the better players in the band. Parts may be as demanding as those for the solo cornet or euphonium.
The range of the solo horn part is from middle C to high G, or occasionally A, but usually limit the part to E.
When writing for the 1st horn, it is usual to consider a part that is primarily used for accompaniment, often doubling the 3rd cornet part in ensemble accompaniment. Thus the part mirrors the solo horn which often doubles the 2nd cornet.
In ff tutti writing, the part may double the solo horn, but this is more the exception than the rule. Furthermore, the possibilities of horn duets has not been generally explored. Bridget's Badger, was specifically written for two equal players.
The range of the 1st horn part is from middle C to high F, or occasionally G, but usually limit the part to E.
The 2nd horn is best used as an accompaniment part under the solo and 1st horns. Unless the player is known to the composer/arranger, it is best to assume that the part is to be played by a weaker player and not include technically advanced writing. However, as with the 3rd cornet, care must be made to avoid writing parts that are boring and do not stretch the player.
Parts should be restricted to the octave from bottom C, but remember that tenor horns are not equipped with 4th valves or triggers, so they tend to play sharp on low C#s and Ds and on low Ab down to F#.
Unlike orchestral and wind bands, the 2nd horn should be kept lower than the 1st horn; if balance becomes an issue, it is better to double the part in a baritone rather than cross the parts. This will be covered later on when discussing writing for the horns as a section.( figure C of Ilkeston Sonata, where the bottom part of the triad is doubled in the 2nd baritone to ensure the three notes are equal weight).
The first baritone part has often been described as the most technically demanding of all the parts of the brass band. Yet in many senses the instrument is the Cinderella of the brass band, nearly always bowing to the euphonium or 1st trombone as a soloist.
Part of the difficulty lies in the height of much music. Extended high passages are common in the part, but I think that they are best avoided.
Most commonly the part will either double the 1st horn or 2nd horn in accompaniments, be a bottom tenor horn in a horn quartet or trio, or double the euphonium in counter-melodies or tenor melodies where extra strength is required. A novel, but effective, use of the 1st baritone is as the lead in a tuba ensemble ( figure C of While Shepherds Watched).
Sadly, modern instruments often have large bores that can sound closer to a euphonium than the true light sound of a baritone. This is unfortunate for the composer who wants to write for a tenor instrument with a lighter sound than euphonium and where the sound of the tenor trombone would not be appropriate.
The part will be played by a technically proficient player, so demanding parts can be written.
A full range of two octaves from middle C is possible, and extended writing to top A and Bb is possible, though not encouraged except for more advanced bands and music.
The 2nd baritone is to the 1st baritone, the same as the 2nd horn is to the solo horn part. It is mostly a supportive, accompaniment part. The most significant difference between it and the 2nd horn part is that the 2nd baritone will help in "bass solos" in more traditional marches; or with the melody line, when a full sound is needed in unison with the 1st baritone and euphonium. Compare this with the 2nd horn, which many arrangers unfortunately rarely use for anything other than an accompanying rôle.
When writing a triad of "off beat" lines, it is useful to double the 2nd baritone and 2nd horn lines. The weaker players will combine well to balance against stronger players playing one to a part of, for example, solo horn.
The possibility of baritone duets has not been explored by many arrangers.
Try to avoid writing outside the range middle C up a major tenth to E. In common with the 1st horn part, short technically advanced passages can be used, but generally speaking one should assume that the part will be played by a weaker player.
The 1st trombone is a primary soloist part, lesser in importance than the cornet and euphonium. When writing for the trombone, the valve brass player needs to be familiar with the slide positions both with and without a trigger. A trigger is similar to a 4th valve on larger valve instruments.
Of all the instruments in a brass band, the modern large bore trombone is capable of the widest range of tone colours and dynamics. The composer needs to ensure that the player is clearly directed to the correct style when writing a solo part.
The 1st trombone sits well as a solo part, as the top part of a trombone trio, as the 2nd part of a quartet including solo horn or flugel, and as part of a tutti passage including players from the tenor or bass ranges.
The range of the 1st trombone part is large. All but the weakest of players should be comfortable across a range from low Bb up two octaves. For the weakest player, the range should be restricted to C to G; stronger players will have no difficulty up to top D and possibly higher.
The part may also be used in an accompaniment role, similar to the horns.
The practice of writing the part in concert pitch using the tenor clef has ceased.
When first writing for the 2nd trombone one may be tempted to treat it like the 2nd cornet, or 1st horn, as the middle part of a trio. This would be incorrect: the 2nd trombone part is not as independent from the section leader as those other parts are. If the 1st trombone has a solo melody line it is best to rest the 2nd trombone. If the 1st has a tutti melody line, the 2nd will often play in unison with the 1st. If the 1st is playing an accompaniment line, the 2nd will play the same rhythm but lower in the chord structure; and finally, if the 1st is resting, usually the 2nd will rest as well.
Technically simpler than the 1st trombone line, the 2nd trombone player is nevertheless often more accomplished than may be expected, and the balance of sound is often better between the tenor trombones than say players in the horn line. The player is usually comfortable to a top G, and the odd top A is possible down to C.
Very weak players have difficulty finding 5th position notes. These notes should be avoided when writing for such players.
The practice of writing the part in concert pitch using the tenor clef has ceased.
The bass trombone part has two unique qualities among the brass band parts. Firstly, it is written in concert pitch: that is the notes sound the same as they are written; and secondly, it is written in bass clef.
Traditionally, the bass trombone part was played on a true bass trombone, an instrument pitched in G where the slide was so long that to reach the furthest shift positions a handle was used to extend beyond the arm's length. It is now very rare to find such an instrument in use; the part is instead played on a very large bored tenor trombone pitched in Bb, with a set of triggers that pitch the instrument in F and often either Eb or D. These triggers increase the range of the instrument down the scale, and help faster parts to be played in the lower register, where otherwise the distance between 1st and 6th positions would make such music impossible to play at speed. This instrument is used even when the music was written for the G trombone, which can result in a performance of older music that differs from the original expectation of the composer.
