This article will teach you about brass instruments giving you a guide as well as a complete brass instrument list for you to look through.
Brass instruments, which, you might have guessed, derive their name from the material that they’re made of, are actually the loudest in the entire orchestra!
Modern brass instruments, unlike some of their ancestors, are made entirely of brass.
How Brass Instruments Work & Produce Sound
In short, brass instruments are like long pipes that widen out at the end into a bell shape. For easier holding and playing, the pipes have been carefully molded into different shapes.
Brass instruments are similar to woodwinds (think flutes, clarinets, saxophones) in that players use their breath to produce sound. Unlike woodwinds, where players blow into reeds, brass players vibrate their lips against the metal cup or bowl-shaped mouthpiece.
The mouthpiece works to amplify the sound of the vibrating lips, which produces the distinctive sound of brass instruments.
Brass instruments usually feature button-like valves that are attached to their long pipes.
Pressing down on the valves opens and closes different parts of the pipe, and the pitch and sound can be affected through the pressing of different valves and the intensity with which players buzz their lips.
The brass family features a wide-ranging number of instruments, which this article will cover: bugle, trumpet, cornet, piccolo trumpet, flugelhorn, French horn, mellophone, euphonium, trombone, tuba, sousaphone, cimbasso, and helicon (phew!).
Here are the main brass instruments from high to low pitch:
- French Horn
13 Most Popular Types Of Brass Instruments
The bugle is a famously simple instrument. Why? Because it possesses no valves or other pitch-altering devices. As such, the bugle is limited to just five notes.
Dating back to at least ancient Rome, the bugle was first made from animal horns (“bugle” comes from “buculus,” Latin for bullock, or castrated bull).
Bugles are commonly associated with both the military and the Boy Scouts, with the “bugle call” indicating the start of the day.
The trumpet and its ancestors are among the most ancient instruments in human culture—think animal horns, conch shells, etc.
The trumpet, like the violin, is the smallest member of its family and thus plays the highest pitches.
The trumpet is held horizontally when played, with players buzzing their lips into the mouthpiece while pressing down on the three valves in different combinations to arrive at the desired pitch.
In orchestras, there are usually two to four trumpets, which provide melody, harmony, and also add support for the rhythm section.
Joseph Haydn composed his “Trumpet Concerto” in 1796 for his trumpet virtuoso friend Anton Weidinger, and it remains one of the most popular works in the trumpet repertoire.
The cornet is rather similar to the trumpet but has a more compact shape, somewhat gentler tone, and conical bore.
Cornets tend to be used less in modern orchestras than trumpets, although some famous composers have written parts for them, such as Berlioz (the first significant composer to do so), Tchaikovsky, Edward Elgar, and Igor Stravinsky (with a famous solo in his ballet Petrushka).
Like other modern brass wind instruments, the cornet is played through the vibration of the player’s lips in the mouthpiece, which generates a vibrating column of air in the pipe or tubing.
The instrument’s valves allow for chromatic playing.
“Flugelhorn” comes, as you might guess, from German: Flügel means “wing” or “flank” in English, and military use of this horn dates to the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).
The flugelhorn essentially resembles the trumpet and cornet but with a more prominent conical bore.
Flugelhorns usually possess three piston valves and players use the same fingering approach as with other brass instruments.
While flugelhorns form a standard part of the British-style brass band and feature commonly in jazz, they appear somewhat less commonly in orchestral music.
A couple of famous examples are Stravinsky’s Threni and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Ninth Symphony.
“Piccolo” means “small” in Italian, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the piccolo trumpet is the smallest member of the trumpet family and pitched one octave higher than the standard (B♭) trumpet.
Although not all that frequently used in orchestras, it is featured in one of the most well-known orchestral compositions of the Baroque era, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.
Inspired by this piece, Paul McCartney of the Beatles requested a solo on the instrument for their classic tune “Penny Lane.”
Unlike the English horn, which is neither English nor a horn, the French horn does derive from France and is definitely a horn.
It emerged from the popular hunting horn found in seventeenth-century France. If stretched out, the tubing of a French horn would run 18 feet! This provides them their distinctive look.
This is also the most common horn found in orchestras, with composers dating from Beethoven commonly using four French horns.
The horn’s unique sound has been used by various composers—from Mozart’s father Leopold to Gustav Mahler—to signify the hunt.
Mellophones can either have two or three valves and possess a conical bore like euphoniums and flugelhorns.
With an out-facing bell, these brass instruments are often used in lieu of French horns for marching bands and drum and bugle corps, since the dissipation of sound occurs more rapidly in outdoor spaces.
As such, mellophones rarely feature in orchestras.
The euphonium, as mentioned, also has a conical bore, and features three or four valves.
A medium-sized brass instrument, euphoniums are sometimes written in treble clef or bass clef, as their range straddles these two prominent clefs.
The euphonium has had a prominent role in ensembles dating to the nineteenth century, although not many solo pieces for the instrument were written until the latter half of the twentieth century.
The trombone is unique in that it is the only brass instrument that features a slide rather than valves for the changing of the pitch.
