Composing and Arranging for Brass Band - by James McFadyen


Composer James McFadyen gives his opinions and thoughts what to do when composing and arranging for a brass band.

The Brass Band is one of the very few instrumental ensembles supporting real non-pretentious music built with singable tunes, magical harmonies and some good old powerful sounds!

In this article I am setting out to encourage and enlighten composers to write for the Brass Band, hopefully showing you some of the vast possibilities of creating your own unique music, while pathing the way for you to write an arrangement for fun and find true happiness through the art of music composition.

The Composer – Your Job and Responsibilities:
The process of composition is very complex and highly intellectual and the art of composition is romantic, creative and passionate. To become a true composer is much more than jotting down a few dots on manuscript, in fact, you'll find as you climb up the success ladder, it will become even harder for you to define your job as a composer, mostly because it will teach you to question everything that you do, not only in technique but in what you have to say as a composer.

This is the key area – what do you have to say with your music? If you have nothing to say, then you have nothing to write, and anything you do write will be of no importance to you, your life or it's impact on the audience. Infact, you should take the audience out of the equation and write music for yourself only, satisfying your own needs in expressing yourself in the deepest most emotional way possible – only then can you achieve true happiness and fulfilment as a composer.

Your key responsibilities when creating music is communication and aesthetics:
It should be fairly obvious that to communicate your aesthetic well, you must have an advanced grip on all aspects of music. This includes melodic and harmonic analysis, scoring techniques, harmony and counterpoint, form and design, etc. You should also have a developed ear so that composing without the aid of a piano or computer can be achieved. However I only point this out to show you the level you should be aiming for and what it takes to be a professional composer.

An advanced grip on all aspects of 20th century music including: developments in notation, form and aesthetics:

The Starting Point:
The most irritating part of composing is how to begin and to generate the core ideas. All composers have this same dilemma, and there's little you can do to eradicate this. But there is a solution if you're wiling to tackle the problem logically. The main reason why would-be composers may find it difficult to start a composition is because lack of planning and preparation. Remember composition is about what you have to say as a composer and as a person. If all you want to do is write a tune for people to play then becoming a ‘composer' is perhaps not your calling in life.

Think about what you want to write about, think about subjects you like, if you're drawn towards magic and witchcraft, write something about that, or if you have spotted the most beautiful building you have ever seen, tell the world about it through your music.

Do you see where I am going? To compose well is not only to understand music, but to understand life in the hope to understand the function of humanity and trigger the soul.

Before you even put pencil to paper, you must realise that without anything to say with your music, you will always be stuck in a rut, it's no good composing to pass the time or because there is nothing on telly, it's because you have something to tell the world.

Hopefully by now, I have given you some insight into how composers think and why we exist, we will now move on.

The Brass Band Colours:
Although the Brass Band is unique, it is fairly limiting when compared to the almighty force of the Orchestra. Therefore it is important to understand tone colour as extensively as possible, else everything you write will come out in mono-colour.

Again the key here is to think about the tone colour you want before you write, don't go dabbling in the generic by-the-book method which will only serve to make a piece of music that works but doesn't sparkle or shine or say anything about you – your music is an extension of your personality!

Remember to always think about the technicalities of the instruments, taking care not to write too many awkward passages or anything which is impractical for brass instruments. The use of mutes can be freely used, as can the use of different types of mutes sounding at the same time. This unique blend of different mutes can be very effective in the hands of an experienced composer. However do not write something just for it's effects sake. For example, in a simple junior band arrangement of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, the use of different mutes simultaneously might just be a bit too sophisticated, but for a serious test piece, the effect could very well have its ideal place and not seem out of place. However, let your artistic judgement lead the way, just remember to be practical.

The thing about the Brass Band is the similarity of tone and in the Brass Band we must be very aware of Pure Tone and Mixed Tone and how we can let new or exciting colours emerge by the way we dovetail the parts. Register and volume play an important part here.

