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The Basics of R&B/Funk/Jazz Horn Arranging

  • Start Here
  • Instruments/Ranges/Transpositions
  • Horn Section Sizes, the Why and the Who
  • Voicings, 2, 3 and 6 horn voicings
  • Starting to write
  • Arranging Styles
  • Listening/Books

Start Here

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 -
Trumpet Transposition
The leader of the horn section, the most important instrument in the band.
(in full disclosure, I play trumpet). 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 -
Trumpet Transposition
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.

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.

Flute -
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 why and who -
The size and instumentation of a horn section are dependent on many factors...
Instrumental performance or backing up a vocalist.
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.

Random thoughts about Voicings & 2 horn, 3 horn and 4 horn examples with a few more random thoughts.

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 -

2 horn unison
Unisons - Strong

2 horn unison
Octaves - Stronger.

2 horn unison
Thirds - Thirds and Sixths are interchangeable.

2 horn unison

2 horn unison
Fourths - A distinct sound, not a voicing to be used contantly.

3 Horns -

2 horn unison
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 - this is the one I would use. 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 -

Close - the closest available note.
Drop 2 - the second voice from "close" harmony down an octave.
Open (my fav)- the best of Drop 2 and added color tones.
Fourths - 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.

More Random thoughts -

With only 2 or 3 horns you can't always cover the melody note and the 3rd & 7th.

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.

Transcribing is a great way to learn. Here's some of my Jerry Hey learnings, transcriptions with some horn voicings.
Black & Blue - Al Jarreau
Boogie Down - Al Jarreau
I've Had Enough - Earth Wind & Fire
In The Spirit - Bob & Pauline Wilson
Keep My Eyes On Jesus - Bob & Pauline Wilson
Love Is Real - Al Jarreau
Love Is Waiting - Al Jarreau
Roof Garden - Al Jarreau
Save Me - Al Jarreau
Step By Step - Al Jarreau

Youtube of Jerry and the guys live with Al Jarreau. Sounds like the record.

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)

Listening - As much as you can.
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)

Have you listened to all the youtube links yet?

Resources -
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.

(email me to if you want to be added.)

Hopefully this will give you a great starting point.

Write as much as you can, and hear it played back by real musicians, nothing teaches better than hearing what you wrote.
If you're not a horn player, let the guys give you their 2 cents on your parts.

Preparing The Score/Parts to print -

Hand score/parts or computer score/parts? HaHa, I was kidding. Does anyone copy by hand anymore? I copied for years by hand, buying the paper and ink at Valle Music in North Hollywood. Even had an ammonia smelling Ozlid machine.

Score Order Traditionally big band is alto, alto, tenor, tenor, bari. Trumpet 1, 2, 3, 4. Trombone 1, 2, 3, 4. Rhythm section. Many use that as a guide for smaller horn sections, just removing what isn't being used. I personally like putting the horns in order for tutti voicings. 6 horns = trumpet1, trumpet2, altosax, tenorsax, trombone, barisax.

Rehearsal Letters/Measure Numbers. I use measure numbers on the beginning of each staff unless it's a one time recording (ie. time is money), then I use measure numbers on every measure. Rehearsal letters always on left side. I put lyric cues with the rehearsal letters for the band.

Not a rule, but try to keep the music spaced evenly at 4 measures per bar. If a 7 measure phrase, 4 measures on one line and 3 measures on the next line. I indent the right side of the line so at a glance you know it's not a group of 4 measures.

Note Values, Articulations - Use all the articulations you need to make it clear what you want. Tenuto, staccato or sfz. You might have a great lick but it's just not working, try adding or changing the articulations.

Using Big Band parts for 3 horns - My advice, NEVER do this. It's common in big bands for the lead instruments (trumpet 1, alto 1, trombone 1) to play the same note in different octaves. When using the 3 horns it will sound like unisons/octaves and rather empty. Also, any solos or melodies on any of the other parts won't be covered.

Taping parts, how to - Accordion style, keeps the sticky side of the tape from sticking to anything. Valle Music, and I'm sure other Music Prep businesses had taping machines.
Taping Ex 1
I print to 11/17 paper so I have an advantage as my first 2 pages are the same piece of paper and only neeeds folding. In my example I am taping pages 2 and 3 together.
Taping Ex 1
On the backside of pages 2 and 3.. tape the page past the edges of the paper.
Taping Ex 1
Trim the edge of the tape on the even-odd pages as these ends will be seen. On the odd-even poages, the ends will be on the backside of the music.
Taping Ex 1
View of the trim on the music side of the paper.
Taping Ex 1
If you print to 8.5X11 paper you will also need to tape page 1 and 2 together. The same method is used except the tape is applied on the front (music side) of page 1 and 2.

Transcribing -
Transcribing is a great way to start learning how to write horn parts. Just like transcribing is one of the first steps to learning jazz improvisation, transcribing the horn parts gives you a vocabulary of licks and an idea of how they sound by their voicings.

Thanks to a post on Reddit I've been getting a lot of hits. I'll try and answer a few of the questions asked there. BTW, I'm not the one that posted the link.
Flugelhorn mutes, yes there are such a thing. Don't write for them unless you know the player and have confirmed he has one.

Kenny G & Sanborn... Yes, although there are many many legends before them, Kenny & David are probably better known and brought their instruments to a wider auidence. How many alto players want to or unintentionally sound like Sanborn.

If playing 4 voiced arrangements at a fast pace would be Mud City, please explain SuperSax or any big band sax soli by Don Menza. My opinion is the faster the tempo, the closer the voicings. It's the wide open spread voicings that sound so lush in ballads that muddy the city at faster tempos.

Trumpet range... I used to play down to Bb concert two octaves below middle C. Unless a trumpet farting sound was required, writing those notes would have been a mistake. Can the trumpet play higher than the F concert I wrote. Of course. BUT, know the player (or band).

The root of the Maj7 on top, props to Big_Star for giving a big answer.
Try not to repeat harmony notes... The harmony notes would be the 2nd horn, 3rd horn, etc. of the section. If the melody goes C-B-A-B-C, although correct notes of the chord, try not to have 2nd horn play G-G-G-G-G and the 3rd horn play E-E-E-E-E.

I'm trying a comment section. Do you have anything to say?

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Updated 12/13/2015
Transcriptions for educational purposes only.
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"Blue Confluence" is a new CD from Australian Jazz singer
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