How to write great horn parts for a live band

I have no idea...

Ok, so we got that out of the way. That being said, here are a few tips I have learned along the way, and (some I found searching the Internet), that you don't really know until you've written some really bad horn parts. (which I have) Hope these will help.

1. Listen to music with horns.
This may seem obvious, but there are some really awesome bands out there using horns to take a song to a whole new level. I believe the late night TV shows have the best live bands out there, and if you will notice, they use horns! Spend time writing out some of your favorite song's horn riffs, to see what good parts look like. I have noticed that they play a lot more unison lines than you might expect, and count a lot of measures of rests than you might expect. Keep that in mind when you write your parts.

2. Keep your instrumentation simple.
I write all my horn riffs for the following instrumentation:
1 trumpet
1 sax (alto or tenor)
1 trombone
Why? Because when I listen and watch the good bands, this is their normal setup. Sure there are variations to this, but I am looking for a basic strategy that works across the board. Also, if you are a band that plans on hitting the road, think about how many players you will have to pay to be on the road with you. Now do you see why simple is better? Also, you will find that this instrumentation mixes well with a wide variety of songs and styles... again you will get more bang for your buck.

3. Think of your horn lines as "riffs"
If you have any background in music, music writing, or wind instruments, your natural tendency will be to write elaborate independently moving lines with 4 part harmony, and parts that play throughout a song. Fight this tendency with all your might! It is easy to fall in the trap of writing arrangement with massive horn lines, but really what you will end up doing is writing them their own song. If you write horn parts this way, you will most certainly muddy the waters for the most important thing going on: the lead vocals of your song. Guitar players thing of each solo they do as a "riff, or a "hook."" This is a simple thought played once or twice through, then repeated again at different points in the song. Horn parts should be written in the same manner.

4. Be able to sing your horn line aloud
Many of the greatest songs of all time have the chorus "la, la, la, la" or "doo, doo, doo" or "woooaaah." These lines are easy to get a crowd to sing because they don't have to know the words, easy for them to remember in the car on the way home because they don't have to know the words, and easy to sing at the top of their lungs with the stereo blaring because they don't have to know the words. Write your horn part out only after you can sing it out easily and smoothly. This also can be a helpful tool if you can't write music. Sing the part to a guy who will write it out for you, or sing it to your horn section an ask them to play it. If you can't sing the part fairly easily, it is too complex to use in this style.

5. Ask your horn players for input
These guys are the ones who are playing your stuff, so if they don't like it... they won't play it well. Talk to them about things they need to see in the music, like accents, lyrics, or melody lines. In addition to knowing how things should sound, you need to know how your players are going to interpret what you write on the page. For example, if you write an isolated quarter note on a page and put it in front of an orchestral trumpet player, he will play a full note starting on one beat and ending on the next. If you put the same page in front of a funk player, he will give it a much harder attack and will cut the note short. In order to get the orchestral player to produce the same sound you would have to put an accent and a staccato mark over the note (and he still might not play it quite as short as the funk player).

There you have it! Now it should all be crystal clear:-) Good luck!


  1. Well said. One would think you were a wind player in a former life.