The cornets are the equivalent to the Violins in the Orchestra and can easily compete with the force of the rest of the band. They tend to provide the top most voices and mostly have the main motif (or tune). With the addition of the various mutes (straight, cup, harmon, bucket, plunger, etc) they can easily change colour at any time and with a force of ten players, it easily makes them one of the most versatile of the Brass Band group. The back row cornets are often called upon to double Horn and Trombone parts and to a lesser degree Baritone parts, helping to fuse the cornet sound to the softer tones of the band. The front row and Repiano cornets take most of the trickier work and the players can be expected to execute running scale work, etc. The Soprano Cornet, the top most voice is called upon for all the singing high notes. The Soprano tone is very similar to that of the Piccolo Trumpet therefore the tone is more edgy than the Bb cornet.

The Flugelhorn is very much like the Soprano Cornet in the sense that it is a solo seat with only one person playing the part. The flugel has a tone which is horn like but has more edge to it, it is neither a cornet nor a horn, but tends to be played by cornet players rather than horn players. It is a fantastic solo instrument and combines well with any combination of instruments which makes it a very versatile choice for quartet situations within the band.

The Tenor Horns and Baritones are very middle-register instruments, often creating a neutral bed of harmony that is synonymous with the Brass Band sound. However this is not their only function. The Tenor Horns although sublime and charismatic, do not have the same nobility as their Orchestral counterparts, the French Horn. This is unfortunate or fortunate depending on your view. However, when combined with the Baritones, their tone is fattened up and can produce an enormously powerful and penetrating sound in the middle octave of the band!

Warmth within the Brass Band is often associated with the Horns and Baritones, however I believe that the Trombones have much more warmth. This is more so from dynamics of pianissimo to forte. The effect of the Trombones entering and providing a nice wad of sound can be nothing short of breathtaking if used properly. The moral of the story – the Trombones are not just for creating loud powerful sounds, they can and are exceptionally good at creating warmth, especially in close harmony, and more effective at the notes at the top of the stave. This same configuration marked fortissimo, the sound is glorious and almost heavenly.

The Euphoniums can be very much missed if they were not present in the Brass Band. They're penetrating tone and emotive pulling power is unsurpassed within the Brass Band. Equally happy in a soloist or accompaniment role, they form a very functional ‘tenor' voice in the Brass Band and massively help merge the Basses with the rest of the band, acting as the crucial glue to hold everything together.

On the subject of basses, it is advisable to use a lot of common sense here. So many make a rather basic mistake of adding every pedal note under the sun to obtain a low phat sound and indeed pedal notes on the Bb basses in particular can have it's place, but it must be known to be an effect and it's overall stimulation really depends on several factors including note length, dynamics and scoring of the rest of the band. The lower basses go, they tend to become weaker and stumble around and can quite often produce what is to the ear as ‘something happening in the bass' but not quite contributing to the harmonic structure. The use of pedal notes should be used with caution and always think about the effect as a whole.

To produce deep bass it is not always necessary to have extra low notes, it's about filling the harmony gaps a little closer, although not too close else it will be come fuzzy and muddy.

To produce a very powerful bass sound, basses can be placed in fifths, this combined with clever scoring can produce incredible sounds, effective at all dynamics without degradation to tone. The effect can be heard in my own arrangement of Flower of Scotland, where the sound is massive but without resorting to ridiculous scoring requirements like impractical pedal notes.

This can be further shown in Philip Sparke's ‘A London Overture'. Look closely at two bars before the last Molto Maestoso – the triple-forte chord, look closely at the configuration of the Basses and Bass Trombone. The Bb basses have the root of the chord. The Eb basses have the same note and the fifth. The fifth is also doubled on the Bass Trombone. The Bass Trombone or any Trombone for that matter has a very clearly defined bottom end that is penetrative but not muddy, so the effect of the Basses and Bass Trombone in this chord is one of immense power and sonority which is practical for such a high dynamic.

