Contrabass Tuba

Contrabass Tuba

Contrabass Tuba range

  • (Note: range does not include pedal notes)

We finally come to the bottom of the common band instruments, the Contrabass Tuba.  To most people, when we say tuba we are only referring to the Contrabass instrument, the Bass Tuba being an afterthought.

There are two sizes of Contrabass Tuba, the C and the B-flat.  The B-flat is used by students and amateurs, while the C is the instrument of choice for professionals.  To the bandestrator there should be no distinction between the two.  The sound and range will be identical.  Contrabass Tubas also come in a various “sizes.”  Beginners will often use a 3/4 tuba.  This is a more compactly wrapped instrument whose smaller size is easier for smaller players.  Normal students will use a 4/4 instrument.  Professionals might use a 5/4 or 6/4 tuba.  These instruments are proportionately larger in the bore and produce a bigger sound.  The standard orchestral instrument in the U.S. is now the 5/4 C Contrabass Tuba.  The choice of using a 4/4, 5/4, or 6/4 tuba is solely up to the player.  Each has their advantages.

It is advisable not to take the Contrabass Tuba much above middle C.  Notes above here will be strained and thin.  As for the bottom range, a standard 3-valve B-flat instrument will descend to a low E-natural (F-sharp for the C Tuba), but most instruments possess at least 4 valves.  A standard 4-valve B-flat instrument will be able to descend to the C at the bottom of the piano (C Tuba will descend to D).  Instruments with more valves can obviously go lower.  Pedal notes start one whole step below this range (B-flat for a B-flat Tuba and C for a C Tuba).  The note in between the standard and the pedal range (either the B-natural for the B-flat Tuba or the C-sharp for the C Tuba) will depend on whether or not the instrument has a fifth valve.  Professional C Tubas will almost always have a fifth valve to ensure this note (C-sharp) is available.  With all this taken into consideration, the Contrabass Tuba has a range of at least three octaves from the bottom C on the piano to middle C.  Professional players can extend this range at least half an octave in either direction for a total of at least four octaves.

As the Contrabass Tuba is the natural bottom of the whole brass ensemble, its role is fairly self-evident.  As a bass for the woodwind ensemble, I would suggest looking elsewhere.  Throughout this text, I have emphasized the various families of instruments and tried to paint a complete portrait of them as they exist today.  These complete families many times have instruments that descend in to the range of the Contrabass Tuba (e.g. Contra-alto and Contrabass Clarinets, Contrabass Saxophone, Contrabassoon, Contrabass Trombone).  By showing the bandestrator the wealth of freedom we have in the bottom of our ensemble, I am also showing them how to free up the Contrabass Tuba from being the sole contrabass voice in the ensemble.

In order to learn how to write for the Contrabass Tuba better and more creatively, we must look away from standard band writing.  I think in general, it fails completely.  Let us instead look as a few pieces from the orchestral literature where the Contrabass Tuba is used to its fullest and best potential.

Before the bandestrator can go any further in learning the Contrabass Tuba, go find a score and a recording of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky Cantata.  I had one tuba player describe this work to me as a quasi-tuba concerto.  I was able to hear it live a few months ago, and the tuba part just blew me away.  It is a huge sound that envelops and overwhelms the orchestra.  It is not a dainty or subtle sound.  So why in the band, do we expect music to be dainty or subtle when we have the Contrabass Tuba as a member of the ensemble?  One tuba can match the entire output of a 100 piece orchestra.  Think of the damage four can do in a band.

The second piece to look at is Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie.  Again, I have heard this glorious work live, and I was privileged to sit directly above and behind the tubas.  Here, the giant Contrabass Tubas (there are two scored for in this work) becomes the pedal point for a massive brass choir.

At no point in either of these two works does the Contrabass Tuba become the sole supporter of the deep bass.  It always is added for its additional weight and power.  The blandness and banality that I’ve come to regard as the downfall of creative band writing, is the constant use of the Contrabass Tuba throughout the composition.  The Contrabass Tuba is heavy and ponderous, and by using it constantly, the entire ensemble takes on the characteristic of the tuba.

All this said the Contrabass Tuba is a wonderful and needed instrument in the band.  It is the only assured contrabass voice that every ensemble will possess.  All the way down to beginner bands, there will always be a tuba.

When scoring for the Contrabass Tuba, we have to take into account issues of balance.  Let’s take a look at a common scenario where we have a single Contrabass Tuba and we want to add the sound of a Bassoon to the mix.  If we use a ratio of one tuba to one Bassoon, the poor Bassoonist will never be heard no matter how loudly they play.  In order to come close to matching volume, we would need a ration of at least one tuba to four Bassoons.

One technical note, before I leave the tubas.  In its very lowest register, the Contrabass Tuba will become sluggish and lose its technical ability.  This owes itself to the fact that the player’s lips have to vibrate so slowly to match the pitches.  Passages below the C below the bass clef will necessarily be slower.

Alexander Nevsky Cantata – Contrabass Tuba plays throughout.

Gunther Schuller’s Tuba Concerto 2 on Contrabass Tuba

Comparison between C Contrabass and F Bass Tubas (and a small “practice” tuba).