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jawoodruff

Doublings, Brass Usage, Etc.... In other words.... Orchestration Tips

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So... I want to compose more for orchestra and begin to build a decent corpus. Only thing... is that I'm more knowledgeable on string techniques and writing -with a growing understanding of woodwinds. Brass are my main issues... I just don't know the best ways to compose for them! I get that they can play soft... I understand that trombones and horns can provide nice padding to any texture -but, I'm scared to death to use them because I don't want to overpower the winds and strings. I can hear the brass instruments in my head (which is a good thing for orchestration) -but I still am hesitant to use them. Any tips or suggestions?

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Strings > Woodwinds > Brass is a pretty okay rule to follow (or at least it was what I was taught) most of the time when it comes to orchestration, in regards to playing frequency. It's more  broken in canonical or fugal stuff where the idea is that the new voice is heard (unless you're Ligeti or Lutoslawski where they intentionally try to hide it). Because of this it's mostly homophonic stuff you'll need to watch out for and WW/brass density in terms of pitch structure also contributes to a psychoacoustic sort of overpowering rather than a necessarily acoustic one. 
 

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I myself often use the horns for 2 purposes, those being blending into the woodwinds and harmonizing them, and to provide punctuations that when within a quiet piece and combined with tympani, can foreshadow a sudden forte and make it seem less sudden of a change, like the crescendo of mass has made the difference in the dynamic of volume a bit less. 

And in orchestral scores or really any ensemble scoring larger than quartet, I always separate the dynamics into 2 types, one of which is dynamic of volume, where the force and speed of the attack is itself adjusted to be at a certain dynamic. For example if mezzo forte is what you achieve with the default attack, forte is going to be a faster and more forceful attack whereas piano is going to be a slower and less forceful attack. The second type of dynamic I think of for quintet and larger scoring is dynamic of mass. A forte of mass means most of the ensemble is playing(say 4 out of the 5 instruments in a quintet score). A piano of mass means only a small part of the ensemble is playing(say the violin and cello in a duet section of a quintet score). A crescendo of mass means that instruments are gradually being added. This often but not always coincides with a crescendo of volume. Similar things apply to the diminuendo of mass, but now instruments are gradually being dropped out.

As to why I don't apply this dynamic of mass to say duet scoring, the mass change doesn't become significant enough to feel like a dynamic change regardless of actual dynamic until you get to quintets and larger ensembles. For an orchestra, you can get the illusion that it is doing a creschendo to fortissimo by having the mass gradually increase while keeping the actual dynamic at say mezzo forte.

I have been told recently that trombones are not going to overpower the woodwinds and strings if I have them double and harmonize with the woodwinds. If I want a quiet brass chorale and the horns are already blending in to the woodwinds, then I use trombones and get a 3 part harmony.

As for trumpets and tuba, those are perhaps my most rarely used brass instruments, especially tuba. Trumpets, I tend to reserve for the loud moments of the piece, because to me, a trumpet sounds at its best when it is playing forte or louder. Of course, a trumpet can play quietly, but I remember trying to play the trumpet once and I would always, always get a forte dynamic if not fortissimo. My mom once put in a sock to try to make the trumpet quieter and it just blew out of the trumpet, with no changes in dynamic or tone whatsoever. My trumpet had the standard length of tubing for a trumpet but super compact, so the trumpet would fit in a 10 inch wide case.

And as for the tuba, I only use it when I want a large orchestra to begin with(so an orchestra with bass clarinet? More likely to use a tuba. An orchestra with only the piccolo and contrabassoon as woodwind auxilliaries? Not likely to use a tuba.) and I also reserve it for loud moments and I use it to solidify the bass provided by the cellos and double basses or as the bass line in a brass fanfare(but if the orchestra isn't that large, I will use the trombones for that bass role).

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The number one principle for good balance is to remember that brass is louder than woodwind in loud dynamics, however in quiet dynamics it can play as quietly as the woodwind (the latter group's biggest advantage is its projection.)

Trumpets

The most powerful brass instrument. Besides its obvious use for fanfares, you can see it used a lot to punctuate loud sections.

12 minutes ago, caters said:

Trumpets, I tend to reserve for the loud moments of the piece, because to me, a trumpet sounds at its best when it is playing forte or louder. Of course, a trumpet can play quietly, but I remember trying to play the trumpet once and I would always, always get a forte dynamic if not fortissimo.

An interesting point, and one that leads to a good discussion. The thing is, that modern trumpets are very different to the trumpets of yore. All you have to hear is the contrast between a baroque trumpet or F Tromba and the modern Bb trumpet to understand why trumpets used to only be used in loud sections. Even current D/Eb trumpets have a much brighter, more martial sound. Nowadays, trumpets, especially in their low register, can be used to fill out gaps in chords, and can carry beautiful solo lines. Overuse of trumpets is one of my personal bugbears in much music of the Romantic period.

Auxiliaries: Cornets have a round broad sound - listen to a British brass band or authentically performed old concert band music to hear them in action. Flugelhorns can act as a bridge between trumpets and horns or play a descant harmony to the horn quartet.

