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Brass instruments

A family of tubular wind instruments or aerophones most often made of brass and sounded by the buzzing of the player’s lips. Each consists of a more or less expanding length of tube with a mouthpiece at one end and a rapidly enlarging or flared opening called a bell at the other end. Common members of this family are the trumpet, comet, horn, trombone, euphonium, and tuba of European and American bands and orchestras.


I. Types. Brass instruments used for musical purposes can be divided into three main types.
(1) Short instruments such as the *comett, *serpent, and *ophi-cleide are designed to play from the lowest octave of the *harmonic series. These are now all obsolete.
(2) Medium-length instruments have ranges that usually begin with the second octave of the series. The trombone as well as most present-day valved brasses belong to this category.
(3) Long instruments begin their most useful range in the third octave of the harmonic series. These include the present-day French horn and the Baroque and Classical trumpets.

The medium-length instruments can be further divided according to the profile of their tubes. At least two types can be identified, although these are not clearly defined except in the soprano and tenor ranges; narrow-bore instruments such as the trumpet and trombone, and wide-bore instruments like the flugelhom and euphonium.

The sound of brass instruments is forceful. It ranges from bright and piercing in more cylindrical, smaller-bore instruments like the trumpet and trombone to dark and mellow in the more conical, large-bore instruments such as the flugelhom and euphonium.

Not all brass instruments are made of brass. Other materials commonly used are German silver, silver, and copper. Since the middle of the 19th century, brass has also been electroplated with nickel, silver, and gold. Unusual instruments in this family have been made of ceramics, glass, tortoise shell, and solid gold. Recently sousaphones have also been made of fiberglass. Earlier instruments were fashioned from conch shells, animal horns, and hollow wood or cane as well as from tubes made of spirally wound wood strips or hollowed-out, glue-joined wood halves, sometimes covered with leather (alphorn, cornett, serpent). Most of the metals used tarnish rapidly, but are kept shiny today by a coating of lacquer.

Simple brasses such as military bugles will sound only a limited number of tones spaced approximately according to the harmonic series. There are, for instance, only four pitches available in the first two octaves and four more in the next octave. The player controls the tone to be sounded by the compression of the lips and the force with which the instrument is blown.

In order to produce additional tones, most brasses are fitted with valves or a slide, either of which can lengthen the instrument and provide an additional series of tones with fundamentals on each of several successive half-steps lower.

Earlier brasses changed their sounding length by hand stopping, by adding sections of tubing called crooks (natural horn, trumpet), or by opening side holes similar to those on flutes or saxophones (cornett, serpent, keyed trumpet, keyed bugle, ophicleide).

Ophicleide. See ill. under Brass instruments - 15

[Fr. ophicleide; Ger. Ophikleide; It. oficleide; Sp. figle]. An alto or bass brass instrument, tall and narrow in shape, with nine to twelve woodwindlike side holes and keys. Ophicleides were invented in Paris about 1817 by Jean-Hilaire Aste, known as Halary. They were intended to be the lower members of a brass-instrument family based on the keyed bugle. In addition to keyed bugles in Eb and Bb, which Halary called clavitubes, this family included quinticlaves (alto ophicleides) in six-foot F and Eb and ophicleides in eight-foot C and Bb. The bass ophicleide was by far the most successful and found use in symphony and opera orchestras as well as in military bands of the 1830s and 1840s and even later. Its parts are now played on the tuba.

Serpent. See ill. under Brass instruments - 18

[Fr. serpent; Ger. Serpent, Schlangenrohr, Schlangenbass; It. serpentone; Sp. serpenton], A wide-bore, lip-vibrated wind instrument made in an undulating serpentine shape of wood covered with leather; a relative of the cornett. It has six finger holes, a short brass mouth pipe, and an ivory or wood mouthpiece. It is usually about 2.45 m. (8 ft.) long, pitched in C or D, and plays from a note or two below this fundamental upward about three octaves. The serpent first appeared in France in the late 16th century. By the early 17th century it was being used to support Gregorian chant in many French churches. Late in the 18th century it began to be used in orchestras and military bands as well. An English model with tighter curves, more bracing, and a right-hand position opposing the left hand was designed for military use. Three or four keys were added in the early 19th century. In 1840, near the end of the instrument’s career, a whole set of 14 keys was tried with little success. The tone of the serpent is gentle and mellow, but will become harsh if overblown.


