Alto Flügelhorn or Alto Tuba

Alto Flügelhorn or Alto Tuba or Alto Euphonium

Like the Piccolo Flügelhorn, I only include this instrument for completeness sake.  It is extremely rare, and I can find only a few examples of such an instrument ever having been manufactured.  In essence it is a wide bore Alto Horn.  Do not use this instrument in your writing.

That said…

The Mellophone as an Alto Tuba

I’ve gone back and forth in my head as whether or not to include the so-called “marching brass.”  In most instances, it’s a moot point.  Marching brass instruments are just reconfigured and redesigned versions of the traditional brass instruments.  There’s one exception though, the Mellophone.


There are actually two different instruments that go by the name Mellophone.  One is the older style instrument that is shaped like a Horn but pitched in alto F or E-flat and played with the right hand instead of the left.  The other instrument can more properly be called a “Mellophonium.”  This instrument is bell-front and looks like a giant Flügelhorn.  This version is the most commonly seen today in high school and college marching bands.

The Mellophone does not fit neatly into any one instrument family.  It is an odd mélange of the cornet, tuba, and horn families.  The wide bell flare is close to that of a Horn.  The bore structure is closer to cornets, but the bore width is closer to tubas.

It is clearly not a horn because the mouthpiece is not that of the deep funnel cup type, so the choice must be narrowed down to between a cornet and a tuba.  The closest analog is the Alto Horn.  Here we must look at specifics.  Alto Horns are pitched in E-flat while Mellophones are usually in F.  This means that the Alto Horn should be bigger all around than the Mellophone assuming that they are members of the same family.  However, this is not the case.  The Mellophone, in general, has a much wider bore than does the Alto Horn.  On average, the Alto Horn’s bore ranges between .409″ (top of the line professional) and .462″ (mid-range student) with an average of an 8.5″ bell, while the Mellophone’s bore is consistently .460″ with a 10″ to 11″ bell.  As we’ve placed the Alto Horn firmly in the cornet family, the means that the Mellophone should really be classified as a tuba.

This opens up an interesting world.  As we say in the entry on tuba species, there is no true member of the tuba family pitched in the alto voice range.  We go from soprano with the Flügelhorn to the tenor/baritone range with the Euphonium/Tenor Tuba.  The Mellophone could easily fill this gap.  I would like to think of it as just an Alto Flügelhorn pitched in F a fifth below normal.  I could easily replace the bottom voice in a group of Flügelhorns (say part four in a choir of four voices).  This will give an additional solo voice to the ensemble (one never before included in concert music), and will extend the range of the Flügelhorn section.

Some notes: the Mellophone (hereafter referred to as an Alto Tuba) should always be written in F transposing in the treble clef.  The instrument pitched in E-flat is a thing of a bygone age and no longer manufactured.  When being used as an Alto Tuba, it is essential that the widest bore instrument made be used for that part.  Also essential, is the use of the proper mouthpiece on the Alto Tuba.  Modern instruments are manufactured so that a trumpet mouthpiece can be used on the instrument, but the result is far from satisfactory.  In order to ensure proper results, a large, deep cup Alto Horn mouthpiece must be used by the player.  This will result in a warm, sonorous sound that will blend with the rest of the tubas.

Oddly, the Alto Tuba (Mellophone) has never been used in a concert setting.  This is probably a result of it being solely thought of as an instrument for the marching field.  However, if we remove ourselves from the football field, and realize that this instrument is not meant to be a substitute for the F Horn, then we are free to use it as it truly is – an Alto Tuba.

Summertime on Mellophone.  Note the wider bore and rounder south than the Alto Horn.

A section of 5 Mellophones

Trumpets Part 3 – The Tromba and Instrument Choice

The Tromba and Instrument Choice

F Tromba

The trumpet of today is a different instrument from the trumpet of yesterday.  The old trumpet was a large instrument with a forceful sound.  The old trumpet is so different in usage and notation, that I now refer to it as the Tromba and not the trumpet.  Trumpet literally means “small tromba,” and the modern trumpet is a tiny version of what we used to have.  It was usually pitched in F a 5th below to modern C Trumpet, but it played in exactly the same range.  The normal “modern” trumpet usually plays up to the 8th harmonic (a written C above the treble clef), but the Tromba played regularly up to the 12th harmonic.  Occasionally, the Tromba will also be pitched in E-flat a major second below the normal instrument.  Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben is a good example of the use of the E-flat Tromba.

Something interesting to remember, the high clarino part in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto 2 is meant for the low F Tromba – an instrument bigger than the modern B-flat/C Trumpet!

