The Heavy Brass – Introduction to Cornets, Trumpets, Trombones and Tubas

The Heavy Brass

(Cornets, Trumpets, Trombones, and Tubas)

            Aside from the Horn (and its close kin the Wagner Tuba), all other brass instruments can be grouped together into a semi-cohesive family.  These instruments; namely cornets, trumpets, trombones, and tubas; utilize a standard harmonic series that ascends to the eighth harmonic.  Anything above this harmonic is considered advanced technique.  This is in contrast to the Horn, which regularly ascends all the way up to the sixteenth harmonic.

Valves – Basic technique for all of the valve instruments (cornets, trumpets, and tubas) is exactly the same from family to family.  Each instrument has at least three valves.  The standard arrangement of the valves is:

1st valve – lowers pitch by a whole tone

2nd valve – lowers pitch by a semi-tone

3rd valve or 1st and 2nd valves – lowers pitch by a minor third

1st and 3nd valve – lowers pitch by a fourth

2nd and 3rd valves – lowers pitch by a major third

1st, 2nd, and 3rd valves – lowers pitch by a tri-tone

Together, there are a total of seven (or eight if we count the double of 1st and 2nd equaling 3rd) positions, and with these we can get a complete chromatic scale of two-and-a-half octaves.  Many of the larger instruments will possess a fourth and even a fifth valve.  The fourth valve traditionally lowers the pitch by a fourth.  The other valves will vary depending on maker.

Most of the heavy brass will possess piston valves, though many tubas and some European trumpets and Flügelhorns will possess rotary valves like the Horn.


Mutes – All brass instruments are capable of changing their sound via the use of a mute inserted into the bell of the instrument.  The name mute is somewhat confusing as it does not dampen the sound of brass instruments, but rather it changes the color of the sound produced.  Four mutes are commonly found: the straight mute, the cup mute, the harmon or wah-wah mute, and the plunger mute.

Straight mute – When a part is marked simply as “muted,” then the default mute of choice is the straight mute.  This is the one universal mute common to all brass instruments.  Various models exist from mutes made of cardboard, metal, or wood.  Each material will give a slightly different sound.  The general effect of a straight mute is to give a raspy, buzzing sound.  When calling for a straight mute, write either “muted” or “straight mute” in the part.

Cup Mute – A cup mute looks like a straight mute with a hat on.  This mute is generally only available for the trumpets, B-flat Cornets, and tenor and Bass Trombones.  The sound of the cup mute is curious and warm, not unlike the sound of clarinets.  When calling for a cup mute, write “cup mute” in the part.

Harmon Mute – This odd mute is the only mute that comes in two pieces.  The main part of the mute is a bulbous chamber with a hollow passage in the center.  In this passage, a stem can be inserted.  The position of the stem in the bulb will change the quality of the sound.  The sound of the harmon mute is very raspy, and can be made to sound as if from afar.  When calling for a harmon mute, write “harmon mute, stem in” or “harmon mute, stem out.”

Plunger Mute – The plunger mute is the simplest of all mutes.  It is simply the rubber end off of a toilet plunger.  This mute will only be able to be used by trumpets, cornets, Flügelhorns, and trombones.  No plunger is made to cover the bell of a Euphonium or tuba.  The plunger mute is manipulated by the left hand, and the player is directed to open and close the mute via markings (+ means closed, and o means open).

Muting effects without mutes – With any bell-front instrument, the player may be directed to “play into the stand.”  The means, the bell of the instrument is placed very close to the music stand to block some of the sound that will reach the audience.  Players may also be asked to turn around and face the back wall to change the amount of sound that reached the audience.  Typically, these effects are not asked for in the score, but are performance practices made by the player and conductor.


Doubling – Unlike woodwinds where a player will double on other members of their instrument’s family (like a saxophone player playing Soprano, Alto, and Baritone), brass players do not double within their family.  Instead, brass players double across pitch classes.  This means that a player will specialize in a particular range.

Soprano Player – A soprano brass player will play the following instruments: E-flat and B-flat Cornets, all trumpets except Bass, Soprano Trombone, and Flügelhorn

Tenor Player – A tenor brass player will play the following instruments: Baritone Horn, Bass Trumpet, Alto, Tenor, and Bass Trombone, and Euphonium.

Bass Player – A bass brass player will play the following instruments: Bass and Contrabass Tubas.

I have left off a few instruments from this list such as Alto Horn and Contrabass Trombone.  Alto Horn seems to fit neither the role of Soprano or Tenor, so finding a player to double on this instrument may present a challenge.  The Contrabass Trombone can be played by either a tenor or a bass player, but is more of a specialty instrument.

With these lists, we can see that a competent soprano player may be called on to play instruments in all four families of heavy brass.

Marching Brass – All forms of marching brass instruments fall into the category of heavy brass.  These instruments include the Mellophonium (commonly, but mistakenly called a Mellophone); marching Horns, Baritone, Euphoniums, Tubas, Trombones; the Sousaphone; and the whole family of marching “Bugles.”

As I have never heard a single note of MUSIC or artistry come out of any of these instruments, I disregard their existence in this book aside from this brief mention.  As soon as someone takes up the mantel of presenting any of these instruments as viable options for a musical setting, then we may be able to open up to their use.

It is sad that an entire family of homogenous instruments, the so-called bugles, have never been used by a single musician.  Alas!  But we have a whole host of other brass instruments more than capable of carrying out their part.

I may revisit marching brass at a later date.  I may not.