Writing for Brass Band – Starting Out

When arranging for the brass band, there are a few things worth considering to make what you do as effective as possible. Carefully considering the typical ranges of each of the instruments, the role that the instrument plays in the ensemble as well as the line that it is given will really allow for good quality arrangements that are idiomatic and work well.  It is worth considering what is meant by arranging, transcribing, composing or orchestration as there can be some subtle differences in the meaning of these terms.

Arrangement:

This is a piece of music written for a particular instrument or group of instruments that is rewritten for a different instrument or set of instruments.  When the music is rewritten it may be made simpler, or altered to better suit the intended instruments.

Transcription:

A transcription can be a piece rewritten for different instruments that aims to sound exactly as the original.

Composition:

When you compose a piece, you create a new piece of music.

Orchestration:

Quite often orchestration and instrumentation are terms that are used interchangeably.  Orchestration deals with the way in which different instruments of an ensemble are combined to create a variety of colours or timbre.

When writing for the brass band it is important to think carefully about balance, blend, and aim to avoid masking.  Instruments that provide more blend with each other are normally those that are from the same family.  This is quite an easy thing to achieve with a brass band as all of the instruments belong to the brass family!  However, some instruments have a particular role in terms of which ones they will blend with and create the best possible sound.  Instruments that provide less blend would be instruments from different families such as a quartet made up of a trumpet, clarinet, violin and bassoon.  This idea was explored in the Renaissance era (approximately 1500-1650) with pure consorts (instruments of the same type, such as a recorder group or a group of Viols) and a broken consort (a group made up of recorders and lutes, for example.)

Typical ranges for brass band instruments are as follows:

what-brass-players-want-Brass-Band-Instrument-Ranges

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Brass Band Instrument Ranges,

The brass band consists of a number of different instruments that all have their own role within the ensemble.  There are lots of cornets in the ensemble, and often there will be more than one player on a particular part.  This will require some thought regarding balance, blend and intonation when writing for the group.  Unlike an orchestra, which is treble heavy, the brass band is built on the idea of bottom up with quite a number of instruments assigned to a bass line or lower parts.

Soprano Cornet (E flat)

The soprano cornet is kind of like the piccolo of the orchestra.  It plays a little higher than the other cornets, and there is only one of these in the brass band.

The instrument requires a great deal of physical strength and stamina from the player, and even though the instrument is only slightly higher in pitch it can significantly brighten the overall sound of the band.  This is important as brass bands are often bottom heavy and are built on a foundation of 4 tubas, a bass trombone and often timpani.

When writing for a soprano cornet it is good to use them sparingly and is often called upon to provide an important counter melody an octave higher than the repiano cornet, horn or doubling the solo cornet an octave higher.

The soprano cornet will sit well on the top of a fortissimo chord at the end of a piece.

Solo Cornet (B flat)

The solo cornet is used as the main melodic line of the brass band. There are usually 4 or 5 solo cornet players in the band, and the strongest player will sit as the principal.  They will perform the same role as the leader of an orchestra.  Sometimes the person sat next to them will be known as a bumper – as the principal player will usually player all of the main solos, a bumper will allow them to take a rest and play during the tutti sections.

Solo cornet parts do not often go below a middle C even though the cornet is capable of going down to a G below middle C.  It is not advisable for the line to go to a G above the stave or higher for many phrases.  The solo cornet line is usually played unison, and if you wish to achieve a different balance or solve issues with stamina, it is possible to mark the part with 1 only or 2 players.  The first two cornet players are usually considered to be the strongest cornet players of the band.

Repiano Cornet (B flat)

The repiano cornet sits on the back row of cornets and is usually considered to be the third strongest cornet player of the band.  This part is a sought after position for cornet players in a brass band as it will often be used to provide important melodic lines, counter melodies as well as harmonic/accompanying figures.

Very often the rep part will double the solo cornet line, or boost weight of the music given to the 2nd cornets.  The rep part can be used with the soprano cornet in octaves and provide a counter melody against the cornet parts.  Although it is not always a good idea to ask the rep player to play solo lines on their own, they can be used as part of a trio with two other members of the front row cornet section.

2nd & 3rd Cornet (B flat)

The 2nd and 3rd cornet parts usually provide the harmonic lines or counter melodies.  Usually the range for the 2nd and 3rd cornets will be less than that of the solo cornets.

The 2nd cornet part will normally have two players and the 3rd cornet part will usually have 2 players.  Often the players will be of similar ability, and it is possible to make the part as one only if there are concerns regarding balance for particular sections of music.

In a march, the 2nd cornet part will normally double the solo horn line.  Usually a 2nd cornet part will be written so that it falls in between a middle C and an E in the top space.  Obviously , if you are writing for a strong band then this is not a necessity, but this is definitely worth considering as standard practice.

3rd cornet parts are usually considered to be for less able players, or beginners and the range is quite low.  This does create a number of issues as very often the 3rd cornet player will be playing notes that require the use of triggers on valves 1 and 3.  These triggers help the notes to be played in tune more effectively.  When the triggers are not used, the notes can often sound quite sharp.  These cornets provide the bottom line to the cornet section.

