Introducing The Instruments Of The Brass Family

The instruments of the brass family have a lot in common, but each one is also unique in one way or another. Todays post will introduce each instrument and give a brief description of how they are made. Prior to discussing each instrument I would like to give a little introduction to the brass family, focusing on the characteristics that brings them together. If you are unfamiliar with the brass family this is the post for you. The instruments of the brass family includes:

  • The Trumpet/Cornet
  • The Horn
  • The Trombone
  • The Baritone/Euphonium
  • The Tuba

Instruments of the brass family

Introducing the Brass Family

There are several characteristics that are common among all brass instruments. These include:

  • Brass instruments are defined as aerophones. This means that the musician must blow air through the instrument in order to make sound.
  • The musician creates a tone by buzzing the lips into the mouthpiece. The size of the mouthpiece will vary depending on the instrument but the basic concept is the same for all of them.
  • All brass instruments are based on the overtone series, which is a defined set of notes. With the absence of valves and slides brass instruments were only capable of producing the notes of the overtone series. There are many gaps in the overtone series thus valves and slides were invented to make it possible to produce all the of the notes of the chromatic scale.

The Trumpet/Cornet

The trumpet/cornet, the highest pitched instrument of the brass family, actually has a very long history. In the beginning they were often used for signalling during battle or hunting. The earliest known instruments to resemble the trumpet were found in writings that date back to 3000 B.C.E. Throughout history the trumpet has been considered an instrument of royalty. By the sixteenth century trumpet guilds that had been formed in the fourteenth century were considered the strongest unions of Europe. They were allowed to perform at a number of events including royal events.

Baroque composers, such and Handel and Bach, favoured the trumpet but classical composers did not like its shrill sound. It wasn’t until Beethoven used it in his Third Symphony that it became a part of the orchestra.

Today the trumpet can be found in a number of different ensembles and settings. It remains a standard in the orchestra, as well as, wind ensembles, jazz bands, and brass ensembles. Trumpets have also became popular solo instruments and are becoming more prominent in popular music.

Below you will find a beautiful solo played on the Trumpet.

Trumpet Concerto In E Flat – Iii Rondo,Hummel Played by Tine Thing Helseth with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra

Here are some more articles related to the trumpet

Plastic Brass Instruments! What? 

So You Are Buying A Trumpet? Here is Your List of Must Haves

Instrumental Inspirations: Famous Jazz Trumpet Players of The Past 

The Horn

The Horn has been around for a really long time. It is suggested that they have been in existence for about thirty centuries. It is called the horn because in the beginning it was actually animals horns. Up until the last three centuries the horn was primarily used in battle and hunting.

The horn never really appeared in the orchestra as a musical instrument until the 1700’s. Prior to this time, if used within music, their purpose was more for effect then to create a melodic line. A major issue that hindered the use of the horn in the orchestra was its inability to create all of the notes of the chromatic scale. The pitches available on the horn were greatly increased with the addition of crooks in the early 1700’s.

Another factor that helped improve the availability of pitches on the horn was the use of the hand in the bell. By placing the hand in the bell in a variety of positions the player could not only mute the horn, but also change the pitches that were being produced. In the 19th century the valved horn was introduced replacing the hand horn.

The horns played today are valved horns but the player still places their hand in the bell to manipulate the pitch and sound of the instrument. It is a beautiful instrument capable of executing  the smoothest of melodic lines. The horn continues to be a standard instrument in the orchestra and can also be found in wind ensembles and brass ensembles.

A beautiful Horn Solo. Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony, Solo performed by Danilo Stagni

The Trombone

The trombone is the only instrument in the brass family that does not use valves to change the pitch. Instead of valves the trombone is equipped with a slide that moved to different positions to achieve different pitches. The earliest known instruments to resemble the trombone were used by the Roman armies. These instruments were know as buccina. The instrument was about 12 feet in length and was shaped like the letter “C”. The Romans seem to have discovered how to bend metal tubing. However, this skill was lost with the fall of the Roman empire and was not discovered again until the middle ages.

