I have been getting a lot of questions on the subject of composing and orchestrating for brass, so I decided to do a short tutorial on a few proven and effective ways on how to incorporate brass into your compositions.
In this tutorial we will be looking at how to use brass in a harmonic accompaniment context. I will use the MeHaRyTe method in my examples so be sure to read the article on that subject before continuing reading this one.
Getting familiar with the sound
I would firstly like to point out, that the key to becoming a good orchestrator is being familiar with the sounds of the orchestra, and how it all sounds as a unit. If we take the brass family under the microscope, one must be able to hear how every instrument in the brass family sounds at particular dynamic level and at what particular range one should use it to its highest potential.
The first way, and the best way, to learn this is to attend live orchestra concerts and listening to the orchestra in its “natural” environment. Pay close attention to each individual instrument and try to learn its sound by heart, so that you will be able to recall it in your head at any time.
Another way is that you can practice the same technique at home as well by listening to live orchestral recordings. I also suggest you go to the website https://imslp.org/ where you can find practically any score that is not under copyright. Download your favorite orchestral score and study it with a recording again paying close attention to how each instrument sounds at a particular dynamic level at a particular register.
A third technique you can use (but I do recommend the first and second more) is to open up your favorite brass sample library and play through all dynamic levels and all tones. I do not recommend this technique as much tho, since sample developers tend to massage their samples to sounds their best. Sometimes, sample developers also leave out certain dynamic levels.
For example: they achieve a horn mezzo forte sound with blending a sample from a horn playing at piano and one playing at forte. This won’t sound like a legit mezzo forte dynamic!
Learning the sounds of the orchestra through sample libraries will often make your inner orchestral sound get distorted, meaning the way you think some instruments sound, might not be how they actually sound in reality.
So let me ask you, can you recall a sound of a tenor trombone playing at mp in its lower/mid register? If you cannot, then I advise you to practice the methods above some more!
One great way you can you use brass is in a harmonic accompaniment context.
You will usually need only one orchestral family (strings, woodwinds or brass) to be playing the harmony for the listener to be able to comprehend it. Using the brass is a great way to get your harmony across and well heard. Here I am mostly talking about writing long notes in chords with brass instruments. This type of writing acts as sort of a “glue”, that holds the sound of the orchestra together.
Let’s look at how we can achieve that using different instrument sections:
Usually you will have four horns to work with in an orchestra. With four horns you can easily write a nice three or four tone chord. But one must be very careful to write the chord in the right register, since the horns sound quite different in their different registers!
You will get the best results with writing chords with horns from F3 (F below middle C) to A (A above middle C) – sounding pitches and not written pitches.
In this register the horns sound full and round in the p and mp dynamics and have rich upper harmonics that make them sound nice and brassy in the mf to ff dynamic levels.
Writing chords too low will make them sound hollow and the sound will not penetrate through the whole orchestra. Writing chordal horns too high will make them sound thinand weak. This sound will not “glue” the chords into the whole orchestral picture.
Also note, that the higher you go into the horns register, the harder it gets for the instrumentalists to play soft, and the lower you go, the harder it is for them to play loud. So for example, if you are writing a f or ff part you might get away with writing chordal horns above A4.
In the example below I used three horns as harmonic accompaniment for the finale of the piece. The high woodwinds and high strings are playing the melody, while the bassoon and double basses are playing the bass note. The cellos are giving a little texture to add some movement.
You will see that I have indeed written the horns quite high, but since the section is at a forte dynamic the high horns still work, as we discussed. Note that after bar 34 the horns gradually go lower since I was going for a diminuendo.