Last but by no means least – The Percussion – The section all about colour. A very diverse section capable of lifting chords from the page and giving them subtle life or even to provide a good bit of bang and whoosh! Philip Sparke's ‘Dundonnell' (from Hymn of the Highlands) is a great example of how effective percussion writing can be achieved! I have read many would-be composers scores, and the one thing I tend to find is over-zealous writing in the percussion section. The main problem with the percussion is that even the tiniest part (i.e. one quaver) can send a shuddering noise that provides so much energy it almost knocks whole buildings down and looks like nothing on the page! This is a major factor to remember in percussion, less is always more!! They are noise instruments (with exception of tuned percussion) and don't contribute to the harmonic flow of the music in a musical way, instead they add noise to trigger the brain, they support the drama what is happening underneath – they must not become the drama, until that is they are called upon to add massive amounts of energy, and even then it's best not to overload.

The ear gets very tiring of Timpani. If you have them banging on all the time the ear will quickly become fatigued by their use. As a composer, you must learn to tease your listeners. The music must have moments of repose and percussion can help here, but even destroy in the wrong hands! Learn from the orchestral composers. Short Ride in a Fast Machine (by John Adams) is incredibly effective in its use of percussion, not because of the loudness, but because of the variety of tone colour and not have everything banging all the time. The thing to remember about percussion writing is don't put all your eggs in one basket, save some for the rest of the piece.

Harmony – The Musical Pulling Power:
As a composer, if there is anytime you want to demonstrate your romantic prowess and win over the opposite sex, harmony is thing to master! Not only is it a thing to be harnessed, but it is also very personal and the harmonic paths you choose are an extension of your personality and how you're feeling at that particular time. Harmony is the real soul of music, melody is merely just a finishing touch to polish off what is already a beautiful landscape.

One of the most popular questions I get asked by would-be composers is how do you decide what chords go where. The unfortunate thing is there is no short cut here, you either know how to do it or you don't. If you don't, you have to go learn! Unfortunately, giving you just the basics of Harmony and Counterpoint would require another 3000 words at the very least, but there are plenty of books on the subject to take you through the steps systematically.

You should also make regular harmonic analysis of other composers' scores, as this will allow you to break a composition down to its barebones and find it's inner workings.

For those requiring a truly advanced script, I suggest ‘Convertible Counterpoint in the Strict Style' by Serge Ivanovitch Taneiev. This book is a major stiff read, tons of maths for you to learn, but is the definitive book for any serious composer.

Anton Webern once said that a succession of chords was merely an accident of voice-leading, and while this can be true for some 20th century styles, it is probably not the main philosophy of Brass Band composition. However, it is important that your voice-leading is pathing the way of the harmony, although it is not always desirable to stick to traditional methods of voice-leading and music which uses odd or indifferent voice-leading moves can create very interesting and unique results.

If you are intending to construct music which is tonal (i.e. has a tonal centre) it is important to note that this does not mean that your chord structure must be diatonic. Indeed purely diatonic music is quite non-personal and sounds very predicable, although, in the right hands can made to be useful. It is unlikely, though, that you will find great satisfaction in writing purely diatonic music, which is only of great use in children's music and music for junior bands.

Make effective use of modulation, chord substitution, modal and chromatic harmony and look to create a unique signature sound, as people will mostly identify you with your music because of the harmonic grounding.

Philip Sparke, for example, uses the cycle of fifths as part of his signature sound, particularly in his older works. The cycle of fifths is a basic (albeit very important) concept of tonal harmony, but Mr Sparke has taken this, added his own touch of finesse to provide music which is original and invigorating.

Bi Tonality and Polychords are good ways to utilize tonal/chromatic harmony, allowing you to build complex harmonic structures within a tonal setting. One of my compositions for Solo Piano ‘Harmonies of the South Pole' uses polychords, but created to be modal extensions and this gives quite a magical sound. There is no reason why this cannot be done within the Brass Band, Mr Sparke, as well as others often use bitonality and polychords.

