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Arranging For Horns

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Rule 1. There are no rules. These are my guidelines to be used and ignored as needed. The ONLY thing that matters is whether what you write sounds good.

Instruments, Ranges and Descriptions

B♭ Trumpet


The leader of the horn section, the most important instrument in the band. The trumpet usually plays the melody/top note of the voicing. High unisons very powerful. Brass (trumpets/trombones) great for punches/hits.

Mutes (both trumpets/trombones) - Different colors/textures. Give time to change. Depending on the mute, sometimes the tuning slide needs to be adjusted. - Harmon (brassy/edgy), Cup (jazzy), Straight (classical/tinny), Bucket (mellow, Flugel-ish), Plunger (Dixie-ish)

B♭ Flugel


In Los Angeles it is assumed every trumpet player plays Flugel. Much more mellow sound than trumpet. Plays better "in the staff." Doesn't have the high range or brightness of a trumpet (deeper mouthpiece). Commonly used for solos in ballads and Bossa Novas. Chuck Mangione brought the instrument to national attention. Blends nice with unison flute and trombone.



Unofficially plays an octave lower than trumpet. Powerful. Doesn't have the dexterity of the trumpet, unless you're Bill Watrous. Mutes - Cup, Bucket, Plunger .

Bass Trombone


Mostly used in larger ensembles (Big Bands). Common to be a "double" for a trombone or tuba player. Plays lower than Trombone. Dave Bargeron from Blood Sweat & Tears "doubled" on Bass Trombone (and Tuba). Also used in the Jazz-Rock band Matrix. The bass trombone plays the 4th trombone part in a big band.

It is common for woodwind players to "double" on other saxes. Flute and Clarinet are the most common non-sax doubles for sax players. Some big bands expect sax players to double on flute and clarinet. Bari sax doubles on bass clar. There are many other woodwind instruments to double on.



Plays the lead. (remember rule 1). Best comibined with another instrument. Flute/flugel, flute/trumpet w/harmon mute, flute/trombone.

Soprano Sax


Kenny G made this horn popular. Not a common instrument in a section unless playing the lead line, used more as a solo instrument. Used in Jazz.

Alto Sax


In the trumpet range. Sounds great as a lead, section or solo instrument. David Sanborn revolutionized the sound of the instrument which so many others followed his lead.

Tenor Sax


Possibly the most common saxophone. Used in all musical styles, commonly used as both a solo and section instrument. In the trombone range. Unisons of tenor & trombone have a nice sound. The old Jazz Crusaders.

Bari Sax


Plays the lowest note of the horn section. Sometimes plays with Bass Guitar and in big bands with the Bass Trombone. Popular on many Motown songs (HeatWave, Baby Love, Can't Help Myself, Ain't Too Proud To Beg, etc.). For the last 40 years, the Bari Sax has been synonymous with Doc Krupka of Tower of Power. Typicaly the funky Bari plays lead-ins to the root of the chord. Gerry Mulligan was one of the more famous jazz soloists on Bari. Transposing trick - bari can read bass clef by adding 3 sharps.

Horn Section Sizes

The size and instumentation of a horn section are dependent on many factors... Instrumental performance or backing up a vocalist. $Budget$ Style of music. Recording or live? Even what horns do your friends play.

1 horn - Most commonly a sax.

2 horns - Most commonly a trumpet and sax. The Jazz Crusaders believed sax & trombone.

3 horns - The most common 3 horns; trumpet, sax and trombone. Chicago.

4 horns - Backing up a R&B/Pop vocalist, it's common for 2 trumpets, sax & trombone. A 4 horn instrumental jazz horn section is more likely to be a trumpet, alto sax, tenor sax & trombone.

5 horns - Tower Of Power.

6 horns - My Favorite. 2 Trumpets, Alto sax, Tenor sax, Trombone & Bari sax. Considered by many to be a "small big band." Rule 1, there are no rules. A horn section can be any size and combination. Listen, if you like a horn section sound, use the same size.


Voicings convey emotion.

Unless you really really want it, never have the root of a major7 voicing on top. Rule 1, there are no rules. If the chords are C-Cmaj7-C7-C6, the Trombone playing the descending line with the trumpet holding a "C" an octve higher sounds good.

For fast moving lines keeping the voices tighter works best. For slow moving pads keeping the voices spread works best.

Try not to repeat hamony notes unless matching the melody.

2 Horns

Unisons - Strong


Octaves - Stronger


Thirds - Thirds and Sixths are interchangeable




Fourths - A distinct sound, not a voicing to be used contantly


3 Horns


Unisons and octaves also apply to 3 horns. Unisons, all the same note/pitch. Octaves, trumpet the upper octave and trombone the lower octave. Which octave the middle voice plays depends on the instrument, the range of the notes and what sound you want. If a trumpet is the middle voice/instrument he would probably play the upper octave with the 1st trumpet. Depending on the range of the melody (top of the staff for the trumpets), possibly a very powerful sound with the trombone an octave below. Depending on the range of the melody, maybe an alto sax would play the upper octave while the tenor sax would play the lower octave.

