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Brass Instruments – What Are They?

03/04/2023

Brass instruments are known for their powerful sound and leading role in many ensembles.  

Contrary to what the name may imply, brass instruments are defined by their sound, not by simply being made of brass. 

Historical brass instruments were built on the same principles that modern brass follows, however, they used different materials. Often tubes were fashioned out of wood, shells, or horns and sounds could be made by blowing, singing, or shouting. 

Many saxophones are made of brass, but these are regarded as woodwind instruments due to their similarities to other woodwinds, like clarinets. 

How do they work? 

Brass instruments have a long, coiled tube – this is what air is blown through. The pitch, known as fundamental pitch or pedal tone, is determined by the tube’s length.

To play a brass instrument, you produce a “buzzing” sound through the mouthpiece at end of the metal tube. This sound travels through the tube and causes it to resonate. 

To amplify this sound so it’s heard by audiences, the end of the tubing is flared into a bell.  

By adjusting the tightness of your lips, you can access many notes of the harmonic series (notes built upon the fundamental pitch, also known as natural harmonics). This is known as embouchure 

The natural harmonics of a brass instrument have two limitations: they aren’t “in tune” with how we normally tune instruments and you have a limited selection of notes.  

Valves and slides are used to achieve more notes. They change the pipe’s length, therefore changing the fundamental pitch.  

13 brass instruments 

1. Trumpet 

Deluxe Trumpet by Gear4musicKnown for its fanfare and leading role in an ensemble

The trumpet is probably the most well-known brass instrument. Early versions of this instrument consisted of just a tube that could play the harmonic series, known as a natural trumpet.

These were seen in baroque and classical music. In the early 19th century, valved instruments took over, and this allowed trumpets to play in all 12 keys.  

Trumpets generally use a piston valve system to alter the tube length and pitch of notes. Rotary valves, on the other hand, are used in some eastern European countries.  

Some trumpets use fancier materials to provide more resilience to corrosion and offer a nicer feeling when pressing keys. The Yamaha YTR2330 is a good example of this with its Monel valves. 

In ensembles, trumpets are often the leading instrument, playing melodies and providing fanfare. They are seen in many, many genres, from classical music to jazz, folk, and pop.   

There are times that call for different kinds of trumpets, most often in brass bands or orchestras. These are instruments built on different fundamental pitches, giving you C trumpets and Eb trumpets. They allow you to access different ranges, and they may have slightly different timbres.  

If you’re looking for a good quality starter trumpet, check out our Deluxe Trumpet.   

Trumpets feature very prominently in the opening to Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” 

Shop now | Trumpets


2. Piccolo trumpet 

Coppergate Piccolo Trumpet by Gear4musicKnown for its ability to reach higher pitches

The piccolo trumpet is a small trumpet that plays an octave higher than its standard-sized sibling.

In fact, the pipe is exactly half the length of a standard Bb trumpet. 

These are usually seen playing the high pitches that are difficult to reach on a standard trumpet. 

Piccolo trumpets are particularly useful for playing the high trumpet parts in baroque music that modern trumpets struggle to play.  

Throughout “Penny Lane” by the Beatles, the piccolo trumpet can be heard.

This is often thought to be the first use of the instrument in popular music.  

Shop now | Piccolo trumpets


3. Cornet 

Odyssey Debut Bb CornetKnown for its deeper tone

Cornets are very similar to trumpets but have two noticeable differences.

Firstly, cornets have a more tightly wound pipe. So, despite being tuned to Bb like a trumpet, they’re a little shorter from bell to mouthpiece.  

The largest difference is the cornet’s conical bore, as opposed to the trumpet’s cylindrical bore. This is the interior shape of the chamber up to the bell. A conical bore tapers the entire length of the tube, while a cylindrical bore remains constant in diameter for the length of the tubing.  

These different shapes help to produce different timbres; the cornet has a slightly deeper and more mellow sound than the trumpet.  

Some brass instruments, like the Odyssey OCR200 Debut, use top-sprung valves, rather than bottom-sprung. Some players argue that top-sprung valves provide more reliable action and are less susceptible to getting stuck as the instrument ages.  

A good example of a great starter cornet that works as a great additional instrument to a trumpet is our Student Cornet 

Shop now | Cornets


4. Bugle 

Bugle by Gear4musicKnown for its use in the military 

The bugle is very similar to a natural trumpet; it consists of a tube and no valves.