It is easy to fall in to the trap of considering the bass trombone to be an extension of the bass family. All too often the part merely doubles the Eb basses in louder sections. Such consideration of the instrument should be avoided. Whilst it is true that bass trombone solos are extremely rare, even more so since the demise of the true instrument, the instrument is not a member of the bass family, it is a member of the trombone family and the composer should bear this in mind at all times. That may seem to contradict the next statement: that the part should be seen to be a bass part not a third tenor part; there is no contradiction here however. The instrument is a bass trombone, that is to say it is a member of the trombone family, which plays in the bass register.
It is useful in the bottom part of trombone trios, in unison or octaves with the tenor trombones, or when an extra tone colour is needed in addition to the bass line ( the opening, bar 14 and figure B of Mission).
If the music is written in 6 flats for the Bb instruments (Gb major/Eb minor), the bass trombone part cannot be written in 8 flats since there are only 7 notes to flatten, so the key chosen should be E major/C# minor. For 7 flats for the cornet line, write the bass trombone part in three sharps.
The bass trombone is often very flat in the hands of the weaker player when attempting notes above Bb above the stave. Notes down to Eb one ledger line below the stave are safe. The stronger player can play down to Bb or even A three ledger lines below the line. However, the best range to choose when starting to write is Eb to Bb. Slide positions increase in distance for all trombones as the notes get lower as the wavelength increases. This becomes a major problem for the lowest notes on a bass trombone, where positions are extended so far that the low B natural that would be played on 7th position with an F trigger becomes impossible to play. Do not write low B natural, unless you know that the player will have a so-called double plug instrument, which has two triggers: one for F and one usually for either Eb or D.
Although there are two euphonium players in a band, only in exceptional circumstances will they play from different parts. Splitting the players is acceptable from time to time for reasons of balance or when a euphonium duet is called for. However, the players will still read off the same part and splitting should be kept to a minimum.
The euphonium part is flexible and forgiving to the new writer. The part is often compared to that of the `cello in an orchestra. It is equally at home doubling the solo cornet line an octave down, as a melodic or counter-melodic lead, doubling the Bb bass an octave up or occasionally with the 1st trombone. The range of the part is large: most players will be comfortable over more than two octaves, from low G to top A, with the occasional higher note. However, remember that too many higher notes will be tiring, furthermore the tone, which although very pleasant in capable hands, will dominate in the higher register.
When you want only one player mark it either solo or one only: there is a distinction between the two markings (see the entry on the solo cornet part for more information). Mark à2 at the end of the passage.
The strength of the part, its versatility and ability to blend so well, can also pose a difficulty to the new writer. When writing a solo line that is not the highest in pitch of all the parts it is often more difficult for the part to come through than the composer may imagine ( compare the ease of scoring figure C of While Shepherds Watched against the difficulty of figure C of When We're Apart). For such passages, leave a wide gap in the texture, if at all possible, both above and below the euphonium line. It may also help to give a pointer of the intended balance to the conductor by careful use of dynamics.
One can expect both players to be proficient both technically and over a wide range. Bear in mind that some notes, notably top F, may be a little on the sharp side, though newer instruments are equipped with a trigger to help flatten the note by extending either the 1st valve slide or the main tuning slide. It is safe to assume that all euphoniums now have a fourth valve, which helps help tuning in the lower register.
In the hands of the most advanced players, the Eb bass can have the widest range of all instruments. However, we shall restrict ourselves to the range that will work best for most players. As we have moved down the score, so the tessitura of the part as written treble clef has become lower. The Eb bass will work best around middle C: compare this with the solo cornet, which is most comfortable around C on the 3rd space. When starting to write for the Eb bass, do not write above an E on the top space.
In all but special occasions, the Eb part will not split. Occasionally, a solo, or one only, section will appear. These sections will be countermanded by an à2 indication.
When writing for the Eb bass, you will have to consider which octave to use. When all three tuba lines are in use, euphoniums, Eb and Bb basses, the choice will be whether to double the euphonium octave or the Bb bass octave. It is permissible to switch occasionally between octaves, but keep these switches to a minimum since it will be prominent to the listener and may expose tuning difficulties in lesser bands when the Eb players may be flat on higher notes. When in doubt, choose the lower octave unless the part goes below bottom G. If the line is relatively static and lies between G and D it is effective to split the Eb bass part in octaves. Octaves outside G and D may cause tuning problems for weaker bands. Splitting the line in octaves works especially well in louder sections, but you need to be aware of the balance issue when considering all four bass players.
Except for advanced level, steer clear of long sections of fast notes, though the occasional phrase of semi-quavers is fine. You may wish to consider marking such fast phrases one only even in louder passages, the effect will be to produce a tighter and cleaner sound. The second player could then either rest or double the Bb bass line if needed, though be aware of the tuning issues between Eb and Bb basses.
Advanced solos, such as There's a Tavern in the Town can, however, use extended fast passages.
The balance of a brass band is bottom up. Unlike an orchestra which is top heavy, a brass band's tone colour starts with the bass section. When writing for the Bb bass, the composer needs to be aware that this is the foundation of the band sound and when playing it will shift the balance downwards. As such, I teach writers to move away from the habit of using the Bb bass part nearly always through a piece of music. Remember the impact that the part will have on the colour of the band and use this tool to your advantage. Use the Bb bass colour when needed, and not when it is not. That may seem a truism, but many composers do not appreciate this.
The tessitura of the Bb bass is very low. When starting, the written range should be from low A, up to a C on the third space. In tutti passages, such as so-called bass solos in road marches, it is safe to write up to an E on the top space. The occasional very low note is possible, but should be used with the same discretion as top Bs and Cs on the soprano. A Bb bass player will relish the opportunity to play a low F to end a piece of music (playable with the 4th valve which appears on many Bb basses), but a weaker player will not be happy with a phrase which has so many low notes.
Although one can expect the part to be covered by two players, splitting the parts is very rare. When a note is very low, and requires a four-valve instrument, you may wish to add the option of taking it up an octave by writing an ossia line.
Apart from pieces for advanced players, fast passages should be avoided. Bb bass solos, even simple ones such as Tuba Rag, are rare.
The instrument is physically demanding: do not write very long phrases for the part. Even very accomplished players will be unlikely to sustain a fortissimo for more than a few beats without a breath. Players very often will even breath in the middle of a fortissimo long pause at the end of a piece to help to sustain the chord.
