The Heavy Brass – Introduction to Cornets, Trumpets, Trombones and Tubas

The Heavy Brass

(Cornets, Trumpets, Trombones, and Tubas)

            Aside from the Horn (and its close kin the Wagner Tuba), all other brass instruments can be grouped together into a semi-cohesive family.  These instruments; namely cornets, trumpets, trombones, and tubas; utilize a standard harmonic series that ascends to the eighth harmonic.  Anything above this harmonic is considered advanced technique.  This is in contrast to the Horn, which regularly ascends all the way up to the sixteenth harmonic.

Valves – Basic technique for all of the valve instruments (cornets, trumpets, and tubas) is exactly the same from family to family.  Each instrument has at least three valves.  The standard arrangement of the valves is:

1st valve – lowers pitch by a whole tone

2nd valve – lowers pitch by a semi-tone

3rd valve or 1st and 2nd valves – lowers pitch by a minor third

1st and 3nd valve – lowers pitch by a fourth

2nd and 3rd valves – lowers pitch by a major third

1st, 2nd, and 3rd valves – lowers pitch by a tri-tone

Together, there are a total of seven (or eight if we count the double of 1st and 2nd equaling 3rd) positions, and with these we can get a complete chromatic scale of two-and-a-half octaves.  Many of the larger instruments will possess a fourth and even a fifth valve.  The fourth valve traditionally lowers the pitch by a fourth.  The other valves will vary depending on maker.

Most of the heavy brass will possess piston valves, though many tubas and some European trumpets and Flügelhorns will possess rotary valves like the Horn.


Mutes – All brass instruments are capable of changing their sound via the use of a mute inserted into the bell of the instrument.  The name mute is somewhat confusing as it does not dampen the sound of brass instruments, but rather it changes the color of the sound produced.  Four mutes are commonly found: the straight mute, the cup mute, the harmon or wah-wah mute, and the plunger mute.

Straight mute – When a part is marked simply as “muted,” then the default mute of choice is the straight mute.  This is the one universal mute common to all brass instruments.  Various models exist from mutes made of cardboard, metal, or wood.  Each material will give a slightly different sound.  The general effect of a straight mute is to give a raspy, buzzing sound.  When calling for a straight mute, write either “muted” or “straight mute” in the part.

Cup Mute – A cup mute looks like a straight mute with a hat on.  This mute is generally only available for the trumpets, B-flat Cornets, and tenor and Bass Trombones.  The sound of the cup mute is curious and warm, not unlike the sound of clarinets.  When calling for a cup mute, write “cup mute” in the part.

Harmon Mute – This odd mute is the only mute that comes in two pieces.  The main part of the mute is a bulbous chamber with a hollow passage in the center.  In this passage, a stem can be inserted.  The position of the stem in the bulb will change the quality of the sound.  The sound of the harmon mute is very raspy, and can be made to sound as if from afar.  When calling for a harmon mute, write “harmon mute, stem in” or “harmon mute, stem out.”

Plunger Mute – The plunger mute is the simplest of all mutes.  It is simply the rubber end off of a toilet plunger.  This mute will only be able to be used by trumpets, cornets, Flügelhorns, and trombones.  No plunger is made to cover the bell of a Euphonium or tuba.  The plunger mute is manipulated by the left hand, and the player is directed to open and close the mute via markings (+ means closed, and o means open).

Muting effects without mutes – With any bell-front instrument, the player may be directed to “play into the stand.”  The means, the bell of the instrument is placed very close to the music stand to block some of the sound that will reach the audience.  Players may also be asked to turn around and face the back wall to change the amount of sound that reached the audience.  Typically, these effects are not asked for in the score, but are performance practices made by the player and conductor.


Doubling – Unlike woodwinds where a player will double on other members of their instrument’s family (like a saxophone player playing Soprano, Alto, and Baritone), brass players do not double within their family.  Instead, brass players double across pitch classes.  This means that a player will specialize in a particular range.

Soprano Player – A soprano brass player will play the following instruments: E-flat and B-flat Cornets, all trumpets except Bass, Soprano Trombone, and Flügelhorn

Tenor Player – A tenor brass player will play the following instruments: Baritone Horn, Bass Trumpet, Alto, Tenor, and Bass Trombone, and Euphonium.

Bass Player – A bass brass player will play the following instruments: Bass and Contrabass Tubas.

I have left off a few instruments from this list such as Alto Horn and Contrabass Trombone.  Alto Horn seems to fit neither the role of Soprano or Tenor, so finding a player to double on this instrument may present a challenge.  The Contrabass Trombone can be played by either a tenor or a bass player, but is more of a specialty instrument.

With these lists, we can see that a competent soprano player may be called on to play instruments in all four families of heavy brass.

Marching Brass – All forms of marching brass instruments fall into the category of heavy brass.  These instruments include the Mellophonium (commonly, but mistakenly called a Mellophone); marching Horns, Baritone, Euphoniums, Tubas, Trombones; the Sousaphone; and the whole family of marching “Bugles.”

As I have never heard a single note of MUSIC or artistry come out of any of these instruments, I disregard their existence in this book aside from this brief mention.  As soon as someone takes up the mantel of presenting any of these instruments as viable options for a musical setting, then we may be able to open up to their use.

It is sad that an entire family of homogenous instruments, the so-called bugles, have never been used by a single musician.  Alas!  But we have a whole host of other brass instruments more than capable of carrying out their part.

I may revisit marching brass at a later date.  I may not.