Historically, they’ve been used as a signalling instrument by militaries to order troops.

Bugles have a couple of differences from natural trumpets; their bells are larger and their conical bore is both wider and more tapered than a trumpet’s bore.  

Our Bugle is a good example of a beginner’s instrument.  

A famous use of the bugle is its use in “The Last Post”, which is written for bugle, and many remembrance services. 

Shop now | Bugles


5. Flugel  

Bach FH501 Student Flugel HornKnown for its dark, mellow sound

The flugelhorn is another instrument that could be mistaken for a cornet or trumpet.

It’s a type of valved bugle, so it has a conical bore, like a trumpet, but has the wide bell and tapered bore of the bugle.  

You’ll also see that the instrument’s pipework is coiled much more loosely than the cornet and trumpet.  

It has a dark sound that lies somewhere between a trumpet and French horn, and it’s commonly used in brass bands and jazz music.

Check out the Bach FH501 for a fantastic quality and great-looking student flugel.  

Shop now | Flugelhorns


6. French horn

Yamaha YHR567D Intermediate Double French Horn, Detachable BellKnown for their use in film music

The French horn, known more simply as the horn, is one of the longest brass instruments if you were to unravel the tube that’s coiled up.  

Historically, horns were simple instruments made from the horns of animals. This is where the name comes from. Like all brass instruments, the horn is now made from metal. 

Horns in the baroque era had interchangeable crooks. These modified the fundamental pitch of the instrument, letting you play in whichever key you wanted.  

Eventually, by the 19th century, horns had valve systems that allowed them to play in all 12 keys without needing to alternate crooks.  

Horns use rotary valves to change notes, rather than the piston valves of some other instruments. Rotary valves have a smoother action than piston valves, making them more suitable for the lyrical passages that horns are known for.  

Double horns combine both F and Bb horns into one instrument, and a fourth trigger valve switches between the two “halves” of the instrument.  

Horns are very popular in film music, they’re often used for solos in iconic soundtracks like this famous excerpt from Star Wars. 

Shop now | French horns


7. Tenor horn 

Coppergate Intermediate Tenor Horn, by Gear4musicKnown for supporting melodic trumpet passages

The tenor horn is actually somewhat different to the French horn, despite them sounding similar. It’s a member of the saxhorn family and was developed by Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone.  

They consist of three valves, and the bell aims upwards. 

Naming conventions for this instrument can be confusing! In American English and in mainland Europe, this is known as the alto horn. It can be referred to as an Eb horn too.  

Tenor horns usually fill a similar role to the French horn and are often used instead of them in brass bands. 

Shop now | Tenor horns


8. Mellophone  

Mellophone by Gear4musicKnown for being able to project well outdoors

The mellophone has a conical bore, similar to that of the flugelhorn.

Like the tenor horn, the mellophone is most often used as an alternative to the French horn.  

This instrument is usually seen in marching bands as well as drum and bugle corps due to its front-facing bell that allows sound to project better outdoors.  

Tuning is entirely controlled by a tuning slide, like many other brass instruments but unlike the French horn where a fist is placed in the bell to alter tuning.  

Our Mellophone is a great option for you if you’re looking for a quality instrument that can go alongside your French horn.


9. Tuba 

Coppergate Professional Eb Tuba By Gear4musicKnown for its deep, commanding bass

The tuba is the largest of the brass section and the lowest in pitch. They provide the main bass lines in both orchestras and wind ensembles, often with similar parts to the double bass. 

They became part of the orchestra after replacing the valved ophicleide, an older type of brass instrument designed to increase the range of the keyed bugle.  

Tubas can have either piston or rotary valves, depending on the manufacturer. They also come in various keys, depending on the pitch range of the instrument.  

Generally, bass tubas are tuned to Bb. Tubas that fill the gap between bass tubas and the higher-pitched Euphonium are tuned to Eb, like our Student Tuba. 

They’re usually notated in concert pitch in orchestral scores, so they aren’t transposing instruments like many other brass instruments.   

