About Arranging For Band

Arranging PUBLIC DOMAIN Music For Band

By David P. Miller, composer, arranger, publisher of music for concert bands.

First, distinguish between, Full Arrangements, Light Arrangements, Editing, Engravings, and Transcriptions.

When you “arrange” music in the public domain for band, there are many different levels of work you can do. In this section,  I’ll describe these different levels of arranging, and the names by which we refer to these levels, starting with the simplest levels and becoming more complex. And yes, it is possible to mix two or more different levels.

Throughout the explanations, we will refer to the person doing this work as the “writer,” even though that person may not be doing the actual “writing” of the music.

ENGRAVING. With an engraving, the writer faithfully reproduces all of the music from an original public domain work, formatted to be read by a modern concert band. For example, a 1909 march original might be printed on 5″x9″ folio-sized paper, with 11 staves crammed on that page, and dozens of measures per system. While this music was no problem for us to read when we were teenagers with good eyes, it is a challenge for older musicians, even when expanded to fill an 8.5×11″ page in the landscape mode. The writer sets the march as the composer and original printer published it, usually in two pages on 8.5×11″ (or A4) page size in the portrait mode. All dynamics, articulations, phrasings, and text annotations (or lack of them) are faithfully reproduced.

The engraver usually does not get “arranged by” or “edited by” credit for this work. It is simply being a musical typist, putting someone else’s work into printed format.

EDITING. With an edition (edited engraving), the writer performs all the duties of the engraver, above, but takes the additional step of correcting any wrong notes (of which there are frequently some) and homogenizing all the stylistics of the piece. This would include such things as

  • Note Durations. There have been instances when, for example, at the end of a phrase or figure, some instruments have quarter notes while others have eighth notes followed by an eighth rest. The editor considers the overall musical style of the piece and makes certain all note durations are the same where appropriate.
  • Dynamics. The editor considers the overall style of the phrase where dynamics occur, and ensures the entire ensemble has identical dynamics, or where appropriate, entire sections have the same dynamic markings, for example, when one section of the ensemble needs to be heard above another. This includes both typeset dynamics such as mp and ff and text-based dynamics, such as “gradually growing louder.”
  • Articulations. While using musical judgement to determine the style of each section of the work, the editor makes sure each section has the appropriate articulations indicated in each part. This includes accents, staccato markings, legato markings, and text versions of these articulations. There will be places where the entire ensemble needs to play a phrase identically, such as staccato sixteenth notes, and there will be other sections where one section has accented notes while other sections are playing long, legato notes. It is the editor’s job to determine the composer’s intent and to ensure the proper articulations are indicated on each part as appropriate.
  • Phrase Markings. This is one of the easiest editing factors to overlook. The editor will analyze the work and ensure that all parts as appropriate have the correct phrase markings indicated. In the course of my creating arrangements of a number of public domain works, I have seen more instances of a phrase marking being applied in some parts (such as 1st and 2nd trombones) and omitted in another (such as 3rd trombone).
  • Repeats. In an effort to save the cost of printing and paper, and to save the work of the engraver, quite a few works in the public domain have repeats indicated differently on different parts. For example, I have seen some works in which the cornets had first and second endings, while other parts in the score had only a simple repeat with no endings. Repeats, especially first and subsequent endings, need to be the same in all parts when editing. Depending on the work itself and how much difference there is in repeated sections (for example, the instruction to “play only second time“), the editor should consider eliminating repeats (including D.S. and D.C. sections) and simply writing the music out to the end. This, again, is a musical judgement on the part of the editor.
  • Text Markings. These markings include any text markings not covered in the above categories, such as tempo alterations, repeat text, instrument selection or cuing, or other specific directions to the players. All these text markings need checking to be sure they appear in the proper location on the proper parts.
  • Rehearsal Markings. An edited work should always have rehearsal markings, regardless of whether these markings were included in the original work. The preference at Silver Clef Music is to use boxed measure numbers as rehearsal markings (because it is much easier for a band when a rehearsing conductor says, “Let’s start at measure 27” when there is a boxed measure 30 indicated than it is when they hear “Let’s start three measures before letter B.”), and to place rehearsal markings at natural phrase breaks, not less often than about every 16 measures.

