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Brass instruments are often seen as “loud” and “brassy” with their only purpose being marching or military use. That’s far from the truth, as brass instruments are capable of a whole range of tones; from warm, mellow horns to bright, brilliant trumpets.

We’re going to explore the brass family in this article, looking at ranges, articulations, and common uses of each instrument.

Brass Instruments

The four main instruments in the brass family are:

  • Horns in F
  • Trumpets in Bb or C
  • Trombones
  • Tubas

The brass section has appeared in an almost countless variety of numbers over the history of the orchestra, but a fairly typical modern orchestra might compose of:

  • 4 horns
  • 3 trumpets
  • 3 trombones (or 2 tenor trombones + bass trombone)
  • 1 tuba

Of course, that’s only a guideline and those number have been more than tripled by some composers!

The brass section can easily overpower the entire orchestra, so this needs to be borne in mind when orchestrating. Good players (and conductors) are well aware of this, and know that “fortissimo” written in the score often means “powerfully but not full volume” – nevertheless, in order to keep samples sounding realistic, or to make sure your a live performance of your piece works, you should think carefully about balance across the orchestra. For example, in the loudest part of your piece, instead of having the whole orchestra playing fortissimo for the whole passage (meaning we’ll only really hear brass) consider having the brass only play on accented notes as punctuation. That’s just one solution!

Playing Technique

Brass instruments are played with a cone-shaped metal mouthpiece. The player essentially “blows raspberries” into the mouthpiece causing the tubing of the instrument to vibrate at different pitches. That’s a real oversimplification, but gives you an idea! For low notes, the player’s lips must be loose, and for high notes they must be tight – extremely high notes require real skill and strong facial muscles.

More than most other instruments, a lot of time is spent by brass players searching for the perfect mouthpiece that matches their personal lip shape. In terms of mouthpiece design, the shallower the “cup” (bit that it blown into) the more forceful the sound will be, and the deeper the cup the more mellow it will be. That is why horns naturally sound so much softer than trumpets.

Fundamentals & Harmonics

The different pitches at which the instrument vibrates are the harmonics. The fundamental tone is called the “pedal tone” on brass, and isn’t always playable, and if it is it can sound pretty awful. So, the majority of the time players are actually playing various harmonics of the series. Instruments that DO play the pedal tones are often call “whole-tube” instruments, vs. “half-tube” for those that only play harmonics. If you imagine a brass instrument straightened out into one long tube, the fundamental tone would be that tube vibrating at its “natural” rate, and the harmonics are the notes that ring out over the top. By altering the speed at which the player’s lips are vibrating, those harmonics can be emphasised to become the main note instead.

So, if the “pedal tone” (fundamental) is C1 (MIDI octave), the notes available to the player JUST by using their lips are:

  • 1 – C1 (“pedal” tone)
  • 2 – C2
  • 3 – G2
  • 4 – C3
  • 5 – E3
  • 6 – G3
  • 7 – Bb3 (out of tune)
  • 8 – C4
  • 9 – D4
  • 10 – E4
  • 11 – F#4 (out of tune)
  • 12 – G4
  • 13 – A4 (out of tune)
  • 14 – A#4 (out of tune)
  • 15 – B4
  • 16 – C5

An interesting fact is that the diameter of the “tubing” of the instrument doesn’t affect pitch at all. Only the length affects the pitch. However, the wider the diameter the easier it is to play lower notes, and vice versa.

Changing the Fundamental

It used to be that brass instruments were only tuned to one single “fundamental” with “crooks” to change the pitch of the instrument. These crooks were essentially bits of extra tubing that would be swapped on the instrument to change the overall length of the tubing. Basically, in order to change the pitch of your instrument you needed to momentarily become a plumber!

Of course, the trombone overcame that hurdle by adding a sliding tube enabling the player to change the length of the instrument almost instantaneously. “Valves” were introduced to other brass instruments in the mid-19th century, allowing them to change their tuning instantly, minus the plumbing. Basically, when a valve is pressed it redirects the flow of air around the instrument, lengthening/shortening the overall length of the tube.

Valves

There are two types of valve: piston and rotary. Piston valves literally slide a “piston” with angled holes in down the chamber to redirect the airflow. Rotary valves have a drum wound with wire, and when the valve is pressed it twists the drum, opening up a new section of tubing for the air to flow around. Valves are controlled with the right hand, with the exception of the horn that uses the left hand.

