Loud, bright, and bombastic, brass instruments are designed to make a statement. But for all their boldness, the brass family is filled with character and nuance that creates a unique sound not found in any other music family.
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What is a Brass Instrument?
Despite the name, brass isn’t the qualifying feature of this family.
- Alphorns, didgeridoos, and cornetts are considered brass instruments but are generally made of wood.
- The saxophone is made of brass but is in the woodwind family.
What is the defining characteristic? Lip vibrations.
Unlike other instruments, the sound of a brass instrument is produced by the player’s buzzing lips.
- For woodwind instruments, the sound is produced by the vibration of the reeds.
- In string instruments, the sound is produced by vibrating strings.
Fun Historical Facts
- The first brass instruments were made from conch shells, bones, and animal horns.
- The conch horn dates from 2000 to 1500 B.C. and was reportedly used in religious ceremonies.
- Hollow animal horns were believed to be used in prayer ceremonies for rain and fertility.
- These early horns were also used for signaling during war.
- The first brass horns were simple in design, featuring a mouthpiece and a long piece of tubing that flared out into a bell shape.
- These horns could only produce a few notes in the harmonic series based on the instrument’s length and the player’s lips.
- The natural horn featured exchangeable crooks, which changed the length of the instrument, though switching out crooks was a slow process.
- The Scandinavian luur and Roman buccina were made of bronze and silver and appeared between 800 and 400 B.C.
- The cornetto was used in the 15th and 16th century and comprised a wooden tube with 6 or 7 finger holes to create different notes.
- The slide trumpet appeared in the early 15th century, allowing for slightly greater flexibility and range.
- The slide trumpet gave way to the sackbut, created around 1468.
- From French “sacquer” (to draw out) and “bouter” (to shove), describing the push and pull motion of the slide.
- The sackbut was a predecessor to the trombone.
- In 1814, Heinrich Stolzel attached the first valve mechanism to his French horn.
- Valves changed playing techniques, allowing for whole new forms of music.
- Valves also allowed for semitones, or half steps between notes.
- The tuba was patented in 1835 by Prussian bandmaster Wilhelm Wieprecht and German instrument builder Johann Gottfried Moritz.
The Brass Family
Common brass instruments:
- French horn
How Brass Instruments Make Sound
The sound produced by a brass instrument starts with lip buzzing directed into a mouthpiece. The pitch is determined by:
● The shape of a player’s lips and facial muscles, known as the embouchure (the tighter the embouchure, the higher the pitch)
● The speed of air, allowing lips to vibrate faster or slower
● The length of tubing, altered by slides and valves (the longer the instrument, the lower the sound)
Valved instruments use 3 or 4 valves to add more tubing to the instrument to change its length.
● Different combinations of valves can be used to play notes in the chromatic scale.
Slide instruments use a telescoping slide to change the length of tubing.
● The trombone features seven basic slide positions to play notes in a scale.
Brass instruments also use mutes to change the timbre and lower the volume.
● By placing a hand inside the bell, French horn players can change the pitch by as much as a half step.
Fun fact: The teacher’s “voice” in the Charlie Brown cartoons is actually a trombone using a plunger mute.
Tips for Mastering Brass Instruments
- Study music theory, which will help you read music and learn dynamics.
- Do not puff out your cheeks.
- Develop a strong, consistent embouchure to improve your tone and range.
- Playing high notes is considerably harder on brass instruments. To play notes above the staff:
- Practice your scales, gradually increasing the range.
- Tighten your lips.
- Use more air than you would expect.
- Aim to blow “faster” rather than “harder.”
- Be patient.
- Blow from the back of your throat for a warmer, fuller tone.
- Breathe from your diaphragm. You should feel your stomach inflate with little to no movement in your shoulders.
- Clean the inside of your instrument regularly to prevent stuck valves.
- Apply plenty of valve oil and slide grease.
- Drain your spit valve after every play session.
- Practice rhythms frequently, with particular emphasis on slurred and tongued patterns.
- Avoid playing your instrument immediately after a meal.
- Have fun!
Learn to play the trumpet, trombone, tuba, and other brass instruments with California Music Studios | californiamusicstudios.com