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Brass instruments

Table of contents

What are brass instruments?

Brass instruments belong to the group of

wind instruments

and produce sounds by the musician blowing into a cup or funnel mouthpiece. This uses the principle of the padded whistle. The vibrating lips of the player transmit the vibrations to a conical-cylindrical tube that serves as a resonator. The terminologically correct term is “lip-tone instrument” and, according to the

Hornbostel-Sachs classification

to the actual wind instruments in the group of the



Brass instruments are diverse and in European culture include instruments such as

horn (French horn)

hunting horn,




, cornet, flugelhorn, alto horn, tenor horn, baritone horn and


. Each of these instruments contributes to the variety of sound characters through the different shape and size of the conical-cylindrical tube.

History of brass instruments

The roots of brass instruments go back to ancient times. In 1323 BC, two Schenebs were found in the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, which are considered to be the oldest surviving brass instruments. These trumpet-like instruments are made of embossed and soldered sheet metal, either partially gold-plated silver or a copper alloy. The chazozra, a Jewish trumpet made of beaten silver, is mentioned in the Old Testament and was used for religious purposes in the temple in Jerusalem.

The development of brass instruments continued in antiquity. The Greek salpinx, an elongated trumpet, and the Roman tuba, a conical instrument, are examples of the diversity of this era. The Romans also adopted brass instruments from the Etruscans, including the g-shaped cornu and the lituus and carnyx horns. The Germanic tribes used paired lures, which consisted of curved parts and required a high level of skill in bronze casting.

Trumpets and trombones were further developed in the Middle Ages. The early medieval instruments were elongated, while from around 1500 the long trumpet, once wound, became the standard form. In the Baroque period, telescopic leadpipes and extendable double slides were introduced, which ultimately led to the development of the trombone. Thin-walled instruments, the forerunners of the modern French horn, were created in the 15th century. The opera Rienzi by Richard Wagner (1842) marks the use of the valve trumpet, and the invention of the valve in the 1810s revolutionized brass instruments.

Instruments such as the Zinken developed into fingerhole horns in the Middle Ages, in which the player regulated the pitch by means of fingerholes or keys. Although not as satisfying as natural tones, the serpent, bass horn and ophicleide remained popular instruments until the 19th century. The invention of valves in the 1810s fundamentally changed the significance of brass instruments and considerably expanded their musical possibilities.

In the 19th century, half instruments and full instruments were discussed. One semi-orchestral instrument was narrowly scored and had difficulty reaching the pedal tone. A whole instrument, on the other hand, could make good use of the pedal tone. These terms lost their relevance after 1900, but were important in the early years of brass instrument development.

The phenomenon of a poorly tunable fundamental tone in brass instruments is due to the physical properties of the instrument shape. A strongly tapered main tube favors the desired frequency ratio, while a largely cylindrical bore shifts this ratio. However, these difficulties have been overcome and brass instruments play an important role in modern symphony orchestras.

Sound or sound generation

The generation and amplification of vibrations in brass instruments is a fascinating interplay of human physiology and acoustic mechanics. In contrast to most other instruments, where the vibration generator and amplifier are separate, with brass instruments the vibrations are generated by the lips of the player. By blowing evenly and tensing the lips against a slight resistance, the lips begin to vibrate. This vibration is transmitted to the air column in the instrument via the mouthpiece.

The principle of the brass instrument corresponds to that of the upholstered pipe. The standing wave created by the vibration of the lips on the air column is set into vibration by resonance with the pipe. This produces different natural frequencies that form the natural tone series. To achieve an optimal sound, the lip frequency must match the frequency of the respective natural tone.

Although the instrument consists of various conical and cylindrical parts, it physically acts like a tube that is closed at the narrow end. The wavelength of the lowest tone is about twice the length of the instrument, while the next highest natural frequency is an octave higher. By adjusting the oscillation frequency via the air velocity, the next tone is generated, the frequency of which is an integer multiple of the frequency of the basic tone.

The playable pitch is also influenced by the skill of the player and the nature of the mouthpiece. Smaller mouthpieces favor higher notes, but lead to a sharper sound in the low register.

What is the difference between brass and woodwind instruments?

With the categorization into the group of brass instruments or

woodwind instruments

the material of a wind instrument has nothing to do with it. The classification is based solely on the principle of sound production. Most brass instruments are made of metal alloys such as brass or nickel silver. For large instruments such as the sousaphone, modern fiber composites are used to save weight. The modern vuvuzela is made of plastic. Woodwind instruments without finger holes such as the alphorn and instruments with tone holes such as the serpent and cornett also belong to the brass instruments.

In contrast, the


and the transverse flute are woodwind instruments, although their bodies are usually made of metal as they produce the sound.

List of brass instruments


Brass instruments