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Orchestration: PART 2 - Brass

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Guest QcCowboy



We will not go into extreme detail of the brass instruments’ ranges and abliities, for the simple reason that they are considerably more variable than those of the other instruments of the orchestra.

Needless to say, we are all aware of brass instruments’ ability to play LOUDLY. However, that is not all they are capable of. Let’s start with a quick run-through of the brass instruments regularly found in the orchestra.

More so than with other instruments, the extremes of range of brass instruments (both high and low) are limited by the skill of the particular musican for whom you are writing. When orchestrating for general purpose, it is thus best to avoid as much as possible those extreme registers, lest you find your piece being performed by an ensemble whose musicans are incapable of reproducing the desired effect.


The question of extremes of playable range come up quite often when discussing orchestration. While is it true that some performers might be willing and able to play notes that fall outside the “normal” range of the instrument, it is wisest to be aware that the “normal” range of each instrument generally also happens to fall into its most usable and felicitous range. Of course a horn player could probably squeek out the high D (written) above the staff, however, that sound will not be of the best quality, nor will you be guaranteed that in performance that note will come out at all.


Also called “french horn”, this is a transposing instrument “in F”, meaning that a written C will sound the perfect 5th below. The main problem with writing for horn is the erroneous conception that it should always be used as a melodic instrument. This leads to horn parts that are considerably too high, and too demanding on the musicians. The horn should rightfully be thought of as an alto instrument, despite its placement above the trumpets in the brass choir of the orchestra. Music of a sustained nature best suits the horn, as well as music that carries on the “origin” of the horn as a hunting instrument.

Despite being grouped with the brass, the horn does not have quite as much carrying power as the other brass instruments. This is the main reason in a “classical” symphony orchestra we find four horns to balance against the two or three each of trumpets and trombones. For considerations of tonal weight the horns often find themselves doubling, both each other and other instruments. In very loud passages, it would be unwise to give four very active parts to the horns during an orchestral tutti. More on this later.

The horn is capable of a lovely pp, with a certain velvety quality to it. Again, a good book on instrumentation is important here for detailed information on the ranges and abilities of these instruments.

Horns in fortissimo can have a particular sound called “cuivr

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LESSON 2 (continued)

The usual disposition of the brass section in an orchestra is as follows:

- four horns

- two or three trumpets

- three trombones (two tenors and a bass is the most often found grouping)

- one tuba

This exact disposition is variable, with some pieces requiring more or less of each instrument.

The four horns

We have already covered the horns in relation to the woodwind section in previous chapters of this course. We now need to examine how the horns can be used within the context of a brass grouping.

As has been said earlier, the horns do not have the carrying power of the other brass instruments. There are a number of ways of balancing out the brass section to take this into account. Not all of which work well.

The one way will will avoid is the use of different dynamics for the horns and the other brass. Notating the horns at forte while the rest of the brass grouping are mezzo-forte (or even softer) will not guarantee a successful blending nor balancing of the group.


I would go as far as to recommend that this sort of artificial blending of tonal weight be avoided at all costs regardless of the instrumental group being worked with.

The two most effective ways of dealing with this issue are placement in range, and doubling.

As has been examined in the woodwind section, most instruments have strong and weak ranges. With the brass this is a bit less marked than with the woodwinds, however. Generally speaking, the upper or lower extremities of a brass instrument’s range have the same carrying power. The timbral quality, however, will be markedly different.

By placing the horns in their most felicitous register (the octave either way up or down from middle C, concert) the musicians will be playing notes that are easier to produce.

The other option is to have the horns doubling each other. This is the safest manner to treat the instrument in extremely loud passages. For example, it is quite common to find 1st and 3rd horns in unison on one note, while 2nd and 4th are in unison on another. In the very loudest passages, there is nothing wrong with the four horns playing in unison.

The more movement your instrumental part has, the less tonal weight it will have in the texture. Thus a very busy horn part will not carry as well as one made of more static material. This principle applies to ALL instruments.

As mentionned earlier, it is often best to arrange harmonic material for the four horns in such a way as to complete the harmony as much as possible. With more complex harmony (compound chords, polyharmony, atonal material), the choice then becomes one of “which part of the harmony do I want to emphasize”. With more contemporary musical idioms there is no strict, hard and easy, rule on which notes to double.

Another way to deal with the horns is to complete the harmony in both trumpets and trombones/tuba, and then to place the horns right on the juncture of those two groups of instruments. In other words, some of the horns might double actual trumpet notes, while others might double trombone notes.