It often seems to the author that bands can fall into two general categories: those with only one drummer playing a drum kit; and those with two or three percussionists, which have a large arsenal to hand, including a kit. This can cause difficulty to the new composer. For example, when writing a bass drum note, will it be played on a kit bass drum, or a concert bass drum? The instruments sound, and are played, very differently. Sometimes, for example in rock music, it will be obvious which to use, but with some pieces, marches and lower section test pieces for example, the composer will need to be more aware about ensuring what is used. To avoid any doubt write "concert bass drum" over a part to be played on that instrument.
In a march one would not generally write a timpani part, even in a concert march.
This problem is more difficult when bearing in mind the resources of bands: most bands will put percussion instruments lower on their shopping list than cornets and other brass instruments, so often even basic instruments, such as timpani, just are not available.
You should also bear in mind that many weaker conductors do not understand the percussion section. Although you will not like it, many "drummers" will take liberties with rhythms that you write and poorer conductors will not be aware of this or will turn a blind eye. With more and more conductors having classical educations in music, rather than simply being good players of brass instruments, this trend is thankfully disappearing. But the truth remains: conductors often do not have knowledge of the instruments, and will not try to learn about them, even though it is a section over which they are supposed to be exerting musical direction.
I intend to list each instrument in detail: I shall cover the drum kit and the choreography of the percussion section when discussing sections later.
Broadly, percussion falls into two types: tuned and un-tuned. Tuned percussion are those instruments which produce a single pitch, or range of notes. We shall cover timpani, glockenspiel, tubular bells, xylophone and vibraphone. It is safe to assume that most bands have the first two of these, and access to bells. Xylophones and vibraphones are rare outside of top bands. I shall not cover the marimba or tuned cymbals, since it is very rare to find them in bands.
Un-tuned percussion are those instruments which produce no tuned noted. It is safe to assume that all bands have a drum-kit which will include a bass-drum, snare-drum, one or two tom-toms, a hi-hat cymbal and one, or both, ride or crash cymbals. Most will also have tambourine, triangle, wooden-block and cow-bell. Some will also have temple-blocks (also called skulls), clash cymbals, tam-tam, wind-chimes and tenor drum. Un-tuned instruments can be written with either a bass clef or no clef.
Finally, many of the instruments can be struck with different beaters to produce different effect. One may even play a vibraphone with a `cello bow.
The snare-drum (sometimes called the side-drum) is written on the third space on the stave. It is safe to assume that all brass bands have a snare drum. Rolls are marked as demi-semiquavers. Usually played with wooden sticks, they may sometimes be played with brushes. It can be played either with the snare on or off. To indicate directions to the player, the composer should indicate in English brushes, snare-on, sticks, or snare-off. Moderately fast and difficult rhythms are possible.
Bass drum (kit)
The kit-bass-drum is written on the bottom space of the stave. It is safe to assume that all brass bands have a kit-bass-drum. Rolls are not possible on this instrument - if you want a roll it will need to be played on a concert bass drum. Very fast notes or difficult rhythms are not possible except for the most accomplished players. When starting to write, it is best to keep to a simple "on the beat" rhythm.
The crash cymbal is written on the second space of the stave. It is safe to assume that all brass bands have a crash cymbal, often, though not always, as part of a drum kit. The instrument is usually played either as a one-off note or in rolls. Rolls are marked as demi-semiquavers. The crash cymbal is usually played with the edge of a wooden stick against the edge of the cymbal, or with soft sticks such as vibraphone sticks on the top of the instrument when used in a roll. It is possible to roll with hard sticks, but I tend to find the effect unconvincing. The middle (dome) of the instrument can be used occasionally for a bell-like effect.
By stopping the vibration of the instrument with the other hand, a staccato effect can be made, usually marked sec.
The ride-cymbal is above the stave with a cross hair note-head. Most brass bands have a ride cymbal, always as part of a drum kit. The instrument is used for extended passages of complex rhythms, usually with a wooden stick, though sometimes with brushes.
Clash cymbals are also written on the 2nd space of the stave. Many bands have clashed cymbals, usually large, heavy instruments which are at least 20" in diameter. They are played by hitting them together, usually in the vertical axis, but on very loud single notes they may be played in the horizontal axis for extra effect. They are best used either in marches, doubling the bass drum in louder sections ( Unity - note the use of single line staves, better than all on one stave when many players are expected), or at single notes for climaxes. By holding the instruments against the chest, they may be played staccato, usually marked sec.
It may seem arbitrary whether a ride, clash or a crash cymbal is used, but the rule that players follow is to use a crash cymbal except in longer or more complex rhythm sections. There is a difference in tone colour between the two which is determined by the cross sectional shape of the instruments, but this need not concern the new writer to brass band instruments. To avoid confusion, I wrote the ride-cymbal at figure A of Mission above the top stave and marked it ride cymbal; the reader may also wish to use this technique. If clash cymbals are required, state clash cymbals: afterwards, state crash cymbal.
Hi-hat cymbals are written in the top space of the stave. It is safe to assume that all bands have a set of hi-hat cymbals as part of their kit. They can be played either by using the pedal or with sticks.
The pedal can be used to hit the cymbals together and leave the cymbals together to produce a staccato note, or the cymbals can be allowed to separate after being struck which allows them to ring. The effect is similar to clash cymbals; indeed this effect is often used in marches by lower bands, when a player with clashed cymbals is not available.
The top cymbal can be hit by either wooden sticks or brushes with the two cymbals together ("closed"), or apart ("open").
The appearance of the note head best relates which style to use. Usually note-heads indicate that the pedal is to be used: quavers or staccato to indicate that the pedal is pressed and kept depressed to produce the short note: long notes such as minims show that the pedal should be depressed then raised. Use an x note-head to indicate closed hi-hat used with a stick ( Lazy Days); or an x in a circle to indicate an open hi-hat used with a stick. Indicate the stick type with the word sticks or brushes.
It is safe to assume that most bands have a triangle. Although they are un-pitched, triangles do come in different sizes with deeper or lighter sounds. You should not, however, expect to write for different sounding instruments or assume that a band has more than one instrument.