The valves lower the pitch of the instrument as follows:

Trombone PositionTrombone Pedal ToneValve Number PressedPedal Tone Adjustment (down)
1BbNoneNone
2A2Semitone
3Ab1Whole tone
4G3 or 1 & 2Minor third
5Gb2 & 3Major third
6F1 & 3Perfect fourth
7E1 & 2 & 3Augmented fourth

Technically speaking, a player could just use their lips to move around the 12th-16th harmonics (as they are mostly chromatic), but using different valve fingerings improves intonation and can make articulations clearer. That said, slurring between adjacent harmonics using just the lips gives a smoother legato.

Due to the fact that instrumentalists are using pure skill and experience to hit the correct harmonic, leaps can be difficult, as well as stepwise legato where valves need to be changed. The player has to simultaneously change valves AND lip pressure to hit the exact harmonic, which is not easy!

Tonguing

Both soft and hard tonguing is available, including very fast staccato tonguing. However, lower registers won’t be as quick due to the softer lips and larger mouthpiece. That said, all instruments in the brass family are capable of single, double, triple, and even flutter tonguing – but super-fast bits should be left to the trumpets (and cornets).

Breathing

Don’t forget that brass instruments require a LOT of breath – particularly low brass. If you’re working with sample libraries, think about where the players will breath. Long brass passages with no breathing space is a dead giveaway of sample libraries; even an “untrained” audience will subconsciously notice that something isn’t right.

Mutes

There are a wide range of “mutes” available to brass instruments. Mutes are usually pushed into the bell of the instrument and perform a variety of functions, from simply softening the volume to completely altering the sound. In orchestral music, it tends to only be the cone-mute (or “straight” mute) that is used, that give a metallic, oboe-esque ring to the brass instruments.

Other mutes include:

  • Cup – gives a more muffled, darker tone
  • Solotone – emphasises treble frequencies
  • Buzz-wah – gives a buzzy, kazoo-like sound
  • Wah-wah – creates a very shallow/empty sound
  • Bucket – soft, muffled tone
  • Plunger – literally a rubber sink plunger without the handle. As it isn’t actually pushed into the bell of the instrument, the sound can be modified on-the-fly by the player creating some interesting effects. Think of the iconic “Goldfinger” sound.

Horn players often mute with their hands, called “stopping.” This is used both as a tone affect, to create a more mellow tone, and also to help with tuning – shoving the hand down the bell can change the pitch up a half-tone or more.

Instrument Specifics & Ranges

NOTE: When describing ranges I am using conventional MIDI numbers to describe the octave, as opposed to the traditional octave descriptions. Therefore you should assume “Middle C” to be “C3”

HORNS

The most common modern horn is the Horn in F, giving the most versatile sound. “Double horns” are also common. A double horn is literally that: two horns in one – one in F for the lower register and one in Bb for the higher register. They have two sets of tubing, selected via a thumb switch.

The horn in F is a transposing instrument, sounding a fifth lower than written, and it has a huge range, spanning from C1 to F5. However, most sample libraries limit the top note to around F4.

On scores horns are usually written in two parts: Horns 1 & 2, and Horn 3 & 4. Parts are written in treble or bass clef.

Stopping

On modern horns “stopped notes” (putting the hand down the bell) can be used for effect, and tend to be fully stopped (almost completely blocking the hole), causing a muted, metallic sound. This makes notes sound a half-tone higher, so some horns have an extra valve (“stop” or “transposing” valve) to correct the pitch.

Specifics

  • Horns are capable of glissandos across the harmonic series (more effective in higher registers)
  • Trills are possible, but certain intervals may be slow
  • “Campana in Aria” means to point the bell of the instrument in the air with the hand out of the bell. Adds a new timbre to blasting passages.

Uses

Horns are incredibly versatile, capable of incredibly beautiful, soft passages as well as thunderously aggressive parts. They can be used in solos, unison, and harmony. That said, they aren’t hugely agile, so incredibly fast passages are best avoided.

The mid-range of the horn is full-sounding, but the lower and higher registers can sound weaker. In horn solos, it’s best to double the horns on higher/lower notes. Horns playing in octaves give a rich, full sound. They’re often used as harmony instruments, as four horns in four part harmony creates a wonderfully full backdrop to the orchestra.

Importantly, due to their less “brassy” sound, horns are often used to link the brass section to the woodwinds – they combine better with other orchestral instruments than the rest of the brass section.

