How on Earth do you do that?

This Blog discusses the development of a professional working attitude.

I’ve often had the pleasant experience of people coming up to me and saying ‘how on Earth do you write music like that, you must be very talented?’. Needless to say, I have no objections at all although I’m secretly aware of the many years spent refining all aspects of my work.

In the back of my mind there are doubts concerning excessive reliance on ‘creativity’ and, especially, the thoughtless use of words such as ‘gifted’ and ‘inspired’. If I could wake up tomorrow and believe whole heartedly that I was the helpless slave to factors beyond my control I would be very happy. That way, I’d never be to blame.

In the book there’s a section dealing with getting ideas going during a fallow period. Such periods occur for a number of reasons such as overwork, general tiredness, etc. On the other hand, a stimulating environment will often get the juices going. Please believe me that, if a composer/arranger plans a whole life around a blind belief in his or her immortality, the quality of music will suffer whether or not we accept the idea of a spiritual plane. It will, I promise.

The problem is that we all carry with us a set of listening and other experiences which we absorb and reproduce by rearranging the parts in a seemingly original way. The only escape from the tyranny of these complexes is to develop an objective control of musical materials so that we ‘create’ beyond the limitations of our own experiences.

Music actually emulates the very nature of physical forces around us (forces that were operating before mankind even existed) in a way that no other art form can, directly stimulating a similar pattern of responses in the listener’s auditory consciousness. Music does not necessarily set out to be directly descriptive or programmatic. Begin working in this way and ‘originality’ will start to emerge. You can do anything you desire, providing that what you write has a clearly defined, strong artistic purpose and is consistent within itself. The rules will begin to fall like ninepins. We might choose the deliberate use of an exposed octave or fifth to emphasise an accent from pp to ff. A kind of “doowap” effect. The book mentions many similar instances, including the use of parallel fifths in the lowest two voices in large ensembles to strengthen the texture. Many undesirable parallels become acceptable when their intervals are compounded.

There are other reasons for developing a more objective approach to our work. If a professional composer is commissioned to write an overture by a week on Wednesday (as the great composers often were), he or she simply can’t turn up on the day and say ‘I’m very sorry but I just couldn’t get inspired this week’.

There are also unavoidable constraints of one kind or another:

The duration of the composition will be finite;

Conventional instruments can’t play certain things or they may sound awkward doing so, and some only operate effectively within a limited orchestral range;

The musicians available will have a given level of accomplishment;

A featured solo arrangement will be designed to avoid leaving the player standing unoccupied for too long and it may well be written in the instrument’s ‘natural’ key


The anticipated level of sophistication of the audience can’t be ignored. A composer may wish to push overlapping sections and dissonance to the very limits of ‘noise’ itself. Jazz players are OK with this but I sometimes get complaints about ‘wrong notes’ from older brass band players (their excessive use of vibrato doesn’t help). Listen to the uncompromising Richard Strauss. He was often called ‘a musician’s composer’.

The most difficult thing to do (and I still make the mistake to this day) is to discard ideas that don’t fit. It’s very, very difficult indeed but failure in this respect is the biggest time-waster of them all. The trick is to keep stepping back to take a long view of the process and only commit yourself towards the end. With experience, you’ll know when. It’s rather like assembling the pieces of a jigsaw.

You can try too hard, also. It’s OK, in a jazz arrangement, to let the rhythm section only take it sometimes, or it can play the intro or modulation. Unfortunately, very few big bands have a good rhythm section. Most likely it will comprise a collection of detached individuals with their heads buried in the written parts.One of my bands was built around an existing trio and you could really tell the difference. Before leaving the rhythm section, it’s worth mentioning the need to ensure that the guitar and piano don’t fight each other. They can’t both feed chords at the same time. It happened occasionally in my nine-piece but I had a look that could kill at twenty paces.