When the distance between trumpets and trombones becomes too great for this last solution, the horns can then “fill in” the harmony in between. I personally do not find this last method to lead to the most subtle nor successful orchestration effects. A combination of all of the above will most often lead to the most sucessful end result.

Remember the concept of “thickened melody”? Well, it can easily be applied to the four horn parts. If you find yourself with a “stately” melody in the alto register, perhaps played by the violas, it becomes a perfectly valid option to double this melody with the horns, themselves “harmonized” to follow the melody.


The melody need not be in the 1st horn part, either. The 1st horn could quite conceivably be playing harmony notes ABOVE the melody while the actual melodic fragment might be in the 2nd or 3rd horn.

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LESSON 2 (continued)

Here is a brief excerpt from a Debussy prelude (transposed into a slightly easier to read key... the original is in 6 sharps):


There are many ways of setting this brief passage for a brass section. The ones that preoccupy us are those that will give the best results when a full orchestra is involved.

Obviously, you could simply take each staff and divide it among the different instrument groups of the brass family: trumpets on the treble staff, trombones on the bass, and the tuba gets to play the bass, as follows:


However, this would be rather crude, and besides, we're still missing the horns.

The best thing would be to examine the material and see where there is already doubling happening.

Let's examine what would be our trumpet part in the crude arrangement. First and second trumpets in thirds, which is good, and then third trumpet just doubling trumpet 1 an octave lower. It would be more interesting to create a tiny bit of both movement and resonance in the 3rd trumpet. This could be achieved by starting it out on the same note as trumpet 1 and moving DOWN through the available notes at each step:


This gives fullness on the first two notes, then a resonance note at the end of the motif on beat 2 during the crescendo.

For the trombones, we can use only the lowest thirds for trombones 1 and 2, while our bass trombones and tuba play the "low" note. Notice that there are some 16th notes in the 1st measure? Those will be taken by our bass trombone, which in essence is repeating the same bass line we had originally simply assigned to a tuba:


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LESSON 2 (continued)


Where are those blasted horns?

This is where the change in trombones comes in. We just freed up the upper part of that line for them! Notice that the trombones, unlike the trumpets, were not playing in octaves. This is a good sign that the line is more noticable since it is going to be richly harmonic. Let's just give that line to the horns.

Yes I know, there are four horns. We're going to cheat a bit. By adding a 3rd up from that Ab, we can create a parallel line that fits into the general character of the harmony (non-functional 9ths):

this image has the horns in concert ("in C")


N.B. This is NOT something that I would recommend doing in general when orchestrating the work of another composer, however, in this particular instance, it is consistant with the harmony of the entire piece.

Generally speaking, you can get away with passing notes of this nature if they create brief lines that start and end on notes consistant with the original harmony.

As to orchestrating your OWN music, this is a wonderful way of creating additional richness in unexpected ways.

Ah yes, horn 4. Well, I made a choice.

I allowed the 4th horn to mimic the 1st trumpet, doubling the 2nd trumpet part one octave down. However, the astute among you will also notice that I added a natural in the first two measures, which is NOT a "true" doubling.

The reason?

I could go with a pure doubling of that trumpet part and thus create a dissonance with the 2nd horn, OR I could do as I did and create a less noticeable dissonance between 4th horn and 2nd trumpet. It was a choice, and neither is essentially right or wrong. In the alto register, in an unexposed part, the extra chromaticism will go unnoticed.

The full orchestration for brass is here (in PDF format):

Debussy excerpt

A recording of the piano part:

...La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (excerpt, piano solo)

and one of the brass:

...La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (excerpt, orchestral brass)

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LESSON 2 (continued)

How much, how often, how loud…

The previous example was orchestrated using the full complement of brass of a normal symphony orchestra. Ths doesn’t mean that you will be using the full forces at every turn in your orchestral music. As a matter of fact, you will probably keep that particular effect for only a few very select passages in your works.

The brass section are capable of quite a blast of sound when they let loose, as you have no doubt noticed. However, they are also very much an integral part of the orchestral pianissimo.

Let us try to examine a few of these other uses for the various instruments of the section. Bear in mind that this will in no way be exhaustive, and it is limited only by your imagination. A good orchestrator can always find novel ways of using instruments in combination with others.