An editor should usually claim editing credit, in the upper right section of the score and parts, immediately beneath the composer or arranger credits: “Ed. [editor’s name]

TRANSCRIBING. A Transcription is work in which the writer sets a work originally written for a different instrument or ensemble, and sets it for concert band. This type of work includes all the Engraving and Editing work mentioned above, and uses all of the composer’s original music – notes, rhythms, harmonies, and style – but entails the work of setting the music for concert band instrumentation, with the goal of keeping the composer’s original style intent, including intensity, volume, and other aspects of style.  For example, a transcription of Debussy’s Clair de Lune or a Chopin Polonaise would require significant work on the part of the transcriber to duplicate the delicacy or driving intensity with concert band instrumentation.

A transcriber should usually claim transcribing credit, immediately beneath the composer credits: “Tr. [transcriber’s name]

LIGHT ARRANGEMENTS. This is a term used at Silver Clef to indicate anything less than a full arrangement (described below). Light arrangements usually keep most of the notes, chords, rhythms, and style of the original composition, but will have sometimes significant changes to the tune itself, to the instrumentation, to the style, and can incorporate the addition of music that was not in the original composition, such as countermelodies, woodwind gingerbread, etc.

Light arrangements are true arrangements, as opposed to engravings, editions, or transcriptions. According to the copyright law (U.S. Code Title 17), engravings, editions, or transcriptions are not copyrightable, because they contain no original work (meaning music, in this case). On the other hand, arrangements are copyrightable, but only if they contain new material, and then only that new material is covered by copyright. It has long been the practice of publishers to claim copyright on newly-published public domain works, even if those works are not arrangements, but rather merely editions or transcriptions. To date, no case of which I am aware has yet tested the validity of these copyright claims.

If you have spent any time at all exploring the music of the early 20th century and the 20 years before the turn of that century, composers like Sousa, Alford, Fillmore, and many others of that day wrote mostly for bands that had to play while on the march, which requires a totally different style than that needed for today’s concert bands. They usually wrote parts for Db piccolo, Eb horns, and both the clarinet and cornet parts had Solo, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd parts. There are often no parts for oboe, bassoon, bass clarinet, or baritone saxophone.

Besides writing 4 cornet parts, they often wrote separate parts for trumpets, and sometimes parts for flugelhorns as well. Usually they would write just one alto sax part.

In addition to the horns having nothing but afterbeats throughout the piece (can you hear all the horn players chanting in unison: “BOOOOOORING!”?), these composers also wrote afterbeats in many parts of the tune for the trumpets, as well as for the 2nd and 3rd clarinets and cornets. All those afterbeats are fine physical-marching-style writing, but they do not sit well for concert writing.

Therefore, when I arrange an older work, such as “The Vanished Army” or “Liberty Bell March” for modern band, I fix all that. I try to look beyond the limitations of the bands of that day – being required to march frequently, having a significantly different instrumentation than today’s band, and ask myself, “What would this composer have written if he were writing for today’s modern sit-down concert band?” And that’s how I arrange those tunes.

If you are seeking to create an arrangement of a public domain work originally written for band, you might consider keeping all these factors in mind as you work.

Arrangers should claim arranging credit, just below the composer’s credits: “Arranged by [arranger’s name]” or “Arr. [arranger’s name]

FULL ARRANGEMENTS. Full arrangements are defined as when the writer starts with only the melody of a work, and creates everything else out of nothing but creativity. Most works in the American Frontier Suite series are this type of full arrangement.

To write a full arrangement, what I usually do is to first use as many online resources as I can find to listen to recordings or see sheet music of the tune. I prefer to find the older versions if possible – either the original recordings or scans of the original sheet music – to be as accurate as possible with the melody. The next thing I do is to write the melody into a lead sheet, with the original chords added, as close as I can tell.

From there, I let my imagination take over. Sometimes a tune’s original style will work beautifully set into a concert band arrangement. Other times, I need to change the style to something entirely different to fit in with the overall style of the work I want to do. Full band sections, solo sections, small ensemble sections, theme and variations, modulations, strange but wonderfully apt chord progressions, all are fair game when creating a full arrangement.

Again, arrangers should claim arranging credit, just below the composer’s credits: “Arranged by [arranger’s name]” or “Arr. [arranger’s name]

The Workflow For Arranging Music

The basic workflow I use when composing, arranging, transcribing, or editing (I don’t do simple engravings), is the same:

  1.  Compile the source material.
  2. Enter the source material into a condensed score.
  3. Scrub the condensed score.
  4. Create a separate condensed score file and PDF.
  5. Expand the condensed score to a full score.
  6. Format the full score for parts.
  7. Format all parts, including editing scrubs.
  8. Create a separate full score file and PDF.
  9. Create a compressed score and PDF.
  10. Create all remaining PDF files.