Triads 1


Triads 2


====Triads 3==== It uses the "color tones," in these examples the middle voice. In the first group of notes it uses the 9th (G) instead of the 3rd (A). The second group the 13th (D) instead of the 5th (C). The last note the 9th instead of the 3rd (D).




Fourths - A more contempoary R&B voicing


4 Horns



Drop 2

The second voice from "close" harmony down an octave.



The best of Drop 2 and added color tones.



This voicing isn't used much in this style of music. For me, one of the things I like about well-voiced horns is hearing the 3rds/7ths resolving.


Arranging Styles

Chicago - Trombone lead. Unisons, octaves, thirds, sixths and tenths. Pretty safe voicings.

Tower of Power - 13+11 chords. Staccato. BARI SAX. (emphasis intended)

Jerry Hey/Seawind Horns - A youtube of Jerry and his guys making it clear why they're the best. |Jerry Workin' Day and Night

Staccato. 4ths Flugel, flute & trombone unison.

Starting to write

Before the pen hits the paper (old school) -

Is the song instrumental or are the horns backing up a vocal. In an instrumental the horns take a much more prominant role, the horns play the melody. Backing up a vocalist the horns take a supporting role to the singer. Meaning, more notes for the instrumental, less notes for backing up the vocalist.

Is the arrangement for a nightly performance or a one time recording? Consider: Endurance for brass players. Recording gives the option of punching in/overdubbing that live doesn't. Unlike the old days of recording from start to end, today we can "punch in/out" to start/stop recording at a certain part to allow a break for the horns to catch their breath or even record individual notes that need to be fixed for a multitude of reasons, assuming it's not just fixed in pro-tools. Overdubbing to double the size of the horn section, common for one horn section left, one right. If for recording, Studio Tricks like having the horn section bounce from one side to the other, digital delay to give the horns a sound as if echoing away.

The best arrangement played badly sounds worse than the mediocre arrangement played by good players. Sure, if you live in Los Angeles and hire Jerry Hey, Chuck Findley, Gary Grant, Larry Williams and Bill Reichenbach to play your stuff, you can write the unplayable and have it sound perfect on the second take. Unless the act/client takes the same guys on the road, things might get a little shakey. If the act/client hires musicians in the towns they perform, it gets even shakier. The best arrangement played badly sounds worse than the mediocre arrangement played by good players.

Well prepared music ALWAYS reduces rehearsal time and improves performance.

For the printed page, Articulations are your friend. Write english on your parts so the horn players have a better idea of your concept. "Quick short fall" text along with instead of just the musical symbol for a fall. In slow bluesy songs it's common for "long dirty fall" to be written. Text like "with bass" or "with gtr" to let a horn to match with them.

Do you know the horn players, if so, write to their strengths. Trumpet player got some chops, use them best. Can he nail notes out of nowhere or does he need a little lead-up? Who solos? Solos in the correct style? Tenor sax player double on Bari?

Are the tracks already recorded? You can double something or write to match something (synth, guitar, keyboard, etc.) already recorded. Horn hits with snare drum hits.

Rhythmic pattern the horn section plays together. Intro on BS&T's Spinning Wheel.

Pads. Usually whole notes & half notes. Unison or harmonized. NOT good for high brass.

Horn fills in between the vocal breaks or sustained notes.

Unisons to mimic a certain sound (Jerry Hey Flugel/Flute/Trb) Voicings to mimic a certain sound

Call & Response. "Minnie the Moocher."

Write for the instruments. Hear the instruments in your head. It might sound great on the piano, not so much with real instruments.

Don't have to use every idea in each arrangement

Contrast harmony/unison and registers (trumpet 8va 2ndX)

Suggested Listening

Tower of Power

Jerry Hey (Michael Jackson, EW&F, Al Jarreau, Quincy, etc.)

Jerry Hey horn demos


Blood Sweat & Tears

Blues Brothers


Brecker Brothers (Fusion Jazz Funk

Yellowjackets (Fusion Jazz)

Horace Silver (Old school Jazz)

Art Blakey (Old school Jazz)


Bill Dobbins Jazz Arranging and Composing, A Linear Approach. Advance Music.

Dick Grove Arranging Concepts Complete. Alfred Publishing Company

Ron Miller Modal Jazz Composition and Harmony - Advance Music

Sammy Nestico The Complete Arranger - Kendor Music

Don Sebesky The Contemporary Arranger. Alfred Publishing Company

Fred Sturm Changes Over Time: The Evolution of Jazz Arranging. Advance Music

Rayburn Wright Inside the Score. Kendor Music

Russell Garcia The Professional Arranger Composer Book 1 & 2 Criterion Music

Berlkee Press has a nice collection of books.


[1] The Basics of R&B/Funk/Jazz Horn Arranging