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.

Trombones Part 2 – Trombones in the Band

Trombone in the Band

The traditional trombone section is comprised of three parts.  Usually, this is two Tenors and one Bass.  Occasionally, a fourth part is used.  If a fourth part is included, it is another Tenor part.  This is the standard section in an orchestra as well.  In a band, there can be more than one player on a part, whereas in an orchestra it is strictly one on a part.  Like I’ve said in other places, let’s use these extra players to our advantage.

The only works that I know that use Alto in a wind band setting are works from the 19th Century like Mendelssohn’s Trauermarsch.  I know of no reason the Alto shouldn’t be part of a wind band setting.

1 Alto Trombone

2 Tenor Trombones

1 Bass Trombone

This would be a very easy section to form assuming you have a player that is competent on the Alto.  Add to this a Contrabass, and we have a large section of five players with a huge range.

The sheer power of the trombone hit me full force when I started to study the score to the film Inception.  The composer Hans Zimmer uses a trombone section of 6 Tenors and 6 Basses/Contrabass.  Wow!  The sound is immense, powerful, and frightening!  I can imagine this sound in a band, and I like it.

We can think of a think of a large band section like this:

1 Alto Trombone

4 Tenor Trombones

2 Bass Trombones

1 Contrabass Trombone

This will give us a full section of 8 players.  Doublings are not needed here, but one might be made for the Contrabass player and have them take up a Bass or Tenor to save them from tiring from this exhausting instrument.  Very rarely does a Contrabass player play the Contrabass instrument for the entirety of a concert or work.  The Alto player might also take up the Tenor if needed.

I leave out the Soprano Trombone from the section, as I find it rather useless in the context of a trombone ensemble.  Its small sound won’t make an impact against a mass of Tenors and Basses.  Even the Alto has a small sound that might not cut through the mass.

The eight member ensemble can be both powerful and solemn at the same time.  Go listen to some trombone choir music, and you can hear the possibilities available from this majestic instrument.  In harmony, we get the majestic solemnity, in unison, we get the tremendous power.

A Bruckner chorale for 8 trombones (Tenor, Bass, and Contrabass).

Excerpts from Strauss’ Alpensymphonie for 10 trombones (Tenor, Bass, and Contrabass).

Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor for Trombones (Tenor and Bass)

Trombones – Introduction



The trombone is unique among wind instruments in that its method of tone production is not through keys or valves, but by means of a slide.  This fact is of course obvious to anyone who has ever seen a trombone in action before.  In fact, how often have we heard it called a “slide trombone?” Historically, the trombone is an old instrument, and on little changed since the 1400s.  In those six centuries the only changes to the instrument we’ve seen are the widening of the bore and bell and the addition of a valve or two to aid technique. Due to its use of a slide, the trombone was the first fully chromatic brass instrument, and it held its position as the only chromatic brass until the early 1800s when the valve was invented (here I discount extinct lineages such as serpents, keyed bugles, and ophicleides, that, while chromatic have no bearing on modern brass writing).  However, it is curious that this sole chromatic brass was only reluctantly added to the orchestra.  Its primary role was to reinforce choirs.  A group of trombones would play along with each of the vocal lines to ensure the pitch of the singers.  As such, up until around 1800 the instrument was thought of as only a church instrument.  The idea of a trombone being used for sacred music might come as a shock to those of us who only know the instrument in its modern usage: a loud, brash, and sometimes overbearing presence. An interesting thing to keep in mind is that the name trombone in Italian literally means “big trumpet.”  The -one ending means big (therefore a Clarone is a Bass Clarinet and a Violone is a big Viola or as we would call it a Double Bass).  This connection between trumpet and trombone is important because sound-wise they are identical.  They are both cylindrical bore cup-shaped mouthpiece brass instruments (the only ones that fit this description in fact) and therefore form a cohesive family. The trombone family has not changed much over the years.  The extreme ends (Soprano and Contrabass) are known to have been in existence for nearly as long of the other members of the family.  

Range Notes

Unlike the other instruments, I’ve included range charts that contain every note playable on these instruments.  When I use the term standard range, I refer to the non-pedal ranges.  With the Alto and Tenor Trombones, I do note include valve notes in the standard range because not every Alto or Tenor Trombone will have a valve.  Note, with the addition of valves, the number of positions is reduced by one (so that with both valves depressed a Bass Trombone has only 5 positions and an F Contrabass only has 4 positions).

The Entire Trombone Family


Soprano Trombone

Alto Trombone

Tenor Trombone

G Bass Trombone

Bass Trombone

Contrabass Trombone