Brass Band Arranging – the Nuts and Bolts

Arranging for the brass band – the nuts and bolts

Arranging for the Cornet Section:

StateLibQld 1 151887 Unidentified Army brass band, Brisbane, ca. 1925The solo cornet line is played by 4 or 5 people and is normally the main melody line. When writing for the solo cornet players it is probably best to think of them as you would the violins in an orchestra. Solo cornet players will usually have a fairly good range but may well tend to tire fairly quickly if there is sustained high playing. The solo cornet part can be marked as divisi to provide additional harmony and by writing either a2, a3 or a4 you can specify how many of the players should be playing at the same time. The solo cornet part can be marked as Solo and this will mean that the principal player will play on their own. This is particularly useful for small ensemble writing or a particular solo line.

The second and third cornets will usually provide harmony to the top solo cornet line in 3rds or 6ths. Traditionally these parts will not be played by as able musicians as the solo cornet line. The writing for them will often be simpler in terms of range, but the parts require additional musicianship in the fact that the players will often be used to provide just a harmony line, a counter melody or off-beat accompaniment patterns.

It is useful to think of the solo, second, third and repiano cornets as you would a violin section within an orchestra. The repiano part will often be used to double the solo cornet or second cornet line to provide additional weight or support. They can sometimes be used alongside the soprano cornet to provide a counter melody against the main tune. Although, do bear in mind that in a large number of cases the back row cornets are generally weaker players. If a full chord sound is required it is sometimes possible to double the 2nd and 3rd cornets to provide the extra strength in sound.

It is usual for the solo cornet and repiano partbrass-band-arranging-what-brass-players-wants to provide the top notes of a chord, the second cornet to provide the next note of a chord and the 3rd cornet to provide the bottom note of a chord. Chord spacing can be used in different ways across the group of cornets and this will ensure that the instruments avoid overlapping, masking the melody or obscuring important lines.

The soprano cornet can sometimes double the solo cornet line at pitch or up the octave. Be wary of using this instrument for sustained periods of time as it is a physically demanding instrument to play. The soprano cornet is used to great effect when it adds an additional colour to the cornet section. Playing the highest note of a loud ending chord can add a real touch of sparkle to the orchestration. However, if the instrument is used consistently throughout a piece the result can be dramatic for all of the wrong reasons…

The soprano cornet can be used in the piece to provide counter melodies against the cornet line or other section. As previously mentioned, the instrument often works well in octaves with the repiano cornet line.

Arranging for this section has a wide number of possibilities and it is worth looking at standard hymn tune arrangements for line spacing and use of the section as a whole. Compare this approach with march writing, for example The Thin Red Line or The Conquerors will show the different ways that solo and 2nd/3rd cornets can be successfully utilised. Thinking of the cornets as a group in two halves is kind of inevitable, as they are physically divided in the band layout. It is useful to challenge that idea and think of the cornets as a single section. This could provide a different colour to the sound that is produced.

Arranging for the Horn Section (including Flugel Horn):

The flugel horn has a warm round sound that blends well between the cornet and horn sections. It has a similar range to the cornets, and again, it is tiring to play in the upper register for a sustained time. The flugel horn can double the solo cornet line, pairs up with the repiano or acts as part of the horn section. The flugel horn is generally considered to be a member of the horn section rather than the cornet section.

Arranging for the Baritones:

what-brass-players-want-brass-band-arrangingThe baritones are often thought of as being part of the horn section and if there is a main tune in the tenor line they will often be paired up with the euphoniums.

When arranging the music for the horn section there are a number of different possibilities that are available. You could have the tenor horn section on there own, flugel horn with the tenor horn section, the tenor horns and baritones or the flugel horn, tenor horns and baritones.

This provides the possibility of trio, quartet or quintet writing. Which you choose will depend on the range required, spread of the musical ideas and the overall sound you are trying to achieve. It is important to consider tuning carefully as there can be a number of issues combining these instruments in different ranges. Consideration should be given to the writing for the second horn as this part is usually played by a less experienced musician. The flugel horn and baritones are in Bb and the tenor horns are in Eb so some care will be needed with transposition.

The following combinations for three voices will work well:

  • Flugel horn, solo horn and 1st horn
  • Solo horn, first horn and 1st baritone

The following combinations for four voices will work well:

  • Flugel horn, solo horn, 1st horn & 1st baritone
  • Solo horn, first horn, 1st baritone, 2nd horn & 2nd baritone

The following combination for five voices will work well:

  • Flugel horn, solo horn, first horn, 1st baritone, 2nd horn & 2nd baritone

Generally speaking horns do not tend to play well in unison. This is especially true at louder volumes so writing extended passages of the same music for them is best avoided.

