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Jam School

What Guitar Players

(and other rhythm/pop musicians)

Should Know About Horns

1. Horns Are Largely Transposing Instruments - This is a hard one to explain. Simply put, different horns see the same actual pitch as different notes. An explanation follows but it may be confusing.

Trumpets, saxophones, clarinets and some flutes learn their notes at different pitches from the rest of the world. Try to follow this train of thought:   Modern horns were designed to play in groups which used written music. Their ranges, however, are limited (usually 2 1/2 to 3 octaves) and they are made in various sizes so that multiple players can cover larger ranges. For example, the Alto Sax covers 2.5 octaves of range, and the Tenor Sax covers a similar amount of range but a 4th lower. Go down another fifth (a full octave below the Alto) using the Baritone Sax. The fingering systems are identical for them all, but the the notes sounded by the same fingering are different on different horns. For music readers, this would cause a fingering nightmare. So, it was decided that each fingering would be equated to a certain written note. The written music is transposed for the player so that the desired pitches are expressed as the notes associated with the needed fingering. For example, what's written third-space C on an Alto Sax is really the E-flat a sixth below. On a Tenor Sax reading the same note/fingering, the actual pitch would be a B-flat a ninth below. On the Baritone Sax, that written third-space C would actually come out of the horn as the E-flat an octave and a sixth below.

Horns are named with keys according to this. A B-flat trumpet, clarinet or tenor sax is said to be in B-flat because it's written C actually sounds as a B-flat to the rest of the world. An E-flat alto sax or bari sax is said to be in E-flat because its written C sounds as an E-flat. Likewise for F french horn, G alto flute, etc.

Bottom line - Horn players generally aren't in concert key (the real key that you're in) but they understand that they are responsible for knowing what pitches they are actually playing. Not many will sight-read from concert-key music, but any professional should be able to show you how to transpose. Click here for a chart comparing the keys of the different instruments.

2. Horns Operate Very Differently In Different Keys - Unlike stringed instruments, band instruments have radically different fingerings from key to key and some keys are definitely harder than others. These differences can be far more severe than 'open string' vs. 'non-open string' keys on guitar. The keying systems of most woodwinds, for example, involve easy and rapid fingering in keys like B-flat, E-flat and F. In keys like E and A, the changing of one note can require the simultaneous movement of up to 9 fingers. As you can see from the keys mentioned, easy keys for strings and easy keys for horns are not the same.

3. Horn Sections Require Tight Coordination and Advance Planning - Whether playing riffs, melodic lines, or rhythmic patterns, horn sections are groups of individuals that have to function as a single instrument most of the time. To work effectively, they require the same kind of preparation that two guitarists need to prepare a double lead.

4.  Horns Require Accurate Tuning Pitches - You can't tune horns by turning a knob or tightening/loosening a string. Horns are tuned by lengthening or shortening their tubing at one or more key points. This can be done only over a very narrow range of pitch, and the changes in tubing length have a disproportionate effect on notes that are fingered near the points where the tubing is expanded/contracted. Horns are particularly vulnerable when pitch is too sharp. They have a certain amount of tubing and it cannot be shortened but so much. Adding to this is the fact that they are highly suscepitble to temperature.

5.  Horns Don't Like Cold Start-Ups - It's necessary to keep horns warmed up between uses. When a horn cools to room temperature (or colder) its responsiveness is degraded. Reed instruments also suffer if the reed gets too dry, and time may have to be allowed for sparsely used instrument to be warmed up/reed dampened just before it's needed. Pitch will also tend to go flat with dropping temperatures. When instruments are used consistently through a performance this is no problem, but if your trumpet player is doubling flugelhorn or your saxophonist is doubling clarinet or flute, it's good to leave a little space in the arrangement so that the player can warm up an instrument prior to use.

6.  Horns Are Sensitive to Temperature in General - On outdoor gigs, horns will tend to go very sharp if in direct sunlight, or very flat and unresponsive if it's cold. Anything that can be done to mitigate these conditions is helpful. Metallic instruments will generally warm up readily, but wooden instruments such as clarinet, oboe, or bassoon cannot be quickly warmed up.

7.  Horns Do Not Have Stage Amps and Cannot Compete in Volume with Amplified Instruments - Our instruments don't "go to 11" like Spinal Tap's guitar amps. In large venues, horn sections should have monitors just like backup vocalists. Brass instruments easily overpower saxes and other woodwinds, and even the brass are easily overpowered by drum kits and amplified instruments. Because human muscle is directly required for sound production, horn sections that are forced to overblow can become flat in pitch, suffer degraded sound quality, and will become quickly fatigued.

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