Orchestrating for Brass

Big Brass horn

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 the length of tubing. For example a brass instrument with an 8ft length of tubing can play a C below the bass clef (C1). By tightening the lips or embouchure the notes of the overtone series become available:

overtone series fro brass

Theoretically you can then go upward further (chromatically) though this would be well above the normal range and mostly useful for high note specialists. Early instruments were limited by the notes available on one fundamental but modern trumpets, horns and tubas change the length of tube thus creating different sets of harmonics by the use of valves. The trombone uses a sliding tube to change the length (except in the case of the less common valve trombone).

The range of any brass instrument varies from player to player. Some principal or lead players specialise in high notes and can extend the range by an octave or more, but unless you know the players you are writing for it is best to stick to the conventional range.

It is especially important to appreciate that playing a brass instrument is physically very tiring. Plenty of rests are a good idea: when a brass player’s lip goes the first thing to suffer is the range, and high notes may crack. As the high notes are not usually quiet the result has a less than pleasant effect on the music. Rest passages are a good idea not just to save the players lip but also for the sake of the listener, as the sound of wall to wall brass can be tiring on the ear.

The orchestral brass section usually comprises three trumpets, four horns, three trombones (including a bass trombone) and one tuba. The jazz big band usually has four trumpets and four trombones (sometimes including a bass trombone).

The French horns are often referred to in orchestral circles simply as horns, and in fact this term is more correct as they are not French at all. However in jazz and popular music the term horn has come to mean any instrument that is blown, so a three piece horn section in a soul band will usually consist of a trumpet, saxophone and trombone, not necessarily a “French” horn.

Orchestral brass players traditionally play without vibrato, jazz or showband players may use vibrato so if you don’t want it mark the part “N.V.”

Lip trills are possible on brass instruments and are executed by tightening and loosening the jaw muscles or embouchure. More effective in the upper registers due to the closeness of overtones.

Glissandi (sliding from one pitch to another) are possible and effective on brass instruments, usually in an upwards direction, but are cliched on the trombone and may imply a dixieland style. The position of the slide can limit glissandi on the trombone.

Bendingnotes downward (by up to a semitone on trumpet and obviously more on trombone depending on the position of the slide) is also possible.

Fluttertongue and growling (as on woodwinds) are useful effects.

All brass instruments can be muted to reduce the intensity of sound but in the case of trumpet and trombone mutes a diverse range of tone colours can be achieved by the wide variety of mutes available for these instruments. If you require mutes mark the part accordingly (muted or con sordino). Unless you specify which type of mute the players use the straight mute.

This table shows the characteristics of the main trumpet and trombone mutes:

Straight A bright, poignant sound
Cup A colourless, nasal sound. The tone becomes more muffled the further the mute is placed into the bell (Tight cup).
Harmon Tube out A sharp, shimmering sound. (Notably used by Miles Davis) Tube in the hand is used to create a wah wah effect by opening and closing over the mute (notated o for open and + for closed). Comic (laughing) effects achieved on descending chromatic notes
Bucket A very soft mellow sound.
Plunger Based on a plumber’s rubber sink plunger, this is great for bluesy vocal or wah wah effects. Can be closed or open as for the harmon

You mark a return to unmuted playing with the direction senza sordino or open.

In addition to the mutes players often cover the bell with their hand. If you want to be adventurous you could use many household or obscure objects as mutes: teapots, pineapples, high heeled shoes etc.

(French) Horns

The horn is a transposing instrument in F, i.e. it is written a fifth higher than it sounds. In orchestral writing the key signature is usually omitted and all accidentals written on the part as they arise. These days this is pointless and would advise the use of key signatures as normal.

The horns appear on the score above the trumpets, even though they are lower in pitch. This is possibly because although they are a brass instrument the mellow sound has a great affinity with the woodwinds, with whom they achieve a good blend. The horn in classical music is a member of the wind quintet as well as the brass quintet.

The sound in the lower octave is weak and easily covered. The middle range has a tone that can vary between dark and bland. Often used for sustained chordal or pad type accompaniment which can become monotonous if overdone. The horn can sound lyrical and heroic when used solo or in unison, and higher up the range it is strong and bright.

Trills are possible but difficult. Very fast passages and large leaps are not advisable. Logical melodic lines help the player to pitch notes accurately.

It is common practice to interlock harmony parts, so you can give the 1st and 3rd horns the top two harmonies and the 2nd and 4th horns the lower two.

The horn can be muted either with a mute or with the hand (stopped tones). These are produced by placing the hand in the bell (marked +) and produce a sharp slightly edgy nasal sound. you can mark a  return to normal playing with the symbol o.


The trumpet can be the most dominating acoustic instrument of any ensemble, especially in the higher end of its range (above the staff) where quiet notes can be difficult. The very low end can be dull, the lower and upper middle range can be lyrical, clear and still capable of blending with care. The high notes can be very punchy and powerful. Fingered trills are possible on all notes, lip trills on notes above the staff.

Many lead players can extend the range, but as their lips this is less practical with tired lips. If you require any extra high notes rest the player well either before or afterwards.

The most common trumpet is the Bb trumpet (the only trumpet in general use in jazz and pop) which sounds  a major second below the written pitch. Other instruments associated with the trumpet are the cornet and flugelhorn (both in Bb). The cornet is most common in brass bands, the flugelhorn is a very common double for all jazz trumpet players and has a mellower sound.

Often in big band writing if one of the trumpet players specialises in jazz improvisation you might write this on third or fourth trumpet. It can be a good idea to give them a rest from the section before and after a solo, (a good idea for any instrument in fact).

Other trumpets in use in orchestral work and their transposition:

Instrument Sounding Written
Trumpet in C C C
Trumpet in D D C a whole tone lower
Piccolo tpt in Bb Bb C a minor 7th lower


The trombone is a non transposing instrument written in the bass clef (although some brass band players treat it as a transposing instrument in Bb) You can use the tenor clef for high passages, but this is unusual outside orchestral writing. The trombone is very versatile, and can blend well with other instruments. The slide can vary the fundamental notes upon which the overtones are based, and there are 7 positions of the slide.

The lowest notes in normal use are the second partial, so in each position notes are available. The trombone is quite agile, though slide movements can become awkward lower down. This is especially true if  a player has to jump quickly from a note where they need to fully extend the slide to (7th position) to one where they retract the slide to 1st position) Note that low notes are only available in 7th position. (Higher notes are available with various alternative slide positions) Some trombones have an F trigger which solve this problem by allowing an alternative slide position for the low notes.

The bass trombone is basically a tenor trombone with the F trigger and a larger bore. (Although a tenor trombone with the F trigger can play same range as the bass, the low notes (7th position) are not as strong). Modern instruments have an E trigger allowing them to play the low B.

As with trumpet players some trombonists can extend the range upwards but the same limitations apply to stamina.

Trombone players can extend the normal range downwards by the use of pedal notes (the fundamental of the overtone series). This is most common on the bass trombone as an effect where the notes tend to growl.

All the mutes indicated above are available for the trombone but due to their large size trombonists do not carry them all. It’s a good idea to ask to beforehand if you need them.


This is the bass instrument of the brass family, is non transposing and written in the bass clef. It has a rich warm sound and is quite versatile dynamically and surprisingly agile. It blends well with all other instruments but like all low instruments requiring breath. Allow plenty of breaths for the player to breathe.

It is possible to mute the tuba.

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