The brass family is one of the largest families of instruments. The spectacular range and variety mean that many different types of horns are included, many of which may be unfamiliar to casual music fans.
When you think of a brass instrument, many people imagine the trumpet, the trombone, and maybe the tuba. But there’s so much more!
If you’re looking for a comprehensive brass instruments list, here are 8 of the most popular brass instruments.
The trumpet might well be the most well-known brass instrument of all time. No list of brass instruments would be complete without mentioning the mighty trumpet!
It has a loud, clear, and piercing tone and often takes center stage in the orchestra. A band will generally have between two and four trumpet players, and these musicians will generally handle solos, leading melodies, and rhythmic accompaniment.
Early versions of the trumpet have been part of human civilization for a long time. Their history can be traced back to circa 1500 BC.
Initially formed from one long piece of metal coiled up and flared at the end into a simplistic horn, these early trumpets were used to summon armies to war, alert villagers of danger, and to announce the arrival of kings and queens.
Trumpets are made of approximately six feet of brass tubing manipulated into shape. Typically, they are tuned to Bb and have three valves, but other variations are available, such as the C-pitched trumpet.
They have a full range of three octaves (around 39 notes), but only highly experienced players will be able to hit the notes at the extreme high end of the scale.
Trumpets are also one of the most commonly muted brass instruments. A mute is an accessory that can dampen or quieten the timbre of a musical instrument. Brass instruments are often muted, and while mutes of all different shapes and sizes are made for many instruments, they are most commonly used by trumpet and trombone players.
The cornet can sometimes be confused with the trumpet by an inexperienced or beginner musician. And while they are very similar instruments, the cornet is slightly smaller, despite being made from roughly the same length of tubing.
Its origins can be traced back to around 1828, so it doesn’t have the same long history as the trumpet either and is actually considered a relatively modern instrument.
The main differences between the cornet and trumpet arise when considering the build of the instruments. The bore of the cornet is different from the trumpet – a cornet has a conical bore, whereas the trumpet is cylindrical.
This results in a difference in sound. The cornet is known for being much softer, broader, and warmer sounding than the trumpet.
Also commonly pitched in Bb like the trumpet, some are also tuned to C. Switching between two differently pitched cornets is a must for some players when the music calls for it, as the full musical range is not playable on it.
A slightly rarer instrument in full bands, the flugelhorn is larger than both the cornet and the trumpet and has a larger bore and mouthpiece. This means that less air is required to be blown through it in order to produce a sound, making it relatively easier to play.
It is often referred to (by flugelhorn players, probably) as the most beautiful-sounding member of the brass family and the most underrated and overlooked brass instrument.
Flugelhorns also have a conical bore – like the cornet – which lends it its distinctive dark and mellow sound.
Similar in size to the trumpet but with a larger bell than both the trumpet and cornet, it is a slightly less common instrument than those two and is normally played by a trumpeter.
An interesting quirk and potential downside to the flugelhorn is that it is one of the few brass instruments that can slip out of tune due to its intonation. This was remedied by some manufacturers with the addition of a fourth piston valve to aid in the pitching of certain notes.
These intonation discrepancies tend to manifest as a sharpness in the lower registers and flatness in the higher registers. This can, of course, be countered by the playing style of the musician, known as the embouchure, which involves the position of the jaw, lips, tongue, and speed of air blown into the mouthpiece. The extra valve allowed for pitch correction without this embouchure compensation.
The trombone is one of the most recognizable instruments, not only in the brass family but of all kinds. It is one of the only brass instruments without a piston or rotary valves, instead played with a slide to channel the air flowing through the tubing, therefore altering the pitch of the note.
It is often considered to be the easiest brass instrument to play, but this is a common misconception. The assumption that a slide is easier to use than valves couldn’t be more wrong. It requires a much keener ear from the player to tell whether they are on or off the pitch and to remember the correct slide/hand positions for relevant notes.
The earliest iteration of what would become the trombone is the sackbut, originally appearing sometime in the 15th century.
It is a cylindrical bore instrument, like the trumpet, meaning it has a clear, sharp tone.
Commonly, there will be between two and four trombonists in an orchestra, with most of these instruments being either tenor or bass trombones. Both pitched in Bb, either an octave below the trumpet or above the tuba, respectively.
Of course, the main feature of the trombone is its ability to play intermediary tones, meaning the gaps between notes, with the sliding capability of the instrument. This gives it a unique sound and voice unachievable by any other instrument in the brass family.
This feature lends itself well to soloists, and a competent professional trombonist can often expect to command leading melodies and solos in all kinds of orchestral arrangements. The trombone is also featured heavily in jazz bands, precisely for its glissando capabilities.
The tenor horn (sometimes known as the alto horn, althorn, Eb horn, or peck horn) is another less common member of the brass family but still an integral part of the section.
