Tuba vs. Sousaphone – Key Differences & Other Interesting Facts!

Author: James Potts | Updated: | This post may contain affiliate links.

The tuba and the sousaphone are two large brass instruments that often get confused, but they are, in fact, different in terms of both design and use.

In this article, I’ll delve into what makes each instrument unique and what sets the tuba and the sousaphone apart from each other.

The main things that differentiate the tuba from the sousaphone are the shape and style of these instruments. While the tuba is made to be held and played sitting down, the sousaphone is designed to wrap around the body of the musician so it can be easily carried and played while standing or marching.

So, let’s investigate these instruments and see what makes them unique. I’ll dig down into their history and design to find out what else sets them apart from each other.

All About Tuba

What makes a tuba? Let’s start with the basics.

Made of Brass

The tuba is a member of the brass family of instruments, meaning it’s made of, yep, you guessed it, brass!

Fun fact: Brass is an alloy of zinc and copper, and the ratio of these metals can be altered to change the sound of the instrument!

Apart from the material they’re made of, brass instruments are also notable for their distinct sound.

Method of Playing

With a brass instrument, a mouthpiece (usually detachable from the rest of the instrument) is used by the musician by creating a buzzing sound with pursed lips, a lot like blowing a raspberry.

This sets brass instruments apart from other instruments that use reeds or just airflow to create sound, like the woodwind family.

How Many Valves?

Tubas have between 3 and 6 valves that either work via piston or rotary mechanisms.

Upward Facing Bell

It has a large bell that faces upwards and is played sitting down, with the body of the instrument resting on the musician’s lap or on a stand.

Tuning and Materials

Commonly, tubas are in BBb tuning, and this means they are made of 18 feet of brass tubing. They play the lowest brass notes in the orchestra, classifying them as part of the bass section.

Invention

They were invented in the 1830s by German musicians Germans Wilhelm Wieprecht and Johann Moritz, but similar instruments may have existed beforehand under different names and with slightly different designs.

Size and Weight

A typical BBb tuba will stand about 31/2 feet high (106cm) with a 12.5 inch (32cm) wide bell and weigh between 20 and 30 pounds (9kg – 15kg).

The composition of the brass alloy, the length of metal used to make it, and the tuba’s tuning all affect its weight.

In the Band

Being quite a dominating sound in an orchestra, there is usually only one tuba per brass section. Sometimes, if the band is especially large or playing in a large space, two or more may be employed to really boost the bass sound!

Some common uses for the tuba include:

  • Full orchestra
  • Brass ensemble
  • Brass quintet
  • Concert band
  • Jazz band
  • German band
  • Wind ensemble

So, now we know what a tuba is… what is a sousaphone?

All About Sousaphone

Made of Brass…Mostly

The sousaphone, much like the tuba, is often made of brass – but not always.

As it is mainly designed to be played standing up, certain choices are often made to make the instrument lighter and easier to play while standing. This means that sometimes the sousaphone can be made out of fiberglass!

Method of Playing

The sousaphone is played in the same way as the tuba, by buzzing the lips into a detachable mouthpiece.

How Many Valves?

Unlike the tuba, the sousaphone is limited to strictly 3 or 4 valves, and they strictly work as pistons, not rotary.

Forward Facing Bell

Another difference between the tuba and the sousaphone, and probably the easiest to spot, is the positioning of the bell.

Unlike the tuba, the bell of the sousaphone faces forwards, over the shoulder of the player. As the sousaphone is often used in marching bands, this is done to ensure the sound is projected forwards.

Tuning and Materials

Sousaphones are almost exclusively in BBb tuning, so are also made up of around 18 foot of tubing.

Unlike the tuba, which can be made of more or less to give the instrument a different tuning, the sousaphone is restricted by its weight requirements. This means they also function as the bass section, just like the tuba.

Invention

The sousaphone dates back to the 1890s when its inventor had them especially made for the tuba players in his famous marching band, who he noticed were struggling to carry the instrument and still play it properly.

This man was called John Philip Sousa, known as the ‘American March King,’ composer of Stars and Stripes Forever, a classic American marching tune.

Size and Weight

The sousaphone is circular in shape and so difficult to measure a true ‘height.’ If standing on their end, they are roughly the same height as a tuba, around 3.5 feet tall. What makes them appear larger is their bell, which is 26 inches (66cm) wide.

The sousaphone can vary in weight across different models, depending on the materials used. An older all-brass sousaphone could weigh up to 45 lbs (20kg)!

Modern sousaphones are often made of fiberglass to make their usage while standing and marching a little easier on the musician’s body. Typically, these lightweight sousaphones weigh around 15lbs (7kg).

In the Band

Though it could be used in much the same setups as the tuba, the sousaphone is normally only found in situations where the musician cannot sit down, such as:

  • Marching bands
  • Military bands
  • Street bands
  • Mariachi bands

Tuba vs. Sousaphone – A Side-by-Side Comparison

Tuba

Sousaphone

Made from 18 feet of brass tubing – can be more or less, depending on the tuning.Made from 18 feet of tubing – always in the same tuning.
Between 3 and 6 valves, either rotary or piston.Only 3 or sometimes 4 valves, always piston.
Upward facing bell, to fill concert halls with sound.Forward facing bell, to project sound forward when marching.
Sound is made by buzzing lips into a mouthpiece.Sound is made by buzzing lips into a mouthpiece.
Used in all kinds of performance setups, from full orchestra to brass quintet.Used only in marching or standing band setups.
Made of brass – weighs between 20lbs (9kg) and 30lbs (15kg).Made of brass or fiberglass – can weigh anywhere between 15lbs (7kg) and 45lbs (20kg).
3.5 feet (106cm) tall with a 12.5 inch (32cm) bell.3.5 feet wide (106cm) with a 26-inch (66cm) bell.

To Summarize

Hopefully, now you can wrap your head around the differences between the tuba and the sousaphone. Both are fascinating instruments with a lot of history behind them, and personally, I love the fact that the sousaphone was invented to make life easier for tuba players struggling to march with their instruments!

While they are similar instruments in the same musical family, it is important to note the differences in design and usage.

It is these things that really set the tuba and sousaphone apart from each other, and lend them their own musical and practical qualities which make them both unique, valued, and loved in all kinds of musical performances.

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About James Potts

James is an amateur guitarist and home-recording enthusiast. He loves all things music related - writing songs, playing in a band, and finding the best ways to listen to it. It all interests him, from the history of acoustic guitars, to the latest Bluetooth headphones, to his (ever-growing) collection of vinyl records.

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