Try to avoid approaching a composition with the intention of creating a masterpiece. Just get on with it in a spirit of humility. We only learn by making mistakes. It definitely helps to limit the number of ‘ideas’ used. Instead, use instrumental and other variations on a theme. The old stock technique of writing brass with saxes backing followed by the converse, saxes with a virtually identical brass backing, still works extremely well and yet it’s the simplest, most obvious thing an arranger could do.

Take a letter, Miss Smith…

From the beginning, budding arrangers have sharpened their skills by listening to the best examples of recorded work and transcribing them onto paper, usually to try them out with a local band. In the early years, schools of big band and jazz writing (and playing) didn’t exist so that young writers had fewer opportunities to learn. Added to this, legitimate ‘rules’ often lose their significance in the saturated harmonies prevalent in jazz. Some people believe that jazz has reached such a state of maturity and evolution that a study of legitimate styles is no longer necessary. I’m not convinced of that myself, as explained in the book and, in any case, the suggestion clashes with my own dislike of labels and my interest in a melting pot of global influences in this ‘shrinking’ planet.

This blog attempts to pass on some of the lessons I’ve learned over many years of ‘taking them down’. Relax, Miss Smith. I wasn’t referring to you.

Listen through headphones, it’s amazing how much more you’ll hear. Moving into another room and listening from afar may reveal other subtleties you may have missed.

Listen to the whole piece making sure the key signatures are sensible (record decks do not always play at the correct speed). Most keyboards allow you to change pitch (essentially becoming transposing instruments) to overcome this problem, or you may be able to change the deck speed. I hate changing the pitch of the keyboard since ears become accustomed to concert pitch. Although we can’t write-off keys with 4 or more sharps and 7 flats (=5 sharps), their presence might tell you something. Obviously, 6 and 7 sharps can be enharmonically transposed to their equivalent flat keys for the benefit of some brass instruments.

(Sharp keys are more prevalent in string arrangements and a vocal arrangement can, in principle, be in any key because a semitone up or down can make a difference.)

Be methodical. Having confirmed the correct key, write in the melody and lead instrument lines next, working ‘by ear’. Include any prominent countermelodies, ‘riffs’ or descending (or ascending) unison lines, that are often an integral part of the original composition. They will help identify the chords. Now put in the double bar lines and repeat bars (if any). If you do this too early in the procedure, you might have to erase a large portion of your work or ‘cheat’ by dividing one bar into two to ‘catch up’. Next write in the bass part, especially in cases where it’s written in with the ensembles or sections. Where the bass backs a jazz solo, chord symbols will suffice, except where the bass is written into the background harmonies etc. The bass trombone and baritone sax will often be written at this point, too.

Now you can start to unravel the chord sequence but don’t get bogged down (never get bogged down, just move on for a while, or take a break). It’s always preferable to obtain an authentic reference for the melody and chords if you can; there’s so much stuff online these days.

The voicings are next and an experienced ear will be able to identify common styles (semi-open, 5 part, 5 part semi-open, block writing, ensemble etc.) very quickly. Strange things can happen here. A reiterated lead note over changing harmonies may appear to change pitch. It’s the musical equivalent of the parallax in visual orientation. Also, because of the difficulty of ‘tracking’ individual parts in close harmony, a voice my appear to go in various directions due to the fact that each vertical cross section of the music will always vary slightly in section balance. It simply isn’t possible, even with the best bands, to control the blowing force with absolute precision. You might be trying to pick out the first alto part and you could stray into the second alto line by mistake. It’s so easy, after listening to a phrase for the trillionth time, to convince yourself of all manner of things, especially when fatigue takes over. It’s far better, in such circumstances, to write the parts the way you would have written them of your own accord. That way you’ll avoid creating a monster. Learn to listen to that still small voice in the back of your brain telling you, despite the learned reasons given to justify what you have done, that something just ain’t right.

It will assist you at this point to put the work on one side and sleep on it, if possible.