Notation for the Tromba was considerably different than we are used to.  What a modern trumpeter plays as a written middle C would be written an octave lower as the C below the treble clef.  This means that the bottom note of a Tromba would be written as an F-sharp at the bottom of the bass clef (sounding a B-natural in the middle of the bass clef).  However, these low notes were never written.  The lowest note it seems that was ever written for the Tromba was the low C.  Players might have had a hard time playing these lower notes, and the intonation and stability was never great.

Playing the Tromba is considerably more difficult than playing the modern trumpet.  Modern players shy away from this “beast” of an instrument, and very few will even touch it.  However, the sound quality is different.  Considerably different.  The sound of the old instrument is described as heroic and noble.  This is due to producing the sound through a much longer tube.  The longer the tube the more resonate the sound.

Finding recordings of the Tromba has been difficult.  Players refuse to play the instrument that composers intended.  And herein lies my biggest problem with trumpet players.

Trumpet players blatantly refuse composers’ intentions.

If a composer requests an A Cornet – the player uses a C Trumpet.

If a composer requests a B-flat Trumpet – the player uses a C Trumpet

If a composer requests a D Trumpet – the player uses a B-flat Piccolo Trumpet.

If the composer requests a B-flat Posthorn – the player uses a C Trumpet.

If the composer requests an F Tromba – the player uses a C Trumpet.


Wake up trumpet world, composers have specific sounds in their heads and specific reasons for choosing an instrument.  If I, as an orchestrator/bandestrator, specify a specific instrument, the the player is obliged to play it on that instrument.

Exceptions to this rule in order of importance:

1. The instrument does not exist (F Sopranino Saxophone from Bolero, A Contrabass Clarinet from 5 Orchestral Pieces, and instances of B Trumpet or Horn, etc.)

2. Instrument requested cannot play the passage. For example, the passage contains notes not playable in the instrument (E-flat Bass Trumpet in The Rite of Spring)

3. Instrument is not available.  Best instance of this is the sarrusophone.  The instrument is so rarely seen and so rarely played, that most times it is replaced by a Contrabassoon.  Not a perfect scenario, but mostly acceptable.  When possible, the accurate instrument needs to be acquired.

4. Player/Organization does not own the said instrument.  This is low down on the totem pole.  If you are playing a piece that requires a specific instrument, say the Wagner Tuba, you are required to make every effort to use that specific instrument.

Back to the Tromba.  To all my trumpet player friends.  Stop your cheatin’ ways.  Trombas are available.  Trumpets are cheap (relatively. Hey, I’m a Bassoonist, anything is cheap after that).  A large organization should own 3 Trombas and require the players to use them when the composer calls for it.  The results of using the correct instrument are huge.

In the band, I want to see the Tromba make a reappearance.  I truly do.  The use of the Tromba will even further distance the sound of the trumpet (senso lato) from that of the cornet.  Remember that the modern small trumpet is really a modified cornet.  Having two Trombas in a trumpet section can drastically change the sound of the entire band.

It is just one more color in a huge palette of sound and one that needs to be saved from extinction.

Trumpets Part 2 – Trumpets in the Band

Trumpets in the Band

I’ve held off on writing the second part of the trumpet chapter for various reasons.  The main reason I’ve waited is so that I don’t malign either the instrument or the players.

So much for good intentions.

Let’s start with a bit of history.  In the beginning, there were trumpets.  Long, valveless trumpets usually pitched in D.  These instruments were used very much akin to how the timpani are used: to accent the tonic and dominant and occasionally to call out a simple melody.  That is to say, their use was very limited.

Then came the cornet, and the trumpet was bypassed.  The cornet could do things that the still valveless trumpet simply couldn’t – play chromatically.  The cornet was the new king.  Much ink was wasted over the merits and virtues of both instruments.  Eventually, the trumpet had valves added and it slowly started to take over the cornet’s role.  The old large trumpet (in D or F) shrank to the tiny B-flat Trumpet.  Note, this is not the modern Piccolo Trumpet, but our normal everyday B-flat instrument.  The difference between the two instruments shrank, and the need for there being separate parts diminished.

Throughout much of the 20th Century, the standard was 3 B-flat Cornet parts and 2 B-flat Trumpet parts in the band.  The Trumpets were the supplemental instruments and the Cornets were the leaders.  Then came Lincolnshire Posy.  Grainger’s masterpiece is the first major modern work that does not use Cornets.  The Cornet’s death was imminent.

I still maintain that the Cornet has its uses, but please see my posts on that instrument for those thoughts.

Today we have a wall of trumpets on the back row of our bands.  Blech.  It’s too many.  Trumpet is one of those instruments that is best left to one on a part.  There is absolutely no reason to have 2 to 3 players on a single trumpet part.  In educational bands, we see it has making sure that all of our players have something to do, but this is done to the detriment of the music and the integrity of the composition.

