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I hear many people tell me that each brass instrument has its own unique timbre and one cannot be confused with another. However, I often see them used together and they seem to blend together perfectly well - almost as if they were all one type of brass.

Here some of the usual patterns that I have noticed (I have no education in music, so please bear with me):

  1. The tuba is typically and unfairly employed in the lower register more often than not, even though its range is rather wide and it can potentially go high;

  2. Trumpets occupy the upper range;

  3. It's very common to find two trumpets playing in octaves;

  4. Brass instruments are often featured in louder sections and seldom in softer passages, possibly because they are challenging to play softly, unlike strings or woodwinds;

  5. Brass instruments tend not to handle fast-paced sections, such as those with sixteenth and thirty-second notes, which are effortlessly managed by violins, violas, and woodwinds, due to the slower attack in their sound;

Are my observations here correct?

Are there any other patterns?

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    Even as a bass instrument, the tuba is traditionally misused; acoustically and technically it would belong with the horns, but for a long time it was used as the bass of the trombone group, because true bass trombones were hard to construct. Jan 22 at 9:28
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    Just as a note, many passages now commonly played with tubas are not original for said instrument (because it's very new). For example, Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique is commonly played with two tubas (which even have some solis), but it was originally written for two ophicleids. Jan 22 at 19:58
  • @ComputerUser121212 - Didn't know that. Thank you!
    – brilliant
    Jan 23 at 10:12

3 Answers 3

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The answer to this question depends on what is meant by "classical." Both the technology and the idiomatic use of brass instruments in the orchestra has changed over the decades and so the answer is dependent on the time period.

In the early classical period, the tuba would not have been in the orchestra at all, and the trumpet would have been a novelty. The trumpet used in Haydn's trumpet concerto would have have had keys, not pistons, and would have had different capabilities than a modern trumpet or cornet. Horns in general would have had fixed-length tubes, which could be changed manually to for pieces in different keys, but not quickly. All of these factors limited the way these instruments could have been used in an orchestral arrangement. You will not see French horns making rapid key changes, for example.

As we move into the romantic period we start finding a greater variety of brass instruments and they start looking more like their modern counterparts. But there were still conventions on their use. In Rimsky-Korsokov's book on orchestration, he stated that brass and strings should not be combined except in sections that were tutti (everybody playing including the woodwinds). He also encouraged using the french horns for notes that were passing tones or dissonant, e.g. as the seventh in a dominant chord, when possible.

Also, there remained some physical constraints on the instruments. For example, certain keys are more difficult to play in tune due to the which pistons need to be used and how long they are compared to the overall bore length. In general, parts for brass should prefer key signatures on the flat side if possible. Three flats (Eb) is much more common for a trumpet, for example, than three sharps (A).

When we move to twentieth-century, we find a lot of composers who want to experiment with different sounds. They want to hear what a tuba sounds like trying play high notes; they to hear what trumpets sound like playing pedal notes that are technically below the instruments' range. So all the rules get broken. A lot of the music from this period is extremely challenging to perform, and also rather odd. My favorite work is the "The Conversation" by John Williams which is a duet between clarinet and tuba.

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  • Very interesting! Thank you. Aren't valves and pistons one and the same thing? If not, what's the essential difference?
    – brilliant
    Jan 22 at 2:38
  • I might not be using the best terminology. In Haydn's period the trumpet would have been one of these.
    – John Wu
    Jan 22 at 3:45
  • Ah, I see now. Thank you.
    – brilliant
    Jan 22 at 4:17
  • @brilliant unrelated to John Wu's answer, but, to answer your question, [rotary] valves and pistons are not in fact the same thing. Sometimes, however, pistons are called piston valves. Both archieve the same purpose but not in the same manner, and some players prefer playing on one over the other. Pistons are generally consider more agile, whereas rotary valves are generally easier to play due to their shorter travel. On some instruments almost always only one type is used (french horns almost always use rotary valves), while in others, like tubas, models with either system are (+) Jan 22 at 20:03
  • @brilliant available, coming down to an individuals player's preference which one do they use. See the relevant Wikipedia page for details on the different mechanisms. Jan 22 at 20:05
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Have a listen to this performance of Paganini Variations.

You will conclude :

  • Brass instruments can play fast and quiet (and simultaneously).
  • They all sound slightly different - you should be able to distinguish cornets, horns, trombones and tubas in the performance above.

This is a thrilling piece (in my opinion).

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  • You blew up my mind with that piece! What happens there, especially toward the very end, is just incredible. Never knew that brass could be so flexible. The only thing I failed to do there is differentiate between different instruments by simply hearing them - I am still not so well versed in classical music.
    – brilliant
    Jan 21 at 14:46
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You are correct in your observations on how brass instruments are typically and traditionally used in the 'classical' orchestra. (Though composers have always known that trombones, though capable of being the loudest instrument in the orchestra, are also effective in 'pp', and are quite agile. Think how trombones have often been used to support the bass, tenor and alto voices in choral works.) So if you want to write 'classical' pastiche (and that's a perfectly legitimate thing to do) stick to the 'classical' style.

But it's also correct that the brass CAN be (and are) used more, and in many ways.

If you're worried about technical limitations, just listen to any Brass Band work. And listen to this:

It isn't wild virtuoso stuff, every intermediate trumpet player studies this piece!

There is a trend in 'modern classical' writing towards requiring ever more ingenious 'advanced techniques' from every instrument, brass included. It can be as self-conscious as the rejection of tonality over 100 years ago, but at least it reminds us there are possibilities!

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    We all study the piece - we don't all play it nearly as well as the soloist in that video! At 7:45 I've never seen that "play it with one finger" technique before. Very impressive! Jan 21 at 17:02
  • @BrianTHOMAS I'm tempted to ask "just... why" though! I mean, it's not like this frees the other fingers to doing something else that could be done on the trumpet, does it? Jan 21 at 21:37
  • Thank you. Very informative!
    – brilliant
    Jan 22 at 12:06
  • @leftaroundabout - it's the brass equivalent of playing guitar behind your head or with your teeth. Or sticking daggers in your keyboard… Jan 22 at 18:29

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