Wagner Tuben

Wagner Tuben

            It is interesting to think, that of all the brass instruments in existence, only one family has never been adopted into any wind band group.  These instruments are the Wagner Tuben.  Tuben is the plural for Tube in German.  I prefer referring to these instruments in plural as Tuben rather than Tubas to avoid confusion with true tubas.

The Wagner Tuba is essentially a wide bore Horn in an oval shape with the bell pointing upwards.  They are always played by Horn players with a Horn mouthpiece.  The instruments were dreamt of by Richard Wagner as a wholly new sound for his Ring cycle.  Contrary to popular belief, they are the only real instrumental invention that Wagner made (the Bass Trumpet and Contrabass Trombone were already in existence, but were poorly known military instruments).  The Wagner Tuben were originally developed from the French saxhorns, but quickly evolved away from that family.

The literature for these instruments is very limited, but the works that call for them are so significant that nearly every major orchestra will possess a set.  We can find Wagner Tuben called for in Wagner’s Ring, Bruckner’s last three symphonies, various works by Richard Strauss, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, and a small handful of other works from the Twentieth Century.

tenor wagner tuba range

F wagner tuba range

In nearly every case, four Wagner Tuben are required by the composer: two B-flat Tenor Tubas and two F Bass Tubas.  In sound they are hard to tell apart from one another, with the B-flat having a slightly smaller sound than the F does.  Only in the Rite of Spring does Stravinsky stray from the four tuba system as he uses only a pair of B-flat Tenors.  With the exception of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, every time the Wagner Tuben are used, they are played by Horns 5-8.  Bruckner has two quartets, one of Horns and the other of Wagner Tubas, and the players never switch between the two instruments.  Again, in every case there is a minimum section of eight Horns (Schoenberg uses ten in his Gurrelieder, and Strauss uses twenty in his Eine Alpensinfonie).  Both Wagner and Bruckner included the normal Contrabass Tuba as the fifth member of the section.

Both instruments are written down to a low F-sharp just below the bass clef.  The Tenor Wagner Tuba sounds a major second lower (low E), while the Bass Wagner Tuba sounds a fourth lower (low B below the bass clef).  Many times the tuben are equipped with a fourth valve that lowers the pitch a fourth (effectively down to a written C).  With this valve, the Tenor Wagner Tuba will be able to play a low C below the bass clef, and the Bass Wagner Tuba will be able to play a low G below the bass clef).  These extra low notes are little used.

Historic notation for these instruments makes my brain hurt.  I have found at least five different notation systems for which these instruments have been written (including the confusing notation of writing the B-flat instruments in E-flat and the F instruments in B-flat).  The best and most widely accepted method is to write for the B-flat instrument sounding down a major second and the F instrument sounding down a perfect fifth.  However, this may not be the best solution.  Many orchestras are now using “Double” Tuben.  These are exactly akin to the Double Horn where the B-flat and F instruments are combined into a single instrument.  As these Double Tuben are becoming more and more prevalent, there is every reason to think that we will see all Wagner Tuben written in solely F notation, exactly like Horns are.  In fact, the majority of the Wagner Tuben in the United States are Double Tuben, so the preferred method among Hornists is to have all the parts written in F.

The Wagner Tuben are not flexible instruments.  Seldom have composers written passages where there is a real demand for technique.  Both Wagner and Bruckner used this instrument to portray an other-worldly realm.  For Wagner this was Valhalla, while for Bruckner it was Heaven.  This is the sound for which the instrument was invented.  Four Wagner Tuben in a chorale is one of the most beautiful sounds ever emitted from the brass section.  It is often compared to a strange combination between a Horn and a trombone.  There is a certain aspect of rich magic and sorcery to the sound of the Wagner Tuba that sends chills down my spine.

I know of no reason they have never been included in the band.  Solemnity has never been in huge demand for wind groups, but it is an effect greatly needed from wind groups.  The Wagner Tuben portray this better than any other instrument ever constructed.

As these instruments are almost always used as a double for the Horn, it might be best to use their unique tone color only in certain magical moments.  I would love to hear mixtures of middle brass where the Wagner Tuben, Alto and Baritone Horns, Flügelhorns, and Euphoniums blend to form a choir.  The effect could be a majestic sound hither to unknown.  Wagner Tuben and Bassoons or Bass Clarinet will make for a goblinesque sound.

A few notes on playing the instrument.  Players, in general, are never fully comfortable on the Wagner Tuba, as even the most advanced Horn player will only touch the instrument every few years.  Intonation is said to be the bugbear of the Wagner Tuba, as the player cannot manipulate the tuning via the hand in the bell like on the Horn.  Mutes are seldom used, though available.  Muting of the instrument takes away its other-worldly quality, though I must readily admit, my absolute favorite Wagner Tuba passage in all the orchestral literature is the chorale in the beginning of the third part of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder.  This chorale (alongside a few passages in Eine Alpensinfonie) is among the only known usages of muted Wagner Tuba, and in the case of the Schoenberg, I must admit, the effect is striking.

One more note before leaving the Wagner Tuben.  There is no standardized placement for the instruments in the score.  Depending on which score you look at, they are either placed below the trombones and above the true tuba, or directly below the Horns.  I prefer the later notation, as it clearly shows the affinity between the Wagner Tuben and the Horns, especially since they will be played by the same musicians.

Introduction to the Wagner Tuba

Bruckner’s 7th Symphony excerpt on Wagner Tuben

Work for 8 Wagner Tuben