Cornets – Introduction

Sadly, the cornets are a sound that we have almost entirely lost from the band.  At one time, the Cornet was the most important brass instrument in the band.  Today, the trumpet has completely taken over this role.  Most people nowadays see no difference between the two instruments.  I see a huge difference.

To define the family of cornets we would say that they are brass instruments whose bore is roughly one-half cylindrical and one-half conical.

The cornet family is the most technically flexible family in the entire brass section.  Just take a look at the virtuosic writing for the instrument pre-1950.  In this regard, it they are the most woodwind-like group in the brass section.

I will be treating the cornet family in a rather different manner than most orchestrators.  In most texts, the Cornet is grouped with the trumpets while the lower members of the family are grouped with either the Horn or the tubas.  Here, I group four instruments together into a single, cohesive family.  Namely, these are the E-flat Soprano Cornet, the B-flat Cornet, the Alto Horn, and the Baritone Horn.

One term I am going to avoid in the book is that of saxhorn.  Saxhorns were the creation of Adolph Sax, and were really two separate families put together.  One group was akin to the cornets, while the other was akin to the tubas.  As to what instruments are true saxhorns and what are not, I will leave that to historians.  I, however, will only talk about the instruments that exist today.

When thinking of these instruments, I find it helpful to remember that the name “cornet” means “little horn.”  In this regard, it should be treated more closely to the Horn instead of the trumpets.  However, the smaller cornets (E-flat and B-flat) will always be played by trumpeters.  Brass players specialize in ranges and not families like woodwind players do.  So for a woodwind player to be able to play any size of clarinet is not a huge hurdle to cross, but for a brass player to play every size of instrument in their family (like cornets) is almost unheard of.


E-flat Soprano Cornet

B-flat Cornet

E-flat Alto Horn

B-flat Baritone Horn

8 thoughts on “Cornets – Introduction

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  3. Ben Williams

    A couple of things you might have missed – I understand these points are probably more applicable to the UK than America!:
    Both straight and cup mutes are available for alto horn, but are pricey. Most large bore bass trombone straight mutes are usable on alto horn – tenor trombone mutes are too small for most modern horns. Cup mutes also work if they are adjustable and the cup taken down a little.
    4-valve baritone horns are becoming increasingly more common as more models are developed. Most 1st/Championship section brass bands will now own at least 1. Both cup and straight mutes are available. In the UK I would advise never writing bass clef baritone horn parts, as a dedicated baritone horn player will always be from a brass band and can only be expected to read Bb treble.

    1. Yes, I’m definitely writing from am American point of view.
      I’d love to see these two instrument get more use. I’m writing parts for them in the symphony I’ve writing at this very moment (2 and 2). I find myself using them more than a lot of the other brass instruments.

  4. Thanks for your article; I am a string player. What do you think of using one of the cornets in the cornet parts of Bach and Beethoven? What I’ve seen used in Bach “period” or “authentic” instruments is a valveless horn – I suppose it is the post horn. Beethoven specifies two corni in C over two trombe in C for his first symphony.

    Thank you.

    1. The cornet was not invented in the time of Beethoven or Bach. Corni means Horns. The only legitimate use of a cornet pre-Romantic era would be Mozart’s Posthorn works.

  5. Paul Mason

    I have just today acquired a cornet with no name and spent most of the afternoon dismantling and cleaning it. With all the slides in, and no valves depressed,it plays the B below middle C. The first slide from the mouthpiece, when expanded, shows a ring marked Bb 1 on the lower arm and when further expanded, A on the upper arm.
    The slide under the bell, extending from the third valve is marked in the same manner, but reversed in upper/lower arm placement.
    The horn is about 1-2 inches shorter than my B&H cornet.
    Can you tell me anything about this?

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