Adding a horn section to your arrangement can really spice up your song. Horns can play loud and high notes, so they really pop out in your composition, becoming almost as important as the vocal melody. And you can’t write songs without horns if you write in the style of funk, jazz, or Latin. Horns are essential parts of these genres. But it doesn’t have to be a fast, groovy arrangement. You can use horns in slow songs too. So let’s see what are the most important aspects of arranging horns.
Know the instruments
First, you need to know the features of the instruments. For example, different horns have different tuning and different ranges. For example, trumpets are tuned to Bb (B-flat), which means that if you write the note “C” to the trumpet, it will play the note “Bb”. And trumpets can’t play lower than F#3. You can either learn these features, or you can use a notation software like Sibelius. When you write the horn arrangement in Sibelius, it will show you the range of the instruments. You can also write all the sheets in C, and when you want to print the sheets, the software will transpose each instrument sheet into the proper key.
The most commonly used instruments in a band are the trumpet, saxophone, and trombone. Trumpets can play the highest, so they play the high notes, saxophones are usually in the middle, and trombones usually play the bottom notes.
It’s important to use rests when you write for horns. There are a few reasons for that. The same as the singer, the horns are using air to play the instrument. So obviously, they need to take a breath sometimes. They also get tired much easily. While you can play throughout the whole song with any other instruments, it’s extremely hard and tiring to play throughout the whole song with a brass instrument. It’s also worth mentioning that for brass instruments, it’s much easier to play softer in the lower ranges, and it’s much harder to play softer notes in the upper register. So it means, if you don’t want a lot of energy and a lot of volumes, you shouldn’t write too high notes for the brass section.
But the other reason for using more rests is that it sounds better. Usually, fewer notes in the horns sound better. It’s easy to make this mistake if you play one of the instruments in the horn section because maybe you want to write a lot of parts for yourself to make the song more exciting to play. But if there is a singer in the band, then the vocal melody is more important, and the horns should be more in the back, in terms of busyness. Listen to songs you like that contain horns sections. Notice how many parts and notes they play throughout the whole song.
Know the chords
If you want to arrange horns that play more than one voice, you need to know the chords. (Well, we can’t call it a “horn section” if it’s only one instrument.) You need to know the chord progression of the song, and the notes of those chords. This does NOT mean that the horns can only play chord notes! Most of the time, the horn arrangement follows the chord progression. Most of the time, but not always, and not with every note.
When you write vocal harmonies or an arrangement for strings, using second intervals usually doesn’t sound good. But with a horn section, it sounds good to use second intervals in the harmony (except if there are only two voices!). You can also add extra chord tones to the horn arrangement, even if the guitar or the piano don’t play those chord tones. This technique can be mostly used if the chord progression consists of seventh chords, but you can experiment using the 9 or the 6 chord tone even if the original chord is a simple major triad. For example, if the original chord is a simple C-major triad, you can try arranging a C6 or a Cadd9 chord in the horns. Sometimes this sounds better than just using triads in the horn section. This completely depends on the situation. If it sounds good, you can use it.
Rhythm is another important element of any arrangement. If it’s a slow song, or you just want to add a simple background harmony, you can just use simple long notes in the horn arrangement. But if the song is more rhythmical, somewhat danceable, you really need to utilize rhythm. Fortunately, we have a complete formula in our songwriting course which helps you create great rhythms for the horns. The Rhythm Code, which is the first chapter of the course, reveals a hidden system in rhythm which is used by all successful songwriters and arrangers. If you arrange all the instruments in the same rhythmical system, they will sound good together, even though it seems like they are completely independent of each other. While we can find the Rhythm Code in every genre and style, funk, jazz, and Latin songs utilize this system the most. So if you arrange horns in these styles, using the Rhythm Code is a must.
Complement the vocal
The horns section should complement the vocal melody. In other words, they shouldn’t play at once. This doesn’t mean that they can’t overlap sometimes. If there is a motif in the vocal, the horns section should react to that motif. For example, a perfect example is the song “I Feel Good” by James Brown. You can hear that there is a short motif in the vocal “I feel good”, and then the horns play a different motif as an answer to that.
Mind the rhythm section
Most of the time, horns should be independent of the rhythm section (the bass, the piano/guitar, and the drums). All the instruments are playing in the same rhythm system (the Rhythm Code), but they don’t play the same rhythm. However, sometimes there are parts when the whole band is playing the very same rhythm. In these cases, the horns should probably play the same rhythm too. You can hear this example in “I Feel Good“, when the lyrics are “so good, so good”, the whole band, including the horns, is playing the same rhythm.
