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A Beginner’s Guide To Brass

Adding A Horn Section To Your Arrangements By Dave Gale
Published February 2023

Toots Manoeuvre

Adding a horn section to your productions can bring everything from mellow melancholy to verve and excitement.

If I’m truly honest, I owe much of my musical upbringing to the fact that I just happened to pick up a musical instrument, when I was aged around nine years old, that not only resonated with me but offered an enormous wealth of musical opportunity. Growing up in South London, the long defunct Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) provided an absolute cornucopia of musical opportunity, for any ILEA pupil. All pupils were offered free weekly instrumental lessons along with the free use of an instrument. It sounds like an outlandish concept in these cash‑strapped times but, thankfully for me, that instrument was the trombone.

Brass Antics

I’ve long suspected that musical instruments choose their players, explaining why some musicians reach dizzying heights while others struggle with the basics, and talking of basics, the trombone benefits from a bizarre playing concept. It emanates from the brass family and, in common with other brass instruments, is a relatively physical instrument to play. The guiding principle involves placing what could be regarded as a long piece of plumbing up to your mouth, and buzzing down it, via a conical device known as a mouthpiece. Somewhat odd, most would agree, at least outside of musical constraints, but it does mean that it’s the individual behind the genesis of note production.

To add further to the circus‑based amusement, the trombone is equipped with a contraption called a slide, which goes up and down, often as the clown in the middle of the circus ring has some degree of comedic misfortune! Thankfully, though, and placing circus antics to one side, the trombone is capable of far more than pure theatrics. It resides in numerous musical brackets, from small classical groups to full orchestral settings; from jazz and funk bands to slick pop outfits. I clearly got very lucky, making the absolute most of every musical setting I could muster.

What’s That Horn?

There was, though, one scenario that captured my imagination, and still works me to a frenzy of excitement even now. The Horn Section is the generic term applied to the group of players, working as a section within a band, group or production. The term ‘horn’ in this context applies to trumpets, trombones and saxophones, or derivatives of those instruments. It confusingly has nothing to do with French horns, and certainly nothing to do with the Taskmaster sidekick, Alex Horne, and his fantastically eccentric troupe, ‘The Horne Section.’ (Note spelling!)

It does however have everything to do with the ability to create a beautiful sonic layer of colour for a ballad or slow song, or supply extreme excitement to push a song over the cliff, with builds of volume and energy.

Can you imagine a Blues Brothers rendition of ‘Everybody Needs Somebody’ without the excitement of the main horn riff? Or Stevie Wonder’s ‘Sir Duke’, without that fantastic hook at the front of the song? In fact, there was a time back in the ’70s and ’80s when horn sections were so dominant, it was almost a prerequisite to use them. Michael Jackson, Earth Wind & Fire, Steely Dan, all made extensive use of horns, making them more noticeable by their absence! This tradition was largely informed by the jazz era, and as that jazz influence infiltrated the funk scene in the ’70s, so horns followed, bringing all that majesty and colour to commercial music.

In most horn section scenarios, the magic number of players is three.

The Magic Number!

There’s no getting away from the fact that horn sections can be an expensive luxury. Unlike harmony based instruments, such as keyboards and guitars, horns only play one note at a time. There is a technique known as multi‑phonics, but that’s not going to help you in any of the more usual settings. Neither is the once fashionable concept of playing two saxophones simultaneously (listen to the sax solo on the Blockhead’s classic, ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ for evidence of that!).

In most horn section scenarios, the magic number of players is three. This has everything to do with the fact that triads are three‑note chords, and while extended chords such as 7ths contain four or more notes, you can leave certain notes out, within a chord shape or voicing, and the effect can actually be heightened without any hint of missing those extra notes.

This rather begs the question, which lucky three horn players you might employ? It’s often down to personal taste, but the most commonplace ideal is a trumpet, an alto saxophone and a tenor trombone. All three instruments adopt slightly different registers; the trumpet can play relatively high, sounding incredibly exciting when it does. It’s also a brass family member, but employing valves instead of a slide, and can be very nimble as a result. The alto sax can sound fairly mellow or crisp, and adopts a classy mid‑to‑high register with a sonority in its lower register, while the trombone fills the lower void nicely, although in this setting, it often tends to play relatively high, on a regular basis. It’s also worth mentioning here that saxophones are not regarded as brass instruments, despite being made of metal. They use a single reed, much like a clarinet, and present a reedier sound as a consequence, in a lovely contrast to the trumpet and trombone. Hence they tend to be considered woodwind or wind/reed instruments, with a foot in both family camps.