The instrument can be used when the composer wishes to add bite to the colour of a chord, either in quiet passage accentuating a rhythm, or on a ff when the instrument will brighten the sound of the chord.
Rolls are marked as demi-semiquavers. The instrument should be placed above the top line of the stave, perhaps with a triangular head to emphasise the instrument to be used ( figure A of The Huron Carol).
As with all kit writing, remember that if you anticipate the instrument being played by the kit player, you must allow the player time to move to the instrument and change beaters before and after playing. It is best to think about which player is free to change beaters before deciding who should play the note.
It is safe to assume that most bands have a wooden block. The instrument is un-pitched and is struck with a snare drum stick, most often by the kit player.
The instrument should be used sparingly, to add byte to a sforzando note, or when its colour is called for in rhythmic writing. Fast and complex passages are possible by using two sticks, but rolls are best avoided.
Notes for the wooden block should be placed in the top space, using a crossed note-head. To avoid confusion it is best to clearly mark the part Wooden Block.
It is safe to assume that most bands have a tambourine, though the quality of the instrument may be suspect.
The instrument may be played by any of the percussionists, but one should avoid quick changes to and from the instrument, particularly in quiet passages, because of the noise that the instrument may make when being picked up or put down.
There is little dynamic range in the instrument. Rolls are marked as demi-semiquavers. The part should be placed in the top space using a crossed note-head. To avoid confusion with instruments such as the wooden block, the part should be clearly marked Tambourine.
Many, though not all, bands have a cow bell. The instrument forms part of a drum kit.
There is little dynamic range in the instrument and it is never used in a roll. It is hit with a wooden snare-drum stick and, by using two sticks, complex rhythms are possible, though the beginner should restrict writing to the occasional note for effect or tone colour. The part should be placed in the top space using a crossed note-head. To avoid confusion with instruments such as the wooden block, the part should be clearly marked Cow Bell.
Few bands have access to a set of temple blocks, a.k.a. skulls. They are a set of four or five hollow blocks, that, although un-tuned, are in different pitches. The blocks are played with hard snare-drum sticks and can be used to heighten tension in faster, rhythmic passages. They can also be used as clip-clop instruments mimicking the sound of a horse.
You should expect that the instrument will be played by the timpanist or third percussionist, so you will need to allow time for the player to move to the instrument and possibly change sticks.
Rolls are rarely called for. The blocks should appear on each of the five lines of the stave, following the five instruments in a set. The part should be clearly marked Temple Blocks.
Bandsmen use the words tam-tam and gong as though they mean the same. They do not. Strictly speaking, gongs come in various sizes, some pitched, some un-pitched. In modern English, the word gong is reserved for the pitched instruments, whereas tam-tam is reserved for the un-pitched instruments. Since brass bands nearly always require an un-pitched instrument, the term used should be tam-tam.
Only a few bands have access to a tam-tam. Many conductors or lower bands will direct the part to be played on a crash cymbal with a soft stick. This is mistake, but the writer should be aware that some bands will do this. I recommend putting an indication in the score stating what action to take if a tam-tam, or any particular percussion instrument for that matter, is unavailable.
The tam-tam is capable both of adding warmth to a quiet note, and of and exhilarating addition to a climax. The latter became a cliché during the 1980s and may be best avoided. The tam-tam is a large instrument which cannot be hit loud from standing still. The player needs to warm up the instrument by quietly stroking it before hitting a loud note, so avoid ff tam-tam notes on the first note of a piece. Furthermore bear in mind that the instrument will sound for sometime after being struck, so short notes are not practical. A player can deaden the instrument against him/herself to shorten the length, but the minimum length is set by physical factors.
The instrument should be written on the second space, clearly labelled tam-tam to avoid confusion with cymbals which are written in the same space. Rolls and short notes are not possible on the instrument.
True wind chimes are available to few bands, though many players improvise with a gentle glissando on a glockenspiel. This compromise, though common, is rarely acceptable. Wind chimes should be used sparingly, though their use in a slow, quiet cornet solo passage can be effective. The chimes are never struck individually, they are always struck in a glissando, the length of which can be extended by using a stick in both hands stroking one after the other in a wave like effect. The composer can expect the sound to be played for two or three seconds at most. The glissando is always upward in pitch.
The wind chimes should be indicated by using a crossed hair note in the lowest space marked both with an upward glissando mark, and the indication wind chimes.
Few bands use a real tenor drum. Instead when presented with a part for tenor drum they will either use a snare drum with the snares turned off or a small tom tom. The former will be sharper and louder than the latter which will be quieter and duller. The instrument will usually be hit with a snare drum beater, though it may be struck with a soft beater for effect.
The indication of bodhrán at figure H of O Worship The King is likely to be played in the same way.
Nearly all bands have access to a drum kit with two or three tom toms. Rolls are rare on these instruments, they usually only appear in rock-style music where the instruments are struck with a snare drum beater. The instruments are written on the three middle lines of the stave, marked tom-tom ( bar 4 of When We're Apart).
Whilst it is not incorrect to write a key signature on a tuned percussion part, it is more conventional to write with no key signature and to use accidentals where necessary.
It is safe to assume that most bands have a pair of timpani: usually 26" and 29". Sadly a few weaker bands still often only have hand-tuned kettledrums, so on simpler music the composer should avoid too many retunes, each should be preceded by at least 10 seconds of rest and each re-tune should be restricted to a tone or semitone. Stronger bands have pedal-tuned instruments, and often have a third or even fourth instrument. Mark each re-tune clearly, such as "change D to E". When starting, the budding composer should write for two instruments with no retuning. The instruments are written in concert pitch in bass clef. The larger instrument is capable of low G to C in the second space, the smaller instrument is capable of Bb to F on the fourth line. More advanced bands will have instruments capable of tuning to low Eb, but when starting the new composer should avoid those notes. A third drum, when available, will usually be a larger instrument.
Rolls are marked as trills. Rolls of higher notes tend to be less pure than those of lower notes which sound closer to one single long note. When a roll goes over a bar line, the notes should be tied.
Four types of stick are available, soft, medium, hard and wooden. It is best to use medium sticks only when starting, perhaps occasionally marking hard sticks for staccato passages.