Held horizontally, players buzz their lips into the mouthpiece while their right hands push or pull the slide to one of seven positions.
In orchestras, there are usually three trombones, and their range matches that of cellos and bassoons.
Oftentimes, the three trombones harmonize with one another. Many famous composers have written for the trombone, including Gustav Holst and John Cage.
Funnily enough, even though the tuba is the lowest-pitched brass instrument, “tuba” in Latin means “trumpet.” Like its brass family siblings, the tuba produces sound through lip vibration into its mouthpiece.
Orchestras typically feature just one tuba, which serves as the bass for the orchestral brass section, providing reinforcement to the bass voices of both the strings and woodwinds.
Shostakovich commonly featured prominent tuba parts, as did Stravinsky, Holst, Prokofiev, Wagner, and Mahler, among many other celebrated composers.
You might be wondering about the name of this one. The sousaphone derives its name from John Philip Sousa, a prominent American bandleader who directed J.W. Pepper to create it in 1893.
While similar to the tuba in its range, the sousaphone is easier to carry. Thanks to this quality, sousaphones are often used in marching bands.
The cimbasso is in the trombone family, and its sound can range from warm and welcoming to dark and ominous.
It has three to six piston or rotary valves and a cylindrical bore. It, too, shares the same range as a tuba or contrabass trombone.
The cimbasso features most commonly in opera scores from the likes of Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini, two of the most renowned opera composers.
The helicon is part of the tuba family, like the sousaphone, which can be viewed as a special form of the helicon.
Derived from the “saxhorn” or “saxtuba,” helicons first gained popular use in the 1860s in cavalry and artillery-mounted bands, before later being used primarily in military marching bands, once again thanks to their outward projection that’s well suited for outdoor environments.
Brass Instruments In Orchestras
Brass instruments are a vital component of modern orchestral music.
It is common for these orchestras to be composed of four sections: Trumpet, Horns, Trombones, and Tubas.
A typical Brass Instrument Orchestra can include anywhere from 12-24 members in total.
Brass Instruments Orchestras date back to the 16th century when they were used by military bands.
They have since become more popular with concert halls as well as symphony orchestras due to their powerful sound which adds color and depth to any musical piece played by them.
Brass Instruments Used In Orchestras
To recap, modern orchestras often adhere to the following arrangement when it comes to their brass sections:
- 4 French horns
- 2-3 trumpets
- 2 tenor trombones
- 1 bass trombone
- 1 tuba
As for concert bands, there is usually much more brass. For example,
- 4-6 trumpets or cornets
- 4 French horns
- 2-3 tenor trombones
- 1 bass trombone
- 2 euphoniums or baritone horns
- 2 tubas
Sections | Where They Play
Where do brass instruments play in an orchestra? Brass instruments are the third section of the orchestra usually in front of percussion and in front of the woodwind section.
A Brief History Of Brass Instruments
Brass instruments fall under the broad category of “aerophone,” which is an instrument that produces sound when air is blown into it.
Whereas brass instruments are now made exclusively of the metal brass, as mentioned, these instruments date back to various ancient and medieval civilizations.
In fact, trumpets have been found in Egyptian tombs, as well as in Scandinavia and China, showing just how universal music is to human cultures.
In the Americas, there are depictions of trumpets in Peruvian art dating to 300 AD. At this time, if not made from animal bone, they would be constructed from a variety of metals, such as bronze or silver.
In the medieval period, trumpets began to be used in the military to help command armies.
This military aspect of brass is a common thread throughout many of the instruments that will be examined in this article.
Again, although this is still commonly associated with the military today, the use of brass in the military is an ancient practice referenced in Roman works of history such as Vegetius’ De re militari, which describes how “The music of the [Roman] legion consists of trumpets, cornets and buccinae [an ancient Roman brass instrument].”
It wasn’t until the Renaissance, however, that brass instruments began to develop into something that we more so recognize today as modern brass instruments.
It was the early fifteenth century when the earliest known “S”-shaped trumpet was created. Later that century, the slide trumpet paved the way for the trombone, the only brass instrument without valves.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, composers began writing much more music for brass.
Two well-known examples are Mozart’s Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute, which utilize the trombone to emphasize religious/supernatural effects.
Now, for an overview of some of the most popular brass instruments.
Full Brass Instrument List:
Here are some commonly known (and less commonly known) brass instruments:
- alto horn
- baritone horn
- contrabass bugle
- French horn
- Roman tuba
Conclusion | Overview
Brass instruments are among the most popular instruments in the world. They are “lip-vibrated instruments,” which is the literal meaning of “labrosone,” another, technical term for a brass instrument.
Whether used in military applications, marching bands, jazz bands, big bands, or orchestras, brass instruments offer a powerful, attention-grabbing sound that can also be surprisingly subtle and delicate.
While the world’s very first horns were not made of brass, these modern instruments possess an eye-catching shine thanks to their all-metal composition.
With their regular inclusion in classical orchestral ensembles beginning in 1815, brass instruments experienced a surge in popularity that they still maintain to this day.