Tuba

Courtesy of Vincent Bach
🔊
🔊

Pitch range

Tuba pitch range, courtesy of Hannah Whale

‘Oom-pah, oom-pah’ isn’t all the tuba can do. Sadly, that is what it’s famous for! It’s the biggest and lowest brass instrument. It’s so big, you can hardly see the player behind it.

Looking at it, you’d think it played nothing but slow notes – yet it can be amazingly light and agile, running around with fast notes like the smaller brass instruments.

It can also make a round, rich, mellow sound. The English composer Vaughan Williams knew that: his Tuba Concerto gives the instrument a rare opportunity to enjoy the limelight.

The tuba as soloist in music by Vaughan Williams

Vaughan Williams: Tuba Concerto

James Gourlay, tuba; Royal Ballet Sinfonia; Gavin Sutherland. Naxos 8.557754

Famous entertainer and cartoonist Gerard Hoffnung was a tuba player. He once remarked that when he was practising the tuba, the neighbours thought he had an elephant stuck in his bathroom.

Inside the orchestra

Plan of the orchestra showing the tubas, courtesy of Hannah Whale

Plan of the orchestra showing the tubas

The orchestra only needs one of these! Mainly, the tuba does in the brass section what the double bass does in the string section: it strengthens the bass line.

But occasionally it’s given a chance to shine, reminding everyone what a lovely warm sound it has.

Outside the orchestra

Concertos: A famous one by Vaughan Williams, but not many others.

Solo pieces: A few, but not as many as players would like.

Brass bands: The tuba is quite at home here! The tenor version, called a ‘euphonium’, spends almost all its time in brass bands.

In Wagner’s opera Siegfried, the tuba plays the dragon’s music.

The music signifying the dragon in Wagner’s Siegfried

Wagner: Siegfried (extract)

Staatsorchester Stuttgart; Lothar Zagrosek. Naxos 8.660175-78

Construction of the tuba

Tuba mouthpiece, courtesy of Yamaha & Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins

Tuba mouthpiece

The tuba is an enormous brass tube, coiled round and round. The tube ends in an impressive bell which points towards the ceiling.

The large mouthpiece is cup-shaped.

There are three piston valves to help produce different notes.

For more about how valves work, go to the Brass Instruments section.

The tuba’s tubes are so complicated that it was once described as a ‘plumber’s nightmare’!

To play it

Tuba player in playing position, courtesy of Tony Morrell

Tuba player in playing position

You rest the tuba on your lap, hug it a bit like a bear, put your lips to the mouthpiece, and do what you do with all the other brass instruments: blow!

As you’d imagine, you need a lot of breath to play the tuba. While you puff away into the huge mouthpiece, your right hand presses the valves to help you play different notes.

Special effects

The tuba might look large and lumpy, but it can make a flutter-tongue sound. It can in fact do all the special effects that the other brass instruments can do.

Go to the Brass Family section for more information.

Euphonium, courtesy of Yamaha

Euphonium

Other tubas

The tuba we see all the time in the orchestra is the bass tuba. But there are other versions.

Euphonium (tenor tuba)

This is hardly ever part of the orchestra. It has a rare solo in ‘Mars’ of The Planets by Holst, but otherwise it sticks to brass bands.

A rare moment for the euphonium in the orchestra

Holst: The Planets. I. Mars (extract)

Royal Scottish National Orchestra; David Lloyd-Jones. Naxos 8.555776

‘Euphonium’ means ‘well-sounding’ in Greek.

Contrabass tuba

This is lower than the bass tuba – so just imagine how big it is! It’s very rare to see one…

Ophicleide

Ophicleide

Before the tuba, there was a similar instrument with the weird name of ‘ophicleide’. But it wasn’t only hard to say – it was hard to play! A few 19th-century composers wrote for the ophicleide but the tuba was invented in 1835 and took over.

Find out more about the development of the Tuba in .

A Little History of the Tuba

Ophicleide

Ophicleide

In age, though not size, the tuba really is the baby of the orchestra. Before it there were bugles, which were similar but didn’t have valves.

The most similar was a keyed bass bugle with the weird name of ‘ophicleide’. But it was difficult to play.

The tuba was designed in 1835. It joined brass bands first though it wasn’t long before it settled into the orchestra.

The only sad thing for the tuba is the lack of solo music it has to play. It’s nice for tuba players to play pieces on their own sometimes, but there aren’t many for them to choose from!

 

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Which way does the bell of the tuba face?

a. Down to the floor
b. Towards the player's face
c. Up to the ceiling

 Where does the tuba fit into the orchestra?

a. In the middle
b. High up
c. Low down

 Which of these is also a kind of tuba?

a. Ophicleide
b. Euphonium
c. Cornet

 Where else are tubas often found, apart from the orchestra?

a. Brass bands
b. Weddings
c. Chamber groups

 Which of these does a tuba have?

a. Piston valves
b. Rotary valves
c. Slide

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Selected Tuba and Euphonium Highlights

Paul Dukas (1865–1935)
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (extract)

The tuba is right at the bottom – and the apprentice’s trouble is just beginning… He will regret trying to weave his own magic spells!

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Kenneth Jean

Taken from Naxos 8.554463

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)
Tuba Concerto in F minor: I. Prelude (extract)

All eyes and ears are on the tuba in this solo concerto.