Cornett. See ill. under Brass instruments - 22

[Fr. cornet a bouquin; Ger. Zink; It. cornetto; Sp. corneta]. A wooden (or occasionally ivory) instrument of the brass family with a wide conical bore and side holes for a thumb and six fingers. It was used in church and chamber music, sometimes with very elaborate parts, from about 1550 to 1700. The English spelling of “cornet” was altered to “cornett” at the suggestion of Francis W. Galpin (1858-1945) to avoid confusion with the modem comet. Three sizes were made: small treble (cornettino), treble, and tenor (cornone). Of these the treble was by far the most important. The treble is about 60 cm (2 ft.) long with a range from a (which can be lipped down to g) to d"'. There are three types of treble comett: curved, straight, and mute. The curved is the most common and is made of two hollowed-out wood halves glued together and covered with leather. The straight is made of one piece of wood bored and turned. The mute is made in the same way as the straight, but does not have a detachable mouthpiece. A turned cavity in the end of the instrument, deeper and more conical than the usual detachable mouthpiece, yields a muted or softened tone quality. 

II. History. The use of natural objects as lip-vibrated aerophones is common to most early civilizations. Bronze, brass, copper, or silver instruments awaited only the necessary skills in metal working. At least by 1500 b.c.e. in Egypt, metal signaling trumpets were in use. By about 1000 b.c.e., Scandinavian metal workers were producing the tenor-sized lur. The Romans used a number of signal and ceremonial brasses for military as well as civilian occasions. The buccina, lituus, cornu, and tuba appear in the literature and art of the first few centuries b.c.e. and c.e.

Evidence of the use of brasses for more musical purposes in Europe begins to appear in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. This evidence centers on the longer trumpet of two sizes then in use in Europe, both the natural version of this instrument and one equipped with a single slide at the mouth pipe. At the same time the cornett or Zink, a wooden instrument covered with leather and provided with finger holes, began to appear. By the end of the 16th century it formed, with trombones, the nucleus of the Venetian ensembles for which Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli composed.

By the second half of the 15th century, the trombone with U-shaped slide had appeared. During that same period the famous Nuremberg brass-making dynasties were founded. From at least 1500 on, the sound of the post hom was familiar in Europe. And late in the 16th century, the serpent joined the choir in French churches. The next brass instrument, the French hom, evolved from the hunting hom in the late 17th century. Its final musical taming took place in the following century.

Late in the 18th century, keys covering side holes were tried on horns and trumpets. It was not until the early 19th century, however, that keys found some success when applied to the wide-bore bugle and its offspring, the ophicleide. Other side-hole brasses were made during the same period in attempts to improve the serpent. Among them were the bass hom and several so-called Russian bassoons.

Valves were invented about 1815 and precipitated the invention of brasses of many kinds. By 1850, valve instruments from BB tubas to Et sopranos were available, and the saxhorns made by Adolphe Sax had set the pattern for modem band instruments.

Older instruments were rapidly made obsolete by the new instruments with valves. Only the slide trombone survived basically intact. Late in the 18 th century, the natural trumpet in D had been shortened to F so that it could be crooked for orchestral use to keys from F down to C or B This instrument was then made with valves in place of crooks and continued in this guise through much of the 19th century. It was replaced late in the century by shorter comet-like valved trumpets in D, C, or B instmments not directly related to the earlier long trumpets. The post hom with valves retained some of its earlier character and was an important part of the development of the comet. The French horn also retained its essential character as valves were added, although eventually a double instrument in F/B was required to cover the wide range of tonalities formerly provided by additions of several crooks.

New instruments that were a direct result of the invention of the valve include the modem trumpet, alto horn, baritone, euphonium, and tuba.

