Arranging & Composing

Jazz Arranging Big Band
Duke Ellington

Jazz composition and arranging, whether for small band or big band, is not an easy art to pin down. As with pop and rock, many jazz performers become composers purely to write music for their own performance. For jazz improvisers, composition is also a logical extension of performance: improvisation is, after all, on-the-spot composition. Jazz composition is now recognised as a legitimate area of study at schools, universities and music college, but due to the nature of jazz as soon as you try to academicise it, you fall into the trap of losing some of its originality and spontaneity. All of the resources on these, along with some of the material you will find on the saxophone pages, may be useful I hope, but it is essential to immerse yourself in the music: listen to jazz of all eras, play jazz and ideally find a personal tutor.

Arranging Hints & Tips

  • Transcription of existing arrangements is one of the best ways to learn, not just the rules but how different arrangers have created their individual styles, by bending or breaking the rules, or creating their own.
  • Write legible parts, you will get more time rehearsing the creative stuff instead of interpreting bad handwriting.
  • Write untransposed scores. Again, you’ll save time on rehearsals that can be spent having ideas.
  • Encourage musicians to be critical and listen to any input they have
  • However large the ensemble, unisons and octaves should not be ignored. They can be very powerful, or supply a contrast to thick harmony. When using backing figures or counterpoint it often works well to have the lead in harmony and the backing in unison, or vice versa. It can be very effective to use unison on an anacrusis (pickup) or faster melodic passages, followed by open or closed harmony on slower moving lines.

In the arranging section

  • Ranges & Transposition

    Jazz Arranging – Chart of Instrument Ranges You’ve probably all seen, and heard, a big band in full flight come to the end of their showcase number. The lead trumpet goes for a high note and maybe a tenor player decides to compete and show off their command of the altissimo range. All of this adds to the excitement of a ... Read more…
  • Jazz Reharmonising

    Reharmonising – Changing the Chords Often you may want to do some reharmonisation before arranging for jazz orchestra or combos. Most sheet music for popular music standards of the 30s, 40s and 50s will include chord symbols, but in some cases these will be wrong, too simple or too complex. Some publishers of sheet music invert a min7b5 so that it becomes ... Read more…
  • Block Voicing

    Four-part Three-part Two-part Voicing means harmonising a melody (or lead) with one or more instruments or voices, either with a similar instrument from the same section or with a combination. Block voicing is where the inside or harmony parts always move in the same direction as the lead. This type of harmony works well for the typical jazz orchestra (four trumpets, five ... Read more…
  • Jazz Arranging: Backings

    What Goes on in the Background Chordal accompaniment or pad In this case a solo instrument or unison line is accompanied by  instruments of the same or different section playing sustained chords. The lead line of the chordal accompaniment should move smoothly paying attention to voice leading where possible. This lead line can be harmonised with close or open block voicing, or traditional ... Read more…
  • The Rhythm Section

    The Rhythm Section Read more…
  • Orchestration: Score Layout

    What’s The Score? First things first – the title should be at the top centre of page one and the name of the composer and arranger on the right. It is a good idea to indicate whether the score is transposed or not (on the left). Individual groups of instruments or sections (e.g. Brass, strings, saxophones, choir) are bracketed together down ... Read more…
  • Writing for Strings

    The string section consists of violins (1st & 2nd), violas, ‘cellos (or ‘celli) and double basses. There are conventions as to the ratios of instruments; e.g. a large orchestral ensemble may consist of 16 first violins, 14 seconds, 12 violas, 10 cellos and 8 basses (16, 14, 12, 10, 8). Smaller ensembles would use a similar ratio (12, 10, 8, 6, ... Read more…
  • Orchestrating for Brass

    The Wonderful World of Composing for Brass Brass instruments are capable of great power, but also subtlety and variety, especially with the use of mutes, which are placed in the bell. The sound is produced by vibrating the lips together against the cup shaped mouthpiece (called buzzing). Greater lip tension produces notes of the harmonic series, based on the fundamental determined by ... Read more…
  • Composition: Hints & Tips

      Composition Hints and Tips[ Know when to use rules of composition, and when not to. Think about the genre and whether you need to be “correct” or can bend the rules a bit of even completely throw them out of the window Think of the melody as a conversation, with phrases logically following one another, possibly as questions and answers. Repetition, development and ... Read more…
  • Recording

    Most of our recording pages have moved to our other site at Media Music We still have the recording saxophone and mixing saxophone pages on this site. At Media Music: Recording Microphones Home Soundproofing Home Studio Acoustics High Frequency Absorbers Compression Reverb Logic Tips Logic Pro: Getting Started Score Tips Logic MIDI Audio Tips Logic EXS24 Editing Cues Sidechain Compression Logic FAQs Logic Resources Logic EXS24 Samples Logic Saxophone Samples Garageband Instruments & Samples Logic Environment Downloads Logic Keyswitch Articulations Logic Combo Remapper Logic Keyswitch Controller Read more…
  • Developing Melody with Motifs

    Very often a large part of composition involves expanding a very short simple phrase (or motif) into an entire work. This may be just a few notes, but careful development can make a little go a long way. Development may be achieved by thinking about unity and variety. If the motif is repeated that is unity. If a contrasting motif follows ... Read more…
  • Tension & Release in Composition

    Unity and Variety, Tension & Release Two very important factors in music, as well as most other art forms, are the creation of tension and release. Let’s look at how tension and release can be created by combining unity and variety. ☛ Unity does not necessarily imply monotony and variety does not necessarily imply interest.     The good composer knows when to introduce contrasting material at the ... Read more…
  • Modes in Composition

    Modes in Modern Pop & Commercial Composition Before reading this make sure you are familiar with the basic concept which is covered in the modes in jazz article. I prefer not to think of modes as relative to a major scale (e.g. D Dorian as a mode of C major), but as a scale in their own right (e.g. D Dorian is based ... Read more…
  • All About Copyright

    Copyright in Music Compositions Copyright decisions often it come down to a judge, and is therefore very unscientific so judgements can be very tenuous and inconsistent. Guidelines: Copyright is a Three Legged Stool. If all 3 legs are in position, the case for an infringement of copyright exists. If any, or all, the legs are missing, the case is weakened, and the stool ... Read more…
  • Become a TV/Film Composer

    How do You Actually get Work as Composer? I wish I could answer this question, or at least get paid every time someone asks it. Initially I was interested in composing music for TV commercials. After a long time taking my demos around to advertising agencies and being told The music on your showreel is great, but you haven’t composed for any ... Read more…
  • Orchestrating for Woodwinds

    What You Need to Know about Woodwinds Woodwinds are so called because the tone is generated by the player’s breath and originally all instruments were made of wood. The main woodwind instruments in modern western music are: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and saxophones. Each instrument is subdivided into a family of different sizes and pitches, (e.g the flute family: C flute, piccolo, alto ... Read more…


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