Brass instruments are powerful and grand, as well as bright and shiny.
Ancestors of the brass family first appeared thousands of years ago: man chopped the ends off animal horns and blew down them.
In Roman times, they were used as signaling instruments. Signals were often used for military events and were sounded on long, simple brass tubes without keys or valves.
The family became known as the ‘brass’ family because the instruments began to be made of metal – usually brass.
All brass instruments are folded or coiled round. This is because they’d be too long to handle if they were stretched out straight. Air will travel round corners if they’re smooth, so the bends and twists don’t affect the sound.
Here you can see and hear how the main instruments of the brass family fit together, from top to bottom.
Construction of the instruments
Brass instruments are ‘aerophones’: the sound is produced by air vibrating through the instrument.
Today, they are all:
- made from metal.
- have a cup- or funnel-shaped mouthpiece.
Sometimes, the brass is silver-plated. If not, it’s coated in a special varnish called lacquer that protects the metal and keeps it gleaming. Some really posh trumpets are gold-plated!
How sound is made
- When the player blows into the mouthpiece, the lips vibrate – like blowing a raspberry except with the tongue behind the front teeth.
- This creates waves of vibrating air.
- The vibrating airwaves travel through the instrument and come out of the bell at the end as sound.
All brass players use their diaphragm a lot when they breathe – as do woodwind players and singers. This is an important little muscle at the bottom of the lungs.
Like valves, mouthpieces come in two basic types:
- Cup-shaped mouthpiece for trumpets, cornets, trombones and tubas.
- Funnel-shaped mouthpiece for French horns.
When you blow down a brass instrument, you put your lips against the mouthpiece. You don’t put them round it, as you do with woodwind instruments.
The pitch – how high or low the notes are – depends on:
- How fast the lips vibrate.
- The length of the tube.
The trombone has a slide – a U-shaped tube – which can move up and down. It alters the total length of the instrument so different pitches can sound.
Horns, trumpets and tubas have valves – like the trombone’s slide, valves alter the length of the main brass tube so that more notes are possible. The two types of valves are quite similar:
- Piston valves are usually for trumpets, cornets and tubas.
- Rotary valves are for French horns (and some tubas as well).
Waves of vibrating air are sent down the instrument when the player blows into the mouthpiece. But the air is diverted by the valves – like a train at a railway junction. The path of the air changes, and it’s sent into separate loops before it’s expelled through the bell. This changes the pitch of the note.
Mutes are put into the bell of brass instruments to soften and change the sound. They’re usually made of metal or wood, and shaped like a distorted pear.
A French horn has the simplest mute: the player’s hand! You couldn’t really stick your hand into any of the others because they’re so long that the bell is too far away to reach while playing. The horn is curled round neatly, so this isn’t a problem.
The brass instruments can all do some special effects. These are the most common:
Double-tonguing: This is a way of playing fast notes, and players often do it by quickly mouthing ‘T-K-T-K’ down the instrument. They can go even faster, by triple-tonguing! For this they mouth ‘T-T-K-T-T-K’ down the instrument.
Flutter-tonguing: Brass instruments can’t do this as well as the flute, but they can make a kind of fluttering sound. The player rolls an ‘R’ down the instrument or growls into it.
Vibrato: This is where the note is made to wobble slightly, so the sound is a bit richer. How much it’s used depends on the instrument, the player’s style and the music being played.
Glissando: A sliding effect up or down. Best on the trombone!
The ‘water key’ on brass instruments is sometimes called a ‘spit valve’. But it lets out condensation, not spit! Condensation builds up because the player breathes warm air down a cold metal tube. When the instrument starts to sound all gurgly, it’s time to press it…
The brass section is very noticeable. Not only are the instruments bright and shiny, but they make a really impressive sound, especially when they all play together.
In the 18th century, there would usually be just two horns and two trumpets in a brass section. But in the late 19th century, composers like Wagner and Mahler wanted so many brass instruments that there was barely room for the players to sit down! The music was loud.
These days it’s normal to see:
- 4 or 5 horns
- 3 trumpets
- 3 trombones
- 1 tuba
There is music for just brass instruments. It can sound magnificent. 400 years ago, an Italian composer called Giovanni Gabrieli created wonderful echo effects with instruments and choirs, so they sound as if they’re all around you. This music played on brass instruments can sound amazing.
Music for brass instruments by Giovanni Gabrieli
Gabrieli: Canzon a 12 in Double Echo (arr. Eric Crees) (extract)
London Symphony Brass; Eric Crees. Naxos 8.553609
Outside the orchestra, brass instruments are also found in brass bands. Some members – like the cornet and the euphonium – are more at home here than in an orchestra. You might imagine these bands to be deafening, but they can sound surprisingly soft, gentle and relaxing. Of course, when they really go for it and blast with all their strength, the effect is powerful and exciting.
A brass band playing some of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess
Gershwin, arr. A. Fernie: Porgy and Bess Suite. IV. I’m On My Way
Black Dyke Band; Nicholas Childs. Naxos 8.570726
Find out more about the development of the Brass Family in .