You can remove one step in the process if, instead of writing a sketch in short score first, you write straight onto the finished score. Copyists charge more for transposing which is one reason for the transposed score tradition. In a computerized world it’s less relevant because you can change pitch and key signatures automatically. Watch out for the silly accidentals some computer programs create and amend as necessary to arrive at a logical, easy to follow scheme. Short score sketches can be useful to hang on to after you’ve parted with the full score.

Transcribing from a sketch score straight onto a computer score will save time and energy. If you’re inserting notes manually use the keyboard shortcuts to speed things up and keep the flow. Block scoring can be confusing in short score layouts because of the profusion of contradictory accidentals that sometimes occurs. I always write chord symbols above passing chords etc. and take the intonations for the parts from these, rather than trying to squeeze accidentals in.

Finally, when using a pencil, use a 2B grade. You can still get a sharp point but it’s easier to rub out and gives a nice black image. Please note: the item used is an ‘eraser’. This is often called a ‘rubber’ in Britain. In the USA they’ll direct you to a ‘drug store’ (GB: ‘chemist’), not a stationery shop.

Would you mind removing your hat?

It often surprises me how readily rhythm section players take it for granted that they will be hidden away at the back of the band. Perhaps it’s because we’re used to regarding their role as being a subservient one. In the book we suggest that the emancipation of the rhythm section, which took giant steps forward as a result of rock influences, should be encouraged. Here we suggest a few ways this might happen.

The book outlines ways of using instrumental forms, including arpeggios and other ‘broken’ chord formations, and of producing harmonies from melodic motifs. These techniques are particularly appropriate in the rhythm section, where a combination of piano, vibes, xylophone, marimba and glockenspiel produce arresting effects, especially when assisted by the other percussion instruments.

The wind sections of the band (in the case of the jazz orchestra) will then use a complementary style comprising sustained harmonies or percussive and rhythmic ‘vamps’, similar to brass band and military band writing. It’s a role reversal that’s well worth looking into. Of course, the bass and guitar could be involved in a riff or melody with, for example, the glock or right hand of the piano continuing to decorate trumpets in harmon mutes. We don’t have to split the band into two rival camps.

Few bands outside the education sector will have ready access to some of these instruments, which is another reason we must all hope that the breaking down of cultural barriers in a shrinking planet will continue (see the last News Update). Keyboards provide a good substitute for some of these percussion sounds but more than one player would be needed in complex arrangements.

The piano, xylophone and marimba possess little sustain in the notes they produce (this does not necessarily apply to synthesized sounds) and the glock is capable of great separation of tone colour from the other instruments. As a result the composer will be able to use crossed voices more freely and will enjoy greater acoustic freedom with regard to the vertical distribution of harmony. Other constraints will also disappear in this medium to a greater or lesser extent. The risk we run is that it’s all too easy to produce decoration without formal content. When you can lift the stylus during a track on an old vinyl LP and put it back down somewhere else without it making much difference then it’s time to start worrying.

There’s nothing new about using single note guitar with saxophones etc. but this is not 100% satisfactory due to the different attack forms and the limited ability of the guitar to play a true legato, except within the span of the hand on one string at a time. Finger style playing on acoustic body instruments minimises the problem, which helps to explain its frequent use. Sustain can be produced within limitations.

Jazz guitarists in big bands in the ‘Fifties anticipated the techniques under discussion by using ‘slabs’ of open harmony as a foil to the other instruments. As we point out in the book, guitar parts have to be carefully designed to avoid conflict with the middle harmony parts of the ensemble. The instrument is limited in the chord shapes it can play and rapid successions of block harmony chords, even where possible, are not in keeping with its character. Continuous ‘comping’, despite its popularity in the swing era, is awful – I don’t care what anyone says.

Where the bass or bass guitar is used to reinforce bass trombone/baritone sax the intonation has to be spot on. Here again, it doesn’t always work due to the totally different means of tone production and attack forms.

