A List of All Available Brass Mutes

This post is more of a catalog of availability than suggestions or orchestration

Horn

  • Straight
  • Stopping
  • Cup (rare)

Wagner Tuben

  • Straight

E-flat Cornet

  • Straight
  • Cup
  • Harmon (rare)
  • Plunger
  • Hat/derby

B-flat Cornet

  • Straight
  • Cup
  • Harmon
  • Plunger
  • ClearTone
  • Bucket
  • Hat/derby
  • Pixie (straight mute used in combination with plunger)

Alto Horn

  • Straight
  • Cup

Baritone Horn

  • Straight
  • Cup

Piccolo Trumpet

  • Straight
  • Cup
  • Harmon
  • Hat/derby

Trumpet

  • Straight
  • Cup
  • Harmon
  • Plunger
  • Cleartone/solotone
  • Bucket
  • Hat/derby
  • Pixie (straight mute used in combination with plunger)

Bass Trumpet

  • Straight
  • Cup
  • Harmon

Alto Trombone

  • Straight
  • Hat/derby

Tenor Trombone

  • Straight
  • Cup
  • Harmon
  • Plunger
  • Bucket
  • Cleartone/solotone
  • Hat/derby
  • Pixie (straight mute used in combination with plunger)

Bass Trombone

  • Straight
  • Cup
  • Harmon
  • Plunger
  • Bucket
  • Hat/derby
  • Pixie (straight mute used in combination with plunger)

Contrabass Trombone

  • Straight

Cimbasso

  • Straight

Flügelhorn

  • Straight
  • Cup
  • Harmon
  • Bucket
  • Solotone/cleartone

Mellophone

  • None

Euphonium

  • Straight
  • Bucket (rare)
  • Cup (rare)

Tuba (Bass and Contrabass)

  • Straight
  • Bucket (rare)
  • Cup (rare)

With some of the rarer instruments, like Flügelhorn, Mellophone, Alto Horn, Bass Trumpet and others, they can use mutes designed for some of the other brass instruments (in most of these cases, the Tenor Trombone).

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The Wagner Tuba versus the Horn

The idea of the magical Wagner Tuba has always fascinated me.  I think it’s the rarity of the instrument combined with the musical connotation with the otherworldly realm that makes it such an alluring instrument.  However, I’ve never had the pleasure to work with these instruments up close.  If I recall correctly, I’ve only seen them in performance twice.  once in a performance of Strauss’ Alpine Symphony and the other in a performance of The Rite of Spring.  Neither of these works give the Tuben a real chance to shine.  Instead they are background, filler, and occasionally countermelodies.

With this said, it can be hard for an orchestrator to get an idea of how the Wagner Tuben and the Horns differ in their sounds.  I’ve found a few sources detailing the differences, but recently, I’ve found a single video of a quartet of Horns and a quartet of Tuben playing an arrangement of Bruckner’s 7th Symphony.  This really gives the listener a clear example of how the two instruments differ in sound.  The Tuben are what I would call fuzzier and warmer, while the Horns are clearer and more direct.  The interplay between the two groups is really fantastic.  The Tuben form a base to the sound of the Horns.

Horns Part 4 – Horns in the Band

Horns in the Band

            Traditionally, there are four Horn parts in every work for band (works for young ensembles excluded).  This number is rarely deviated from.  In the orchestra, there are numerous examples of scoring for more or less than the traditional four horns.  Most Classical works use only two horns.  Works like Holst’s Planets use six Horns.  Mahler used seven in his First Symphony.  Many, many composers have used eight.  Schönberg used ten in Gürreleider.  Strauss used twenty in his Alpine Symphony.  And Havergal Brian used 24 in his Gothic Symphony.  Yet, the band has never used more than four.

            With its nearly four octave range, huge chords spaced over several octaves are possible for a group of massed Horns.  This is one reason that the Horn section is always larger than the sections for other brass instruments.  Or rather, I should say that there are always more Horn parts than parts for other brass instruments.

            I would love to envision a work that utilizes the full section of eight Horns like the larger symphonic works.  It would take the edge off the trumpet dominant sound of modern band works.  Many groups, both professional and amateur, have access to eight competent Horn players.  Why not utilize the resources?

The Bumper

            I nearly every larger ensemble, there is always one more Horn player than is actually scored for.  This extra player is known as the bumper.  The bumper almost always plays off of the first Horn part.  In tutti passages the bumper will reinforce the sound or give the principal player a well-deserved rest.  While the ubiquity of the bumper is almost universal among professional and semi-professional groups, no composer has taken the opportunity to make use of this resource.  If a composer were so inclined, they could indicate when and where the bumper would play for a precise desired effect.  However, remember with the bumper, their main job is to make sure the principal player does not tire out.

Doubling   

            If dealing with a professional group, we might consider having four of the Horn players double on Wagner Tuba for a wider palate of sound.

Ranges and Scoring

            The Horn in its highest register is dramatic and exciting.  It can easily drown out an orchestra.

In the middle register, the Horn is the great blender.  The sound of the Horn in this range can blend in seamlessly with every other instrument of the band or orchestra.

In its lowest register, the Horn can be sinister and snarling at a loud dynamic or soft and unobtrusive when played softly.

As I mentioned above, the Horn can blend with every instrument with a good deal of success.  The low register of the flute can match the tone color of a muted Horn, Bassoons share the exact same range, clarinets share their ability to be able to blend.  The only scoring oddity is Horns and trumpets.  The timbres are somewhat dissimilar.  Don’t use Horns as the bass to a trumpet ensemble unless you are very careful (trombones will be a much better substitute).