A Little History of the Brass Family
In Roman times, brass instruments were used for signalling. Signals were often given in military events and were sounded on long, simple brass tubes without keys or valves. The player did clever things with his lips and muscles to make more than one note.
Sometimes the long instrument would stick out straight, like a telescope – so the player needed plenty of space in front of him or he’d wallop somebody on the head. Other kinds were cunningly curved like a ‘G’.
These instruments were called ‘tuba’, ‘cornu’ or ‘buccina’, which relate to our modern names of ‘tuba’, ‘horn’ and ‘trombone’.
Ancestors of the brass family first appeared thousands of years earlier: man chopped the ends off animal horns and blew down them. The first one that we know much about was called a ‘shofar’ and made from a ram’s horn. It’s still used today in some Jewish festivals.
The family became known as the ‘brass’ family because the instruments began to be made of metal – usually brass.
On brass instruments, pitch – how high or low the notes are – depends on:
How fast the lips vibrate.
The length of the tube.
Pitch used to be a big problem for brass instruments. Before the invention of valves and slides, they were limited in what they could play. They had one length of tube, and this could only produce a few notes. The lips and diaphragm of the player could control which of these notes sounded – but no others were possible.
Higher up, the notes were a bit closer together – but it’s much harder to play up there. The skill was mastered by royal trumpeters in the 17th and 18th centuries and was called ‘clarino’ playing.
Slide: By the end of the 15th century, the trombone had got its slide: a U-shaped tube that could slide up and down. It could keep altering the total length of the instrument, meaning that many different notes could be produced. Over 500 years later, the trombone still works in the same way!
Crooks: In the 17th and 18th centuries, brass instruments were given ‘crooks’. These were extra pieces of tubing to be added on and taken away so that more notes could be played. But there were several separate bits, and every so often the player would have to pull one off as fast as possible and shove on another one. It was not ideal.
Valves: These were a revolutionary development for horns, trumpets and tubas. They were invented around 1815 and improved during the next few years.
The two types are quite similar:
Piston valves are usually for trumpets, cornets and tubas.
Rotary valves are for French horns and sometimes tubas as well.
Most instruments have three valves. Like the trombone’s slide, valves lengthen the main brass tube so that more notes are possible.
A vibrating column of air is sent down the instrument when the player blows on the mouthpiece. But the air is diverted by the valves – like a train at a railway junction. The path of the air changes, and it’s sent into separate loops before it’s expelled through the bell. This changes the pitch of the note. There was no need for clumsy crooks now!
The few notes that early brass instruments could play formed what is called a ‘major triad’: for example, the notes C, E and G. These are the notes of a fanfare – and brass instruments have always excelled at playing fanfares!
Do You Know?
See if you can answer the questions below!
● What are most brass instruments made of?
● Which of the following will you not find on any brass instrument?
● What is the flared end of a brass instrument called?
● What does the water key get rid of?
● Which of these is not in the brass section?
Play More Music!
Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!
Brass Ensemble Pieces
Giovanni Gabrieli (c.1554/7–1612)
Sacrae symphoniae: Canzon septimi toni II a 8 (arr. Eric Crees)
The Renaissance composer Gabrieli was born in the city of Venice, full of awesome buildings – large, ornate churches with space for music to echo among the walls. He loved to have groups of singers or musicians placed separately, calling and responding to each other. So in this piece, listen at the beginning to how phrases are repeated or answered: the repeat or the answer is given by a different group from the one stating the phrase first. When this music is performed live, the groups might be in completely different places – it’s a thrilling experience to hear it.
Performers: London Symphony Brass; Eric Crees
Taken from Naxos 8.553609
Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953)
March from The Love for Three Oranges Suite, Op. 33ter (arranged by Simon Cox)
Prokofiev’s suite from his opera The Love for Three Oranges was written for orchestra. The March is the most famous movement, which Prokofiev arranged for piano solo. Here it is arranged for a brass septet: three trumpets, two trombones, bass trombone and tuba. Prokofiev decided to write the opera when he discovered, on his voyage from Russia to America in 1918, a play by an Italian playwright that he really liked. It had a mixture of fairytale, humour and satire (a kind of comical way to criticise something or someone). The brass instruments suit this characterful march, which seems mostly serious but with something funnier trying to peep out…
Taken from Naxos 8.573475
Danny Elfman (b. 1953)
The Simpsons Theme (arranged by Marc Pierobon)
This is an arrangement of music you might recognise if you’ve seen the cartoon The Simpsons. Brass instruments are great at whacky, comical sounds. So you’ll find one or two in here!
Performers: Gomalan Brass Quintet
Taken from Naxos 8.572244
Georges Bizet (1838–1875)
L’arlésienne: Farandole (arranged by Howard Lorriman)
This is an exciting piece in the original version for orchestra, and it also works well when played by just brass instruments. L’arlésienne is a play by Alphonse Daudet, for which the French composer Bizet wrote music. The Black Dyke Band is one of the world’s finest brass bands and winner of many competitions. Listen to this fantastic sound and you might hear why!
Performers: Black Dyke Band; Nicholas Childs
Taken from Naxos 8.570726