Think Like a Section - KeyboardMag

KEYBOARDISTS HAVE AN INHERENT UNDERSTANDING OF CHORD CONSTRUCTION AND HARMONY. With a little work, we can parlay this into realistic horn and string section arrangements that are just as useful for live playing as they are for film and TV composing. Start by thinking of each of the notes in your chords as separate instruments on their own. The first thing to learn is the playable range for each instrument. It’s also important to transpose to the key each instrument is in—for example, writing a part on piano, but in the key of Eb for alto sax. The techniques herein will go a long way towards making all those wonderful orchestral samples in your synth or computer sound like the real thing when you put them together.

1. Organ to Horns

I’ve taken three chord voicings for organ and assigned each note to a particular wind instrument: flute, alto sax, tenor sax, and bass clarinet. For now, we’ll simply keep everything in concert key (piano C) without the usual instrument transpositions. In Ex. 1a, I’ve assigned each instrument a note from my Cmin11 organ chord. A great method for scoring for horns is to use “drop-2” and “drop-3” voicings, which means taking either the second highest (drop-2) or third highest (drop-3) note in the chord and making it the lowest note of your new voicing. In Ex. 1b, the drop-2 note (Bb) becomes the lowest note of the Cmin9 horn voicing. In Ex. 1c, the drop-3 note (G) becomes the lowest note of Cmaj9.

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2. Ranges and Transpositions

Many instruments, especially horns, are not C instruments. For example, if a pianist and alto saxophonist each play notes written as C in their respective sheet music, these are in fact different pitches. Ex. 2a illustrates how an alto sax playing what’s written as A above middle C, and a piano playing middle C, are in fact playing the same pitch. Ex. 2b is an introduction to wind instrument ranges and transpositions. Always be careful when writing to high or too low in an instrument’s playable range. Ex. 2c is how our chords from Ex. 1 look when properly transposed to their instruments’ native ranges and keys.

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3. String Trios

Let’s say you’re producing a session and the artist says, “I’d love a real string trio on the bridge.” Here we’ll use violin, viola, and cello, written drop-2 style. Th is means the middle note of the original piano voicing will be assigned to the lowest string voice (the cello). Violin and cello sound as written, but viola is written in the alto clef, which many keyboardists aren’t used to seeing—it simply puts middle C on the middle line of the staff . Ex. 3a illustrates how our piano part looks transposed into a string arrangement. Ex. 3b shows the notes of the alto clef.

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4. Funky Organ Horn Hits

Ex. 4a shows how to turn funky organ comping into horn section hits. Here, I’ve taken a comping pattern from an organ part and expanded it for a horn section. Notice the drop-2 technique in the tenor sax voice. This example is shown in concert pitch, while Ex. 4b shows the proper horn transpositions. Remember that trumpet transposes up a major second, alto sax up a major sixth, and tenor sax up a major ninth. Just like strings, each instrument has its own set of peculiarities. Try experimenting with accents, crescendos, sforzandos, and other dynamic effects in your horn writing to expand your arrangements’ aural impact.

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Required Reading

“Mastering orchestration is a formidable task,” says Grammy-nominated keyboardist Brian Charette, who has performed and recorded with Joni Mitchell, Lou Donaldson, Bucky Pizzarelli, Michael Bublé, and Rufus Wainwright, in addition to leading his own combos. “Read Rimsky Korsakov’s Principles of Orchestration, the master text on the subject.” Brian’s latest album is Music For Organ Sextette. Find out more at www.briancharette.com