This is part of a larger Guide to Brass Instruments:
- Brass Instrument Materials
- What Makes a Brass Instrument a Brass Instrument?
- Brass Instrument Family: Trumpets, Flugels, Cornets
- Brass Instrument Family: French Horns, Trombones, Low Brass
The French horn is arguably the most beautiful looking and sounding instrument in the brass family. It is also an instrument that makes you wonder how on earth we ended up with something so seemingly complex. This site has a good breakdown of the history of the horn, so I will not go into it here other than to say that the circular shape originated in French hunting horns. Hunters would sling them over their shoulders and still play while on horseback. Playing a modern horn on horseback is not recommended – particularly if you are new to horse riding.
A single horn comes in either F or B♭ and the player operates three valves using levers. Unfortunately, there is a trade off for each horn – the F plays with a lovely tone but starts to lose accuracy in the high register. The B♭ is more accurate but loses its tone (and occasionally notes) in the mid and low register. The solution to this problem is the double horn.
The double is exactly what it sounds like: a combination of both single horns crammed elegantly into one complex setup. A fourth valve operated by the thumb changes the flow of air to operate like either an F or B♭ horn.
A single versus a double horn. A good way to know is by looking at the tubing in line with the levers. One row means single, two rows means double.
French horns are very much the domain of the classical world, but the Google Oracle will return many examples of French horn in jazz, electronic, and pop music if you have a mind to search for it.
There is a universe of different trombones out there. Tenor trombones, bass trombones, contrabass trombones, cimbassos, sackbuts, altos, sopranos, sopraninos, valve trombones, Superbones (a trombone with valves and slides), tromboons (a terrifying hybrid of bassoon and trombone), and buccins (a trombone that has a snake head with an open mouth instead of a bell).
The coolest is probably the buccin, but I am only going to talk about tenor and bass trombones otherwise this guide will become longer than it already is.
The fundamental difference between trombones and most other brass instruments is that you use a slide to lengthen the tubing rather than a set of valves (unless it is a valve trombone). The player extends the slide into different positions which gradually make the tone lower as the slide gets longer. One of the most important aspects of the trombone is the bore size. As a player advances, they will usually start playing instruments with larger bores.
Small Bore Straight Tenor Trombone
This is the simplest trombone. It is in the key of B♭ and does not contain any extra tubes or attachments. Straight tenors have small bores and as such are the easiest to learn on. Most people will eventually move to a larger bore, but these small-bore horns certainly have a place in professional jazz. In any sort of orchestral setting, a trombonist needs more.
Medium Bore Tenor Trombone with F Attachment
This common variation of the tenor trombone is typically the step-up instrument for intermediate players and has the addition of a finger-operated trigger valve. It plays the same as the straight tenor trombone, but pulling the trigger sends the air through an extra length of tubing and changes the key to F. This trigger is often called an F attachment and its purpose is to extend the low range of the trombone. The medium bore means more air is needed to make a good sound. A higher level of skill is also required to play evenly in the lower register.
Large Bore Tenor Trombone
This is the trombone that will be found the hands of orchestral players. The larger bore is usually coupled with a larger shank mouthpiece. This requires even more effort from the player to blow, but the tone professional players can achieve is wonderful. Sometimes these instruments will have an F attachment and sometimes they will not. The trigger and extra tubing can add a degree of disrupted airflow, so a player may choose a large bore triggerless instrument if the music does not require the extra range.
Bass trombones are the same length as tenor trombones. However, the bore is even bigger than a large-bore tenor trombone and there is usually a second trigger added which takes the instrument to G or D. This allows the trombone to reach an even lower range.
Yamaha has a lot of great articles on brass instruments. This page goes into more detail about some of the trombone’s history and discusses how jazz and classical trombones differ.
Low Brass Instruments
You probably know what a tuba looks like. You may have also seen things that look like tubas but are smaller. And then you turn down the wrong alley and discover even smaller things that also look like tubas. It keeps going. Like brass matryoshka dolls that cannot be crammed into each other no matter how hard you try. What are all these things?
There are many, many variations to the various instruments in the low brass world. I have included the most popular modern instruments that are found in New Zealand.
Alto Horn and Tenor Horn
It may defy logic, but an alto horn and a tenor horn are the same thing. In British English, the instrument is called a tenor horn. In American English, the instrument is called an alto horn. Because I am writing from the solitary fringes of the commonwealth, I will stare up at the Union Jack on our flag, feel some sort of ancestral stirrings, and herein refer to it as a tenor horn.
The tenor horn is the smallest thing that looks like a tuba and is almost exclusively found in brass bands. It is pitched in E♭ and serves as a bridging voice within the brass world. It supports cornets and flugels with its mellow sound and provides tones that tubas and baritones are unable to reach. The warm tone produced by the tenor horn is not usually prominent enough for solos, but it does amazing work as a support instrument to create richness within a brass band.
The baritone horn is the second smallest thing that looks like a tuba. Its bore is more conical than the tenor horn, and its mouthpiece is more like that of a trombone or a euphonium. It is pitched in B♭ and has similar characteristics to a trombone – sometimes even playing trombone parts. Once again, the baritone is almost exclusively found in brass bands. It produces a sound that is slightly mellower than a trombone, but arguably brighter than a Euphonium.
Experts spend pages writing about the historical and technical differences between baritone horns and euphoniums, but for our purposes I will risk saying they are similar enough to almost be the same thing. The amount of tubing is the same for both, and both are in B♭. However, a Euphonium’s bore size is typically larger and more conical. Sometimes a euphonium will have a fourth valve, but not always. Deanna Swoboda says the Euphonium, “Has a darker sound.” Wikipedia says, “It is controversial whether [the differences are] sufficient to make them two different instruments.”
Thomann calls the tuba, “Queen of the Wind Instruments.” I don’t know what King of the Wind Instruments is. Mozart declared the organ to be the king of all instruments, and there is definitely wind involved in organs, so perhaps that settles it. I am unsure if there are other royal members.
Tubas supply the low end of the orchestra – the fat, the rumble, the chunk. They contain between 3 and 6 metres or tubing and have very large mouthpieces. You will need a lot of air to play one, which is why younger players will generally start on something smaller like the euphonium or baritone horn. Tubas are so well known that they have broken away from the obscurity of their slightly smaller cousins and have proven to be surprisingly versatile instruments. They can be found in orchestras, brass bands, big bands, pop music, and plenty more.
Tubas can be as wild and varied as trombones, with several different sizes, confusing fractions (4/4, 3/4, 6/4), three to six valves, different valve types, different keys, bores, materials, mechanisms… There are enough combinations to warrant a separate tuba article, and perhaps one day I will write one. The two most common types that come into our workshop for repair are:
Bass tubas: E♭ or F
Bass tubas usually take solos, and in particular E♭ tubas fit very well into small brass ensembles like quartets. Smaller tubas are also great for kids wanting to learn as they tend to have a much more manageable weight than their beefier siblings.
Contrabass tubas: BB♭ or C
These add foundational depth to an ensemble.
We see plenty of rotary valve tubas at the Vanguard Orchestral workshop, but piston valve tubas remain the most abundant in New Zealand. An instrument at its most basic will have three valves. Many tubas will add a fourth valve which acts as a replacement to a first and third valve combination but with better intonation. You may also spot tubas with five or (rarely) six valves. These have various functions – essentially they provide alternatives to valve combinations that might not be perfectly in tune.
Thanks for making it this far. This guide will no doubt evolve over time, and I will eventually write separate articles to elaborate on some of the instruments which have been glossed over or skipped entirely.