It is possible for one player to hit two timpani at the same time or for two players to play more than one instrument ( figure L of Dies Irae) but this is rare and should be kept to an absolute minimum. The writing as in Dies Irae will therefore maximise the impact, in this case of a piece aimed at better bands probably in a massed band concert or entertainments contest.
It is safe to assume that most bands have access to a glockenspiel. Written in the treble clef, sounding two octaves higher than written, the written range is from G below middle C on the treble clef, up 2 and a half octaves to a top C, though notes above a top G can be very shrill on poorer quality instruments. Glissandi and rolls are both possible, but rolls are rarely suitable. Glissandi should be kept to the 'white notes'. Trills on the glockenspiel are unconvincing and should be avoided.
Because of the piercing quality and with the use of a range of sticks, a glockenspiel can cut through even the loudest of fortissimos as well as playing a delicate quiet passage.
The instrument should be used to add tone colour or occasionally to double the melody, the instrument should not be used as an alternative to brass instruments simply because it has access to the higher registers that are unavailable even to the soprano cornet ( bar 4 of When We're Apart).
Tubular bells are rarely available in weaker bands. Written in the treble clef at concert pitch, the instrument's rang is usually from middle C up an octave and a 4th to F on the top line.
Bells will add an excellent tone colour to both loud and soft playing. The tubular bell has unique tonal quality that always leads it to sound flat close up and in the rehearsal room, yet the instrument will sound in tune to the audience. Players and even some conductors do not always appreciate this and have been known to leave out the part as a result, or worse still put it in on a glockenspiel which is directly against a composer's wishes. An unusual use appears in the opening bars of When We're Apart. They can be quite dexterous especially when used with a repeating phrase that allows the player to get into a "rhythm" to play: semiquavers at 120 crotchet beats is achievable without too much difficulty. If you are at all unsure, a single note will still be very effective.
When first learning the theory of harmony one is introduced to the writing common in mixed voice choirs: SATB. That is Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass. The first two are female, the latter two are male. Look at any traditional hymn tune from Hymns Ancient and Modern, and the chances are that it will have been harmonised in this form.
Scoring such simple melodies is the introduction that most arrangers and composers have to writing for bands. Writing hymn tunes is a good first exercise since by following a few simple rules a good result can be obtained, giving confidence to the composer to move on to more challenging works.
Choose your favourite four part hymn and transcribe it using these rules:
You will have found that you had many choices to make, but some basic ones are:
Which key shall I use? Don't stray too far from the original, if you want to try your piece out at a church service you'll want people to be able to sing along with it.
What about the soprano cornet? Sometimes double the solo cornet at pitch, sometimes write it an octave above, but for now don't jump in the middle of a phrase.
What about the euphonium? You can either double the soprano voice down an octave, or double the bass voice. The choice is yours, but once you've chosen don't change.
What about percussion? If you want you can use the timpani at cadences, but feel free to avoid percussion for now.
Should the basses be in unison or in octaves? The answer to this is similar to the soprano, sometimes unison, sometimes in octaves, but for now don't jump in the middle of a phrase.
When considering the soprano and basses you will have had to consider the problem of octaves. For the first exercise I stipulated that one should not jump octave mid-phase. That is not always practical, however, since the part may end up outside the tessitura of the instrument. If one is to change octaves mid-phrase, the writer has to consider the issue of when to change. There is no hard and fast rule about this, one should move when the music dictates, but certainly no more than once in a phrase. The best time to move is at the start of the preparation for the cadence at the end of the phrase. Usually the basses are more flexible about when to move than the Soprano, since the casual listener may not notice the bass change, but the soprano change needs to be more carefully handled. If handled well, for example an octave jump up at the final cadence, the soprano change can be most effective.
See how the soprano is used in the transcription of Angel Voices. This transcription is unusual in that the 1st trombone helps the Alto voice for one phrase.
Double check that you have got all of the transpositions and key signatures correct. This is a common mistake when learning to write for bands. Remember that apart from the percussion (which you won't be writing for in this exercise) and the bass trombone, all parts are in the treble clef. Check that you have the Eb parts (soprano, horns and Eb basses), in the correct key compared to the instruments in Bb, and check that you have remembered that the bass trombone part is written in concert pitch. Again a comparison with Angel Voices will help you.
If you would like to send me a copy of your exercise for comments, feel free to do so, clearly marking your envelope "exercise 1". For copyright reasons, please ensure that the hymn was published before 1939 and that the composer also died before 1939. Please include and SAE if you want a written reply or your score back, or your email address if you want an emailed reply. Please only submit scores that are in hard copy form (handwritten is allowable), not in electronic form.
Choose a second hymn tune, this time thinking carefully about when the soprano should jump up an octave, and when the Eb bass should double the Bb bass or be an octave above it.
If you are submitting the exercise, please clearly mark your envelope "exercise 2".
The cornet section includes both the front and back row as well as the soprano cornet. From time to time the flugel will double one of the cornet lines, traditionally the repiano. Where appropriate I shall indicate this doubling, but as a rule of thumb the cornet section of a modern brass band does not include the flugel.
Players with a background in brass bands are very tempted to consider the cornets as two sections, front and back row. Newcomers to the movement do not have what is almost a preconception to treat the section as two halves, instead they write for the cornets as one section.
It is true that in all but the strongest of bands, the 3rd cornet players will be considerably weaker than the principal cornet, however this should not be seen as a barrier to considering the cornets as one section. In important parts where a full balance is required in all the notes of a chord or passage, I find it useful to split the front row cornets to help on the lower cornet parts; this will help to achieve the even balance across a chord that the writer usually wants ( Figure C of St. Clement; the bar before figure E of When We're Apart). At figure E of When We're Apart consider how the arranger has split the four parts across the cornet section. No other instruments are playing, it is important that each note of the chord is heard and that no player feels "exposed".
Write a short fanfare for soprano & cornets for your band.
If you are submitting the exercise, please clearly mark your envelope "exercise 3".
The horn section can be considered to contain different orchestrations at different times. When a saxhorn melody or sound is required, the arranger can consider many options for the horn section:
Which option to choose depends on the spread of the voices (how high and low?) and on the number of voices wanted.