In the fourteenth century the sackbut was used. This instrument is a definite ancestor to the trombone. By the end of the sixteenth century the sackbut was available in several sizes and ranges.

Sackbuts were prominent in the tower music of Germany and church music of composers, such as Monteverdi, of the Venetian school. The trombone was seen as a sacred instrument within the church for many years. Although it was considered a sacred instrument it did eventually find its way into one of the first operas, Orfeo, by Monteverdi. Composers continued to use the trombone in operas and ensembles but more for colour effects then an actual contributor to the orchestra.

The musical potential of the trombone was discovered by Mozart, and later used by Beethoven in his Fifth Symphony. It seems that the trombone was better understood as a melodic instrument in Berlioz’ Treatise on Orchestration in 1844.  Since then the trombone has become a standard member of the orchestra.

The trombone is still a popular instrument and can be found in many ensembles including the orchestra, wind ensembles and jazz bands.

Below you will find a video of a fantastic trombone solo by Christian Lindberg

The Baritone/Euphonium

The baritone and euphonium were a result of the search for tenor brass instruments that could match the tone quality of the higher brasses (trumpet, cornet, horn) in wind bands and ensembles during the 1800’s. By this time the valve had been invented, thus instrument maker experimented to develop these instruments.

Today the baritone is associated with the tenor voice and the euphonium is associated with the baritone voice. In brass literature a separate part is written for each instrument.

For many years the baritone and euphonium was played by players who had impairments that hindered their ability to play the trumpet. They were also given to musicians that just did’t practice. Of these two instruments the euphonium has been better known for its beautiful sound quality. A skilled musician with good listening skills can make the instrument sound as beautiful as any other brass instrument.

The baritone and euphonium can be found in wind ensembles, marching bands, and brass bands as a member of the low bass. Thy are also known to provide beautiful melodic lines within the ensemble.

David Child’s performing The Carnival Of Venice on the Euphonium with orchestral accompaniment.


The Tuba

The tuba is the lowest pitched and largest instrument of the brass family. Unlike the the trumpet, horn and trombone it has no known ancestors that resemble the same general characteristics and appearance. The tuba was invented in the mid nineteenth century, although no one is completely sure of who actually invented it. stolzel and Moritz have both been credited with its invention in 1835, but it was first used prior to 1835 by Wilhelm Wieprecht.

Adolf Sax also contributed to the invention of the tuba. The tubas used in bands and orchestras today are those invented by Sax.  His BB flat tuba is most often found in the band, while the CC and F tuba is most often found in the orchestra. The CC tuba is most common is German and French Orchestras.

The sounds of the tuba can be heard mostly in brass ensembles, wind ensembles and orchestras. It is the lowest pitched instrument of the wind family (includes all wind instruments) and is commonly known for providing the bass line. It does, however, receive melodic lines from time to time.

A great tuba solo by Vaughn Williams. Tuba Concerto movement 1 played by Beth McDonald

My Final Thoughts on the Instruments of the Brass Family

As noted above the instruments of the brass family certainly do share a lot of common characteristics but they all have a unique history that is separate from one another. Their prominent sound quality and similar playing techniques have united them to become one family. With the exception of the trombone, the invention of valves in the late 1700’s really gave these instruments the ability to create melodic and virtuosic lines within the ensemble and as solo instruments. They continue to play significant roles in the orchestra, wind ensembles and marching bands. They also provide beautiful music within brass ensembles which can vary in size, from small ensembles containing one of each instrument to larger ensembles like those used by the Salvation Army. If you have any question or comments regarding brass instruments please leave a comment below. I would love to hear about your experiences and thoughts.

I would like to leave you today with a video displaying the beauty that can be created within the brass ensemble by brass instruments. Here is the Canadian Brass performing Quintet by Michael Kamen

**Some information within this post was found in The Teaching of Instrumental Music written by Richard J. Colwell and Thomas W. Goolsby

To read more about instrument families please visit my page about The Four Families of The Orchestra.