Build up the energy
The energy level of the song should be building up as it goes towards the end. And the arrangement, especially the horn section, is one of the tools you can use to control the energy levels. Lower notes and fewer notes (or no notes at all) bring low energy. Higher notes, and more notes, more busyness bring higher energy levels.
The energy level should be lower in the verses, and higher in the choruses. Also, the second verse should have a higher energy level than the first one. So here is an example of how this can work with the horn arrangement. Write zero notes for the horns in the first verse, but they should be playing in the second verse. (The verse that comes after the first chorus.) In the choruses, the energy level should be even higher, so that means more notes for the horns, and they should be playing higher. And of course, they should play completely different motifs in the chorus.
How do you arrange two horns
Now let’s see an example of how you should arrange horns if there are two voices. These two instruments can be two trumpets, a trumpet and a trombone, or two saxophones. It depends on what you prefer. Generally, the two voices should be moving in a parallel motion in thirds OR in sixths. Here is an example for both solutions:
How do you arrange three horns
When you have three horns, they really give the impression of a horn section because they can play three voices which gives a more harmonic feel. All three voices should be within an octave. The three voices should be moving in parallel. It’s OK to use triads for the three voices, but many times it just sounds better to not use them. Instead, try to use dissonance between two of the voices. As I mentioned earlier, you can add a 6, 7, or 9 chord tone, even if the original chord is a simple major triad. It gives the horn section a richer sound. Listen to both solutions how they sound, and decide which one you prefer in your arrangement.
How do you arrange four horns
When you write four voices for the horns, there must be four different voices. In other words, it doesn’t make too much sense to write the root, the third, the fifth, and the root again an octave higher. Again, all four voices should be within an octave. Writing four voices opens up the possibilities. Because there are so many possible variations for one chord. A simple C-major chord can be arranged to four voices in so many ways. Just follow your ears and you can use whatever sounds good for you.
There is another possibility if you arrange for four horns. You can divide them into two independent sections. For example, two trumpets playing a two-voice motif, and two trombones playing a completely different two-voice motif. The two motifs can complement each other. For example, this is what happens in this song of mine.
How do you arrange five horns
If you already know how to arrange horns in four-voice, it’s extremely easy to add one more voice to it. The easiest way to do this is to duplicate the top voice one octave lower. In this case, all five voices will be within an octave, and of course, the bottom voice will be the same as the top but an octave lower. But all other voices should be different notes.
There is another possibility for writing five voices. You can write four voices in the upper registers, and the root note separately in the bass – for example, if you have a bariton sax that can play very low. Listen to the song “Diggin’ On James Brown” by Tower of Power. While all the horns are playing the same rhythm at the beginning (I was talking about this in the “mind the rhythm section” part of this article.), when the singer starts, the horn section divides into two parts. The baritone plays the root notes in the bass and all the other horns are playing a different rhythm in the upper registers. Also, notice how the horns complement the vocal melody!
So far, all the voicings were within an octave. But there are two other very common voicings that you can use for five-voice writing. They are the “drop 2” and “drop 4” voicings, and they are exactly what they sound like. With a drop 2 voicing, we drop the second voice (from the top) an octave lower. And with a “drop 2 and 4” voicing, we drop the second and the fourth voices an octave lower. This can be especially useful if the trumpets on the top are playing very high, so the other instruments (like trombones and saxes) can’t follow them because they can’t play that high. So here is what these voicings look like:
Keep in mind that this does NOT mean that the same instrument has to play his voice an octave lower. The voice we drop down an octave will be assigned to another instrument. For example, if the second voice (the note C) was originally assigned to a trumpet and we drop it an octave lower, the note C will be played by a trombone or a baritone saxophone.
Follow your ears
Ultimately, there is no right on wrong when it comes to arranging horns. It’s good to be aware of the chords, the voicings, the structure of the song, and what worked for others. But you can experiment and do whatever you want. If it sounds good, then do it. If you don’t like it, then write new ideas.
Try to find unique motifs for the horn section, something you would be able to sing. In fact, it’s better to write motifs that come from the heart than trying to edit something together that is mathematically perfect. Writing arrangements for the horn section is not easy at first. Because you are not only harmonizing, you are actually composing unique melodies for them. But with practice and a lot of listening, it becomes easier over time.
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