We also have a situation whereby the trumpets play well more than half of the time.  I am going to use Wagner’s Das Rheingold as an example of effective trumpet use.  Wagner’s Ring is well-known for its use of heavy brass.  Let’s see how Wager treats the trumpet.  For my analysis, I will just be focused on the 1st trumpet part.  The trumpets first make their entrance in mm. 112 and play for only 24 measures then they are silent.  These 24 bars are in full orchestral tutti.  Then the trumpets are silent for a total of 397 measures.  In over 500 measures of large orchestral scoring, Wagner uses the trumpet in only 24 measures – or 4.5% of the time.  Compare this to the Horns, which never stop playing for more than a dozen measures at any time, or even the trombones and tuba which play far more frequently than do the trumpets.  The second and third trumpets, in fact, do not reappear in Wagner’s score until the beginning of the Second Act (84 pages in to the full orchestral score).  That’s 24 measures of playing in 24 minutes of music.

Scene 1 from Das Rheingold

What I’m trying to say, is that the trumpet is a magical instrument, and Wagner knew it better than anyone.  He reserved its strident and noble tones for only moments of great clarity and force.  As bandestrators, we should never forget this.  Ever.

“I must admit that I have a violent aversion against the manner of using the trumpet as a melody-carrying instrument (that is, the trumpet alone with just a simple accompaniment).”  That quote is from Richard Strauss (another composer who wrote extremely well for the trumpet with many major trumpet passages).  It still holds true.

All this said about how to score for the trumpet, I have said nothing about what should or could constitute a trumpet section in a band.  What is clear is that a single instrument must – I repeat MUST – be on the part.  Doubling the part is an abhorrence that should be ended without delay!

Even in the largest band, 4 trumpet parts is more than plenty.  Each of these players can double on Piccolo, E-flat/D, and C/B-flat instruments so your palate is wider than most would consider.  If we add to this four an Alto and Bass Trumpet, we can have a larger and more well-balanced section.  The Alto Trumpet can also double on any of the above trumpets, whereas the Bass Trumpet cannot (being more often than not played by a trombonist or a euphoniumist).  IF we want to extend this range even further, I think it would be exciting to add a Cimbasso at the very bottom of the trumpet ensemble for sheer power and weight.

Here is a theoretical ensemble:

  • Player 1 – Piccolo and C/B-flat Trumpet
  • Player 2 – Piccolo, E-flat/D, and C/B-flat Trumpet
  • Player 3 – C/B-flat Trumpet
  • Player 4 – C/B-flat Trumpet
  • Player 5 – Alto and C/B-flat Trumpet
  • Player 6 – Bass Trumpet
  • Player 7 – Cimbasso

This gives us a section with 6 different timbral colors, numerous doubling, and countless possibilities.

Remember with trumpets, less is more.

Janacek’s Sinfonietta.  Note the use of an all trumpet ensemble to begin this work.  These trumpets only play in the beginning and at the very end of the work.

Range Charts and Updates

For the few of you who actually read the blog, I’m going back through some of my older posts and adding in range charts.  So far, I have Flutes, Recorders, Oboes, Clarinets, and Saxophones done. 

Also, there are only 3 more posts remaining for the bulk of the wind entries (Trumpets in the band, and 2, maybe 3, posts for the Horn).  Let me know if there are any instruments you would like covered or topics you would like additional information on.



And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

A relic of times gone by, the Ophicleide is a monster amongst the brass instruments.  It’s been maligned out of existence by critics and composers and performers, yet it remains an important part of both the orchestral and band literature and history.

The name Ophicleide means “keyed serpent.”  The Serpent was a wooden instrument shaped in a twisted s-shape (hence the name serpent) that was not played by a reed but rather by a mouthpiece like a horn or trumpet.  The Serpent had been the bass of the brass family since at least the 1500s.  It was almost exclusively restricted to the realm of the church and the high mass.  Only rarely did it ever see inclusion in the orchestra.  The Ophicleide was an early 19th Century invention to make the cumbersome and awkward Serpent more playable.  The instrument is Bassoon-like in that it is a double parallel tube and held to the right side.  It has large keys that make it look like a saxophone.  In fact, the Ophicleide’s main claim to fame is that it is the possible ancestor of the saxophone.  The legend goes that Adolphe Sax placed a Bass Clarinet mouthpiece on a Bass Ophicleide and thus the saxophone was born.  As Sax’s father was a manufacturer of Ophicleides, it is quite possible that this happened, though there is no evidence to it whatsoever.

