I have been getting a lot of questions on the subject of composing and orchestrating for brass, so I decided to do a short tutorial on a few proven and effective ways on how to incorporate brass into your compositions.
In this tutorial we will be looking at how to use brass in a harmonic accompaniment context. I will use the MeHaRyTe method in my examples so be sure to read the article on that subject before continuing reading this one.
Getting familiar with the sound
I would firstly like to point out, that the key to becoming a good orchestrator is being familiar with the sounds of the orchestra, and how it all sounds as a unit. If we take the brass family under the microscope, one must be able to hear how every instrument in the brass family sounds at particular dynamic level and at what particular range one should use it to its highest potential.
The first way, and the best way, to learn this is to attend live orchestra concerts and listening to the orchestra in its “natural” environment. Pay close attention to each individual instrument and try to learn its sound by heart, so that you will be able to recall it in your head at any time.
Another way is that you can practice the same technique at home as well by listening to live orchestral recordings. I also suggest you go to the website https://imslp.org/ where you can find practically any score that is not under copyright. Download your favorite orchestral score and study it with a recording again paying close attention to how each instrument sounds at a particular dynamic level at a particular register.
A third technique you can use (but I do recommend the first and second more) is to open up your favorite brass sample library and play through all dynamic levels and all tones. I do not recommend this technique as much tho, since sample developers tend to massage their samples to sounds their best. Sometimes, sample developers also leave out certain dynamic levels.
For example: they achieve a horn mezzo forte sound with blending a sample from a horn playing at piano and one playing at forte. This won’t sound like a legit mezzo forte dynamic!
Learning the sounds of the orchestra through sample libraries will often make your inner orchestral sound get distorted, meaning the way you think some instruments sound, might not be how they actually sound in reality.
So let me ask you, can you recall a sound of a tenor trombone playing at mp in its lower/mid register? If you cannot, then I advise you to practice the methods above some more!
One great way you can you use brass is in a harmonic accompaniment context.
You will usually need only one orchestral family (strings, woodwinds or brass) to be playing the harmony for the listener to be able to comprehend it. Using the brass is a great way to get your harmony across and well heard. Here I am mostly talking about writing long notes in chords with brass instruments. This type of writing acts as sort of a “glue”, that holds the sound of the orchestra together.
Let’s look at how we can achieve that using different instrument sections:
Usually you will have four horns to work with in an orchestra. With four horns you can easily write a nice three or four tone chord. But one must be very careful to write the chord in the right register, since the horns sound quite different in their different registers!
You will get the best results with writing chords with horns from F3 (F below middle C) to A (A above middle C) – sounding pitches and not written pitches.
In this register the horns sound full and round in the p and mp dynamics and have rich upper harmonics that make them sound nice and brassy in the mf to ff dynamic levels.
Writing chords too low will make them sound hollow and the sound will not penetrate through the whole orchestra. Writing chordal horns too high will make them sound thinand weak. This sound will not “glue” the chords into the whole orchestral picture.
Also note, that the higher you go into the horns register, the harder it gets for the instrumentalists to play soft, and the lower you go, the harder it is for them to play loud. So for example, if you are writing a f or ff part you might get away with writing chordal horns above A4.
In the example below I used three horns as harmonic accompaniment for the finale of the piece. The high woodwinds and high strings are playing the melody, while the bassoon and double basses are playing the bass note. The cellos are giving a little texture to add some movement.
You will see that I have indeed written the horns quite high, but since the section is at a forte dynamic the high horns still work, as we discussed. Note that after bar 34 the horns gradually go lower since I was going for a diminuendo.
Example 1: Anže Rozman – The Kiss (at 1:08)
Using trombones for harmony is my favorite way to use them! In a “normal” orchestral setting you will usually have two tenor and one bass trombone at your disposal, so writing three note chords is a breeze.
As in the horns, writing chords in the trombone section too high will usually not bring you good results. I suggest you write chordal trombones in the range from C3 to E4. Writing chords in the trombones works well at any dynamic level.
