Some brass instruments have valves. You can press these down in order to change the notes. When you push a valve down, it opens up more tubing for the air to travel through. More tubing means that there is more space for the air to vibrate; therefore, the note will be a lower pitch.
Remember: the smaller the area, the quicker the vibration and higher the pitch.
Here is a drawing that shows how pressing down a valve changes the path of the air and lengthens the air’s journey through the instrument.
You can also check out this short video that explains “How Brass Instrument Valves Work”.
Not all brass instruments have valves, but they all are long tubes of metal that flare out at one end. The tubes are wound around and around to make them portable and easy to carry. If you stretched them out straight, they would be rather long.
Trumpets are at least 3,500 years old. Early versions were even found in King Tut’s tomb!
Trumpets have been used to send signals, frighten enemies in battles, and begin ceremonies for centuries.
Until the 1790’s, trumpets did not have valves (similar to bugles) and the trumpeters could only change the pitch by changing the shape and tightness of their lips.
A standard trumpet is 18 inches long, but if you unwound all of the tubing, it would be 4 1/2 feet long. That is 3 times the length of the trumpet.
The finale of Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Concerto for Trumpet in E Flat” is one of the first pieces ever written for a trumpet that had valve keys. The piece begins with strings and woodwind instruments. The trumpet enters at about 0:35.
Listen to “Concerto for Trumpet in E Flat” now.
The French horn has a mellow and velvety sound that helps it blend the brass and woodwinds together in the orchestra. French horns are even older than trumpets and the ancient French horns did not have valves either. It was not until the 1800’s that the instrument began looking like it does today.If you uncoiled a French horn, it would be 12 feet long or about two times the height of an adult man.The French horn is a complicated instrument to master. While holding the instrument and adjusting the tone with the right hand, the player’s left fingers work the valves and his/her left thumb works a valve that selects the tubing for higher or lower notes. Since it is so hard to master the extreme high and low notes, musicians usually specialize in only one range (either the high notes or low notes).In the old days, the French horn was very similar to the horn that people used while hunting.
In Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Horn Concerto No. 1“, you can hear how difficult the French horn is to play and can practically see the men, horses, and hunting dogs chasing a fox if you close your eyes and use your imagination. (The French horn starts at about 0:52.)
Trombones were invented in the 1400’s as an improvement on the trumpet. Before the invention of valves on brass instruments, the slides on trombones allowed the trombonist to change the pitch by changing the length of its tubing.
Trombones form the middle harmony between the higher trumpets and the lower tubas (which we will learn about next).
If you unwound a trombone, it would be 9 feet long and almost reach the ceiling in a home.
Trombones can also create an effect that no other instrument can imitate. It’s called the glissando. The glissando is a quick and smooth change from one note to another. It is made by continually blowing air through the mouthpiece while moving the slide.
Here is an example of a trombonist playing two glissandi.
Listen and watch the solo trombonist in this video of Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 3”. The video does a great job of showcasing several other instruments as well.
Tubas were invented so that brass bands would have a low-sounding (or bass) instrument.
The first tuba was made in 1835. Soon tubas were being made in a big variety of shapes and sizes. Each of these tubas were given a different name. Sousaphones and baritones are popular kinds of tubas.
The tuba is the youngest member of the brass family and also is the largest, so it makes the lowest notes. If you uncoiled a tuba it would be 18 feet long!
In Maurice Ravel’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”, the tuba is supposed to sound like a cart being pulled by an ox. The tuba is actually playing notes in its higher range, but it still sounds heavy and like it is working hard. Listen to this section of “Pictures at an Exhibition: Bydlo” here. This is another video that shows a lot of closeups of several of the musicians while they are performing.
If you are new to the Music Adventures Lessons, please click on the graphic below for an introduction and more information.