Unlike the Serpent, the Ophicleide was immediately introduced into the orchestra.  It became the first usable bass brass instrument.  We find it first coming to prominence in a work like Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz in 1830 (remember, this is only 3 years after Beethoven had died).  Berlioz invoked two Ophicleides and four Bassoons to chant out the Dies Irae, the song of the dead.  Today when this piece is played, the Ophicleide parts are always played by two tubas, but the effect is all but lost.  The parts are too high for comfort for most tuba players, and the sound of the tuba drowns out four Bassoons who try their hardest to keep up.

Dies Irae excerpt

Symphonie Fantastique Movement 5 – Note this performance is played on all period instrument including two Ophicleides.

We think of the Ophicleide as an early 19th Century instrument, but it was used until at least the 1870s in some places, and in South America until the early 20th Century.  Both Wagner and Verdi used the instrument, the latter in his famous Requiem.  Only once in a great rare while will we ever hear an actual Ophicleide play the parts intended for it.

Originally, there were three sizes of Ophicleide: the Alto or Quintclave, the Bass (pitched in both C and B-flat), and the Contrabass.  The Alto had only a brief popularity in the 1830s and 1840s, and has never been used much since.  The Contrabass is easily the rarest of all brass instruments with a single instrument in playable condition – a modern replica made in the 1980s.

The decline of the Ophicleide came from multiple angles.  In the orchestra, composers wanted a more powerful bass instrument with a lower range, and the tuba won the day.  In the band, a completely different story of extinction arose.  For the winner of solo competitions held for the leading Ophicleide players of the day, the prize was a brand new, top of the line Euphonium.  Manufacturer marketing killed the instrument.  It is possible that no new Ophicleides have been made since the late 1800s save for a few modern replicas.

All of the orchestrators who mention the Ophicleide (which is pretty much Berlioz’s original text – all others being side notes), mention nothing good coming from the instrument except for a few places where a held note has some added benefit in chorales or to evoke the dead.

I believed this for the longest time.

Then I finally heard what a player could accomplish on the instrument.  And I realized that Berlioz was wrong.  Like the Bassoon, the Ophicleide is not a bass instrument.  It’s a tenor.  It has a gorgeous singing voice that cannot be matched by any other brass instrument.  The sound is almost a cross between a Euphonium and a Bassoon.  It is an agile and lyrical instrument.

The reason I quoted from Lewis Carroll at the beginning is that I can just envision the Ophicleide being the monster Jaberwock just rising up from its slumber.  The word “burbled” describes the sound perfectly.  I picture a duet in rising thirds over a murmur of clarinets, just beginning to evoke the woodland creatures awaking after a dawn shower.

As there are two different versions of the Bass Ophicleide, the C and the B-flat, it would be best to only write for the instrument in C (which descends to a low B below the bass clef) and leave it to the player to produce whatever instrument they happen to possess.

I’d love to see a revival of the instrument, but alas I don’t think it will ever happen.  However, there are a few valiant players making an attempt to revive the extinct.

Weber’s Andante and Hungarian Rondo. As a Bassoonist, I’m ashamed to say that this performer plays this better than I ever could on an extinct instrument.

An example of a rare Alto Ophicleide or Quintclave.  This instrument is pitched in E-flat a minor third above the C Bass (and a 4th above the B-flat Bass).

A modern composition for Ophicleide and orchestra.


Tubas Part 2 – Tubas in the Band

Tubas in the Band

            The only tubas we can expect to have regularly in the band are the Euphonium and the Contrabass Tuba.  One is a master tenor/baritone soloist, while the other is often considered the foundation of the entire band.

I look back to my days of playing, and I always remember there being two Euphoniums and two (or more) Contrabass Tubas in the ensemble, yet rarely would the parts ever divide.  There is no reason in the world not to have parts that say Euphonium 1, Euphonium 2, etc.

The Flügelhorns should become a more regular member of the band.  Every trumpet player should have access to a Flügelhorn.  I have always said that we have too many trumpets in our band, let’s put some of those talented players on the Flügelhorn.

We can experiment with all sorts of arrangements for the tuba ensemble.  Here is a simple scenario that I have used before:

2 Flügelhorns

2 Euphoniums

1 Bass Tuba

1 Contrabass Tuba

This is a total of six players.  The spacing and balance is even, and we get a warm, homogenous sound with this group.  But, I think more potential lies within the group.  I foresee the Flügelhorns being as, or more important than the trumpets.  Why not a group like this:

3-4 Flügelhorns

2 Euphoniums

2 Bass Tubas

2 Contrabass Tubas

I feel that we have yet to fully explore the sound world that lies in the tuba family.  Beautiful harmonies and fluid melodies await us.