All about that bass

Girl with the Flaxen Hair by Claude Debussy – brass ensemble sheet music available by clicking here
Performance by the Boulder Brass from Landscapes and Portraits

The notes are all entered into your score template – now what?

Of course, the possibilities are nearly endless and there is no one right way to go about any of this.

After listening to a recording of the piece several times, scrolling along in my score watching the notes I’ve entered, I’ll start to make some basic notes or even move a few phrases around in my score. Generally, I’m inclined to start with the bass instruments because I’m a tuba player. Or you might think this is the reason. The rationalization is actually more well thought out than that. I believe most balance problems in a brass ensemble originate in the low end. Too much doubling of the bass voice, and not enough variety in the instrument playing the bass voice are the two main causes.

When first entering the notes, I usually put the entire bass line in either the euphonium part or the bass trombone part. This makes using the tuba as the bass voice a conscious decision rather than an automatic one. I’ll go through and make some early basic decisions about places where I want to lighten up the bass, or really add weight, and begin to move the bass voice around. As I’ve mentioned before, there are many color combinations available including tuba alone, bass trombone alone, tenor trombone, euphonium, even low horn. and any combination of these instruments in unison or at the octave. Using a variety of bass voice scoring techniques will give your score variety and texture.

This can be a lot of fun, especially if you think about orchestration in terms of ‘coloring’ your score. Nothing is cast in stone ever in your favorite notation software – so feel free to play with the music. Move things around and try to imagine what it will sound like for whatever instrument or combination you write.

Save your work – listen to it again through your MIDI setup to make certain you haven’t inadvertently introduced new errors. At this point we are still working with mostly bass clef C instruments so transpositions shouldn’t be an issue. Make corrections and save your work.

By the way – perhaps it goes without saying: bass clef tuba and euphonium, and bass trombone are all non-transposing instruments. That also means that it sounds in the octave that it is written. I’ve run across more than a few arrangements – even orchestral and band music – where the composer or arranger did not understand this.

We’ll talk about characteristic sounds and idiomatic writing for these and other instruments in a later post.

July 29, 2017 – Mike Allen

4 thoughts on “All about that bass

  1. Hi Mike,

    Chicago Metropolitan Brass Ensemble (same instrumentation as Boulder Brass) has purchased and enjoyed performing some of your charts. As the tubist and one of the group’s members who has written arrangements/transcriptions for our library, your comments are very interesting and elucidating.

  2. Great post and a great resource! 40 years experience with brass quintets, and I want to know more! JPO

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