Here are the details on this procedure. Feel free to use these steps as your own workflow, or to start with these and create a workflow that works even better for you. If you come up with something better, please let me know what it is.

My current notation program of choice is Finale, but these steps could easily apply to Sibelius or any of the other capable notation programs available.

1. COMPILE THE SOURCE MATERIAL. In this step I gather all the material I need to begin entering the music into my notation program. Sometimes this is nothing more than a melody line hand scribbled onto a piece of manuscript paper. Sometimes it is purchased or downloaded sheet music, sometimes, it is a lead sheet I have already generated in Finale. What I look for in this step is to have the complete melody, an idea or out line of the chords I want to use, a sketch of any introduction, transitions, coda, variations I am thinking of using, and a general idea of the outline of the entire work.

The goal here is not to have to interrupt the creative process by needing to go back and do more research on the source tunes.

2. ENTER THE SOURCE MATERIAL INTO A CONDENSED SCORE. In this step, I create a new full score document in Finale, using the final instrumentation I want to use in the end product. Often, I will use a template for this. In that full score, I then create a “view,” showing only 5 or 6 staves. These staves are 1st Clarinet, 1st Trumpet, 1st Horn, 1st Trombone, and Tuba. If there is an important percussion part, I will also include the percussion staff in this view.

NOTE: In Finale, you must be careful to assign the proper voices to each staff. Finale tends to assign solo or orchestral instrument voices to these staves, and these voices are programmed to be monophonic. If you want to enter a three note chord on the trumpet or woodwind line, or a four-note chord for the horns, you will need to (Ctrl-K) set the voices for these instruments to “Band [instrument] Section,” which will allow these staves to play polyphony.

On this condensed score view, I will do all my creative work.

CONDENSED SCORE – Easily Followed

I do this because once the music is entered here, it is far easier to make addtions, changes, deletions, and corrections on this small number of staves than it is on the full score. There is also a far smaller chance of missing a change in one of the off-screen staves, as all the staves can be on-screen simultaneously, and there are fewer duplicated lines.

I use the top line for all the upper woodwinds. When these instruments are not tutti, I will use text to annotate who is playing when. If there are differing rhythms, I put them in different layers and use text to annotate which instruments play which parts.

The second line is usually exclusively for trumpets, but can also accommodate other woodwinds when needed. Again, text annotations are the key.

The third line is for alto instruments, usually horns and alto saxes. When they are not tutti, I use text annotations to show which instruments play at any given time.

The fourth line is for tenor instruments (except baritones), including trombones and tenor sax. When these instruments are not tutti, I use text annotations to show which instruments play when.

The fifth line is for baritones and basses. Whenever these instruments do not have identical rhythms, I put the baritones in layer 1 and the basses in layer 2, which automatically aligns note stems properly.

The sixth line is only used when there is a significant percussion part that needs to be specified at this stage, as opposed to writing it at the time of completing the full score.

Once I have the entire sketch outlined on the condensed score view, I finish entering music for all the staves where I envision music playing. I look at the tutti sections and the more thinly-scored sections, and make sure the annotations indicate exactly which instruments I want playing when. I make sure the melody lines, the bass lines, the chord sequences, and all the filler material (i.e., introduction, transitions, modulations, codas, etc.) sound exactly the way I want them to sound.

3. SCRUB THE CONDENSED SCORE. In this step, I fill in any parts that were not complete in the initial entry. I listen to (audition) the score literally dozens of times, listening for wrong notes, for chords that don’t quite fit or could be better, for rhythms that don’t seem right, and for places where articulations and phrase markings need to be applied.

This is the phase in which the vast majority of composing, arranging, scoring, and editing takes place. As said above, it is far, far easier to make changes in this condensed version of the score now, than it is in a full score of two dozen staves or more.

The two phases of scrubbing the score at this point are musical and technical. The musical part is the notes, rhythms, chords, and how they all fit together. The technical part is the dynamics, articulations, phrase markings, text markings, repeats, and rehearsal numbers. All of these parts must fit together seamlessly at this stage.

