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Basic Scoring Techniques for the Marching Band

Basic Scoring Techniques for the Marching Band

The late summer brings a magical time of year when you hear the immortal phrase, “Welcome to Band Camp!” For many music educators and teens this is a special time of year when there is promise of competition, skill development and accomplishment. For some programs, band camp is a time to prepare for parades and competitions. For others this is a time to prepare for spirited football game performances and a chance to get your groove on. Regardless, this time of year is a chance to showcase excellence in music making and today we will discuss “Basic Scoring Techniques for the Marching Band.”

Source Material

Music educators use all sorts of resources that have been composed by others and would sound great on the football field or in the stands. These come from lead sheets, concert band compositions and even orchestral scores. In their original format these pieces are not adequately written for marching band instrumentation and must be rewritten.

Challenges often arise when music educators try to input music using a MIDI keyboard. Sometimes inconsistent notation issues may surface in the arranging process. In other instances, music educators will scan music and will lose precious rehearsal time due to the frequency of trips having to go the copier.

Lifting Music

Transcribing or “Lifting” music is the skill and act of listening to a recording and arranging what you hear for your marching band. This skill takes time and patience to develop into a craft that is exponentially rewarding. Some band directors will sit and listen to a recording and write out the music in a more traditional way by using a pencil and manuscript paper. In contrast, others may use a more modern approach by using some sort of notation software like Finale, Sibelius or Noteflight.

Mr. Spencer-Pierce recommends that when “lifting” to analyze in short phrases and then build up the texture a little at a time. Start by notating the melody and bass line. Keep in mind what is happening with the moving counter melodies and any rhythmic elements along the way. Once this is established it is much easier to fill in the remaining harmony.

Personally, my preferred way for arranging music is through music notation software. Inputting music notation can be done in a variety of ways such as using a mouse, MIDI keyboard, scanning or even recording an instrument playing. You should use what works best for you.

As you enter notation and various data you are able analyze what the piece of music you are working on sounds like. This is considerably helpful feedback. An additional benefit to using notation software includes being able to speedily enter information. My recommendation is to enter pitches using a MIDI keyboard in the left hand and then using the number pad or mouse to enter note values or other symbols into the digital manuscript.

Choosing a Key

Many times choosing the right key for your students to play in depends on the range of melodies and musical effect you want to create. Think big picture. Mr. Spencer-Pierce wants you to consider that the keys of F, Bb and Eb all work well with your brass performers. This is important because the brass musicians carry the majority of the projected melodic lines. As a result of what keys marching band instruments are pitched in, you may find that the majority of the music that you write for will be in the keys of Bb, Eb, Ab and sometimes Db major.

As you write in small chunks of music you might also find that there will be areas within the music that escape these previously mentioned primary tonal centers. Don’t be afraid to use accidentals that work best in these chucks of music. If you find that you are trying to transcribe music that has a different tonal center for more than 8 measures, then it is best to change your key signature.

music notation

Key Relationships

If it is possible, try to keep the key relationship within a musical piece the same. This requires you to study the piece a bit and think ahead. Popular tunes typically have simpler internal key relationships. In contrast, orchestral or formal wind literature may have more complex key relationships. Regardless, you want to arrange music so that it is in it’s clearest, simplest and most comfortable forms and ranges for all instruments – as much as possible.

The Character of Melody

Marching Band
Each individual melody a marching band musician plays should have it’s own character. This suggests that you don’t write every melody with the same instrumentation the same way every time. Be sure to mix it up so that there is contrasting musical color and flavor.
When arranging music for your marching band you may often find it necessary to simplify melodies that are too busy or difficult. Note, that it is highly recommended that certain qualities in music be retained. For example, rhythmic characters in popular tunes that are familiar amongst the musicians and audience members.

Plan on arranging musical parts where the strongest players play on the upper parts which may also be more rhythmically complicated. In contrast, water down the lower parts so that the weaker players may also be successful and feel like they are part of the team.

Similarly, low brass and low woodwind parts tend to have a slower response rate. Consider ensuring overly technical parts are watered down for most of these players that play low instruments. This act will save you valuable rehearsal time and will allow for better execution which ultimately results in a cleaner sound.
Finally, be sure to pass important melodic lines across the sections. Don’t leave any section just playing boring harmony during the whole performance. Remember if student musicians enjoy what they play they will more than likely become more enthusiastic about how they play. This increases the overall energy of the performance and competitive nature of the marching band.

Focus on Block Scoring

The technique of using “Block Scoring” is probably the most common form of arranging for marching band directors. The benefit to this approach of arranging is that it provides a powerful sound, reduces rehearsal time and enhances performer poise.
Often block scoring results in more of a trio type of approach for melodic or background writing. With this approach, arrangers are essentially harmonizing in close position triads with a heightened focus on quality voice leading.

