by Chuck Israels

Lesson 14 - Writing for 3 Voices

Writing For 3 Voices:

Writing for three voices poses a combination of problems and opportunities. There is a richer potential for harmony than is available with only two voices, but the absence of a fourth voice means that the choice of which one of the elements of a complete chord to omit becomes critical. Three voices, arranged within the vertical interval of a sixth, can provide considerable percussive impact. Spreading the voices beyond that limit increases the ability of the listener’s ear to hear the independence of the individual voices while reducing percussive power.

In the interest of maximum variety and making the ensemble seem big, it’s a good idea not to use the three wind voices all the time in a 3-horn band. Alternating solo, duet, and three part textures adds interest and can increase the impact of the three-part texture when it appears.

This example uses triads, in a combination of diatonic and chromatic planing, in an idiomatic blues style. In this register, it would sound particularly noble orchestrated for 3 trombones.

Score References & Musical Examples Using JABB:

Click on Play Button below to Play from the Score

Here’s another example, suitable for trumpet lead, with trombone and tenor saxophone in the lower voices. Most of this excerpt is voiced with the outer voices fixed at the interval of a perfect 4th, and the inner voice a 3rd below the lead. As the range gets higher, and maintaining that voicing gets less practical, the harmony changes to triads or 7th chords. In this case, the necessity for changing the voicing, because of range considerations, provides a stimulus for balance and variety in the sound of the harmony.

Score References & Musical Examples Using JABB:

Click on Play Button below to Play from the Score

Here is the last chorus of an arrangement for a sextet with a horn section of trumpet, trombone, and tenor sax, showing a variety of techniques and orchestration choices for the horns, as well as a number of rhythm section details that add to the color and rhythmic vitality of the piece. This is a full score with the horns in their correct transpositions. An extra staff has been added below the transposed horn parts showing the 3 horn parts in condensed form at concert pitch.

Score References & Musical Examples Using JABB:

Click on Play Button below to Play from the Score

It demonstrates how complete 3 voices can sound when the lines are satisfying and the range and orchestration is well chosen.

Score Reference

Example 8-4 (score only)

Example 8-5 (score only)

(In the two preceding examples the orchestration provided the impetus for the passage. Sometimes musical ideas arrive in abstract form without particular orchestral color, and sometimes the choice of instrumentation can provide inspiration for a musical idea.)
In a band with 3 horns, the piano still has enough power to act as voice strong as the winds. This provides opportunities for the piano to participate in “call and response” with the horn section in a practical dynamic balance.
(As the number of powerful wind instruments – saxophones and brass – approaches the number of fingers the pianist can use, the balance begins to shift in favor of the winds.)
In the following example, the theme is stated by the piano, the horns enter in the last two measures and then take over the lead role, playing the main elements of the theme with the piano responding. As the piece progresses, the piano joins in the quarter note triplet figures in percussive juxtaposition with the horns. The trombone is used in several ways in this arrangement; as a second voice between the trumpet and the tenor, as a lead voice above the tenor, and voiced under the tenor when the range of the second voice becomes too high.

Compare the sound of this piece (in “chromatic” blues form) with the sound of the first 3-horn example, where the sound of the triadic harmonies maintain the traditional blues style, in spite of all the chromatic planing.

Score References & Musical Examples Using JABB:

Click on Play Button below to Play from the Score

Writing for a 3-horn band can provide the composer with considerable opportunity for variety. One or two horns can be used to accompany an improvised solo in the remaining horn; the 3 horns can be used to accompany a soloist from the rhythm section; the winds may be arranged in concerted rhythms with the piano or juxtaposed with it (as in the example above). There are enough possibilities to excite the imagination of a jazz composer to consider the 3-horn band as a composer’s vehicle as well as a player’s framework for improvisation.

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Coming Next Lesson: Lesson 15 - Writing for 4 or More Voices