What is a Brass Instrument?


A brass instrument produces sound by sympathetic vibration of air in a tubular resonator in sympathy with the vibration of the player’s lips. Brass instruments are also called labrosones, which means “lip-vibrated instruments.” A brass instrument is an “aerophone,” which means that the musician must blow air into the instrument. Several factors exist that produce different pitches on a brass instrument. Slides, valves, crooks, or keys change the vibratory length of tubing, thus changing the available harmonic series. The player’s embouchure, lip tension, and airflow select the specific harmonic produced from the available series. An important thing to mention is that some of these instruments are made of wood, like the alphorn, the cornett, the serpent, and the didgeridoo. Also, some woodwind instruments are made of brass, like the saxophone.


The History of Brass Instruments


The early days


Brass instruments were studied and analyzed by the famous Greek philosopher Pythagoras. He concluded that a string, or the vibrating air column in the case of a brass instrument, will tend to vibrate at specific frequencies based on the length of the string or tube. The fundamental pitch is the lowest natural note.

Brass instruments exist for a long time. Some of the earliest examples were bronze, wooden and silver trumpets, such as the salpinx from Greece, and the Roman tuba, lituus, and buccina. Other early brass instruments like the Scandinavian lur or the Roman cornu were bronze or animal horns. The shofar is an ancient Hebrew ram’s horn brass instrument, which people still use in Jewish ceremonies today.


The Renaissance


During the Renaissance, these instruments began to develop that resemble the modern instruments in use today. Also, during this time, large European courts would maintain corps of trumpeters used mainly for heralding. The 17th Century saw some major innovations in brass instruments design. Instrument makers in Nuremberg improved the design of the natural valveless trumpet, making them function better in the upper overtones. The pitch of the device changes by inserting crooks for lower keys. The tuning was accomplished by adding small lengths of tubing to extend the mouthpiece.

In the 18th Century, the horn began to develop significantly. It became an instrument capable of high musical expression, rather than as a novelty. Composers soon began taking advantage of the new technical facility developed by horn players and instrument manufacturers. Furthermore, the 19th Century saw the greatest amount of literature and design developments for brass instruments up to this time. With better designed instruments and improved technical abilities of musicians, many composers started writing works that included more brass or solo works for brass instruments. Finally, modern brass instruments usually alter the length of the tubing through valves. An important thing to mention that the slide, which trombonists still use today, was one of the earliest methods of changing the length of tubing.


Brass Instruments Types


Modern brass instruments mostly come in one of two families: Valved and Slide brass instruments.

Valved brass instruments use a set of valves. The player’s fingers operate these valves and introduce additional tubing, or crooks, into the instrument, changing its overall length. Valved brass instruments include all of the modern brass instruments except the trombone. They include the trumpet, horn, euphonium, and tuba, as well as the cornet, flugelhorn, tenor horn (alto horn), baritone horn, sousaphone, and the mellophone. As valved instruments are predominant among the brasses today. The valves are usually piston valves, but can be rotary valves; the latter is the norm for the horn (except in France) and are also standard on the tuba.

On the contrary, slide brass instruments use a slide to change the length of tubing. The main instruments in this category are the trombone family. However, valve trombones are occasionally used, especially in jazz. The trombone family’s ancestor, the sackbut, and the folk instrument bazooka are also in the slide family.


Acoustical, Tonal and Design Characteristics


The design of the instrument and the manner of the tone production determine the acoustical qualities of brass instruments. The design of the instrument contributes significantly to the overall tonal and response characteristics of that instrument. These design variables include the manner in which the air column vibrates, the types, weight, and thickness of materials, the shape of a flare of the instrument tubing, the inner dimensions around the tubing, the tubing’s bent or looping and the finish. All brass instruments share certain design characteristics that divide them into four primary sections. These sections are a mouthpiece, a lead pipe/receiver, a valve system or a slide, and the remaining flared instrument tubing, including a bell.


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