It is only when I am satisfied with the score in this format that I move on to the next step.

4. CREATE A SEPARATE CONDENSED SCORE FILE AND PDF. In this step, I create a new Finale document, this one with only five (or 6) staves, using the same instrumentation as is in the condensed score view of the full score. It is important to do it this way because when Finale sets up the size of the staves in page view, it formats the sizes to print properly on your selected page size. I have discovered that simply deleting unused staves from a copy of the full score leaves you with micro-print staves in page view, staves that it is extremely hassle-ridden to resize to a legible format. It is far easier to simply create a new document with only 5 (or 6) staves, and allow Finale to automatically format those staves to the correct size.

Once the document is properly set up, including the correct voices and staff labeling, I copy and paste all the populated staves from the condensed score view of the full score, and paste them in to the condensed score document.

At this point, it is merely a matter of formatting this condensed score for printing (discussed in step 6 below), then printing the condensed score to a properly-named PDF file.

5. EXPAND THE CONDENSED SCORE TO A FULL SCORE. In this step, we change the condensed score view of the document from step 4 above to a full score view. All the staves not seen in the previous view will be seen, and they will all be empty.

The next task is to carefully explode each of the staves with music into the proper number of staves, and move the voices as indicated by the text notations.

For example, it might be that the entire second staff (Trumpets) has only trumpet notes on it. I would use the mass selector tool to select the entire staff, then explode that staff into three staves beginning with Trumpet 1.

Or I might explode the horn staff into four parts beginning with horn 1, but somewhere in the middle of the tune I might have the annotation “Alto Sx only,” at which point I would cut (copy and delete) that music from the horn staves and paste it into the alto sax staves.

We are currently considering making a video tutorial on the technique we use to explode condensed score views into full scores. If you feel this would be a beneficial video, please let us know on our email contact us form.

During this process of exploding the working condensed score into a full score, we need to scrub the full score meticulously. Finale, and I’m sure other notation programs, are notorious for leaving out essential components when exploding music from one staff into several. It is imperative that the arranger make absolutely certain that all articulations, dynamic markings, phrase markings, and individual staff text markings are appropriately reflected on each part in the score.

6. FORMAT THE FULL SCORE FOR PARTS. The actual task in this step is to format parts for printing. With Finale’s linked parts capability, it is also possible to do some minimal editing of the parts, if you encounter a previously overlooked error.

Before doing any individual part editing, I check all page-related items to ensure their proper existence, positioning, size, and weight. The most common page elements I check in this stage are (a) on the first page, the main title, the subtitle, the score/part name, the composer, the composer and arranger, and the copyright notice; and (b) on subsequent pages, the page number, the tune title (14 point bold), and the score/part name on the other side of the page number, usually using “right page positioning” to alternate between left and right.

The changes you make to the full score at this stage will be reflected on all the linked parts in the next step.

7. FORMAT ALL PARTS, INCLUDING EDITING SCRUBS. In this step, we make certain all the parts are ready to be printed.

What follows is the workflow I use for formatting parts (and scores) to ensure they will have a totally professional appearance when printed:

  1. Create Multimeasure Rests. This is always the first step, because doing just about anything else before this will corrupt the layout once this step is applied.  To do this in Finale, using the mass selection tool, I click once to the left of the first staff to select the entire piece, then use the shortcut key sequence Alt-E, M, C. The mnemonic I use for this is Einstein’s relativity equation. Edit, Multi-Measure-Rests, Create.
  2. Music Fit. This means adjusting the number of systems per page, the number of measures per system, the distance between systems, and possibly the top and bottom margins for each system so the music exactly fills up full pages. In more than 20 years of doing this, I have only found one part with which I was unable to make these adjustments such that the music did not fill up full pages. Nothing looks less professional than having page one crammed with music and then having three measures on page two.
  3. Music Density. This is a professional engraver’s judgement call. Set the zoom on your page view so you can see the entire page (or several) at once. If your music density is unbalanced, you will be able to see it in the “darker” areas of the page. If the music density seems out of balance, adjust the number of measures per system until it seems more balanced. If all you have in a part is quarter notes and eighth notes, with a few scattered sixteenth notes, you might not need any adjusting at all. On the other hand, I have had tunes in which there were 4/4 measures full of sixteenth notes – which fit very comfortably at two measures per system, and later in the piece had several measures of 2/4 time with half notes and quarter notes, which needed 10 and 12 measures per system to balance the density of those measures that had sixteenth notes. Music Density is one of those often overlooked qualities of music engraving that upgrades your music to the next level of professionalism.
  4. Page Turns. If an individual part is only one or two pages, you don’t need to worry about page turns. However, if a part runs to three or more pages, you must bear in mind that each player will need at least a few beats to turn the page. I have even had to do minor rewrites of some works to accommodate proper page turns.Keep in mind that if you are printing to PDF, many people will print on individual single sheets, with no page turn issues; but an ever-increasing number of librarians will print 2-up on both sides of 11×17 paper, in which case, page turn considerations are critical. On a 3-page part, the page turn can come either at the end of page 1 or page 2. The person doing the printing can set this up to print properly. On a 4-page part, the page turn(s) can come either at the end of page 2, or at the end of pages 1 and 3.
  5. Collisions and Legibility. The final element I scrub when formatting both parts and scores for printing is legibility, which is for the most part governed by avoiding element collisions.  Your bottom line guidance on this final step is don’t let the engraving get in the way of the reading.
    Don’t Let the Engraving Get In the Way of the Reading.

