What is a Brass Band?  
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What is a Brass Band?

The traditional British brass band consists of 27 players who play three basic types of instrument - a valved metal wind instrument ; the trombone; and percussion. The normal line up is as follows:-
1Soprano Cornet     2Euphoniums
9Cornets     3Trombones
1Flugel Horn     1 Bass Trombone
3Tenor Horns     2Eb Basses (tubas)
2Baritones     2BBb Basses (tubas)

One of the beauties of playing in a brass band is that most of the instruments operate in exactly the same way and so there is scope for moving around from one instrument to another as a person's physique changes or as a way of achieving variety in one's musical satisfaction.

What is special about brass instruments?

The linking factor between all the traditional brass instruments (excluding trombones) is that they have 3 (or occasionally 4) valves and that the same combination of valves produce the same written note on each instrument. This is not to say that each instrument produces the same physical note in response to a given valve combination but that the combination of the instrument's tuning and the key in which the music is written for any one part allows the player to use the same valve combination for an 'A' on both the cornet and the Eb Bass. Obviously this simplifies teaching and the transfer from one instrument to another, indeed, many players will happily change instruments at short notice to fill gaps in the band.

The Cornet

is made from a conical bored brass tube about 4.5 feet long and is tuned in the key of Bb. That is, when the note written as C for piano is played it sounds as the Bb below (1 tone down). It differs from the trumpet which has a more parallel bore of narrower tubing and which produces a thinner and more strident sound than the mellow cornet. The more obvious difference is that the trumpet is longer and less coiled up than the cornet. In the middle of the cornet are three valves with plungers operated by the first three fingers of the right hand. Each of these valves changes the air path through the instrument and introduces a slightly longer piece of tubing so lowering the tone of the note produced. When the instrument is blown (by blowing a 'raspberry' into the mouthpiece) without any valves pressed, it will produce a series of spaced notes dependent upon the lip pressure used. These will correspond to the written notes C, G, C, E, G, C etc. ascending.
  • The first valve from the mouthpiece end introduces a length of tubing which lowers the note by one tone - that is, the note blown as C now plays as Bb, G as F etc.
  • The second valve lowers the tone one semitone (half a tone) and so this makes C, B natural, G becomes F sharp etc.
  • The third valve lowers the note by a tone and a half so making the C sound as A, G as E etc.
Obviously, these notes could also be produces by depressing both the first and second valves together and this allows some flexibility in playing difficult passages. By various combination of these valves the full 13 note octave can be produced as follows:-
Cno valves     F# (Gb)2
C# (Db)1+2+3      Gno valves
D1+3     G# (Ab)2+3
D# (Eb)2+3     A1+2
E1+2     A# (Bb)1
F1     Cno valves

The Soprano Cornet

is the highest playing instrument in the band having less tubing than the normal Cornet and plays in the key of Eb - that is the note written as C for piano sounds as the Eb above. Some effort is required to play the 'Sop' as it is usually known particularly as it often has high exposed solo parts riding over the main melody.

The Flugel Horn

looks like a large cornet and provides the link between the cornet and horn sections. It is tuned in the key of Bb and has a beautiful mellow tone which is best displayed in the haunting melody solos written typically for this instrument.

The Tenor Horn

is the smallest of the tuba-like instruments in that its bell points upwards when played instead if forward like a cornet. It is tuned in the key of Eb and provides the musical filling between the melody and counter melody in many pieces. It is also sometimes used as a solo instrument although, as it is somewhat lacking in power, these tend to be romantic reflective pieces where its mellow sound is supported by quiet chording from the rest of the band.

The Baritone (horn)

is slightly larger than the tenor horn, is tuned in the key of Bb, and again mainly provides the filling or rhythmical parts of the music.

The Euphonium

is the second principal solo instrument of the band. Larger again than the Baritone it is also tuned in Bb and is sometimes provided with a fourth valve which duplicates the action of pressing valves 1+3 down but using an additional length of tubing such as to give exact tuning in the lower registers. This instrument is always on the go! Its parts often double up the cornet melodies in a lower register whilst also providing the 'twiddly bit' infill whilst the cornets are resting. At other times the Euphonium plays a counter melody or helps out the Bass section.

The Trombones

are really the 'odd ones out' in the band. These instruments, of course use a slide for tuning the different notes rather than valves and it is for this reason - that they are not constrained to whole notes - that they are included. Their strident glissandos are characteristic of many marches and colourful pieces. The Bass Trombone is normally tuned in the key of F and provides a link with the Bass section.

The Basses

are the large Tubas with which everyone is familiar. They come in two varieties, Eb and BBb (double B flat) which are large and 'good God, do you expect me to lift that?' respectively. They generally provide the background 'oompah' of the bass beat but also occasionally have quite moving passages in the low register. They are not recommended to persons with small faces as they may fall into the mouthpiece and disappear.

The Percussion

section normally has two players, one playing a normal drum kit of Bass Drum, Snare Drum, Tom Toms, High Hat, and Crash and Ride Cymbals whilst the other plays Kettle Drums (Timpani), Glockenspiel, Xylophone, Tubular Bells etc.