Writing for Horns

For Week 2 of Jazz & Popular Arranging, we began looking at how to write for horns. This week is focused on transposition, where Weeks 4 and 5 will look at two- and four-part writing, respectively. The lecture material dealt mostly with instrument transpositions, ranges, and idiomatic issues. The Discussion revolved around popular bands that use horns effectively in their writing. For the Assignment, we were asked to write an arrangement of Dancing on the Ceiling for alto sax, trumpet, and trombone.


Most of the lecture material was not new for me: instrument ranges, timbral considerations, and physical considerations. The best resources I found in the material were several recordings of instrument combinations:


Prompt: How can this week's material be related to pop horn arranging? Give some examples of different bands/artists that use horns in a significant manner, and discuss how this lesson relates to these particular situations. I have posted six songs to get the discussion rolling.

Original Post: To stay in the vein of several of the examples, I love the horn writing of the band, Chicago. In 1995, they released an album entitled Night & Day: Big Band covering several different jazz standards. My favorite track from the album is James Pankow’s arrangement of “Caravan.” The arrangement is significantly different from the more Latin/swing based performances one usually hears and much more in the vein of Chicago’s typical rock based writing. The introduction begins with guitar, bass, drum set, and vibraphone, before adding in Chicago’s signature tight and articulate brass. The melody is set in the voice and muted trumpet over a rhythm section groove and ensemble hits. The ensemble consists of trumpet, trombone, and saxophone written in closed voicing. The bridge of the tune transitions to a more upbeat feel that hints at the swing style in which the bridge is traditionally played. Now the ensemble hits are happening in unisons and octaves, giving off a brassy sound even with the saxophone included, before going back to more dense harmonies. The final A section of the tune pairs flute with vocals on the melody over the rhythm section’s groove. The solo section does not follow the form of the tune, but rather trades ensemble hits with rock guitar solo over the groove established at the beginning of the tune. At 2:01, the head returns in flute and muted trumpet in a close, dissonant harmony with ensemble writing. They only get one A section before the voice and ensemble hits return in the bridge and the trumpets begin to ascend into the stratosphere. The final A section combines the different arrangements of melody—flute, muted trumpet, and voice against ensemble hits—before an outro very similar to the intro.

I find most of the horn writing to be in reasonable upper registers of trumpet and trombone and middle registers of alto saxophone and flute. This allows the harmonies to be closely written but still easily playable. It isn’t until the final bridge of the tune that the trumpet writing goes well above the staff. While the players of Chicago are more than capable of accomplishing more difficult writing than the vast majority of this arrangement, the choices that Pankow made allows the timbres to blend while still punching out of the texture when necessary. Reserving the upper tessitura for the final bridge section would allow less capable players to endure a performance of this chart.

Response: The classmate I chose to respond to was inspired by the Stevie Wonder example, so they discussed two different arrangements in a similar style: Postmodern Jukebox’s cover of Ed Sheeran’s “The Shape of You” and SFJAZZ Collective’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”. Here was my response:

What excellent examples! I love that you chose Postmodern Jukebox for part of your post and responses. I am a big fan of Scott's writing, even if I don't know most of the songs he is covering anymore. He has some piano reductions of his older arrangements available on his website. Any of these reductions would be an excellent study for looking at the choices he made in making the arrangements. He discussed some of those choices in his book or in older blog posts.

I hadn't heard the Ed Sheeran original, but I love the timbres Scott chose to use in this arrangement. The writing definitely evokes the "Stevie Wonder funk" style you reference, both from the instrument choices, and the rhythmic lines they chose. The sixteenth note lines provide a nice contrast with the punchy chord pads. I have to say I like Scott's writing on this tune better than Steve Mac and Ed Sheeran's on the original.

I have to put the plug in for my favorite cover they have done, "All About That [Upright] Bass" with Kate Davis on bass, but that doesn't have any horn writing. Instead, I'll talk about their cover of Toto's "Africa". Scott again uses the horns to get at the style of the arrangement, in this case, they cover the vocal backgrounds from the original using his typical single trumpet, trombone, and tenor sax. The tenor sax gives a reedy quality to the trombone register and has to play in its upper tessitura to flesh out the space between the trumpet and trombone. As the arrangement progresses, the horn writing is busier, but complimentary of the vocal line, always in unison rhythms.

Thanks for reminding me of some great horn writing for smaller ensembles!


Prompt: Write a horn arrangement of "Dancing on the Ceiling" (The Standards Real Book, pp. 101-102). Begin at letter A in the fake book (you are omitting the verse). With an instrumentation of trumpet, alto sax, and trombone, using only unisons and octave unisons, employ a variety of instrumental combinations that highlight and amplify the piece's phrase structure. Using the provided score template, write the parts in concert pitch and then execute the correct transposition. Place the parts in comfortable areas of the horn (no extreme registers). Continue to develop skills from Week 1: Rhythmic Concepts in Line Writing. Make the melody swing!

Some reminders: try to use a mixture of anticipation and delay when arranging this melody. Primarily use anticipation, however, and use delay sparingly, as it is much more difficult to handle effectively. This is usually done by means of an eighth note, but very occasionally by a quarter note as well. You are attempting to create a swinging feel while also accurately interpreting the melody. Do not add or subtract notes (this includes not adding or subtracting occurrences of notes as well).

This is a real piece of music, not an exercise, so be creative with this assignment. You can use two or three horns at a time, and perhaps mix in solo melodic presentations as well. Try to imagine the sound from a listener's and an arranger's point of view. An entire phrase does not have to be played by one instrument or one combination. If appropriate, a phrase can be broken up by different instruments or combinations of instruments.

Response: Last week, I used the forScore app on my iPad Pro to handwrite the assignment. When sharing the annotated PDF back to my Mac, forScore was unable to maintain its landscape orientation and reoriented the document into portrait. This week, I tried using the free app PDF Viewer. It was able to maintain the orientation, and allowed for more flexibility in my annotations. Below you’ll see:

  1. Blank Template from Blackboard (Landscape Orientation)

  2. Page 1, completed and exported from forScore (Portrait Orientation)

  3. Page 1, completed and exported from PDF Viewer (Landscape Orientation)

  4. Page 1, completed and exported from Dorico

  5. Page 2, completed and exported from Dorico

I’m showing you my work in Dorico because it is better than my handwriting, and shows some of my process of layering the rhythmic alterations against the original notation from The Standards Real Book.


Burton Hable

Burton Hable is an instrumental music educator from Central Iowa. In 2013 he helped open Centennial High School in Ankeny, the first time in forty years that a school district in Iowa expanded to two high schools. He served there through 2018 as Assistant Director of Bands: conducting the 10th Grade Symphonic Band, directing the varsity Jazz Collective, co-directing the Centennial Marching and Pep Bands, teaching music theory, and providing individual and small group lessons to brass students in grades 6-12 at Prairie Ridge Middle School, Northview Middle School, and Centennial High School. During his tenure in Ankeny, enrollment in band grew from 450 to nearly 700, the jazz program expanded from four to seven ensembles, and ensembles under his direction were invited to perform at Iowa State University, Harper College, and the Veterans Day Parade in New York City.