As with all rules, this three‑player arrangement can be broken. Adopting a tenor sax instead of a trombone is a relatively common occurrence, and some bands have been known to build upon this number, for greater effect. Earth Wind & Fire had a horn unit who were branded as the Phenix Horns, most commonly seen as a four‑piece section. Meanwhile, no band personifies the section more than Tower Of Power, whose whole USP was a five‑piece section, immediately doubling the size of the band. With that size came power, and a depth in the frequency range, thanks to the use of a baritone sax.

Of course, there is a slight downside, and that’s the financial one! You might be hiring three players, when arguably a keyboard could play a brass sound. It really won’t be the same, so you’ll just have to trust me when I say that when you hear that first horn section entry, the expense will be worthwhile!

Arrangement & Transposition

We’re going to consider some ideas for arrangement and placement, so for our exercise, let’s stick with the mainstream three‑player construct. Before we move headlong into arranging music, we must discuss the thorny topic of transposition. When writing music for certain instruments, some invoke a policy of transposing, which means that in order to hear the correct note, you write a different note for them to play. Let’s consider the trumpet first; all notes have to be written one whole tone higher than you would like them to sound, and that includes the key signature. So in Trumpet terms, asking a player to play a C results in a Bb. The alto sax also transposes, but to a greater extent. Ask a player to play a C and they will play an Eb, and notably, it sounds a major 6th lower, and not a major 3rd higher. You can refer to our handy transposition chart (Figure 1), which also includes other horn instruments, for reference. The trombone is the only instrument in the pack that doesn’t transpose. Trombonists do the work, so you don’t have to!

Figure 1: Transpositions. This note chart displays how Middle C will look to a player reading a transposed part.Figure 1: Transpositions. This note chart displays how Middle C will look to a player reading a transposed part.

After a while, talking transposition becomes second nature, although you won’t be the first person to get caught out! The tenor saxophone is also a transposing instrument; the reason why early Madness recordings include a sax that sounds out of tune is because the player was unaware that the tenor transposed. He took up the slack by tuning the instrument very sharp to compensate, which resulted in an out‑of‑tune instrument, which was recorded for posterity!

When you get three players in a horn section, all playing the same note at the same pitch register, the most wonderful sounds emerges. You could quite easily be forgiven for thinking that on paper, this feels a tad boring, but when the different instrumental colours intertwine, along with humanistic imperfections in tuning, the instruments’ blend sounds amazing. Use this kind of scoring as a colour to provide some form of counter melody or riff, and you’ll create an excellent backdrop for a vocal in a song.

Horns can also do things that other instruments cannot. Where pianos and guitars tend to strike a note and die away (we’ll ignore guitar overdrive for the moment), horns can drive through a note with a full sustain, crescendo or diminuendo. This is because all horns require the force of breath to sustain a note, while the beginning of any given note will employ a hard consonant, such as a ‘Tor’ and ‘Dor’, resulting in a harsh attack to each note. Do this to an extreme, while immediately followed by a quick decrease in volume and subsequent crescendo, and you can generate incredible excitement from a single note. This ‘fortepiano‑crescendo’ effect (see bar 3 of Figure 2), to give it its Italian term, is fairly unique to horns. Despite the obvious section flamboyance, it’s essential to note that players do not have an inexhaustible amount of air available. I know us horn players might appear invincible, but we are mere mortals like the rest of you, and we can only blow out as much air as our lungs can accommodate. The louder we play, the harder we blow, the sooner the air runs out! Remember this before you decide to write some horn part that requires all players to play at the upper limit of their dynamic range, with a note that’s longer than the Pennine Way!

Figure 2: Unison horns. The warm sound of three horns in unison. Note the fortepiano‑crescendo in bar 3.Figure 2: Unison horns. The warm sound of three horns in unison. Note the fortepiano‑crescendo in bar 3.

If you are in the position where you are working with horn players, you may well find that they will automatically employ a concept known as ‘shaping’, without any direction to do so. It’s a little bit like the fortepiano‑crescendo trick that we just mentioned, but players will often automatically apply this concept to any note of reasonable length, as it adds interest and colour, and who wouldn’t want that on their track? Of course, if you turn to the players and tell them how much you like their shaping, they’ll be delighted that you noticed, and even more impressed that you know what it is. Instant respect will prevail and the session will be all the better for it!

