The brass family of instruments has always been in a class of its own. For hundreds of years, people have admired them for their brightness, their warmth, and the ringing clarity of their sounds. That same admiration that has given brass instruments a home in all varieties of music genres from big band symphonies to jazz, swing, and beyond. They’re suitable for almost anyone with the desire to create a rich and full sound regardless of personal music tastes. There is also quite a wide selection of instruments in the family to choose from, each with their own unique style, texture, and capabilities.
Introducing The Brass Family
Brass instruments have existed for centuries, with some even dating back to antiquity. As you can imagine, there have been quite a lot of variations among the brass family in all that time. Though many actually are made of brass, they’re also known to be made of silver, copper, and even wood. What really distinguishes them from other instruments is the way you use your lips when you blow into them. Brass instruments require you to vibrate your lips while blowing, as opposed to woodwinds which have their own techniques.
The actual number of instruments in the brass family is bigger than you might expect and contains at least a few you may not recognize. (The Saxotromba, for example, is one you definitely wouldn’t find in your local music store.) Because the family is so large, and there are many examples that are no longer in common use, we’ll be examining the ones that are most common and widely used today. These are the kinds of instruments you’ll hear in jazz bands, orchestras, and even in some more contemporary genres.
One of the oldest and most easily recognizable of the brass family, trumpets have been in use since as far back as 1500 B.C.E. In the modern age, they’re generally constructed using brass tubing that’s bent twice into a round oblong shape. Notes are played by pressing on the three piston valves, which increases the length of tubing air flows through, thus lowering the pitch. Trumpets are a standard of marching bands, brass bands, orchestras, jazz bands, and almost every genre of popular music. Some of the most renowned trumpet players in popular culture include icons like Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker, and Miles Davis.
Though commonly called a French horn, or just a horn, the design of this instrument actually comes from Germany. Its distinct appearance comes from tubing that’s intricately wound, ending in a large flared bell at the end. Three lever keys are used to control the valves, causing different notes to be played. Beginning players should definitely start with the single horn variety, as they’re by far the easiest to play. The larger double horn and triple horn varieties offer a larger range of tones, however, they are significantly more difficult to play accurately. French horns are also the most common horns in professional brass bands and orchestras.
The name “Trombone” comes from Italy and is generally interpreted to mean “Big Trumpet.” Unlike trumpets and other brass instruments, however, the trombone doesn’t create its notes using valves. Instead, it changes pitch using a slide mechanism that changes the length of the instrument. Some modern trombones also include a valve attachment that lowers the instrument’s overall pitch. There have been many variations of the trombone, as with just about every other instrument, but the two most commonly used today are the tenor trombone and the bass trombone. Though most common in orchestras and brass bands, they are also quite common in Jazz and have even been known to feature in some rock groups.
The lowest-pitched and most recently invented of the brass instruments, tubas are the backbone of any brass orchestra. They’re also among the largest, weighing between 20 – 30 pounds and some with tubes reaching as long as 18 feet. Because of this, they’re most often played upright while sitting, though some varieties are light enough to be held in the lap or around the neck in the case of marching tubas. Beginners’ tubas usually have three pistons, while others may have up to six or more. They’re primarily used as a bass instrument for brass sections or as bass voice for woodwinds, but you can also find tuba players in jazz bands or performing as solo musicians.
Lesser-Known Brass Instruments
As mentioned above, brass instruments have been around for a long time. Over the years, there have been many that have come and gone, and many that have changed their shape and name. You may not recognize some of the following instruments on this list, however, they are all still important parts of brass family history.
- The Bugle – A brass instrument without pistons or valves. Pitch control is done exclusively by the player’s voice.
- The Cornet – Similar to trumpets but with a smaller shape and more mellow tone. It was primarily used to play melodies trumpets could not until they incorporated valves and pistons.
- The Mellophone – Also similar to a trumpet in shape, but a bit larger. It has the same fingerings as a trumpet or French horn but is typically lower-pitched.
- The Baritone Horn – A low-pitched brass instrument with a bore similar to a trumpet and a mouthpiece similar to a trombone. Though not as common as other brass instruments, they are sometimes still used today in school and university bands.
- The Roman Tuba – About four feet in length and straight-shaped, this instrument differs quite dramatically with the modern tuba. It was typically made of bronze, had a removable mouthpiece, and its pitch was also controlled by the player’s voice alone.
Join Us In The Brass Section!
Whether you’re considering brass instruments for a school band, jazz band, or just to start a new hobby, these instruments are all fantastic. It’s always a delight to hear their ringing clarity, and learning them is sure to be a pleasure for years to come. For information on classes, or for any questions or concerns, be sure to contact us here today!