Although some may think they’re outdated, brass instruments are as relevant as ever. Although usually associated with classical music and large symphonic orchestras, they also find heavy use not only in jazz but also traditional old-school rock and roll, funk, and even pop music. What’s more, these days, different brass instruments can find their way into other genres, even metal music, although such examples are usually experimental.
Compared to woodwind instruments, brass ones require special techniques that include embouchure and special lip techniques. In fact, using these techniques, you’re also able to play in multiple octaves using even the simplest brass instruments. But the main property is that they rely on the sympathetic vibration of air that goes on in their tubular resonator.
We could go on for days about brass instruments and how exactly they work. Here, we’ll talk about some of the most important brass family instruments.
Brass Instrument Families
Brass instruments are divided into two main families, slide and valve-based. There are also two more families that are now more or less obsolete – natural and fingered (or keyed). Here, we’ll focus on valved and slide brass instruments.
The trumpet is the most widespread brass instrument. At the first glance, the instrument seems pretty simple, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. It features only three valves, although its construction, in combination with the usage of different techniques, allows players to use almost three octaves of its range. Some of the more experienced players can also find a way to go past the instrument’s intended range.
Trumpet takes its roots in some of the ancient instruments, even dating to around 1500 BCE. However, the trumpet as we know it today began its development sometime around the second half of the 15th century.
Although there are only eight combinations of its three valves (or pistons), the trumpet allows for a lot more versatility. It just requires a lot of practice and experience to perform it properly, making it one of the most difficult instruments to play.
Horn includes a whole family of instruments, but the most common one, and the one that we think of at the mention of this word, is the French horn. And just like with the trumpet, the horn comes with three pistons. However, the tubing is much longer, usually up to 370 centimeters. Nonetheless, the embouchure and other techniques that we have with trumpets are also used for the horn.
The horn used by professional players today, and that’s pretty much a standard in the industry, is the F/B-flat variant. It is also a transposing instrument that sounds a perfect fifth lower than it’s actually written. In most cases, it’s a backing instrument, although there are pieces written with the horn as the lead instrument. With that said, the horn is almost exclusively limited to classical music.
The lowest-pitched instrument within the group of brass instruments, the tuba also relies on the same principles as we’ve seen with trumpets and horns. Embouchure and lip vibration, all combined with specially designed mouthpieces, produce the distinct sound that’s created within the instrument’s tubing. The instrument was largely developed during the 19th century and it ultimately replaced ophicleide, which is largely forgotten at this point.
Covering low-pitched areas, the tuba is almost exclusively a backing instrument. Additionally, it’s also pretty much limited to classical music and some marching band music, although you’ll also find it in jazz. Nonetheless, there are pieces where tuba finds some important passages.
Probably one of the most overlooked brass instruments, or even among all instruments, is the cornet. Although it largely resembles the trumpet, the main distinctions include a completely different design of its bore, which features a conical shape. At the same time, the instrument is also more compact compared to the trumpet.
The instrument also features three valves and has the same range as the trumpet. However, its smaller size and noticeably shorter tubing length make its sound different. Compared to the trumpet, it’s much more mellow and less piercing. Nonetheless, there are some versions that feature just a bit more brightness.
Overall, cornets are not that prominent in various musical styles. You’ll find it in some traditional jazz ensembles, and it can sometimes appear in symphonic orchestras.
Just like cornets, flugelhorns also resemble the trumpet. However, its conical bore is much wider and more conical. In most cases, they’re pitched in B-flat, but there are also some versions that are in C. The main distinction between the flugelhorn and the trumpet is its sound. We can safely say that it lies somewhere between the horn and a French horn, and just somewhat “darker” than the cornet. It’s not that common, but you’ll find it in some jazz orchestras and British-style brass bands.
Coming from an Ancient Greek word that translates to “sweet-sounding,” euphonium resembles a tuba, although it’s a bit higher in pitch. In fact, it’s sometimes referred to as the “tenor tuba.” Additionally, it’s also very similar to a baritone horn. Euphonium as we know it today was developed in 1870s by David Blaikley. It’s not that widespread, but it’s mostly popular in Britain where it’s known as a traditional instrument.
Sousaphone, sometimes referred to as a “bass horn,” was developed in 1890s by a company called J.W. Pepper. Its tone and use are similar to the concert tuba. However, their design is intended to make the performance much easier. One of the most important differences in the design compared to a tuba is that the instrument is placed literally around the musician playing it. Finally, the long tubing ends with a large bell pointing forward. It’s common for marching bands and usually doesn’t find any use for other genres and settings.
Slide brass instruments don’t have multiple individual pistons, but rather just one slide that lets you change the pitch by changing the usable length of its tubing. These are all essentially the trombone family instruments, with the main one being the tenor trombone. These were developed from the old sackbuts and the so-called traditional bazookas.
Tenor trombones are also pitched in B-flat. By increasing its tubing length with the slide, you lower the instrument’s pitch. Although E is technically the lowest note, experienced players can go even lower using proper playing techniques. We can say the same thing about the higher register, which differs depending on the player’s special techniques. It’s usually considered to be D5, but experienced trombonists can even reach F5. Trombones can also come with the so-called F attachment which allows you to lower the basic pitch from B-flat to F.
There are also valved trombones, featuring three pistons, which are played pretty much the same way as a conventional trumpet. However, these aren’t that common or popular and they find less practical use.
While they might not be as popular among beginners like guitars, pianos, or drums, brass family instruments are still a very important part of the today’s musical landscape. Nonetheless, trumpet still has its strong following, as well as some other instrument. You’ll be able to find trombone, both slide and valved variants, in some modern pop and rock bands as well.
But there’s one very positive side to brass instruments – when you learn how to play one, you’ll definitely be in demand. After all, not many people know how to play them, so here’s your opportunity to be famous!