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Brass Instruments Explained

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About This Guide

This guide is here to help you understand some of the technical terms associated with brass instruments.  Feel free to contact our woodwind and brass specialists if you need any further information!

Anatomy of a Brass Instrument

The features shown on this cornet are found on the majority of brass instruments:

Anatomy of a brass instrument - click to enlarge (opens a new window)

Glossary Of Terms

Bell

All brass instruments feature a flared bell, as this is essential for sound projection and a bright tone.  The size, amount of flare, and material that the bell is made from will all have an effect on the playing characteristics of the instrument.

Sometimes you will find that the bell is made of a different material to the rest of the instrument – for example, rose brass is redder in colour, and gives a warmer tone, whereas a yellow brass bell tends to give a brighter tone.

Bore

The hollow space running through the centre of the instrument's tubing is known as the bore.  Bore size ranges between small, medium and large, with the most common size being medium large.

As well as bore size, there are also different bore shapes.  A conical bore means that the tubing is tapered from the mouthpiece shank to the bell.  A cylindrical bore means that the sides of the tubing, except for the bell and lead pipe, are parallel to each other.

Embouchure

A term used to describe the position and shape of the players mouth when playing their instrument.  With brass instruments, the correct embouchure requires facial muscle control and a central position of the lips on the mouthpiece to produce a clear buzzing sound.

Finish

Brass instruments and then finished in one of two ways – with a lacquer (which produces a ‘gold' appearance), or with silver plate.  Generally speaking, lacquered instruments give a warmer tone, whereas silver plate produces a brighter sound.  There are a few different types of lacquer used on brass instruments, the most common of which are clear lacquer and gold lacquer.

Finger Ring & Thumb Hook

A small metal hook for your thumb, or a ring for your little finger, are often found on smaller brass instruments.  They help you to balance the weight of the instrument more comfortably, whilst ensuring that your hand position is accurate.

Hand Hammered Bell

The more you pay for your instrument, the more likely it is to have a hand hammered bell.  This technique is most common on trumpets, cornets and french horns and involves the bell being hammered by hand into the correct symmetrical shape from either one or two pieces of metal.

Lead Pipe and Receiver

The receiver is the end of the first part of tubing (know as the lead pipe) of the instrument, into which the mouthpiece fits.  Some trumpets feature a reversed lead pipe.

Monel Valves

Monel is a hard wearing metal alloy which is often used to make the valves in intermediate and professional brass instruments.  Monel is harder wearing and longer lasting than the metal used in standard valves.

Piston Valves

In the UK , the majority of valved brass instruments (apart from the french horn) use piston valves.  At the tops of the valves are the ‘buttons' which are operated by the player's fingers.  Inside the valve casing, there are holes through which air can pass and when the buttons are pushed down, they change the pitch (or note) of the instrument by diverting the air stream through additional tubing.

Reversed Lead

Example of a reverse lead pipe

If you were to remove the main tuning slide from a standard trumpet, you would see that both ends of the U-shaped tube are the same length, and both fit inside the main slide of the body.  On a ‘reverse lead' trumpet, one end of the pipe is longer the other and fits around the outside of the body tubing.  This results in a slightly different air flow through the instrument, which some trumpeters find gives a smoother and brighter playing experience.

Rotary Valves

Found commonly on the french horn, rotary valves work on a slightly different principle to piston valves.  As opposed to being pressed down to align the holes and change airflow, rotary valves turn in a clockwise direction.

Slides

All brass instruments feature some kind of slide.  The trombone is played by moving the slide in and out – on most other instruments, the slide is used alongside valves to make adjustments to the tuning.

Trigger

The trigger is a mechanical lever which is sometimes found on brass instruments.  By pressing the trigger, the player is able to temporarily adjust the tuning of certain notes by effectively lengthening the main tuning slide or valve slide.  Once the trigger is released, the spring automatically returns to its natural position.

Triggers are usually found on trumpets and cornets, and sometimes on euphoniums.  They don't tend to feature on beginners' instruments as they are designed for speedy adjustment whilst playing so are only really useful to a more experienced player.

Water Keys

Water keys are usually situated on the lowest parts of the instrument and are spring loaded, with a rubber or cork bung.  After playing or during long playing sessions, these can be opened to release excess moisture from the inside of the instrument.

 
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