As we saw in the previous lesson, the horns can be used to create textured backgrounds for the rest of the orchestra. This can be accomplished using the horns in pairs, or as a grouping of four. Remember that the register in which you place the instrument will have a direct bearing on the strength or weight of its tone within the orchestral tapestry. [This is one of the principal reasons I encourage the young orchestrator to become comfortable with the most usable range of each instrument before delving into the extreme registers]

The horn is, at its origin, a hunting instrument. And this ancestry continues to have an influence on “good” horn writing. Parts that give the impression of being written for a “natural” horn (one without keys/valves) still allow the instrument to sound its best.


Listen to Horns, 1st example

While playable, rapid and heavily chromatic lines are not as idiomatic for the instrument. The horn is, however, still capable of a great deal of virtuosity and flexibility.


Listen to Horns, 2nd example

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LESSON 2 (continued)


The horn is the classic orchestral “blending” instrument, getting along with pretty much every family of the orchestra. However, the trumpet also has its uses.

In dense woodwind counterpoint, bringing the trumpet(s) in will make a new entrance really stand out.


Listen to 1st trumpet example

A solo trumpet can be used to double a string line, lending a bit more weight and incisive articulation to the line. The same goes for a woodwind line where a bit more tonal strength might be needed.


Listen to 2nd trumpet example

Consider the use of trumpets in their medium-low register in soft dynamics, as a middle part to a full string section, or even as the bass line of a high string passage. Remember that the trumpets playing softly, in the lowest part of their range, have a sombre yet noble quality to them.


Listen to 3rd trumpet example

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LESSON 2 (continued)


Trombones have possibly the most beautiful pianissimo of the entire orchestra. It has a roundness and richness which has no equal except perhaps in the strings. Unfortunately, the beauty and nobility of the instrument have been overshadowed by the clich

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LESSON 2 (continued)

thank-you to Daniel for bringing up this issue

While, generally speaking, instrumental fingering should not be a composer's main concern while composing, it can become an issue if you require specific technical effects.

With some brass instruments, phrasing can become an issue.

Horn, trumpet, and tuba are all valve instruments. Meaning that the fingers press valves or pistons that either lengthen or shorten the sounding length of the tube which makes up the instrument itself. This difference in tube length is what gives the player a different set of harmonics from which to produce sound with lip tension.

A good performer needs to learn how to "slur" across differences in lip tension as the notes go from one harmonic series to another. This is a given of performance technique.

With the trombone, however, comes a different problem: that of the slide. Fully extended, the slide gives the lowest harmonic series it can play, while pulled completely in it gives the highest. The entire distance covers an augmented 4th (before actually slipping right off the instrument and falling to the floor with a loud clatter).

This means that some notes might be playable with the slide completely out (7th position) while others might only be playable from the closed position (1st). Slurring across this wide distances, or even rapid passages requiring notes in distant positions, is one technical hurdle the performer must deal with.

It is a good idea, however, to have a chart handy with trombone slide positions and their associated harmonic series to at least get a good idea when writing technically difficult passages or glissandi. (a chart for glissandi is being prepared by Flint for use in this course, and will be posted as soon as it is available)

One thing to remember is that, as with all brass instruments, the lower the register the fewer choices of fingering or slide position there are for notes. Higher notes, on the other hand, can sometimes be played from several slide positions or fingerings.

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Guest QcCowboy

LESSON 2 Important Note

Because an instrument CAN play something in theory, does not mean that you must have it do so.

Remember that the art of orchestration is that of rendering the best possible result, the most satisfying blend of instruments at hand.

Just because you know a horn player who tells you "well, I can play a high E above the staff", that does not give you carte blanche to do so.

Extreme ranges on ALL instruments should be used ONLY when you fully understand the diffficulty of doing so.

Part of the problem with becoming accustomed to using extreme ranges is that the young orchestrator tends to consider them "normal" parts of the instrumental arsenal, and over-uses them.

I have seen symphonies by certain young composers where the horns were expected to play continuously above the staff. This was justified by the composer using the above-quoted comment.

This is not successful orchestration.

Write FOR the instrument, not against it. Difficulty for difficulty's sake is not going to give the best result. Nor is difficulty brought about through ignorance.

Remember also that the "ideal" range of each instrument contains its most usable notes, notes that will blend best, will carry well, and will be characteristic of that instrument's timbre.

If you go to meet an instrumentalist, don't fixate on "what's the highest note you can play".

When you have the good fortune of having a musician demonstrate their instrument for you, ask them about ALL of the ranges.

Ask them to play excerpts from pieces within those ranges. Don't just ask the musician to "play the highest note". Out of context you will actually know LESS about that highest note than if you heard it within a musical phrase as written by a composer.

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