Originating in Belgium in the 1840s, it is more common in British brass bands than anywhere else.
It is a conical bore-style instrument similar to the cornet and the flugelhorn. This lends the tenor horn a soft, mellow sound like the other instruments of similar design.
Unlike most other instruments covered in this list, it is tuned to Eb and is often relegated to an accompanying role within an orchestra or brass band. It plays in the same range as the french horn but has largely been overshadowed by the latter in recent years.
Now mainly only used in marching bands, it is often known (along with some other less commonly played horns) as a ‘peck horn,’ so called as it would simply ‘peck’ along on the offbeats, as opposed to contributing any real harmony or melodic structure to the piece.
The french horn is a unique-looking instrument played in an unusual style with one hand placed in the bell.
Despite the name, what we now call the french horn actually originated in Germany in 1818, starting life as a valveless instrument capable of playing only in one key. The addition of the rotary valves by the Frenchman François Périnet in 1839 caused the horn to grow in popularity and usage, and so the name ‘French horn’ stuck.
The international Horn Society declared in 1971 that the instrument be referred to simply as the ‘horn’ to avoid further misinformation about its origins being proliferated. Indeed, only English-speaking nations still call the instrument the French horn.
The French horn can sometimes be built with a detachable bell, for ease of transportation, given the horns’ awkward shape.
The tubing measures around 12 to 13 feet in length for a single horn and up to 22 feet for a double horn.
The design of the horn is a deliberate choice, made to be conducive to soft, mellow tones typical of the horn. It is a conical bell, like the cornet, flugelhorn, and tenor horn, and the backward-facing bell is also a choice to lend the instrument a more refined and less brash sound.
This design choice regarding the bell has also led to the rather unusual playing style wherein the musician will place their right hand into the bell of the horn in order to steady it. However, this is not just out of necessity – the hand position in the bell can also alter the pitch and timbre of the instrument.
It is also noted as being one of the most difficult brass instruments to play. It has the smallest mouthpiece of any brass instrument, and due to its enormous octave range, notes in the higher registers are easy to miss. Hornists are also expected to be able to transpose music by eye, which is a hangover from the pre-rotary valves era. Moreover, the players would have to adjust the crooks on the instrument themselves.
The euphonium is sometimes voted as the most often overlooked member of the brass family, along with the flugelhorn. They’re often omitted altogether from brass & horn instrument lists, undeservingly so.
They are similar in their conical boring, like the cornet, tenor horn, and french horn; all have a soft, mellow tone that is highly valued for accompaniment and harmonies.
The word euphonium literally derives from the Ancient Greek word euphōnos, meaning ‘sweet-voiced.’
Generally pitched in Bb, the euphonium’s parts are often written in treble clef in the UK and can be written in treble clef, bass clef, or both in the US.
It is similar in many ways to the baritone horn but differs on two important points: the bore size and shape. The euphonium has a larger bore size and, as previously mentioned, a conical bore. While this renders the instruments almost identical to look at and play, it means that sonically, the euphonium has a much softer and mellower sound.
It is played vertically, with the euphoniumist sitting down and the instrument placed in his or her lap, similar to the tenor horn, French horn, and tuba.
Sometimes a euphonium will have a fourth valve, known as a compensating valve, but only on professional models. Student or beginner models will make use of the standard three-valve builds.
Tonally, euphoniums are an incredibly versatile instrument, capable of up to a 5-octave range. This means they can fit into most roles within an orchestra, be that accompaniment, melodic leads, and rhythm.
Finally, the largest and lowest member of the brass family, the tuba. The tuba appeared in the mid-19th century, in 1835, making it one of the newest editions to the brass family.
It’s also one of the more expensive brass instruments, and different from a sousaphone in the way that it doesn’t wrap around the body of the player unlike a sousaphone.
Typically, orchestras will only feature one tuba, as its role is generally bass accompaniment. Given its low pitch and soft, deep tone, melodic lines and solos are rare. However, there are exceptions to this rule, with a number of notable pieces written with lead lines for tubists, including famous pieces by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Tubas are made in different pitches, most commonly F, Eb, C, or Bb, and the pitch of the instrument is directly influenced by the amount of tubing required in its build. As you may expect, tubas tuned at a lower pitch will generally require more tubing and therefore be larger and heavier instruments.
The average weight of a tuba is around 26 lbs (12 kg), making it by far the heaviest brass instrument.
As you can see, there are many instruments making up the brass family, and all of them have their own unique voices, qualities, and roles within an orchestra or band. There’s more to brass bands than just a trumpet, after all!
From the mellow tones of the euphonium to the unique gliding notes of the trombone, there’s a world of variety in the brass family that’s just waiting to be explored by the next generation of brass musicians.
So, if you’re looking to take up a brass instrument, it may be tempting to reach for a trumpet or cornet, but why not consider one of the more unusual instruments out there?