Over the years, those of us who arrange and orchestrate have read that the harmonic overtone series is useful in planning voicings. We’re told to write open voicings in the lower register and tight close voicings in the upper reg. And beyond showing a picture of the chord of nature, Voila, that’s it. End of discussion. “Thank you, thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen!”

But, is that it? Or to borrow from the late night commercials, “Is there more?” Or as Peggy Lee might have asked, “Is that all there is?”

Thankfully, no. There’s actually a lot more if you’re willing to move beyond a Bisquick explanation. If you are, then welcome, Pilgrim!

Below is a screen shot of the harmonic overtone series laid out as a C chord from Lecture 5 of Scoring Stages 2. I get giddy just looking it. Technique is such a beautiful thing! And obviously, you can go up each chromatic step and build a similar chordal structure. But the one on C is good enough because this represents the lowest pitch of the orchestra and we’ll learn buku from it (Click the pic to enlarge it).

Overtone Series

Now, bottoms up!

At the bottom end (if you’ll pardon the expression), we see the famous open voicings we were all told about. And as you read up, you see that not only the voicings get tighter, we see on C where clusters begin to emerge, too. The lowest point for a triadic voicing (C/G) begins at G2.

So, as many of us already know (including big band jazzers), you can have spread harmony in the bottom, and you can also write close position triads down there, too. Generally, a closed G chord is the lowest most write for the low brass. That’s because when you go lower, it gets muddy, unless that’s what you want. However, depending upon players and samples, trombones have been written in triads beginning on E2.

Having been the Buddy Rich of my own big band many moons ago, I did not personally write charts with bones that low. I’m just saying, it can be done.

One point of contention near the top is where I suggest trumpets voiced down in triads or other close harmony sound best, and that’s at C5 – C#5. This is my own personal taste. Two-part harmony below that I think is good. But with three parts, I like a little brighter punch. Now with jazz arrangements, you can certainly find 4 trumpets written in close harmony well below C#5.

This next screen shot is – A Voicing Story! It’s Mahler’s brass voicing on A. (Click the pic to enlarge it).

mahler brass

Notice how he follows the harmonic overtone series in voicing all the brass including 6 French horns. Now, for voicing the strings, check out the 6th Symphony bar 13 to see how the lad mixed strings and brass in the low register.

So here’s the deal. Every time you come to a voicing, especially a big tutti orchestral chord, regardless of the composer, compare that voicing back to the harmonic overtone series to see where the composer followed it, used it as a point of departure, or ignored it.

Happy Motoring!

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