Horns

The brass instrument that is most like a woodwind. It can play loud, soft, chorales and martial melody lines. It has a huge range, although notation is notoriously odd (horn players are often able to transpose accurately on sight because of this.) In loud passages, horns may need to be doubled to balance with the rest of the brass. Flutes, oboes and clarinets can then double above the trumpets.

Auxiliaries: Ah, the Wagner Tuba. Despite its name, it is very much a horn. It can be used to form a quartet below the horns, due to a slightly lower tessitura but a similar range.

Trombones

Don't write glissandi if you aren't sure of them. Google a slide position chart if you are unsure! Trombones are well used in the orchestra, for good reason. A trio sounds broad and expansive, even at quiet dynamics. It is best to score 1/2/Bass as this is what many orchestras will have and forms the most resonant grouping. Trombones cannot play extremely fast because of the slide, so watch out for this.

Auxiliaries: Alto Trombone. I wish this was used more. It has a much lighter sound and a slightly faster technique. Leopald Mozart wrote a concerto for this instrument, and many orchestral trombonists double on alto.

Tuba

I have no idea about the tuba. Like Caters, I very rarely score for it. All I know is that its timbre is very different from the trombones and should be treated differently. Many composers preferred to use Contrabass Trombone instead.

 

Don't worry about the brass overpowering the woodwind. Generally speaking, orchestral players are well versed in the fact instruments have naturally different volumes. Brass instruments were invented to play loud, but due to modern developments they are gaining a range of expression not unlike the woodwind. Scoring for the brass is less difficult than the woodwinds because the register changes are smoother. If you want to find some good setups, check out the 'Harmony in the Brass' section from Rimsky-Korsakov's Principles of Orchestration. Also, you could have a look at https://bandestration.com. I have not looked at the brass section on this blog, although the woodwind is excellent - very detailed descriptions on each instrument.

 

Nb @caters

I believe that the "crescendo of mass" that you speak about is known as a textural crescendo.

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I put a few tips born of some experience and study in a post in another section. Elgar was an excellent writer for orchestral brass and Walton's 1st Symphony is a priceless example. (for a recording, Previn's still tops the list.)

I don't know how to quote a post from elsewhere, but here's  a copy in case they're of any use to anyone:

= = = = = = = =

Brass will overpower everything else in the orchestra in a full tutti - everyone playing - at anything above mf.

Make sure all important parts of the harmony are in the brass [Edit: at f and louder][ /edit]

Other instruments double the brass at the unison, octave, 2 or 3 octaves (for the piccolo). Like, I mean, don't write an independent melody line for violins hoping it will be heard against full brass (as a guide, anyway. There are times when you might depending what's going on in your score).

Regard 2 horns as equalling one trumpet / trombone in volume at anything above f. Not very precise but a good start.

At f and ff, space the chord notes wide in the lower register. Put each doubling instrument in its brightest register.(Edit: You might want a growling, grumbling or muddy effect so then, you space the low parts closely. [/edit]

At p and pp, space the chord notes more closely. At low volume balance is less of a problem.

Don't keep players on the high notes longer than necessary. It's tiring.

As with much else in orchestration it's about balance. 

 

Edited by Quinn
as shown

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You might start using them for punctuation or by sectionalizing them in ways that are not tutti. And you don't have to bring in the whole fleet, from top to bottom. In modern music you have a lot of leeway. Something  else to consider is how will you write for strings and winds along with the brass? If you think strings and winds will get buried write in their extreme registers. They will be heard.

I remember in college we did this Offenbach opera buffo or some such. And the director kept telling the trumpet player to play softer during this one part. And he tried and they played it again. And the director said, quieter please. And he tried. But it wasn't quiet enough. And it went back and forth like this for a while. I can't play it any softer. Please try! But it wasn't happening and he finally stormed out of the rehearsal in frustration.

I wonder if Offenbach might have wrote that part for a cornet instead...

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Awesome tips. So, I shouldn't be concerned with a lot of rests for the brass parts @Monarcheon?

@Ken320 I know to double the strings with the winds when I want the lines to be heard. That part doesn't bother me so much. I just don't want the winds and strings to be drowned out by the brass. Another concern is the horns. I know the horns are often used to double the winds and serve as a bridge to the other brass. I just always get worried about balance with the horns and winds -but, I'm taking it that's a little unfounded.

@Quinn So, by putting the harmony in the brass -say at p or mp- will that create a thick texture or still maintain a light texture? I like that idea a lot -especially with the trombones, tubas, and horns. I try to use the tuba to strengthen bass and celli lines (along with the bassoon). I just worry that that will create too thick of a bass line -meaning I'll have to beef up the middle and upper registers to compensate. Regarding dynamics, from my research I've learned that when you have tutti at f or ff, the musicians will often compensate to insure balance (where possible). Would you recommend against putting tutti at f or ff for the brass? 

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I think you may have misunderstood me. I don't suggest doubling anything, but rather utilizing the qualities of register to address being drowned out or not. Horns are a great "glue" in orchestration, but I'm just saying that doubling should not be your go to solution right off the bat.