It is important to consider the balance of the group; what looks perfectly balanced on paper, or sounds balanced on the computer when you play back your arrangement, will not necessarily work well within a band context, particularly in weaker bands. How would you orchestrate five equal voices if you want to use a horn sound? Clearly if you use the three horns and two baritones, then the parts played by the 2nd horn and 2nd baritone will be weaker than the other three parts, leading to an imbalance. In that scenario I would suggest adding a flugel and doubling the 2nd horn and 2nd baritone. That may introduce tuning problems you will need to consider.
I suggest considering the following combinations to handle balancing best:
Unlike french horns in an orchestra, tenor horns do not tend to play well in unison, especially at fortissimo. When faced with an extended section such as this to transcribe from an orchestral piece one will often find good results by scoring the line for trombones in unison, perhaps with the solo horn either in unison or up an octave, whichever works best at the pitch of the piece.
When orchestrating a section with a tenor voice lead, a safe bet is to use all baritones and euphoniums in unison. The sounds blend well and easily form a strong lead.
If the lead is in two voices, I would suggest splitting the euphonium lines, one doubling the 1st baritone, one doubling the second. This scenario will not occur often.
Uniquely in a brass band, trombones are cylindrical in their bore rather than conical, so their sound will always come through clearly. A straight 1st/2nd/bass trio writing will always be successful. If you want two octave lines, double the tenor trombones.
Extend the fanfare you wrote in exercise 3 to include parts for trombones.
If you are submitting the exercise, please clearly mark your envelope "exercise 4".
When compared with an orchestra or wind band, a brass band is unique in having a "bottom up" balance, by virtue of having 4 tubas along with 2 tenor tubas, a bass trombone, timpani and concert bass drum. This balance needs to be preserved and nurtured especially during full ensemble playing.
Bass choirs are rare, and the tuba ensemble sound produced at figure C of While Shepherds Watched, adding baritones and euphoniums, is rarer still. That's a shame, since the sound produced is very convincing, and I would suggest that the reader experiments with this combination. The choice of splitting and doubling at that example was chosen to ensure that each of the four voices has equal weight, whilst tuning problems are minimised.
Write a short interlude to contrast against exercise 4. This interlude should be for all the brass instruments except for cornets and trombones.
If you are submitting the exercise, please clearly mark your envelope "exercise 5".
The biggest problem facing the writer for percussion sections is ensuring that players have enough time to be ready to play, that is they need to have time to change sticks, run around, then prepare before they play. There are many examples of poor writing, for example part one playing timps and part two playing side drum, then one bar later player two plays timps and player one plays cymbals. Naturally the timp line should be left to one player in this example.
I generally find it best to put all the percussion lines on one part, it is then up to the players to work it out among themselves who will play what so that they can be in the right position at the right time. Players will always find the best system for themselves, composers, conductors and arrangers would be best advised to allow them to utilise their own system.
Write a piece of music entitled "Fanfare and Interlude" in three sections: (i) based on the material in exercise 4, (ii) based on the material in exercise 5, and (iii) a combination of the above, tutti including percussion.
Ask your local band to record it and submit the recording along with your score.
If you are submitting the exercise, please clearly mark your envelope "exercise 6".
One often finds that the first attempt at writing for the brass band medium for the budding arranger is the transcription of an orchestral score. There is no simple set of rules that always work when transcribing a full orchestra to brass band, all that I can offer here are some ideas which you can think about. There are some difficulties that the transcriber must be aware of before undertaking the transcription, these difficulties stem from the differences between a full symphony orchestra and a brass band.
Firstly, the scale. Even a modest symphony orchestra (an orchestra with double wind and some brass and timpani used by Mozart) has many parts. There are not necessarily more parts than in a band, but they tend to be in registers (alto and soprano) that the brass band doesn't have as many different tone colours (tenor). A large symphony orchestra (in the 20th century quadruple and even quintuple wind with eight horns, and large brass sections was not uncommon) presents even more problems. Consider the problems of transcribing a large work such as the Dies Irae from Berlioz's requiem, which in addition to the large orchestra also uses large choral forces.
Secondly, the register. The balance of the symphony orchestra is toward the higher frequency instruments. Not only can they go much higher (over two octaves higher than a soprano cornet is possible for piccolos and violins; over one octave higher than a cornet is possible for many instruments), but also there are many different tone colours in that register. On the other hand the brass band is weighted toward the bass end. The forces of the brass band in the low register includes four tubas, a bass trombone, timpani and two euphoniums.
As in the brass band score, the orchestral score includes transposing instruments. The most common ones are clarinets (in Bb, A, Eb or C); horns (usually in F or Eb, but they can also be found in D, C, low Bb, high Bb or A); trumpets (usually in Bb or C, but occasionally in F, D, Eb or A - Elgar would write for Bb trumpets but in a transposing key of F); double basses and double bassoons (written an octave higher than sounding) and piccolos (written an octave lower than sounding).
It was a common practice to write brass instruments (horns and trumpets most usually) in natural key with accidentals, but don't be confused, these parts are still transposing.
If you're looking for a set of rules, e.g. put violins to cornets, horns to horns, muting cornets for muted violin parts etc., you will be disappointed, since following those rules often leads to a rather formulaic sounding transcription. Remember that it is not possible for a brass band to mimic a full orchestra, so don't attempt it - a successful transcription is one in which the end result convinces the listener that the music was originally written for brass band. Not an easy objective.
Having said that I have some tips or specific ideas to consider:
Other suggestions anyone??
I believe that Barrie Gott's Lightwalk proved to be a pivotal piece in the development of the ability of brass bands, particularly those based in the UK, to swing and to read music in a swing style. The simplest example of such swing music is the playing of two successive quavers as a triplet crotchet followed by a triplet quaver. Before Lightwalk, bands could, and would, only play the music that was put in front of them, using the exact notation. Two quavers always meant two quavers, never a swung crotchet/quaver pair.
Since Lightwalk, bands have started to learn to swing notation and one can now put a swing notated piece in front of many bands and expect a reasonable performance. It's still early and there's still a long way to go, but it is improving.