Upper Part Orientation

Most commonly the upper parts are associated with the melody and move more freely than the supporting lower parts. 
The following is an example of how parts can be assigned within your scoring. Assign the lead parts to the Trumpet 1 and Clarinet 1. Double this in flutes one octave higher. Next, distribute the 2nd and 3rd upper woodwinds parts, 2nd and 3rd trumpets and horns to fill the internal harmonic holes in the music. 
Mr. Spencer-Pierce recommends that smaller band arranging for upper parts should include:
Lead Part – Trumpet 1, Clarinet 1, Flute 8va
Part 2 – Trumpet 2, Clarinet 2
Part 3 – Alto Sax, Horn
In contrast, Mr. Spencer-Pierce recommends that larger band arranging for upper parts should include:
Lead Part – Trumpet 1, Clarinet 1, Flutes 8va
Part 2 – Trumpet 2, Clarinet 2, Alto Sax, Flute 2 8va
Part 3 – Trumpet 3, Clarinet 3, Horn
An other tactical approach to arranging is to glue your piece together with long sustained notes with your alto saxes and horns while the rest of the winds have short percussive parts.
If you know that  you often have intonation issues with your upper woodwinds consider scoring where your upper woodwind players are playing in 3rds. By writing music in thirds you’ll find that this approach will minimize intonation issues, in particular, and in exposed locations.

Lower Part Orientation

Low Brass
Most everyone knows that the low brass and low woodwinds serve as the foundation of a band’s sound. Much like the upper parts, the lower parts can use trio block voicing as well. Typically the lower part structure of writing has trombones, tenor sax and baritone playing the upper/ tenor voicing ranges. In contrast, the tubas are doubled by the bass clarinet, baritone sax and pretty much all electric bass instruments.
The bass parts require special attention. This is because they should carry the basic rhythmic and harmonic motifs in the piece. Bass lines are known to be used as supportive lines for the entire band and can be featured as a separate entity all together.
The bass line can also function separate from the rest of the low brass trio voicing. As a result, the remaining low brass and low woodwind parts may be arranged in the following manner.
Small Band
Part 1 – Trombone
Part 2 – Tenor Sax
Part 3 – Baritone
Medium Band
Part 1 – Trombone 1
Part 2 – Trombone 2, Tenor Sax
Part 3 – Baritone
Large Band
Part 1 – Trombone 1
Part 2 – Trombone 2, Tenor Sax
Part 3 – Trombone 3, Baritone
One technique directors may consider when writing for a rich tenor line is to also arrange for clarinets to play in their chalumeau register. This will help provide support and create a dark, rich sound.

Scoring for Powerful Moments

Football Stadium
As music educators write for their groups, there are often times when powerful moments are desired within the music. One of the most powerful combinations is to compose in unison and octave relationships. Powerful combinations in using this technique can be used with the basses, leads or throughout the entire ensemble.
The ideal combination of  projecting power will most commonly come from your lead trumpets, trombones and basses. Consider putting these parts on a different chord tone within your power voicings. This scenario becomes ideal when the marching band is playing at impact moments and closing the piece or section using big chords. Perhaps consider leaving a 4th or 5th interval between the top two voices to help create more of a resonant sound.

Harmonic Rhythm

Next, consider using harmonic rhythm to bring excitement and anticipation into your set of scoring tools. Harmonic rhythm refers to the frequency of chord changes within a phrase or measure of music. In general, slower pieces, like chorales or ballads, should have more frequent changes in harmony. In contrast, fast pieces typically harmonically change at a slower rate. Generally in fast pieces it is recommended to not harmonically change too fast in order for the power of the passage to be fully embraced. Music that harmonically changes too quickly tends to sound jumbled. In this case keep the harmonic rhythm simple.   

Final Thoughts

The act of scoring, writing and rewriting music for your marching band has huge benefits when dealing with issues of skill, size, competition and effect. Music educators are faced with scenarios where, for one reason or an other, pre-arranged music for their ensemble doesn’t fit their individualistic needs and thus changes are required. Having this basic scoring knowledge helps music educators become more in-tune with their craft and the needs of their students. Ultimately, scoring technique and its application is but one of the many skills that band directors can use to help achieve a sense of success during their marching band season.


About arranging for band. Silver Clef Music. (2018, February 15). https://silverclefmusic.com/about-arranging-for-band/.

Arranging guidelines. Arranging Guidelines | Yale Bands. (n.d.). https://bands.yalecollege.yale.edu/yale-precision-marching-band/music/ypmb-junta/arranging-guidelines.

Spencer-Pierce, W. (2008). Marching band arranging: Methods-materials-techniques. Creative Media Consulting.

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