Tubas can often be heard reinforcing the bass. They provide a real sense of depth to the low end of the orchestra; you can hear this when the tuba enters just over a minute into this excerpt from Mahler’s First Symphony 

Shop now | Tubas


10. Sousaphone  

Jupiter JSP1000B Sousaphone, LacqueredKnown for its use in marching brass bands

The sousaphone looks very unique with its intricately coiled tubing and large, forward-facing bell.

It was designed by JW Pepper for American brass band legend Jean Phillip Sousa.

Sousa asked Pepper to design a tuba that could be used while marching or standing, and so the sousaphone was born!

Originally, sousaphones were made entirely from brass.

Modern instruments are now made with fibreglass to reduce weight, like this Jupiter Sousaphone.

Shop now | Sousaphones


11. Euphonium 

Besson BE165 Prodige 4 Valve Euphonium, Silver PlatedKnown for being the baritone in marching bands

The Euphonium looks very much like a small tuba. It’s extremely similar to, and often mistaken for, the baritone horn. However, baritone horns have a cylindrical bore that’s larger than the euphonium’s. The euphonium’s bore is conical 

It fulfils a baritone role in an ensemble and, like the tuba, is often notated as a non-transposing instrument in bass clef. Also, like the tuba, it can be notated as a Bb instrument in treble clef, which is more commonly seen in brass bands.  

Euphoniums are often seen in marching bands. The Besson BE165, for example, has a lyre box that lets you attach a lyre to hold music while marching. Its timbre is similar to the tuba: warm, mellow, and well-suited to lyrical passages.  

Shop now | Euphoniums


12. Trombone 

Gear4music tromboneKnown for its ability to access any note

Trombones are another very well-known instrument that’s often used beyond classical music and band repertoire.  

They’re unique in that they use a slide to access different notes. This means they can play any note they want, including microtones.  

The slide also lets trombones do a characteristic glissando. A great example from Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite can be seen during the “Infernal Dance” movement

Trombones are generally notated at concert pitch, and the basic tenor trombone is tuned to Bb.  

These tend to not have valves, instruments like the Jupiter JTB500 have a single length of pipe and all notes are accessed with the slide.  

Some trombones have a trigger, which usually sets the instrument into a lower pitch so it can access lower notes. Usually, this alternate pitch is F, like our Bb/F Tenor Trombone. 

Two other types of commonly seen trombones are the alto and bass trombones. The alto is pitched in Eb, a fourth higher than the tenor trombone, and the bass is the same size as a tenor, except it has a larger bell and bore to facilitate better projection of low notes.  

Shop now | Trombones


13. Cimbasso 

Known for its use in operas

The cimbasso looks like an oddly shaped trombone. It sits in the same range as the tuba but its cylindrical bore and forward-facing bell tend to sound more like a trombone.  

Unlike the trombone, the cimbasso uses rotary valves to access notes. As a result, the cimbasso is generally considered to be more agile than a tuba or bass trombone.   

Here’s an example of the sound of the cimbasso. 

FAQs 

What are the 4 major brass instruments? 

The most used brass instruments are the trumpet, trombone, French horn, and tuba. These instruments have existed in some form or another for hundreds of years and were used as far back as baroque times. They’re also common in other genres of music, like jazz and folk.  


How many types of brass instruments are there? 

Brass instruments can be divided into four categories: trumpets, horns, trombones, and tubas. These are determined by the shape of the instrument and the older instruments that preceded them. Most brass instruments will fit into these categories.  


What is the oldest brass instrument? 

There are several theories of what the oldest brass instrument is. Early trumpets date back to 1500 BC and prior to that, horns and shells were used in a similar manner. The first time an instrument resembled a modern brass instrument was the buisine in the 11th century; it was a natural trumpet used for fanfare. During the early 19th century, valves were invented for brass instruments, leading to our modern brass section.  

Yamaha YTR4335GII Intermediate Trumpet

Final thoughts 

After giving this guide a read you should have a general overview of the different types of brass instruments 

Brass instruments all work by the same general principles: you buzz into the mouthpiece and the pipe resonates and produces sound. Using valves or a slide, you can alter the notes.  

Some instruments, like the trumpet, cornet, and flugelhorn, all look very similar. But there are differences in construction and, therefore, timbre between these instruments.  

Brass instruments are most commonly seen in orchestras or brass bands. But instruments like the trumpet and trombone can be seen in jazz ensembles as well as pop music.   

 

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