In the example below you will find the trombones holding up practically the whole harmony of the examined section. The bass notes are being played by the double basses doubled with tuba, the high strings are playing and horns are playing the melody, while the woodwinds are adding texture, that enriches the sonic spectrum. The cellos are playingarpeggios of the chords, which helps with giving the section some movement.
Note that the trombones are written one dynamic level lower than the other instruments. This is to really tell the players that they are only accompaniment and that they should notplay too loud.
Trombones up until and on a mf dynamic level blend perfectly with the rest of the orchestra – trombones playing f or above get a very rich upper harmonic brassy sound, that sticks out from the wholesome sound of the orchestra like a red dot on a white sheet of paper!
Example 2: Anže Rozman – Polyverse (at 1:10) *the trumpet at bar 33 is not playing
Having the whole harmony be held by the trumpets is very uncommon, since the horns and the trombones do a much better job at it. The trumpet sound penetrates through the orchestral sound-wall very well and the characteristic of the trumpet’s timbre makes it stand out, which is not good for creating that harmonic glue we talked about. You want your harmony to be heard and be filling, but not to really stand out.
Trumpets can help out with the harmony with adding extra color to the horns or trombones, which leads us into the next part of this tutorial: combining sections together.
Combinations of brass sections
Combinations of different brass instruments to create chords often comes into play when writing for orchestra, especially in forte sections and big climaxes when the entire orchestra plays tutti, but combinations can be used in softer passages as well.
There are two basic ways to create good combinations of brass.
The first way is to double the instruments on top of each other by letting the different instruments play the same tones, so for example you maintain only 3 tones in your three tone chord.
Now, many instruments will be playing the same tone in the exact same octave; the same sounding pitch. This will create a nice blend of all the brass sounds.
The second way is to section them apart, where you put each instrument group in their own respected and “best” sounding register.
Now you will get your chord a lot more spread out through the harmonic spectrum. Sure, some layering or doubling will still occur, but this does not really pose a problem. Notice, that I am putting larger intervals on the bottom and higher intervals on the top. Also take into account, that I am avoiding the use of too many thirds. I advise you to read my tutorial 3 beginner orchestration mistakes where I talk about the use of thirds as well.
The third way is to write the brass sections so they are interlocking with one another. This will create somewhat of a blended sound, but it might not produce the best results, since you usually have to take instruments out of their sweet spot register in order to interlock them with the other instrument groups.
In the example below you can see, that the lower trumpet is playing between the upper horns and the upper trombone is playing between the lower horns. Note that the dynamic level now is mf to compensate for the relatively high first horn.
I would like to share with you another example from my work Phoenix for flute and orchestra. In the beginning of the example you can hear the horns with the trumpets playing the harmony. At bar 135 the trombones come in as well while the first trumpet is helping out with the melody line.
This brass orchestration method is a mix between method 1 and method 2 explained above. Note that the trombones are written quite high, but I wanted to achieve a very brightsound, so that is why I put them in that register. Also take into account, that this is atransposed score so you have to read the horns a fifth lower as they are written and the trumpets a major second lower as they are written.
Example 3: Anže Rozman – Phoenix for flute and orchestra; movement 4 – Rebirth (9:41)
I hope you have found this article interesting and useful. For further study I highly recommend that you take a look at the brass in G. Holst – Planets, J. W – Star Wars suite, M.Ravel/Mussorgsky – Pictures From an Exhibition.
Create a short 16 bar piece with four horns playing the harmonic accompaniment. Use the violins and violas in octaves for the melody doubled by one flute, one oboe and one clarinet. Let the double basses play the bass tones. Try adding triplet arpeggios in the cellos to add movement.
Instrumentation: 1 flute, 1 oboe, 1 clarinet, 4 horns, violins II, violins II, violas, cellos, doublebasses.
Feel free to send me your scores through the contact form on my website for review. I will try to reply to every email.
You can also learn more about orchestrating for strings in my course: Orchestration Reloaded: String Arranging