You must also take care not to think of chord progressions as one chord to each bar, the pacing of your chords will depend on the time signature and meter you're writing in, but more importantly, it should be helping to determine your aesthetic – don't just have a bunch of ‘cool' chords one after the other, as humans, we need to be stimulated, tell a story, paint a picture, let everyone know how you were feeling the day you wrote the piece.

Have you got the Rhythm?
All things being equal, rhythm tends to be the most effective method of communicating your aesthetic. It can, in the hands of truly skilled composer be the crux of a romantic scene and can do so much more effectively than writing a melody.

Rhythm can create mass amounts of heightened energy of an atomic bomb or can portrait the subdued nostalgia and mourning of a heart beating its last beats before it finally gives way. There is so much more to music than crochets and minims – the use of several rhythms and meters going on at the same time can be extremely effective in some works, as can the use of the syncopated sound of the hemiola.

A good Brass Band composition is one where the music mirrors the time signature and meter, however, exploration of complex rhythm cells should be aimed for. Explore the rhythmic worlds, combine downbeat notes with carefully placed syncopated ones.

Although – aesthetics first before you start getting ahead of yourself. Only contribute what is necessary in your music to put the philosophies and subject matter across.

Melody – A voice of Reason?
Melodic design and construction is yet another place where would-be composers find themselves in a no-go zone. The main reason such difficulty exists is due to the nature of how melodies are built.

There are many ways to write a melody, but most melodies consist of a main motif, this motif might be then repeated (repetition), transposed (sequence), inverted, retrograde or a combination of.

Melody as a word of modern day use isn't quite so clearly defined as it used to be in say the romanticism period. However by close study of any score, true melodic action is prevalent within all voices of a piece of music, even apparent background harmonies have a strong melodic element.

It is therefore reasonable to assume that your melody may not take on the traditional form of a structured set of motif's. It might even be portrayed through tone colour alone using the 20th century compositional technique of Klangfarbenmelodie.

As said earlier, melodic form can come within the succession of harmonies. Philip Sparke's ‘Music for a Festival' makes great use of this with the 4/2, 2/4 section at letter A. His good use of ‘magical' minor 9th and major 7th harmonies and more importantly, the flow of the voice-leading makes this harmonic section very melodic in design. You will notice that rhythm and pace play an integral part here also.

The question, for you is, what are you going to use? Well, no book can ever tell you what to use. This is the crux of musical composition – there are rules about no rules. In effect, composers can write anything they like, but in an odd way we can't because we are bound by certain restrictions. For example if you want to create an atonal melody, you cannot form a tonal centre, therefore a succession of notes cannot lean towards a tonal key and neither can octaves be written since true atonal writing is about all notes being treated as equal. However if you don't want to be bound by these rules, you can use other methods of composition, like composing in a tonal setting – where you'll hit other rules. To cut a long story short, the language of music as a whole means you are practically limitless of what you can achieve, but within each ‘protocol' in the musical language (i.e. tonal, atonal, chromatic, modal harmony, etc), you are bound by a pre-determined hierarchy which allows you to stay within that protocol. This allows your music to be controlled, believe me if you really could do what ever you want in music at any given time all that would come out is a wash of mixed ideas. So while there are guidelines in terms of technique, there are no restrictions or rules about artistry – and this is the composer's key defining thing that will make the ultimate difference to you music.

The ‘no rules in composition' really comes from the complete command of the entire musical language from the Strict Counterpoint school of Palestrina to the exotic and horrifying tones of Ligeti.

Transcription from an Orchestral Score

Making a Brass Band transcription from an orchestral score is a skill in its own right:
The first thing to remember is faithfulness to the original. Now when I say faithfulness, it is important you understand me in the faithfulness to the aesthetics of the original composition. This is the trick to all arranging. You must then approach the scoring of such said work by ensuring you take all the core material and write it for Brass Band to sound like it was originally written for it. For example don't have the 1st Violins played by the cornets all the time, this would be bad and need I say dull scoring, it would sound monotonous and would probably very tiring to the players. It would not be unreasonable to make alterations to the tone colour if your intent is to stay true to the original. I admit there is a bit on oxymoron here, but let me say it again ‘true to the original' is in it's aesthetic pulling power……The only way to do this is to stay within the idiom you are writing for, which is for Brass Band.