Brass Family

By 1750, horn makers had significantly mellowed the horn’s sound — though to achieve all necessary notes they still used inconvenient crooks (see early brass family) — and horns soon became permanent members of Haydn’s orchestra. Then around 1815 the valve was invented simultaneously by Bliihmel in Silesia and Stolzel in Berlin. By pressing a key, the player could divert the airflow through extra tubing, as if adding a crook. The valve was also added to the trumpet. Experiments with key-covered holes and slides, as on a trombone, had resulted in compromised tone; but with valves the trumpet became an agile melody instrument. The trombone, little altered since the 1500s, entered the orchestra in Beethoven’s Fifth symphony, and the serpent was eventually replaced by the tuba.


Pipe instruments whose sound is produced by the player’s vibrating lips date from prehistoric times, but only relatively recently did they evolve into instruments capable of playing sophisticated classical music. The horn and trumpet, which began as simple animal horns, remained coarse-sounding instruments even in their brass form. They were used mainly for hunting, military or ceremonial purposes until the late seventeenth century. Monteverdi used trumpets in his opera Lafavola d’Oifeo in 1607, and by the late Baroque period, skilled musicians could play complicated florid melodies. In the instrument’s high range, the natural resonances are close together, so players had to attach “crooks” (brass tubing of different lengths) to achieve all the notes they wanted.

Purcell and Bach wrote trumpet parts for choral sections of their cantatas, and Bach gave the instrument a virtuoso role in his Brandenburg concerto No. 2. The sackbut, a lower-pitched version of the trumpet, entered classical music much earlier, appreciated for its mellow tone and a slide that could lengthen or shorten the tube, allowing all the notes of the scale to be played. It was used to accompany motets by Dufay and others, and by the end of the fifteenth century had taken on the appearance of its modem successor, the trombone. The cornett belongs in the brass family because of how its sound is produced; but it was actually made of wood and had a gentle sound that worked well with strings and voices. Its bass relative, the serpent, dates from the sixteenth century and was used until the mid-nineteenth in works by Rossini, Wagner, and Verdi.

Modern brass instruments generally come in one of two families:

Valved brass instruments use a set of valves (typically three or four but as many as seven or more in some cases) operated by the player's fingers that introduce additional tubing, or crooks, into the instrument, changing its overall length. This family includes all of the modern brass instruments except the trombone: the trumpethorn (also called French horn), euphonium, and tuba, as well as the cornetflugelhorn, tenor horn (alto horn), baritone horn, sousaphone, and the mellophone. The valves are usually piston valves, but can be rotary valves; the latter are the norm for the horn (except in France) and are also common on the tuba.


[Fr. piston, cylindre; Ger. Ventil; It. pistone, cilindro; Sp. piston]. A mechanical device used on brass instruments to change rapidly their sounding length. The two most common types are the piston valve, used on most American trumpets, and the rotary valve, more often seen on horns. In the modem piston valve, a piston moves up and down within a cylindrical casing. In a modem rotary valve, a rotor rotates on its own axis within a cylindrical casing. Both have exactly the same function. When the valve is at rest or in “open” position, where it is held by a spring mechanism, the air column passes through one passage; but when the finger button or key controlling the valve is pressed, holes or depressions in the piston or rotor are aligned so as to bring another longer or sometimes shorter passage into play. A basic set of three valves is arranged so that the first adds enough tubing to lower the pitch of the instrument two semitones, the second a single semitone, and the third three semitones. Combinations of these can be used to lower the pitch an additional three semitones.


Without some means of changing its length, a brass instrument can sound only a series of pitches corresponding approximately to the harmonic series. The three-valve system provides every chromatic pitch from the second pitch of this series upward. For example, the trumpet in C, whose tube is 48 inches long, sounds c' as the second pitch of its series and g' as the third. Between these pitches there are six intermediate ones; hence, six different pipe lengths are required, each obtained by lengthening the tube with the appropriate valve or valve combination. These six additional pipe lengths also make available the six semitones below c'. Altogether, valves provide such an instrument with a chromatic scale from fjt to c'" and above.


There are two flaws in this system. First, as more valves are brought into play, the air column is interrupted with more cylindrical tubing and more comers and bends, with the result that pitches requiring two or three valves may be stuffier and less stable. Fortunately, these combinations are needed for only a few pitches.