Vienna Horns playing the theme to Back to the Future (12 Horns)

Vienna Horns playing themes from Pirates of the Carribean

Opening to Mahler’s Symphony 3 (8 Horns in unison)

Strauss’ Eine Alpensinfonie – part for offstage horns (12 off stage, 8 on stage – 4 move back and forth)

Wagner Tuben

Wagner Tuben

            It is interesting to think, that of all the brass instruments in existence, only one family has never been adopted into any wind band group.  These instruments are the Wagner Tuben.  Tuben is the plural for Tube in German.  I prefer referring to these instruments in plural as Tuben rather than Tubas to avoid confusion with true tubas.

The Wagner Tuba is essentially a wide bore Horn in an oval shape with the bell pointing upwards.  They are always played by Horn players with a Horn mouthpiece.  The instruments were dreamt of by Richard Wagner as a wholly new sound for his Ring cycle.  Contrary to popular belief, they are the only real instrumental invention that Wagner made (the Bass Trumpet and Contrabass Trombone were already in existence, but were poorly known military instruments).  The Wagner Tuben were originally developed from the French saxhorns, but quickly evolved away from that family.

The literature for these instruments is very limited, but the works that call for them are so significant that nearly every major orchestra will possess a set.  We can find Wagner Tuben called for in Wagner’s Ring, Bruckner’s last three symphonies, various works by Richard Strauss, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, and a small handful of other works from the Twentieth Century.

tenor wagner tuba range

F wagner tuba range

In nearly every case, four Wagner Tuben are required by the composer: two B-flat Tenor Tubas and two F Bass Tubas.  In sound they are hard to tell apart from one another, with the B-flat having a slightly smaller sound than the F does.  Only in the Rite of Spring does Stravinsky stray from the four tuba system as he uses only a pair of B-flat Tenors.  With the exception of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, every time the Wagner Tuben are used, they are played by Horns 5-8.  Bruckner has two quartets, one of Horns and the other of Wagner Tubas, and the players never switch between the two instruments.  Again, in every case there is a minimum section of eight Horns (Schoenberg uses ten in his Gurrelieder, and Strauss uses twenty in his Eine Alpensinfonie).  Both Wagner and Bruckner included the normal Contrabass Tuba as the fifth member of the section.

Both instruments are written down to a low F-sharp just below the bass clef.  The Tenor Wagner Tuba sounds a major second lower (low E), while the Bass Wagner Tuba sounds a fourth lower (low B below the bass clef).  Many times the tuben are equipped with a fourth valve that lowers the pitch a fourth (effectively down to a written C).  With this valve, the Tenor Wagner Tuba will be able to play a low C below the bass clef, and the Bass Wagner Tuba will be able to play a low G below the bass clef).  These extra low notes are little used.

Historic notation for these instruments makes my brain hurt.  I have found at least five different notation systems for which these instruments have been written (including the confusing notation of writing the B-flat instruments in E-flat and the F instruments in B-flat).  The best and most widely accepted method is to write for the B-flat instrument sounding down a major second and the F instrument sounding down a perfect fifth.  However, this may not be the best solution.  Many orchestras are now using “Double” Tuben.  These are exactly akin to the Double Horn where the B-flat and F instruments are combined into a single instrument.  As these Double Tuben are becoming more and more prevalent, there is every reason to think that we will see all Wagner Tuben written in solely F notation, exactly like Horns are.  In fact, the majority of the Wagner Tuben in the United States are Double Tuben, so the preferred method among Hornists is to have all the parts written in F.

The Wagner Tuben are not flexible instruments.  Seldom have composers written passages where there is a real demand for technique.  Both Wagner and Bruckner used this instrument to portray an other-worldly realm.  For Wagner this was Valhalla, while for Bruckner it was Heaven.  This is the sound for which the instrument was invented.  Four Wagner Tuben in a chorale is one of the most beautiful sounds ever emitted from the brass section.  It is often compared to a strange combination between a Horn and a trombone.  There is a certain aspect of rich magic and sorcery to the sound of the Wagner Tuba that sends chills down my spine.

I know of no reason they have never been included in the band.  Solemnity has never been in huge demand for wind groups, but it is an effect greatly needed from wind groups.  The Wagner Tuben portray this better than any other instrument ever constructed.

As these instruments are almost always used as a double for the Horn, it might be best to use their unique tone color only in certain magical moments.  I would love to hear mixtures of middle brass where the Wagner Tuben, Alto and Baritone Horns, Flügelhorns, and Euphoniums blend to form a choir.  The effect could be a majestic sound hither to unknown.  Wagner Tuben and Bassoons or Bass Clarinet will make for a goblinesque sound.

A few notes on playing the instrument.  Players, in general, are never fully comfortable on the Wagner Tuba, as even the most advanced Horn player will only touch the instrument every few years.  Intonation is said to be the bugbear of the Wagner Tuba, as the player cannot manipulate the tuning via the hand in the bell like on the Horn.  Mutes are seldom used, though available.  Muting of the instrument takes away its other-worldly quality, though I must readily admit, my absolute favorite Wagner Tuba passage in all the orchestral literature is the chorale in the beginning of the third part of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder.  This chorale (alongside a few passages in Eine Alpensinfonie) is among the only known usages of muted Wagner Tuba, and in the case of the Schoenberg, I must admit, the effect is striking.

One more note before leaving the Wagner Tuben.  There is no standardized placement for the instruments in the score.  Depending on which score you look at, they are either placed below the trombones and above the true tuba, or directly below the Horns.  I prefer the later notation, as it clearly shows the affinity between the Wagner Tuben and the Horns, especially since they will be played by the same musicians.

Introduction to the Wagner Tuba

Bruckner’s 7th Symphony excerpt on Wagner Tuben

Work for 8 Wagner Tuben