Flugel Horn (B flat)

There is only one flugel horn part in the brass band and the instrument provides an effective harmonic and timbral link between the cornets and the horns.  It is often seen as an addition to the horn section, but the instrument can work well when paired with the trombones.

Very often the flugel horn is used to provide important melodic ideas.  However, it is best not to write too high for the instrument as it has a large bore and requires a lot of stamina to play for long periods of time.  The usual range for the instrument is considered to be a middle C up to a G above the stave.

Tenor Horn (E flat)

There are normally 3 horns in a brass band and they are referred to as Solo, 1st and 2nd horn.

The solo horn is played by one person and bridges the gap between the cornet, euphoniums and trombones.  The solo horn usually plays the top note of a triad when used with the other horns.  This part will often also double the 2nd cornet when the music contains um-cha accompaniment patterns.  The instrument blends well with baritones and euphoniums as the top of the ensemble, and also with the trombones as the top of the ensemble.

The 1st horn part is primarily used for accompaniment and will often double the 3rd cornet during accompaniment sections.  You would normally limit the range of this part from a middle C to a top F.

The 2nd horn part is often played by a weaker player and the part will very often not contain a great deal of technical writing.  However, as with the 3rd cornet part it is important to write music that is not boring or uninspiring!  The 2nd horn part should be kept lower than the first horn, and may often double the baritone line.

Baritone (B flat)

The 1st baritone is often considered to be one of the most technically demanding parts of the brass band.  However, it usually takes second place to a euphonium or trombone when solo melodic lines are written.  Very often the 1st baritone part will contain lots of writing in the upper register.  Modern baritones sound very like a euphonium due to the larger bore.  This can provide less options for the composer or arranger when you are looking for a sound that is lighter than the euphonium and not as bright as the trombone.

The 2nd baritone normally fulfils a supportive role to the 1st baritone.  The 2nd baritone will usually help with bass solos in a march or to provide a fuller unison sound to the 1st baritone.

Trombone (B flat)

The 1st trombone often provides a solo line, but is generally less used than the solo cornet or euphonium.  When writing for the trombone it is important to consider that the instrument uses a slide rather than valves and needs careful consideration.

The trombone section can often be used as a trio (including the bass trombone), the 1st trombone could also be used as the 2nd part in a quartet including a horn or flugel horn.

The 2nd trombone should not be treated as you would treat a second cornet or 1st horn as the middle part of a trio.  When the 1st trombone has a solo to play, it is usually best to rest the 2nd trombone player.  The 2nd trombone will often play in unison with the 1st, and if the 1st player is resting the 2nd player will normally rest as well.

Bass Trombone (Concert Pitch)

The bass trombone is written in bass clef (the only instrument to be in this clef in the band!) and is written at concert pitch.

The bass trombone will usually have 2 triggers which enable the range to be extended downwards.  It is best not to use the bass trombone as an extension of the bass line in the louder sections.  The bass trombone should be considered a member of the trombone section and not the bass section.

Euphonium (B flat)

There are usually two players which usually play the same part.  It is possible to split the part but only usually when this is required for balance or when writing a duet.  The players will usually read from the same part.

The euphonium line is often likened to the cello line in an orchestra and can be used to double the cornet line an octave lower, provide a melody line or a counter melody.  The euphonium can also be used to double the B flat bass or the 1st trombone.

The euphonium line is extremely versatile and the instrument can blend exceptionally well with other instruments.

E Flat Bass (E flat)

The E flat bass can be considered to have the largest range of all of the instruments in the band.  It is an extremely versatile bass instrument and the part will usually have two players.  The parts will usually be identical, or will contain doubling at the octave.

The instrument can often be used for solos and the part can be marked as solo or 1 only with a2 to show that both players are required to play.

B Flat Bass (B flat)

There are usually two players on this part and when writing for a brass band it is important to remember that the ensemble works from the bottom up.  The B flat bass is the foundation of the ensemble.  It is quite rare to split the B flat bass part and the instrument will normally play in unison.

Fast passages or extended and sustained lines are usually avoided for the B flat bass.

Percussion

This will consist of a drum kit with a single player, or three percussionists using an array of tuned and untuned instruments. This will depend on the standard of the band, and whether they are a contesting or non-contesting band.

This information provides some details about how the instruments can be used and their function within the ensemble, giving a good starting point for learning about how to arrange music for the brass band.  Over the next few weeks I will look at some ideas on how to arrange music so that it will work for a brass band, jazz group and chamber ensemble.  There are a number of techniques and ideas that can help to provide a good quality sound and help to provide a good use of the different ensembles.

Having been a member of a number of different brass bands and chamber groups I have been lucky enough to have experienced a number of fantastic arrangements, transcriptions and compositions.  I have also had the opportunity to see quite a number of pieces that simply do not work so well.  I hope that if you are thinking of arranging or writing some music for a brass group that you play with this will provide some inspiration and a starting point for you to develop your ideas.

Please let me know if you have found this information useful, and if you would like me to look through any arrangements and provide some feedback, please do not hesitate to get in touch*!

*(This will of course not have any impact on your ownership of the arrangement or music, and I will make no claim to copyright or ownership of anything that you send ever.  I will also not make any charge for doing this – it is important to me that this site remains free and I am keen to ensure that there are no costs involved to anyone who uses it!)

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