In the book we also discuss ways of combining the band into three, four and five parts but even here I’m inclined to favour the purity of unison trumpets, unison trombones and unison saxes in three part counterpoint. It’s definitely easier for players to introduce bluesy inflections and nuances into their interpretation when they employ similar methods (valves with valves, slides with slides and keys with keys). The only limitation is posed by the fact that the conventional sax section comprises instruments in the alto, tenor and baritone registers so that they cannot all remain in a comfortable range all the time when playing in unison. (They will sometimes be written in octaves in counterpoint.) It’s usually possible to avoid problems by writing the melodic lines accordingly. Regardless of the size of the trombone section, I generally employ just three in section-by-section counterpoint to maintain a lighter, more agile feel. You’ll also need a well-balanced trombone section, which won’t be easy since trombone players are all crazy to have taken the instrument up in the first place. 

One final thought which has nothing to do with anything, really: I wish I could wake up one day and find that Microsoft had all been a bad dream. Ho hum.

But it isn’t jazz…

How often have we heard this comment? It was often heard during the experimental days of the late 40’s to mid 60’s. Purists wrote to one of the leading music papers in England protesting that it wasn’t jazz if you played it on the saxophone! Jazz, they claimed, had to be played on trumpet/cornet, clarinet and trombone, backed by banjo (not guitar) bass and drums. Some even objected to the string bass, believing the tuba or, more likely, sousaphone was the correct bass instrument. As we all know, early jazz bands often used instruments discarded by the military.

I’ve always believed that jazz is more a matter of how you play rather than what you play, or even what you play it on. The subject has suddenly assumed great significance due to the way modern communication methods and cheap transport have caused the world to shrink. The internet, too, will have its effect, with streaming audio and MP3 and other download capabilities. The problem we all face, not only with regard to this topic, but in every walk of life, is that we are all imprisoned within our own narrow perspectives. Evidence of this can be seen in the shocking effect that some commonplace habits can have on different ethnic groups. Around ten years ago, an elderly lady in England, who had lived in her home all her life, was asked to remove ceramic pigs from her bay window display because it offended newly arriving ethnic groups!

Cultural divisions would not have existed in the first place without geographic isolation. Obviously, when people who have been separated by huge distances and who have emerged from vastly different environments first come into contact with each other, they will inevitably affect each others’ chances of living what they all consider to be a ‘normal’ existence. Resentment is the natural human response and its expression can take many forms, even violence.

As we point out in the book, the consequences of an increasingly global culture are difficult to predict and we have seen many successful fusions. A recent example is the Indie/jazz style and long before that we saw classical forms and instrumentation being introduced into jazz. Influences from Latin America were probably the first to enrich so-called ‘modern’ jazz.

In the immediate future there will be a limit to our musical flexibility. Someone setting out to a jazz club has different expectations to those who bought tickets for the opera. But will this always be the case? Some argue that music written centuries ago cannot fully satisfy contemporary ears (I agree with them).

So what’s the bottom line? Jazz is in danger of becoming a caricature of itself from the outside looking in, with bluesy riffs and raunchy ensembles all too often taking the place of the truly innovative work of the best writers of the past. Many contemporary arrangements for the big band sound like they were all written by the same computer. In many cases, the music is reduced to becoming a fashion statement for the clientèle of bistros and cafés.

There’s no such thing as progress, in our perception of life, since more will always want more. That’s why we always feel hard done by. What we have is evolution, which is a different matter altogether. We can’t stop evolution because it’s part of the very process of cause and effect. Right at the end of the book we refer to the growing commercialization of music and the fact that, to survive, you have to play with more soul than the man across the street. OK, we all have to earn a living. We just need to remind ourselves of the need to write something occasionally for the same reason that we entered music in the first place ‑ because we have something to say.

There’s evidence that the future is in safe hands, with more and more young players rejecting the ‘isms’ and unashamedly drawing on a multitude of influences.


Some time is spent in the book referring to brass band instrumentation. This would have been unthinkable until recently, a fact that reflects the above topic.

