The brass family of musical instruments takes its name from the material with which they are made, and their booming, brassy sound makes a big impact.
The brass instruments that most young students will encounter are the French horn, tuba, trombone, and trumpet. They might also meet the cornet, which is very similar to the trumpet, and the sousaphone, closest in style to the tuba. The euphonium and the baritone are less well-known—their size and range fall somewhere between the trumpet and the tuba.
Buzzing mouthpieces, valves, and pipes
Musicians play brass instruments, as they do members of the woodwind family, by pushing their breath into the instrument. But, unlike the woodwinds, it is not a vibrating reed, but a metal mouthpiece shaped like a cup, that amplifies the sound and drives it forward as the player’s lips buzz against it.
Today’s brass instruments consist of a long stretch of tubing or piping that flares out toward the end like a bell. In order to allow for better and smoother handling and playing, the instruments’ pipes are configured into twists, curves, and curlicues of various types. Attached to the pipes are a variety of valves that allow the player to open or close a range of apertures along the pipe’s length.
When a player presses down on various combinations of valves, he or she can vary the sound, loudness, and pitch.
The clear, strong sound of the trumpet
The trumpet and the cornet are the smallest and highest-pitched members of the brass family. The differences between the two are miniscule, and their sounds are almost indistinguishable, although the trumpet’s shape is slightly longer and slimmer. Beginning players typically find that neither is an improvement on the other.
The trumpet is easy to maintain and to store, with only two body pieces to take apart between one band practice and the next. The instrument’s valves and slides need occasional oiling.
The earliest prototype of the trumpet we know today appeared in approximately 1,500 BC. Early artisans began to decorate the horns they fashioned from animal tusks, and eventually from ceramics and metal. But the trumpet remained largely a one-note hunting, ceremonial, and wartime accessory until the latter part of the Middle Ages. It was then that musicians began to realize its artistic possibilities.
Baroque composers began to incorporate the trumpet into their compositions, impressed with its clear, ringing tone. By the close of the 1700s, Viennese musician Anton Weidinger had added keys to the instrument, giving it the capacity to produce a complete chromatic scale in all registers. The invention of valves replaced the keyed system, and by the second decade of the 1800s, the first working brass instrument valve ushered the trumpet into the modern orchestral age.
Makers of early musical recordings were so taken with the strong, bold sound of the trumpet that they featured it often, and superstar players such as Louis Armstrong made it an indelible part of the American musical experience.
Learning to slide with the trombone
The trombone’s long slide piece increases the length of its tubing and changes its pitch, making the slide analogous to the valves found on other instruments. Like the trumpet, it ends in a bell-shaped piece, but has a larger mouthpiece than the trumpet.
The trombone is relatively more challenging to play and to care for than other brass instruments. It’s important to take particular care of the slide and treat it gently—if it is damaged, the instrument becomes unplayable. The trombone’s two-piece structure makes it easy to assemble and disassemble, and, like the trumpet, it simply requires occasional oiling and greasing.
Students who have good pitch will be able to know exactly how far to extend the length of the slide to produce a desired tone. Students who are unsure of pitch may have more difficulty in controlling the trombone’s pitch.
The trombone arose as a byproduct of the development of the trumpet in the 1400s. Until hundreds of years after its invention, musicians and composers in the English-speaking world called it the “sackbut.”
From cor de chasse to French horn
The model for the French horn was based on ancient horns used for hunting. Its name is a bit of a misnomer, since most of the major developments in the instrument took place in Germany. Like its relatives, it was developed during the late-medieval period, when musicians’ experimentation created a variety of new horn types.
Seventeenth-century alterations in horn formations produced a model with a larger flared bell, the first recognizably “French horn” type of instrument. This model was originally called the “cor de chasse” and then the “French horn” in English.
Complete beginners are not usually capable of attaining great proficiency in playing the French horn, and so should proceed with caution before settling on it as a band instrument. But for a student with an excellent grasp of pitch and solid prior musical training, it can be a good choice. Like other brass instruments, the French horn is comparatively simple to store and to care for.
The big and beautiful tuba
The tuba, the brass family’s largest instrument, is also its deepest. It can play both accompaniment and melody, adding surprisingly nuanced and beautiful tones.
Students can obtain tubas of various sizes; it’s important for each musician to identify the size that’s right for them. Younger players who struggle with the full-sized tuba may find that the baritone is a more manageable instrument, at least at first. The tuba’s care is similar to that of other brass instruments, and it consists of at most three pieces.
Unlike its cousins, the tuba’s origins lie not in ancient or medieval times. Drawing on previous valved band instruments, two Berlin-based musicians filed a patent for the tuba in 1835. Johann Gottfried Moritz and Wilhelm Wieprecht provided their new instrument, set in the key of F, with five valves. Later variations include the Wagner tubas, small-bore models created specifically to fit composer Richard Wagner’s requirements in his large-scale opera The Ring of the Nibelung.