The second flaw concerns intonation when two or more valves are used together. In the case of the hypothetical C trumpet, the first valve must increase the tube length by about 1/8, or 6 inches, to lower the pitch by two semitones and thus sound bb or f'. In order to lower the pitch another semitone to a or e', the first and second valves together or the third valve alone must increase the 48-inch tube by about 3/16, or 9 inches, to a total of 57 inches. In order to descend still another whole tone to g or d', the tube that is now 57 inches long must itself be lengthened by 1/8 of its own length, or more than 7 inches. In producing a total of five semitones with the combination of the first and third valves, the first valve adds only about 6 inches to the 9 or so of the third. This combination is therefore more than an inch too short, and the pitches g and d' will be noticeably sharp. This will be true to an even greater extent for f# and c#.

This problem is dealt with in several ways. The third valve passage is often made a bit longer because it is most often used in combinations and because valves one and two together are available as a substitute for valve three. Trumpets often have levers or rings that enable the player to lengthen the third and sometimes also the first valve slides. On lower-pitched instruments, a fourth valve is often provided that has the correct length of tube for the first and third valve combination and that can be lengthened to correct the combination of second and fourth valves as an alternative to the extremely sharp combination of valves one, two, and three. Another common solution, especially on baritones and tubas, is a compensating valve system, the most successful of which, invented by David James Blaikley in 1874, has double valves that automatically add compensating lengths of tubing when used in combination.

Valves for brass instruments were first conceived in 1814-15 by two German musicians, Heinrich Stolzel of Breslau and Friedrich Bluhmel of Silesia. A conical rotary valve, square piston valves, and tubular piston valves were tried. In 1818, Stolzel bought Bluhmel’s rights and patented his tubular piston valve, which then was widely produced throughout the 19th century. This valve has narrow pistons and tubes exiting from the bottom of each valve.

In 1821, Christian Friedrich Sattler of Leipzig published a description of his double-tube valve. The Sattler valve was also used in many 19th-century instruments, first in its original form (becoming the first type of valve commercially produced in the U.S.) and then in an improved version by Leopold Uhlmann of Vienna and known as the Vienna valve.

The modem rotary valve was a result of work by Bliihmel in 1828. It was improved by a Prague homist, Joseph Keil, in 1829 and was patented by Joseph Riedl of Vienna in 1832. The Berlin valve (Berliner-Pumpe) was developed in 1833 by Wilhelm Wieprecht of Berlin with ideas from an improved Stolzel design and from Bluhmel’s conical rotary valve. The Berlin valve was a short, fat piston valve copied by Adolphe Sax and many other 19th-century makers. The modem piston valve was invented by Etienne Francois Perinet of Paris in 1839.

Other valve mechanisms were developed in several countries, but few were very successful. In the U.S., about 1825-30, Nathan Adams of Lowell, Massachusetts, made conical rotary valves and valves using vanes in the windways. Thomas D. Paine of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, patented his three-tube rotary valves in 1848 and, also about 1848, created the string action for rotary valves, the most important American contribution to valve development.

A new type of rotary valve has been successfully applied to trombones. Called the axial-flow valve or Thayer valve, after its inventor, Ed Thayer of Wald-port, Oregon, it provides perfectly clear windways and only a gentle 30-degree curve through the valve rotor. First conceived in 1947, a cylindrical version was patented in 1978, and the current cone-shape model was patented in 1984.


Slide brass instruments use a slide to change the length of tubing. The main instruments in this category are the trombone family, though valve trombones are occasionally used, especially in jazz. The trombone family's ancestor, the sackbut, and the folk instrument bazooka are also in the slide family.


On the trombone and slide trumpet, a U-shaped segment of cylindrical tubing fitted over two straight segments of tubing in such a way as to be able to slide easily in and out, thus changing the instrument’s effective total length, and with it, its fundamental pitch. On brass instruments generally, a tuning slide is a much shorter device of similar design intended for minor adjustments of the instrument’s pitch. Instruments with *valves may permit in this way the adjustment of the instrument as a whole as well as of each of the segments of tubing controlled by a valve.


Haydn. Trumpet Concerto In E flat Major

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