    My technique in this final scrub is to set the view zoom to one page being the full width of my screen. On my 27″ monitor, this is about a 185% zoom. The Finale shortcut for setting a custom zoom level is Ctrl-0.
    I then scroll slowly down each page, looking for things that might cause a person reading the music to stumble or become confused. Most issues we can easily resolve by dragging with the mass selector tool. In this step, there are frequently issues with repeat endings, particularly for instruments that have ledger lines above the staff. These must be resolved using the repeat tool, selecting handles, and dragging. The most common corrections I have to make in this phase are moving dynamics, moving rehearsal numbers, and occasionally flipping phrase markings.

    Make no mistake: This one step – eliminating collisions and ensuring legibility – will make all the difference in whether your final work looks professional or amateurish.

  6. Corrections. On occasion, you will doubtless encounter wrong notes, or note omissions on the parts, things you missed when you scrubbed the score. When you encounter these, simply fix them on the parts if they are notes-only for that part, or if it is a larger problem, go back to the score and fix them there. Keep in mind if you make any significant changes, you will likely need to go back and make similar changes to the already-completed condensed score.

8. CREATE A SEPARATE FULL SCORE FILE AND PDF. In this step, we make a copy of the completed full score file from the previous step, then format that new copy for printing, using the same scrubbing techniques we used for parts in the previous step.  We do this because we might need to make some changes to this file so as to make it printable, that we do not want passed down to the linked parts. These changes might include moving header elements, the copyright element, or changing page or system margins.

By making these extra copies of our score files, and setting the file names properly, we can keep these types of edit-for-print changes segregated and avoid corrupting the layout of other scores or parts.

On this full score formatted for print, you should pay attention to page margins, system margins, the number of measures per page, and particularly the layout of the last page, meaning mostly the number of measures on that page. It would not do to have ten or twelve measures per page for 19 pages, then three measures on the last page.

I have created a tutorial on “How To Make a Full Score Publishable.” You can watch it here if you like.

9. CREATE A COMPRESSED SCORE AND PDF. In this step, I create the score I believe is the best compromise between a compressed score (some parts omitted) and a full score (print so tiny it’s illegible.

You can read a comparison of the different types of scores on our “About Scores for Band” page.

A condensed score combines all like instruments onto a single line, and combines instruments that double each other onto another single line. The result is a score of only about 14 staves, which has all the notes from all the parts, but is significantly easier to read.

I have also created a video tutorial on this topic. You can view that tutorial here:

10. CREATE ALL REMAINING PDF FILES. In prior steps, we have created PDF files of the condensed score, the full score, and the compressed score. In this step, you simply print PDF files of the remaining parts. To maintain compatibility with electronic music displays and with the Silver Clef protocols, and to make it easy to find exactly which part you’re looking for when you have a hard drive packed with files, you should make it a point to follow the Silver Clef PDF File Naming Convention, outlined on our Instrument Sequencing Numbering Chart page.


All the guidance above will help you with the mechanical aspects of producing engravings, editions, transcriptions, and arrangements. But none of that matters if what you churn out isn’t GOOD MUSIC.

In the end, it all comes down to your own creativity and your musical judgement. That, after all, will determine whether the product of all your hard work is a gold nugget … or dreck.