The Ash Grove was arranged after Lightwalk was published, nevertheless at that time I still felt it best to use conventional notation; if I were to write it now, however, I probably wouldn't since brass band players are now more likely to be able to read "swing". The Ash Grove is also available for big bands and wind bands, there is a case to be made to re-score all three orchestrations.
The next step is to teach brass band players how to improvise!
Doubling occurs when more than one part plays the same line. Doubling can occur at pitch, for example repiano and flugel; in octaves, for example solo cornet and euphonium; or, most rarely, in two octaves, for example soprano and Eb bass - though this last option is best avoided except when it is needed for a special effect, and even then it must be used with care.
Doubling is a useful tool, though it can easily be used to excess and it has some pitfalls that can affect scores. If a score includes no doubling many instruments will rest, unless there are 25 independent lines, resulting in a light scoring, which can sound thin in weaker bands, though stronger bands can excel in this style. If a score contains too much doubling, balance between the lines can easily be upset. If a score contains inappropriate doubling, for example different instruments using different harmonics with different tuning characteristics, the parts of the line will not blend well resulting in an ineffective score.
An example of the inappropriate doubling problem is the practice of doubling the solo horn and flugel on countermelody lines. Often this results either in the horn playing high, resulting in a part that is more prominent than a countermelody line should be; or the flugel playing low, with some notes causing intonation problems in less experienced players. Having said that, doubling a countermelody on the soprano and repiano, in octaves, can be most effective.
Doubling the solo cornet line with the euphonium, in octaves, tends to work because the instruments will be using the same harmonics, thus avoiding tuning difficulties; and, because the instruments are in octaves, the euphonium line tends to add colour and depth rather than weight. This tool can be safely used both tutti and solo.
Practical issues can cause the composer to double parts. The principal practical issues come about from the need to write for the mass market where the standard of players will be variable and where we may find that some parts are missing because bands may not always have a full complement outside the contest arena.
A common practice to overcome this issue is to cue one part in another. This device allows you to convey to the conductor that you would prefer that a line is not doubled, but the conductor may choose the extra player if the part is missing or weak. For example the 2nd horn may be cued in the 1st baritone. Remember both that this is a compromise and that the above issues of intonation will occur from time to time, for example a low D in the horn will be sharp compared with the same note, G, on the baritone, which will be in tune.
The doubling that occurs most often is in the bass, rather than melodic, lines amongst the euphoniums, bass trombone and basses. Here a decision often needs to be made with the Eb basses: are they to double the upper octave with the euphoniums, or the lower octave with the Bb basses? More often than not the answer is unclear, indeed the Eb bass will often switch from a phrase in one octave to the next in the other, then back again. Exactly what do to will come with experience. Often the line will switch mid-phrase, though care should be taken to keep the line smooth when doing that - usually a switch occurs after a strong beat, usually on the 2nd beat of a bar, or at a very strong place, such as mid cadence which will often benefit from an octave leap in one of the parts.
Doubling can be used to warm up a player before an important or difficult solo. For example a soprano player may be called upon to play a high important part fortissimo. By bringing in the part a bar or two early, in a lower register and quieter dynamic, doubling the 2nd cornet, the player will be warm and find it easier to pitch the entry.
A similar problem exists when doubling between Eb and Bb instruments, especially when large leaps of a sixth or more are encountered. The problem is more profound in other instruments because bass lines rarely contain large leaps (except for octave jumps when the solution is clear) and because bass instruments nearly always have a 4th valve which increases the tessitura in the lower register. Usually you can use the same method of overcoming the problem, though on some occasions dropping one of the parts for the few notes in a phrase where the line is out of the tessitura can be surprisingly effective because it adds unexpected tone colour interest.
The other problem that exists when doubling Eb and Bb instruments, especially for long notes, comes from the use of different harmonics, with differing characteristics, between the instruments. This can easily be seen if we look at the harmonic series:
Where a cornet, for example, plays a C on the 3rd space, a horn will play a top G. These harmonics have differing characteristics which will cause tuning and intonation problems. The 6th harmonic, which on open notes is a top G, is naturally very sharp. As another example, the cornet playing a G on the 2nd line (using the 3rd harmonic, which is slightly sharp), will be out of tune with the horn playing D on the 4th line (using the 5th harmonic, which is slightly flat). These are built-in problems which all good conductors and players will be aware of and will constantly compensate for, often by the use of alternative fingering, or by "lipping" the note in tune. Nevertheless, the good arranger and composer needs to bear this problem in mind.
Given the issues raised with cross harmonics and intonation, the adventurous composer will still find some useful doubling in less conventional doubling, such as the flugel and solo and 1st horns in octaves. Trombones, however, should have fewer problems since it is easier, to move the slide in and out on most positions, and many players are used to doing so according to the needs of their instrument's and ensemble's characteristics.
Transcription of a piano score
Interaction between the Sections
Whilst is it of course true that the brass band does not have the range of tone colours available in a full symphony orchestra, it would be a mistake to say either that bands have no tone colour, that the only tonal colour is given by the percussion section or that there are only two groups of tone colour: cornet/trombones and the rest.
[This section is currently being written - to do: explain the different tone colours available].
The modern brass band score can allow for a wide variety of mutes. Choosing when to use and when not to use, and which type can be daunting. Never, ever, use a mute merely as a device for making an instrument sound softer. Also bear in mind that inserting a mute will affect the intonation of the instrument which will be all the more important on more advanced writing which uses some players open and some muted at the same time, or different combinations of mutes for advanced effects.
You should allow at least 5 seconds for mutes to inserted and/or removed, longer for trombones and basses.
It can be safely assumed that all cornet and trombone players (including soprano and bass trombone) will have a straight mute. Straight mutes for other instruments are usually available in stronger bands, though some conductors will use a trombone mute for a muted part in the flugel or tenor horn sections.
On the score, the simple word mute implies straight mute, ensure that you then mark open when the mute is to be taken out.
A straight mute gives a hard edge to the tone which gives it a penetrating quality in all but the quietest passages. In ff passages, a muted block chord on high trombones gives an exciting sound in con fuoco passages.
Most cornet and some trombone players will have a cup mute. They are warmer in colour than straight mutes. For legato or dolce passages, especially solos, a cup mute is usually preferable to a straight mute.
