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.

9 thoughts on “The Heavy Brass – Introduction to Cornets, Trumpets, Trombones and Tubas

  1. Pingback: Mutant Trumpet = Beautiful Christmas Music | Sound the Trumpet: How to Blow Your Own Horn

  2. Ryan Helms

    Your dismissal of marching brass and the extraordinary musicians that play them at the highest level infuriates me. Marching music is music. It is in just a out every way harder than a concert setting. Go watch a DCI show and try to tell me that these extraordinary performers are not musicians. The music that they play is incredibly nuanced and requires exemplary technique. They must retain perfect tone quality playing at incredibly high dynamic levels. They must play “on top of the beat” as they move backward to account for the time it takes sound to travel. And they do this while performing a physical activity comparable to professional athletics. Go watch one of these shows, and try to tell me that these phenomenal performers are not musicians on par with any symphony orchestra member.

    1. Having played in both high school and college marching band, I know all too well the issues marching band faces. That said, I cannot agree with your statements. A marching show is about the show and less about the music. An open air football field is not the place to showcase the intricacies of music. The acoustics simply do not allow this to happen. Marching music is almost always loud and fast with little in the way of nuance. As for you statement that musicians on a marching field are equal to those in a symphony orchestra, I wholeheartedly disagree. Having directed a concert band during marching season, I could see how poor of a quality of sound the musicians were producing due to poor technique on the marching field. The musicians onstage at a symphony concert are the most well-trained artists in any field out there. To compare these artists to a kid on a marching field is insulting to many orchestral musicians.

      1. Ryan Helms

        Im not comparing them to some kid on a football field. Im talking about DCI. They do shows in indoor stadiums by the way. Anyway, some kid on a marching band cannot be compared to a symphony orchestra in any way. However, Drum and Bugle Corps definitely can. Drum Corps =/= marching band just as high school concert band =/= the philharmonic. Everything I said applies to Drum Corps, not marching band. There is no argument between marching band and a symphony orchestra, just as there is no argument between an pewee football team and and an NFL team. But comparing Drum Corps to a symphony orchestra is more along the lines of comparing an NFL football team to an EPL soccer team. Throwing Drum Corp in the same bucket as marching band is an insult to these extraordinary artists.

  3. Ryan Helms

    Yes, but nothing you’ve said against marching band applies to DCI. They are still extrotrdinary musicians, despite the fact that they play on an (indoor) football field.

    1. If the field is indoors they play there. If it’s ourdoors, they play there.
      I took some time out of my day and listened to some DCI, but I still find it lacking in musical quality.

  4. John Mardsen

    You’ve never heard a single note of music come from a marching instrument? I guess you’ve never heard of Carolina Crown. Ah well, I suppose that one who makes such a broad statement won’t be convinced by some random person commenting. Nice guide beyond that.

Comments are closed.