When writing a lead melody line for the tenor voicing, it is usually best to write for the two euphoniums and baritones in unison. It is sometimes possible to double the first baritone with one euphonium and the second baritone with the other euphonium. This, however, is fairly rare.

Arranging for the Trombones:


The trombones work well as a section and writing for a straight trio will always work well.The first trombone can be used to provide a solo line, or be the 2nd part of a quartet including the horn or flugel horn. The 1st trombone can also be used as an accompaniment instrument like the horns.

The second trombone will usually rest if the 1st trombone is resting, double the 1st trombone or if there is an accompanying figure it will play the same rhythmic idea as the 1st trombone but lower within the chord structure.

The bass trombone should always be considered as part of the trombone section and not the bass section. The bass trombone is sometimes used to provide additional bass colour within marches, rather like you would sometimes hear within the orchestra. Although the bass trombone should be considered as part of the trombone family and not the bass section, it is important to remember it is a bass instrument and is not part of the tenor line. Always think of the bass trombone as a member of the trombone family and write for it as a member of the trombone section.

Arranging for the Euphoniums and Basses

When writing for the euphoniums and basses it is crucial to remember the bottom up philosophy of the ensemble. During the full ensemble sections it is possible to use four tubas, 2 euphoniums, bass trombone and bass drum to give that rich, warm sound.

Scoring parts

music-236685_640When starting off, it is worth having a quick look at the red hymn books that many brass bands use as these provide a good basis for scoring different lines.

It is best initially to think of the instruments in terms of a four-part choir (soprano, alto, tenor, bass or SATB) and split the instruments like this:

Soprano line – Soprano cornet, solo cornets, repiano and flugel horn
Alto line        – 2nd & 3rd cornets and solo horn
Tenor line     – 1st & 2nd horns, baritones, 1st and 2nd trombones
Bass line        – Bass Trombone, Eb and Bb basses

Of course when writing a hymn tune it is not necessary to have all of the instruments playing all of the time. It is worth experimenting with pairings of different instruments and thinking about how they combine together. You could choose to have the soprano cornet double the solo cornets, or play up the octave. The Euphoniums could double the solo cornets the octave down, or double the basses an octave higher. Usually once you have chosen to do one thing it is usually best to stay with it within a hymn tune. You could choose to put the basses in unison or in octaves and this is really a matter of taste. Again within a hymn tune setting it is probably best to stick with just one way. Very often you will find that the basses may decide to drop down an octave at the cadence points or during the last verse.

Doubling is most common within the bass voice of a brass band rather than the soprano line. (Although doubling in the other voice lines can be used to warm up a player before an important solo or melodic line).

Very often brass players, especially weaker ones, will tend to breathe where they like and this can often upset the line of the phrase or your intention. It is a good idea to mark phrasing very carefully, particularly on the back row cornet, 2nd horn and baritone parts and especially where suspensions/resolutions occur in these parts. It is common practice to mark the note that acts as the resolution with a slur to ensure that it is connected to the correct phrase.

When scoring for brass bands aim to avoid scoring too thinly. It is never a problem to double the supporting or accompanying parts. This will make it sound like a brass band ensemble rather than just a small chamber group. Of course, it is possible to achieve the sound of a small chamber group within a piece for a particular effect or musical idea.

To achieve different tonal colours, it is also possible to use a range of mutes. Do remember that using mutes changes the colour of the sound of an instrument and that it is perfectly possible to play loudly and quietly with a mute in. Quite often the mute will alter the pitch of the instrument slightly so careful consideration should be given to intonation issues that may arise.

It would normally be expected that straight mutes would be available to all of the instrumentalists. (Quite often the basses will have access to a set of mutes, but do bear in mind that this may well not always be possible). Cup mutes should be available to most cornet and trombone sections in a band and the harmon mute would normally be owned by most cornet players.


It is worth looking at a wide range of brass band scores – both arrangements and original works. Only through looking, listening and experimenting will your writing develop. (Scores are available to view on If you use Sibelius or Finale remember that very often what you write may well come out sounding a bit different in reality. This could be due to a number of things that are beyond your control such as the ability of the musicians available, the number of players available on each part or some musicians are inherently louder than others! Always let your ears be your guide and keep trying out different ideas. If you can, try to find a local brass band that is willing to try out your compositions or arrangements. This is not usually too difficult to do as many brass bands are happy to try out new music and give positive or constructive feedback! Have a look on for further details of brass bands in your area.

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Brass Band Arranging – the Nuts and Bolts — 1 Comment

  1. Hi there, nice tutorial. What I am sorely missing is some audio examples illustrating what you’re explaining. Do you think it would be possible to attach some audio files to your website ?



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