Your How-To Guide to Brass Instruments

 

If you’re interested in playing music, why not consider playing a brass instrument? Brass instruments are classified by the way they produce sound. The player vibrates their lips, and the sound is produced from those vibrations through air in a tube. This section of instruments is recognized for its bright, rich sound. These instruments are common in orchestras and symphonies, and they’re great for beginners. Start by exploring the following common brass instruments.

Trumpet

The trumpet is perhaps the most popular of all the brass instruments. It’s the highest register instrument in the brass family. Thanks to its beautiful and noticeable tone, the trumpet stands out in almost all compositions and contributes heavily to most melodies. There are numerous types of trumpets, but the most common is the B-flat trumpet. It features three valves, which in different combinations change the notes.

Trumpets date back to around 1500 BC and have been historically used as signaling devices in hunting and in battle. It was only in the late 14th or early 15th century that it started being used as a musical instrument.

The trumpet is used in multiple styles of music, from concert bands and orchestras to jazz ensembles and pop music. Songs you might recognize that use the trumpet include All You Need is Love by The Beetles and Cheerleader by OMI.

Cornet

The cornet is so closely related to the trumpet that the two are often confused. The cornet’s tubing, however, is shaped differently, and it has a more mellow tone. That said, the cornet is similar enough to the trumpet that cornet players can play off the same music written for trumpets. Trumpet players can easily switch to and from playing the cornet and vice versa.

Trombone

The trombone is a unique instrument in that it uses a telescoping slide to change the length of its tubing and therefore change the notes played. Most instruments, on the other hand, use keys or valves to change the notes. Though it sounds like the trombone would be more complicated to play, it’s still a suitable instrument for beginners.

The most common trombones are the tenor and bass trombones, though there are several other styles. The B-flat trombone is pitched an octave below the B-flat trumpet and an octave above the B-flat tuba. The trombone is a low brass instrument, that often plays parts written similarly to the tuba.

It’s believed that the trombone originated from the Medieval trumpet and evolved sometime around the 14th century to help musicians play more notes. Trombone solos can be heard in popular music like Biding My Time by Pink Floyd.

Tuba

The tuba is the largest instrument in the brass family. That also makes it the lowest pitched instrument, making it suitable for playing the baseline. Like the trumpet, the tuba uses valves to change notes. Depending on the type of tuba, they can have anywhere from three to six valves with a few rare exceptions. Most beginners use three-valve tubas due to their ease of use and their lower cost.

The tuba originated around the mid-19th century and is commonly used in orchestras and concert bands.

Baritone

The baritone horn, oftentimes simply referred to as the baritone, looks similar to the tuba, but it’s much smaller. The baritone is a low-pitched brass instrument in the saxhorn family. Like the trumpet and tuba, it uses piston-style valves to change notes, and it’s pitched in concert B-flat.

Baritones can play music written in either bass clef or treble clef. When written in treble clef, the baritone fingerings become the same as the trumpet only pitched an octave lower. However, the baritone typically plays parts written for the tenor trombone in concert band.

French Horn

The French horn is a strange instrument at first glance. It features a series of tubes all wrapped into a circle. There is a flared bell at the end where the player inserts his or her right hand while playing. The player can use this hand to help control the pitch of the instrument. The player’s left hand is used to move the valves. Most modern French horns use rotary valves, but there are a few older styles that use piston valves. This is a high-pitched instrument and is the third highest sounding one in the brass family.

The French horn produces a subdued sound. This helps contrast with the trumpet in a concert band setting. Most French horns are tuned to F, though there are less common varieties tuned to B-flat. The name “French horn” is used because in the late 17th century, the French were the main manufacturers of horns. They’re credited with creating the shape of this instrument. Instead of calling it simply by “horn,” which could be confused with almost any instrument, the word “French” helps distinguish the particular instrument.

Mellophone

Though the mellophone is a less common brass instrument, you might still see it being used in concert bands and orchestras. Because it’s pitched in the key of F like the French horn, it can be used as a substitute for the French horn. You’ll commonly see this in marching bands because the bell points out instead of to the side to help guide the sound toward the crowd. The origins of the mellophone date back to the 19th century during a period where horn design was booming.

Like other instruments in this category, the mellophone features valves. It uses the same fingerings as the trumpet and alto horn, making it easy for musicians to switch between instruments even though they’re pitched in different keys.

With so many different instruments to choose from in the brass family (and even more not listed here), you should be able to find something to suit your tastes for sound and size. The beauty of the brass family is that many of the fingerings are the same from instrument to instrument. This makes it easy to switch between them with minimal adjustments. Are you interested in playing a brass instrument? Which one will you try first?