You may even have to make even bigger adjustments, for example, you may have to take a melody that is written one octave and in order for it to authentically to be put across in the Brass Band, may have to be written in two octaves. In such cases you must use your professional judgement to make the appropriate decisions. As you will soon find out, scoring requires a high level of problem solving.

To give a further example of alterations to scores, I wrote an orchestral transcription of Philip Sparke's ‘A London Overture'. Of course I had to deal with Orchestral Transcription from a Brass Band score, but the principles are the same. At the very beginning of the work the melody is played by the Baritones and Euphoniums, but using my own artistic judgement and to allow the piece to have the same authenticity, I wrote the melody on the French Horns doubled by the Violas and on the 1st and 2nd Violins in octaves (the 1st violins being 2 octaves higher than Mr Sparke's original. This was not changing what he wrote, but merely allowing his Brass Band work to sound as if it was originally composed for Orchestra. Similarly, in the same arrangement, I transferred the cornet solo onto a solo Violin. However in order for the melody to have the same melodic serenity and texture, the melody had to be written an octave higher, again this allowed the melody to sit in a very comfortable register for a Violin that would be suited to this melody.

Do you understand why these changes are necessary? It is extremely important that you stay within the idiom you are writing for.

Failure to comply with the above will leave your transcription sounding like a badly-constructed copy which does not accurately portrait what the original did.

Inspiring the Uninspired:
One of the greatest thrills of living as a composer is being able to inspire the inner goodness of people. It is such a great feeling when performers sing out the beauty and emotion you have created, it suddenly comes alive.

One of the most valuable skills to have is the ability to tease and pull your listeners. Allowing them to be interested and intrigued for what is to come is a hard and very difficult skill to achieve. Good discipline and a clear goal of the aesthetics of the piece, what it's set out to do what it is saying.

It takes a lot of practice and understanding of music and how the human brain reacts to the natural flow of musical ideas in the context of a piece of music.

Basically by the end of your composition, the listener should feel invigorated, they should feel contentment that your piece has had an emotional impact. To do this means being able to communicate an aesthetic, whatever it may be, but the music must support and distribute this.

Arranging for Fun:
With the advent of modern day technology, anyone with some basic knowledge can try their hand at arranging and while the text written elsewhere in this article will prove beneficial, I thought I would dedicate a wee section to those who may not necessarily want to deal with the intellectual side of composition.

Now, because you're doing this for fun, I'm guessing you already have a piece in mind you want to arrange. The next stage is to break it down. You don't have to do a full in-depth analysis like us experienced composers do, but you have to know the chord structure and how all the voices are moving.

Next, jot down a rough form on paper so you know the layout of the piece before hand. Try to be careful and not over-simplify your form, even something like Ternary Form (ABA) can have its complex off-shoots, try not to do what is immediately obvious to you, however, don't go looking for the most complex forms either.

Try to search for new paths in the music and juice-out all you can from the original and decide the tone and pace of your arrangement – are you going to keep it in the same style or do you want to do a jazzy arrangement of it for example.

You can be as cheesy as you like with the arrangement, you're only doing it for fun, so you need not worry about serious issues, just as long as you enjoy it.

If however you are out to seek a publishing deal and become a well-known arranger, then you're going to need something a little more specialised and professional that makes you stand out for the crowd, in a good way of course.

Writing Titles:
I don't think I've ever read a composition manual that has discussed title writing, I do know though that it usually is an issue with universities, some of you will probably have encountered title writing issue with your composition tutor.

Titles – why are they such a big deal? Because they are! Some would-be composers are so tied-up in writing music that they forget about what they're writing about.

A title gives the piece it's real character, it makes it a real entity and enables you to stay on track about what you want to achieve with the piece.