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6 minutes ago, Ken320 said:

I think you may have misunderstood me. I don't suggest doubling anything, but rather utilizing the qualities of register to address being drowned out or not. Horns are a great "glue" in orchestration, but I'm just saying that doubling should not be your go to solution right off the bat.

 

No, I didn't misunderstand. You referred to writing in their extreme register as a solution to be heard. The other solution is to double the part with strings or another woodwind. I'm glad you mention the horns are a great glue in orchestration -particularly since that's the brass part I'm worried about the most for some odd reason!!!!

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This is a really interesting conversation.  I guess I never really thought about it because I'm a euphoniumist first, then a trombonist, then a tubist.

Since everyone has given some great responses, I'll give my $0.002

Tuba:  The tuba is the youngest and lowest brass instrument.  Don't be scared of this awesome instrument.  The tuba will round out the bottom end of your music so well.

It can project as well be an additional foundation to your bass.

Euphonium: Not a very common orchestra instrument.  VERY common in band.  Some people use this in when parts are written for tenor tuba. This instrument is the closest to the male voice (some argue trombone.) Even with that argument, it's more agile than the trombone because of valves.

 

Trumpets and Trombones: Man, what a duo.  VERY powerful instruments with much punch..  YOu can use them in so many ways.  You don't have to relegate these awesome instruments to just fanfare type motifs.  They are very capable of handle rigorous AND MELODIOUSLY warm passages.  Don't look at stuff in the classical period as your guide for these instruments.  The trumpets were not valved, thus very limited. Also, IN THAT TIME, people didn't realize the trombone could be a virtuous instrument.

Horns:   IMO, there is no better instrument that can "bring home the bacon" like the French Horn.  There's nothing like giving the Horn a countermelody in ANY range and you feel it.

I leave you with the GREAT RESPIGHI!

 

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I agree with you about the tuba, spot on. I don't know if this is helpful but damn it's good. Trumpets trombones sax AND horns. Enjoy!

 

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Yes, nice thread. I'mlearning a lot.

Not an expert, but I began to study orchestration some time ago.... I think the brass can take many roles: melody, counterpoint or countermelody, homophony, runs, etc...

The most important is having in mind the balance with the resto of the orchestra. Brass is very powerful (as mentioned befores). A good example of this is the beginning of Tchaikovsky's 4th symphony in which the melody is  presented by the bassons and horns, but then the melody is taken by two trumpets in m. 7, a set of 6 wind instruments are needed to compensate. That is the power of the trumpets. Notice hoy in m. 6 the melody is enforced by the bass brass. Wonderful beginning....

 

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5 hours ago, jawoodruff said:

Awesome tips. So, I shouldn't be concerned with a lot of rests for the brass parts @Monarcheon?

 

@Quinn So, by putting the harmony in the brass -say at p or mp- will that create a thick texture or still maintain a light texture? I like that idea a lot -especially with the trombones, tubas, and horns. I try to use the tuba to strengthen bass and celli lines (along with the bassoon). I just worry that that will create too thick of a bass line -meaning I'll have to beef up the middle and upper registers to compensate. Regarding dynamics, from my research I've learned that when you have tutti at f or ff, the musicians will often compensate to insure balance (where possible). Would you recommend against putting tutti at f or ff for the brass? 

 

No. My bad. I'll alter my post now. At the end I mentioned that "At low volume balance is less of a problem."

If you do use brass at pp to mf, you may not need the whole section but the harmony should still be there unless you can find other ways to fill the gaps. At that dynamic level other instruments can do the job. Obviously it depends on the effect you want. You can space it wide if your composition needs it. It also comes down to how the conductor balances the resources. But at full tutti, f to ff, unless you're aiming for a deliberate effect then the important notes of the harmony should be there.

It's worth study, frankly. Even brass band music should help show how to lay out brass chords. 

Bloody nuisance, the software won't let me un-italicise that section. 

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Another beautiful example this time in homophonic texture (trombones and tuba) from the Pathetique symphony also by Tchaikovsky. This time in very soft dynamics.

 

 

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14 hours ago, jawoodruff said:

So, I shouldn't be concerned with a lot of rests for the brass parts

Nope. Great on their own or sparsely to accentuate a part, but they're used to rests. Also stamina.
That's just a general rule, though. Obviously different situations call for different doubling.

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Brass players seem to be the only musicians with a good sense of humour. Horn players a little snooty perhaps. Our town orchestra has one horn player and he always plays absolutely ratted/drunk. 

.

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9 hours ago, Quinn said:

Brass players seem to be the only musicians with a good sense of humour. Horn players a little snooty perhaps. Our town orchestra has one horn player and he always plays absolutely ratted/drunk. 

.

 

Unlike us string players... lol

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10 hours ago, Quinn said:

Brass players seem to be the only musicians with a good sense of humour. Horn players a little snooty perhaps. Our town orchestra has one horn player and he always plays absolutely ratted/drunk. 

.

 

Haha! You never met a percussion section at a pep rally.

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