11 thoughts on “Introducing The Instruments Of The Brass Family

  1. Hiya, Music is one of my favourite past times either I listen to it or I play music on my keyboard, the brass family was one of my confusions on what goes in what when writing music to arrange a full orchestra in the past, Thank you for creating this site and making me understand. I wish you the best of luck on your site :)

    1. Hello Michael,

      I am glad you have found some useful information. One would find the orchestration for large ensembles a little confusing. In basic terms each instrument can be related to particular voice like in a choir. A flute could be compared to the soprano section of a choir and the tuba could be compared to the bass section of a choir. When a composer write for orchestra or any large large ensemble, he/she takes these things into consideration along with the technical capabilities of the instrument. Thus the composer needs to know a great deal about each instrument. I have played pieces in the past that clearly indicated the composer knew very little about the general capabilities of the trumpet such as range. There are some lower notes that the trumpet just can not physically produce.

      Thanks reading Michael. If you have any questions at all I would be happy to answer them. :)

  2. Hello,

    What a wonderful article you have there. I have learned so much, thanks to you.
    The videos you posted also were amazing. The one I prefered was the wonderful Canadian Brass.
    I feel I have to ask you though, why is it that the saxophone does not belong to the brass family?

    Thank you


    1. Hi Jean-Pascal,

      I also loved the Canadian Brass. Such a beautiful song from a fantastic group of musicians. I enjoy researching for this post each week. So many great musicians to discover. It a pleasure to be able to share my findings with my readers. :)

      You ask a very good question that I am sure many others have asked. You would think that the saxophone would be a brass instrument because it is made of metal. Of course not all brass instruments are made of brass so that is not a good characteristic to go by. It would also be difficult to place all instruments made of metal in the brass family as the modern flute is also made of metal.

      The main factor that places the saxophone into the woodwind family is that it needs a reed to create sound. If you take a look at the mouthpiece required to play the saxophone you will notice that it is just a bigger version of the clarinet mouthpiece. The reed is also identical except for its size.

      Now if you take a look at the mouthpieces required for instruments of the brass family, you will notice that they all have the same shapped mouthpiece. The difference among them is the the lower the pitch the bigger the mouthpiece. The tuba has the biggest mouthpiece of them all. All brass brass instruments requires the player to buzz the lips, but the saxophone requires the vibration of the reed not the lips.

      To get even more technical one could refer to the overtone series as well. All brass instrument are capable of playing all the notes of the overtone series in open position (No valves pressed). The saxophone does not have that capability. Keys must be pressed to change the pitch.

      Thanks for that fantastic question. I hope I haven given you a satisfactory answer. If you have any further questions please do not hesitate to ask. Thanks for stopping by!

      1. Hi Melody,

        Thank you for this clear explanation.
        I really get it now.
        Thank you also for sharing your knowledge.


  3. Fabulous explanation of the Brass family instruments! I especially like how you have mixed video and pics together in this article.
    The banner text fonts could be a bit bolder. I almost miss the focal point to finding other content on your website.
    Possibly some background wallpaper behind your blogspace area would be a nice touch. Possibly an orchestra photo? I guess I’m just a stickler for not liking a sea of whitespace…

    1. Thank you very much for reading my article. I also appreciate your feedback regarding the look of my website. It is my goal to keep my readers happy in any way possible. I have noted your feedback and am looking into solutions.

      Once Again Thank You!!

  4. Really cool informative site. I’m a fan of music and especially playing musical instruments. There is so much that goes with learning to play an instrument, it actually took me a good year to learn how to properly play the alto saxophone. Keep up the good work with your site.

    1. Thanks for stopping by. Learning to play an instrument can be challenging but oh so rewarding. Hope you are sticking with the saxophone! it’s a great instrument to play. :)

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