5 Fun Songs for the Brass Section

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been taking a stroll through the orchestra, talking about some contemporary or popular music that is great for learning or practicing. We started nearly a month ago with the ever popular guitar, before switching gears a little and talking with the vocalists, which might overlap a bit with the guitars. Finally, last week, we moved to a broader section of the orchestra when we talked about some popular songs for the woodwinds, specifically the flute, clarinet, and saxophone.

This week we’re going to continue our journey through the orchestra with a stop in the brass section!

The brass section, including trumpets, trombones, tuba, and a variety of other horns has always maintained a fairly strong presence in music, though it’s usually relegated to the background. That being said, there were a few resurgences of brass dominated music, like ska, and recently bands like Mumford & Sons, and Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats have put the brass section back out front.

So let’s get to it!

Tom Jones – It’s Not Unusual

This swinging classic is absolutely drenched in bright, beautiful horns! ”It’s Not Unusual” was Jones’ very first hit, and the brass sound would go on to define his style and sound. Written by classical music arranger and conductor Les Reed, and Jones’ manager Gordon Mills, the song was originally for British singer Sadie Shaw. Jones sang the demo, and when Shaw heard it said, “Whoever’s singing this, it’s his song.” And the rest is history.

Interestingly to note for the vocalist and lyricists out there, this tune is a classic example of lyrical dissonance. Jones sings about the devastating pain of seeing someone he still loves with another guy, all in a jaunty, bouncy tune.

Frank Turner – Mittens

Frank Turner has an interesting English, folky, punky, rocky sound. One thing you don’t often hear in his music is a brass section, but on “Mittens” from Positive Songs For Negative People, he decided to break the mold a bit. Having never added a brass section before, Tuner told Q magazine, “Everybody thought I was mental when I suggested horns, but I pushed it through… I always wanted my own E Street Band!”

Though the horns are subtle, they are a vital part of the whole. In fact, Turner has said that he’s had between 50 and 60 different versions of the song in demos and soundchecks: “We tried everything with that song. I think we got it right in the end, but my God it took a while!”

The Beatles – Penny Lane

The distinctive horns in this classic Beatles song were more or less an afterthought. As the story goes, after the rest of the song was already finished, Paul McCartney saw a group called The Philharmonia perform Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto #2” on the BBC. It was this performance that gave him the idea to add the horns, and he asked the group’s trumpet player, Dave Mason, to play on the track. Mason would go on to play on a few other Beatles tracks, including “A Day In The Life,” and “Magical Mystery Tour.”

McCartney actually credit The Beatles’ producer George Martin with helping get the horns successfully added to the song. McCartney sang the trumpet part he wanted, and Martin, who “spoke musician,” transcribed it to a piece of paper and gave it to Mason to play.

Mumford & Sons – Winter Winds

With lyrics that see Marcus Mumford look back on a failed relationship his heart told him to stay away from, despite what his brain told him what it felt he needed. But despite this somewhat sad storyline, the warm banjo and brass section breath life into the tune. In fact, it’s the brass section that really elevates this song, especially when mixed with the catchy chorus.

However, probably the most powerful part of the song is when the other instruments, even the vocals, suddenly stop, giving the brass a real chance to shine.

It was really at this point people started to see Mumford & Sons as the unique and special thing they are.

Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats – I Need Never Get Old

Although Nathaniel Rateliff has gone through a few different versions of himself and his musical career, The Night Sweats looks like they might be sticking. Benefiting from being picked up by legendary record label Stax, the group has been able to stand on the shoulders of such soul (and brass loving) legends as Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and Booker T & The MG’s.

It’s hard not to describe some of The Night Sweats’ songs, like “I Need Never Get Old,” as “retro,” with the swinging soul that calls back to the era of big band and gospel. But as tempting as that label is, there is most certainly something current and forward-facing about their music that firmly belongs to the here and now.

There you have it! Just a sampling for the brass section, of course, but it’s not too hard to find more! The brass section has been an important part of most musical genres for decades, showing up in everything from pop to rock, and even rap, hip-hop, and possibly most surprisingly, the brass section shows up in country from time to time. The bright and enduring sound of brass has a place everywhere in music.

And what’s more, the brass section has the advantage of the popularity of brass bands. Just the very existence of brass bands means that you can find brass arrangements of all sorts of popular songs pretty easily. Get out there and find something fun to play!