One Note Good, Three Notes Better

Horns playing in unison, which is the term for all notes sounding the same, will give a beautiful sound and result, but a clever trick can be to start in unison and break into some form of harmony (Figure 3). If you are new to arranging music for groups such as this, start simple, by placing notes in a triadic formation to match your preferred chord. Then you can begin to extend this concept by moving the triadic notes around, to form a different voicing. Moreover, the concept of breaking away from a unison to a chord will sound incredibly lush, and add beautiful support to your song structure.

Figure 3: Unison to harmony. The unison breaks into lush chords in bar 2.Figure 3: Unison to harmony. The unison breaks into lush chords in bar 2.

Of course, the other essential element that is a perfect device for horn scoring is the use of interesting rhythms, to punctuate and highlight aspects within your production or arrangement (Figure 4). The term ‘stabs’ describes loud, accented and short notes, which are ideal for this purpose. Similarly, the effect known as a ‘fall’ literally produces a note which falls south in pitch, and can be highly effective too, especially at speed. There’s a fall on the first note of our example, but for a different effect, you can employ something in reverse, which is described as a ‘rip’. This moves up to a note, preceding its pitch.

Figure 4: Rhythms and falls. Horn players are experts at generating rhythmic and dynamic excitement. Use sparingly for greater effect!Figure 4: Rhythms and falls. Horn players are experts at generating rhythmic and dynamic excitement. Use sparingly for greater effect!

MIDI & Sampled Horns

If you’re not lucky enough to have the Phenix Horns on speed dial, you can always create your own horn colours using MIDI. Your approach to this will largely be informed by the samples or sounds you have available.

Many DAWs ship with some pretty reasonable horn samples, with some even offering bespoke horn sections, such as the Studio Horns instrument in Logic. If you have the option to use a plug‑in that offers various articulations, with the ability to keyswitch, this will offer a more realistic MIDI performance, but even if you are armed with the most basic of brass, or even synth brass sounds, you can still create a relatively decent facsimile.

Figure 5: Unison to harmony horns with MIDI. If you don’t have live horns, you can still replicate the effects and style of live players using MIDI CCs.Figure 5: Unison to harmony horns with MIDI. If you don’t have live horns, you can still replicate the effects and style of live players using MIDI CCs.

Consider some of the elements that we discussed earlier, such as shaping dynamics. Through the simple use of MIDI CC 7 or CC 11, it’s possible to create some realistic attacks and swells (Figure 5). If the sounds you are using do not respond to timbral dynamics, where the instrument colour alters with volume, the use of a filter, within the setting of a synth brass sound, can help to mimic the brightness of brass instruments, with the move from a quieter dynamic to a louder crescendo. It might take a little experimenting, but great results are perfectly achievable.

As a final coda to our MIDI brass, if you happen to know a brass or sax player, tracking a single player on top of your MIDI part will quickly fool the ear into thinking that there is more realism than there actually is.

Iconic Inspiration

As you begin to create some of the finest horn licks known to recording history, take some advice from one of the finest arrangers and composers in the business. Oscar‑winning composer Anne Dudley, who is also known as one‑third of the Art Of Noise, secured one of her first arranging gigs for producer Trevor Horn back in the early ’80s. She was commissioned to arrange the horns for the ABC track ‘The Look Of Love’. She openly admits to going home and listening to as much Earth Wind & Fire as she could find, drawing inspiration from the masters while placing her own superb spin on the song. That’s pretty high praise and sound advice from an industry professional with an astonishingly impressive career. Now, go get some horns in your soul!  

Brass Family Matters

Chicago’s Hypnotic Brass Ensemble.Chicago’s Hypnotic Brass Ensemble.

The concept of the horn section was derived from the jazz era, where groups of five players or more would form a group, with horns out front, and totally central to the group. Think Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock, and you’ll be in the right ball park. However, the tradition also extends back to trad jazz from New Orleans, and the inspiration of the marching bands from America. The next generation of these horn and brass groups/bands find themselves in high demand, with groups such as the seven‑piece Hypnotic Brass Ensemble working alongside the likes of Prince and Damon Albarn.

Top Chops!

One expression which you will hear horn players use relates to their lips, aka ‘chops’. Trumpet and trombone players in particular rely on their ‘chops’ being in a decent degree of fitness, wellbeing and good shape, which comes with extended periods of practice. The louder and higher you write a part, the more of a challenge it will be to play. Much like an athlete participating in longer endurance‑style events, chops will only take so much before they start to fatigue, at which point stamina and the ability to play high becomes an issue. Like any musical pursuit, there are top‑flight professionals who can play for hours without any sense of concern, but unsurprisingly, you’ll pay for the privilege of their company on your session!