Tubas – Introduction



Tubas and Euphoniums and Flügelhorns, oh my.  When we think about these three instruments, we don’t normally associate them into a single coherent family, but that’s what they are.  The tubas, as I collectively call this group, are brass instruments whose bore is almost completely conical from the mouthpiece to the bell.  Their mouthpiece is also deeper than that of the trombones, trumpets, and cornets, but not as deep as the Horns.

This family has four extant members (and two extinct ones).  Two of these are of utmost importance to the standard wind band: the Euphonium and the Contrabass Tuba.  The Flügelhorn is a regular visitor, and the Bass Tuba may make an occasional visit, but more often than not is at home in the orchestra.

When we think of the tubas, we think of bass and the oom-pah sound, but the tuba family is noble and sonorous, warm and melodic.  Creative thinking and bandestration can change how we view this family.

With the exception of the two true tubas, none of these instruments have ever been sufficiently covered in orchestration texts, so I will go into slightly more detail here than I do for some of the other instruments.

As muting rules apply across the board for the tubas, I shall cover it in the broad introduction.  The only available mute for any of the tubas is the straight mute (though I have heard of creative tuba players making cup mutes out of ice cream cartons).  Mutes are rare for the Flügelhorn.  Mutes for the Bass and Contrabass Tubas are huge (resembling something NASA might put into orbit).  Make sure the player has enough time to insert and remove the mutes.


Piccolo Flügelhorn


Alto Flügelhorn/Alto Tuba/Mellophone

Euphonium/Tenor Tuba

Bass Tuba

Contrabass Tuba


In two places I’ve referred to Cimbassi (plus of Cimbasso).  I’ve included it in both the sections on the trumpets and the trombones.  I can find equal reasoning to include this instrument in both families.  As the only significant difference between a trombone and a trumpet is the valves versus the slide, I tend to see Cimbassi as large mega-trumpets.

The historical term Cimbasso has caused much confusion and consternation.  Bellini and Verdi used it in their early works, but the exact instrument they wanted is unknown.  It is possible that the instrument in mind was an Ophicleide or a Russian Bassoon.

Original Cimbasso

However, as Verdi grew older, it is clear that the instrument he had in mind changed.  He envisioned a narrow bore valved brass instrument that was definitively not a tuba.  The instrument we know today as a Cimbasso was only definitively used in Verdi’s last 3 works.  All other works used either the instrument mentioned previously or a Bass Trombone.

Verdi on Cimbasso

Historical notes aside, the modern Cimbasso is experiencing a sort of renaissance.  Hollywood composers have fallen in love with its brash, blatty sound.  There is a fearful presence in the new Cimbasso sound.  Listen to any modern movie with a fully orchestrated music score, and more than likely there will be a Cimbasso.  I’ve seen several behind the scenes documentaries on DVD extras that show Cimbassi in use.

In general, the Cimbasso is played by tuba players.  In Hollywood orchestras, they are a doubling instrument.  Sometimes the player will use a Cimbasso, sometimes they will use a Tuba.  It seems that both the tuba and the Cimbasso are used together rarely

There are two versions on the Cimbasso: the instrument in F and the instrument in B-flat.  These correspond roughly to the Bass and Contrabass Trombones.  Usually composers only specify one and don’t make any distinction between the two instruments.

I can see the Cimbasso (or Cimbassi) as the bottom members of the trumpet ensemble.  They are powerful instruments that should only be used rarely at moments of a huge climax.

I see no reason not to specify the use of F or B-flat Cimbasso.  The F will obviously have a slightly higher tessiture than the B-flat.  Adding one or both to a score can add a lot of weight to the bottom of the brass ensemble.