Now that a young generation of players and conductors have breathed fresh life into the movement, the British brass band instrumentation should be considered for jazz writing, especially the Eb ‘tenor’ horns (they’re really ‘alto’ horns, of course), baritone horns, tubas (they call them basses) and euphoniums. Many brass bands are finding it increasingly difficult to find gigs due to local authority economies and loss of commercial sponsorship. They often contain very keen players indeed who would value the extra playing opportunities jazz performances will offer. Some are hurtfully unable to swing due to the lack of appropriate listening experience, but they will learn (non-jazz performers feel secretly inferior to jazz players). The best brass band players are awesome technicians.

Here are a few thoughts on instrumentation:

The brass band technique of doubling up voices in the 8 or 9 piece cornet section does not work too well in the drier sound of jazz close harmony section work. And cornets, although admittedly more agile, lack the projection of trumpets. You can have screaming trumpets but you can’t have screaming cornets; it’s a different ball game altogether. So keep to five trumpets with the addition of a separate flugel chair.

The Eb soprano cornet’s ability to extend the upwards range of the brass is not essential due to the fact that double high c’s are state-of-the-art in jazz anyway. The instrument is, nevertheless, capable of very great delicacy in solos, or duets with a cornet or flugel. It also sparkles delightfully at the top of the ensemble.

Eb horns provide an evocative trio sound both in unison countermelodies and harmony. The flugel can be used as a lead instrument, making up a homogenous four part section. It’s fairly easy for trumpet players to adapt to playing the horn, which is not unduly expensive to buy. Mellophoniums in F can tune down to play Eb horn parts, but it’s very easy to transpose fresh parts with music notation programs. Early mellophoniums were slightly difficult to play in tune so that tuning down by as much as a tone will aggravate the problem.

Baritones and euphoniums provide a warm unison sound for cantabile playing and an incredibly rich divisi sound, especially when combined with the tubas. (Please don’t call them ‘basses’ – ‘Tubby the Bass’ doesn’t quite work for me.) Tubas can also be written divisi, within a narrow orchestral range. A full brass band has two Bb tubas and two Eb’s. In ensembles, the baritone/euphonium/ tuba section often operates in a similar way to the violas/cellos/basses in a string section. The book gives advice on accommodating passing chords in upper harmonies.

Baritone horns and euphoniums also blend well with saxophones. How often have you heard that combination?

All brass band players except the bass trombonist read in treble clef (transposed) but some lower brass players can read bass clef in concert pitch, especially in the USA.

Henry Mancini’s French* horns/trombones/tuba sound that we all admire so much can be attained reasonably convincingly with the Eb horns replacing the French horns. As we point out in the book, show band versions of Bb horns, baritones and euphoniums that point out at the audience horizontally are available. Just as a clean car seems to drive better, a band that has all the brass instrument bells strung out in straight lines is so much more convincing.

(*These days we call them ‘horns’.)

If the tubas play a vamping role, as they so often do in their natural habitat, the combination of the electric bass will require some thought. We shall extend that topic in the next blog when I write about the emancipation of the rhythm section. It would certainly be interesting to see more jazz drummers with brass bands. They’re sorely needed.

Many brass bands have additional percussion instruments such as tubular bells, timps, marimba, xylophone, vibraphone and glockenspiel. Glocks work a treat with trumpets in harmon mutes, piano, vibes etc…

The more observant will have noticed that the kind of instrumentation we are discussing more or less already exists in the form of the military band. I knew that really. But the whole concept is different. You see that, don’t you…?

One final word: quite apart from traditional band loyalty etc., brass band players frequently use instruments owned by the band so tread carefully to avoid accusations of poaching. Invite the MD along, too. Who knows what could develop? A punch-up, probably….

Very few brass bands rehearse at the weekend or during the daytime so these are obvious choices to avoid a clash of interests.

It has always been a pipe dream of mine to see a band similar to the one described here turning up at one of the British brass band contests. No hope of that at present. Cue back to the global culture scene…

Please forward a copy of this blog to a friend or associate.