Trumpets

The most common modern trumpet is the trumpet in Bb, sounding a tone below written. Its range is E2 to around C5 at the very top of the range, but most sample libraries will limit the top note to around E5. Bear in mind that tone quality in the top range will depend highly on the players’ ability. It’s safest to keep melodies between C3 and G4. Trumpet parts are written in treble clef.

Specifics

  • Mutes for trumpets give a really piercing sound in louder dynamics, can also give a hollow/echoey sound if used softly
  • Tonguing is sharper and more direct than on horn
  • Trills are generally quick
  • Not very good at blending with other instrument sections (except when muted)

Cornet

I’ve grouped the cornet with the “trumpet” as it’s a very similar instrument. As standard, it’s also in Bb and like the trumpet it is incredibly agile. However, unlike the trumpet, its tone allows it to blend a bit better with other instrument families – it has a slightly warmer tone, like a blend between trumpets and horns.

Trombone/Bass trombone

The trombone has barely changed since its beginnings as a “Sackbut” almost 600 years ago. It has a “slide” instead of valves, allowing finer adjustment of intonation, and is tuned to concert pitch. Parts are written in bass clef (or tenor clef for extended higher passages).

The tone of the trombone is slightly harder than the horn, but generally soft across its range. Higher notes are brighter and realistically cannot be played quieter than mezzoforte, and low notes can be very brassy and aggressive if played loudly. The trombone section alone could easily overpower the entire orchestra.

The range of the trombone is E1 to F4, but sample libraries often limit the top to C4. Many libraries also combine the bass trombone with the tenor trombone, so lower nots (down to Bb0) are available.

The range of the bass trombone is usually Bb0 to F4.

Specifics

  • Even in legato passages trombones are usually gently tongued to avoid “sliding” between notes
  • Trombones require a lot of wind, so phrasing should be planned around frequent breaths
  • Trills are only available with lip trills in one position – something to bear in mind when working with sample libraries, particularly if the piece will later be played on live instruments
  • Glissandos can be done up to a maximum of an augmented fourth, depending on the start/end note, using the slide. Alternatively, lip glissandos can be done, like the horn.
  • Muted trombone is not as piercing as trumpets, and can be really sinister in the low range

Uses

Trombones are usually used in 3-part harmony, and often combined with the horns. Both close and open voicings work on the trombone. Another common usage is to combine them with the tuba in either 4-part harmony, or bass trombone doubled with tuba.

Solo trombone is not very common, with melody passages usually either tutti or in octaves (2 on the main note, one an octave below).

Tuba

There are many different types of tuba, used for different purposes. The more common varieties include:

  • Euphonium/tenor tuba in Bb
    • Range:
      • Pedal notes: F0 to Bb0
      • Harmonics: Bb1 to Bb3
  • Bass Tuba in F (probably the most common)
    • Range:
      • Pedal notes: D0 to F0
      • Harmonics: D1-G3
  • Bass Tuba in Eb:
    • Heavier tone than F tuba
    • Range:
      • Pedal notes: D0 to Eb0
      • Harmonics: Eb1 to F1
  • Bass Tuba in C
    • Range D0 to D3
  • Contrabass Bb Tuba:
    • Range: D0 to Bb2

Wagner wanted to create full sections (e.g. a treble, tenor, and bass part) per brass instrument family, and so there is also a “Wagner Tuba” that is more similar to a horn.

Specifics

  • Tubas often have a 4th, 5th, or even 6th valve played with the left hand to extend the bottom range and provide alternate fingering to help with intonation problems, which are more pronounced in the lower ranges of brass.
  • Lips are usually very soft, meaning lots of air required – often one breath per note!
  • The tone of the tuba is rounded and smooth, closer to the horn than the trumpet. The high register can sound “shouty” and low staccato can sound like double bass pizzicato
  • Muted tuba is generally just quieter, but muffled and strained in the higher register
  • Trills are easy, but not often used as they sound muddy so low down

Uses

Other than phrases needing to be limited in length, tubas are very agile, able to perform fast passages and large leaps with ease.

Most commonly, tubas are used to double other bass instruments to give stability – either in unison or an octave below. They’re also used alongside the trombones, as mentioned above, and also used with the woodwinds to support the low end.

It’s not uncommon for tuba players to swap instruments mid piece, particularly for solo sections – so if you ever write for solo tuba, consider exactly which tuba you are writing for.

Compose!

Okay, that’s pretty much all you need to know about brass instruments for now. The next step is to get some experience! So, go and write something only for brass instruments: think carefully about the tone that you’re trying to capture and which instrument will most suit that.

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