If I receive a composition from a student that has the title ‘Jakes Stupid Composition Thingy' This immediately tells me everything I need to know before I even listen to the piece, and if such a work was sent to my Publishing Company for possible publication, I would not listen to it and happily go do my accounts.


Well……by the wording of Jake's title I would gather that he is not at all serious about composing. By using the word "Stupid" he's telling me that although he wrote it, he doesn't think it's worthy. Using the word "Thingy" and the fact that he has actually composed a piece and gave it that title tells me he has no idea what the compositions about, he is not about to show me music which is going to contribute to society or show me his personality through his music. He is giving the impression he nothing to say with his music, and remember without anything to say, you have nothing to write.

Although Jake (and the title of his music) are completely fictitious, such people do exist.

Take time to write your titles, before you even put pencil to paper you must have a clear vision about what you are writing about.

You can choose to be weird and wonderful or you can choose to be ‘proper'. A ‘proper' title would be ‘Passacaglia No.1 in Eb Major'. Brass Band titles tend to be more descriptive, for example, ‘Music for a Festival' and ‘The Plantagenet's' – These titles leave the performers and listeners under no illusion as to what the piece was about.

Your Career:
One of the most difficult challenges that will lie ahead of you is you're career and where you see yourself going as a composer.

The first thing to learn is that this is not a career for those who want to show-off or be famous or for that matter be filthy rich. There are many benefits being a composer, but there are lots of things which can break you and leave your career shattered.

You should set yourself a top goal, a goal which you see for the time-being as un-reachable, but one which you would like to see yourself at in the foreseeable future. The trick is then to set yourself smaller goals to work your way up gradually, this is not an industry of instant stardom, it takes a lot of years of paying your dues and earning very little money for your massive efforts.

You should take the time to contact publishers and other composers and get some advice and form a relationship, as who you know is just as important what you know. You could be as skilled as John Williams, and get no where, or be as talented as a tin can and get everywhere. It's not the most logical of industries and it's just a case of waiting it out, I have been doing this for about 10 years now with the aim to doing this full time and it is only now I am beginning to get anywhere. It's very easy to give up, but as long as you have clear goals and set out to do what you do best, things can only go right for you.

There are other things you can do help project your name. You can conduct bands, write articles or do whatever will put your name out there that will get people talking.

This is a business, one where talent is very often over-looked and where money play's a crucial role, where commercialism is poison to artistry.

Above all, never compose because you want to make money from it, do it because you love it and you have something to tell the world. With this in mind, things can only go well, even if it does take ten to fifteen years or even longer to reach your goals and become one of the main men/women in the Brass Band composing industry. We all have to start at the bottom and work our way up. I remember when I was 15, I phoned Philip Sparke and sent him music at Studio Music for hopeful publication, and although I wasn't published at that time, Philip gave me continuing support and even to this day the help he lends me I'm sure is all in the aid of harnessing what is rightfully a musical thing to do – expression through creativity and composition. It is also good to know that distinguished professionals can be a guide for climbing up the success ladder and learn from their knowledge and experience.

In the end though, it all boils down to you, you have to put the effort in, you have to initiate projects, you have to phone people. No one is going to come up to you in the street and give you a job, make a job for yourself, if you have project in mind, why not present it to a band.

Well, hopefully I have enlightened and informed you, either that or bored you to tears. Either way I hope this script gives you a through-the-keyhole view how us composers actually compose, rather than some script of do's and don'ts and talking about Fifth-Species Counterpoint!

Above all, enjoy the craft of composition and tell the world what you have to say, all that limits you is your imagination – we all have imagination and we all have something to say, so in effect we can all be composers, the language of music is merely just the language we communicate our feelings in – what Keats might say in three or four stanza's, us composers say in a 15-minute musical work – both equally as romantic, both have something to say!

As a composer myself, I feel this calling in life is one of the best gifts anyone could ever receive and I feel luck to be able to speak with my music and fill others' hearts with love and beauty.

I know you can do the same.

James McFadyen
Composer, Arranger, Conductor
Soprano Cornet – Tullis Russell Mills Band


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