Performers: James Gourlay, tuba; Royal Ballet Sinfonia; Gavin Sutherland

Taken from Naxos 8.557754

John Philip Sousa (1854–1932)
Semper Fidelis (‘Always Faithful’) (extract)

Listen to the tuba’s bouncy notes underneath the tune in this march by the ‘march king’ John Philip Sousa.

Performers: Royal Artillery Band; Keith Brion

Taken from Naxos 8.559092

Gustav Holst (1874–1934)
The Planets, Op. 32: I. Mars, the Bringer of War (extract)

A rare use of the euphonium in the orchestra – and what a great time it has!

Performers: Royal Scottish National Orchestra; David Lloyd-Jones

Taken from Naxos 8.555776

Tuba Concertos

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)
Tuba Concerto in F minor: I. Prelude (extract)

The tuba is rarely in the spotlight: it’s just not that kind of instrument. It adds body to the orchestra and to brass bands, supporting the bottom of the music with a kind of golden bass sound. Because this sound is so low down, the tuba isn’t always suited to standing out on its own. Vaughan Williams, aged 82, knew that he needed to compose this Tuba Concerto carefully so that the orchestra wouldn’t overpower the tuba. At 3.03, you can hear the tuba play a long low note – like a nice version of a ship’s foghorn! This is the start of the cadenza: the part where the soloist plays completely alone, often showing off some tricky technique. This cadenza is quite long, so you get a clear idea of the tuba’s sound and what it can do. The middle movement (track 2) is a ‘romance’ – gentle, tuneful and peaceful. The clarinet has a solo at 0.14; listen to how the tuba folds into the music at c. 0.30, simply joining in with the others. In track 3, there’s a brief musical explosion and the tuba is more assertive. There is some agile playing too: the instrument may be big, with a wide mouthpiece and a lot of puff required, but it’s possible for a good player to make the notes move quickly!

Performers: James Gourlay, tuba; Royal Ballet Sinfonia; Gavin Sutherland

Taken from Naxos 8.557754

Michael Daugherty (b. 1954)
Reflections on the Mississippi

This is a musical journey down the Mississippi River! The composer wrote it in memory of his father: as he was composing, he thought about the trips they used to make as a family down the River near Iowa. He went back years later to explore small river towns, take photographs, and examine wildlife. All the time he did it, he was creating in his head this tuba concerto – many of the sounds inspired what he’s written. The first movement, ‘Mist’, describes the misty haze over the River. ‘Fury’ (track 2) is very different – punchy and energetic: it recalls the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. We might imagine the music in a disaster movie! ‘Prayer’ (track 3) is the River as seen from high above, as sunset turns to a starry night; can you hear the glockenspiel, vibraphone, chimes and piano echoing like distant church bells at 5.42? They do this while the tuba sinks quietly to the end. ‘Steamboat’ (track 4) starts with cheeky tuba music. A violin joins in at 0.19, and they’re cheeky together: the music is meant to conjure up the colourful tales from Life on the Mississippi by the famous American author, Mark Twain.

Performers: Carol Jantsch, tuba; Albany Symphony Orchestra; David Alan Miller

Taken from Naxos 8.559807

Áskell Másson (b. 1953)
Maes Howe

The tuba spends most of the time within a big orchestra. However, occasionally more recent composers, who have wanted to experiment with new sounds, have given the tuba a special part. Try this one, by Icelandic composer Áskell Másson: it is a concerto for tuba and chamber (small) orchestra. There are some strange sounds here, but here are two things to listen out for: 1. He contrasts the very low sound of the tuba, which we first hear grumbling right at the bottom at 0.22, with much higher notes in other instruments – e.g. the oboe that comes in right at the beginning; 2. This group includes various percussion instruments, so there are all sorts of sounds and effects to listen out for: e.g. crotales (mini, tuned, cymbals) at 2.24, and then various other places. Can you hear them dinging? The composer wrote this after visiting an ancient tomb (called Maes Howe) in Orkney, in the north of Scotland. As you listen to the piece, try closing your eyes and imagine being alone in a dark cave…

Performers: Jens Bjørn-Larsen, tuba; Caput Ensemble; Joel Sachs

Taken from Naxos 9.70203

Tuba in the Band

John Philip Sousa (1854–1932)
The Liberty Bell (arranged by J. Ord-Hume)

This is one of the best-known marches by John Philip Sousa – he was so famous for his marches that he became known as the ‘March King’. It was used for the British comedy series Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The tuba’s role in the band is to give a kind of spring to the bottom of the music: see if you can hear it bobbing along with low notes.

Performers: Royal Artillery Band; Keith Brion

Taken from Naxos 8.559132

John Philip Sousa (1854–1932)
The Thunderer

Band marches are full of percussion: can you hear the drums and cymbals, helping to keep everyone’s feet together as they march along? Try marching to the music! The tuba is there underneath everything: occasionally it is heard a bit more clearly, such as 0.52 where it peeps out before heading back to the bottom. There’s a more gentle middle section (1.08). The march is like a sandwich: the bread is the big, bombastic music, and the filling is this middle section – with a tinkling glockenspiel coming in at 1.25. The tuba is still there though!

Performers: Royal Artillery Band; Keith Brion

Taken from Naxos 8.572651-52