The Harmon mute contains a tube which can be extended to change its tone colour.
Cornet players and occasionally trombone players in stronger bands will be expected to have Harmon mutes.
On the score, the Harmon mute should be marked either Harmon(ti), Harmon(te) or Harmon(to). Use ti for tube in, te for tube extended, and to for tube out (i.e. removed).
The H should be capitalised since it is a name of a company that sells wah-wah mutes. On some scores you may find the term wah-wah mute substituting for Harmon with the tube in. This term comes from the use of the hand over the end of the mute when it is being used with the tube in. This "ragtime/jazz/blues effect is produced by the hand alternatively covering the tube then being taken away. In such a passage, mark a note with a + when the note is to be played with the hand over the tube, and o when it is not. The wah-wah sound is best produced by removing the hand slowly while a note is still being sounded.
Ensure that you then mark open when the mute is to be taken out.
Hand over bell
When to Break the Rules
In my capacity as a distributor of music and typesetter I receive a number of unsolicited manuscripts. Most of these contain very promising material that one can listen to using modern computer technology, however they often fall down in the area of scoring for band, usually with fundamental mistakes which would make them difficult to perform. Usually these mistakes can be avoided easily by using the advice I've offered here.
Generally the inexperienced composer or arranger will expect too much from the bands that he or she is aiming for. Unless specifically aiming for top section bands, you should be realistic in your expectations. The most common mistakes are:
Be very careful to go through each part checking the notes are not too low or, more likely, too high. If you play in a lower section band think of your learners, how will they react when they see a top A or top B? Think of your solo cornet bench and soprano player's stamina: endless bars above the stave won't go down well. Think of your 2nd baritone trying to play a low F# in tune.
Think about lines. For example, imagine a section which is for four instruments, two cornets, a horn and a euphonium. The horn line is centred around E in the top space then has a few bars down an octave - why not put the lower section on the baritone? It will be easier on the embouchure and by inference on the intonation and there will be a change of tone colour with the octave jump so changing instrument, especially between very closely related instruments, will not be so noticed.
I have produced a chart which shows the possible, probably and best written ranges for each part. Try to ensure that you keep within the "best" range, though occasionally wandering into the "probable" range is acceptable. Only ever use "possible" if you are writing for a specific player and know that he/she can play that range.
Most scorers are aware of writing too many bars of semiquavers, but you also need to bear in mind trombone players. Will a tenor trombone part be playable without a trigger? If you're unsure, check above where I've included a slide position table.
Also think of percussion players, have you given enough time for the players to swap instruments, or sticks, or re-tune the timps?
Think of the embouchure change needed to play an interval of well over an octave with no rest - will you expect the note to be in tune?
Think of too many bars of lip slurs. Sometimes they can be avoided using so-called alternative fingering, but not always.
Think of repeats, when a player repeats is the line smooth (in the same tessitura with no awkward jumps), are there any technical mistakes (dominant 7ths no long falling etc.).
The question of a piece being harder to perform than the composer/arranger expects is common place, especially amongst those learning the art of writing for amateur musicians. Too often lower parts are mistakenly written to be as demanding as upper parts because:
Players, especially weaker ones, tend to take breaths very often and sometimes where you don't want them. Be prepared to explicitly mark phrases where needed. It would be good if section leaders went through all the parts and marked the phrases on the parts, but in practice this is not done. Be on the look out for suspensions, in legato writing they will nearly always need to be slurred to ensure that the resolution isn't played as though it were a new phrase, thus breaking the flow of the music, and sometimes causing the suspended note to be cut short thus losing the intended dissonance.
It's a worthy goal to write delicately, however most people don't achieve this when they start to write, instead they write too thinly and the music sounds as though it is being playing by an ensemble rather than a band.
To avoid your music sounding as though it is written for a group of soloists, don't be afraid to double supporting parts, even in quiet and delicate passages. For example double 2nd cornet and solo horn, 3rd cornet and 1st horn, 1st baritone and 2nd horn.
Only on rare occasions should you write for Bb bass only - if you want a lighter sound then write for Eb bass doubled with the euphoniums. Later, when you do add the Bb bass, do it down an octave. The effect will be to add more depth and colour, often at a point in the music when that is what is most desired.
When hearing a new composition or arrangement for the first time, you will quickly notice that what you are hearing is not what you had heard in your mind's ear. Often the reason for this is that a band has a difference balance from your expectation
There are usually five reasons for this, or a combination of them. With experience you will learn to allow for them in your writing.
Some trills are more difficult to play effectively than others. It's obvious that you shouldn't write a low Eb trill, or only write a trill for a trombonist that you know can lip trill the note, however it's far less obvious that trills on top Gs or long long trills on D (4th line) should also be avoided. Try playing a D trill, you'll often find the note you trill to is a C not an E. As for the top G, that often trills to the same note from the flat high Bb harmonic.
Generally speaking, trills around the middle of the range work best, especially if the trill lasts for some time. If it's a very short trill, which often should be more correctly written as a mordent, this issue is less of a concern, since more often what is really wanted is more of an effect which does work.
Writing for Soloists
These examples will help the reader both to write music that is suited for a particular instrument, and to accompany a solo instrument better. What works as an accompaniment for one instrument, will not necessarily work well for another.
Writing for sections
Writing for full band
I'm not a lawyer, so I am not going to include a lengthy section here or comment in depth in case I make a mistake. Furthermore the situation is different for different countries.
As I understand it within the EU, the legal position is you can't even put pen to paper for an arrangement (or transcription - they're the same from a legal perspective) if the composer/original arranger died or the music was published, which ever is later, within the last 70 years. If you intend to, you must get written permission from the copyright holder before you do anything. Despite what you may hear down the pub there are no grey areas. For further information consult the PRS. The best solution is to use traditional music, or music that is at least 150 years old.
This article was written by and is copyright © Nigel Horne, all rights reserved. No part of it may be reproduced in any form without the prior written consent of the copyright holder.
Brass Ranges, a poster of ranges of the brass instruments in a brass band.
Study scores of the examples sited in this paper are available for £5 each from NJH Music.
Last revised: 15 May 2014