It is to be hoped that you know a lot about your own instrument which is fab, but it is necessary to understand about all instruments and how they make their noise. In this short series on instruments I’ll give you the low down on the different groups of instruments.
The brass family of instruments are amongst the loudest!
They all have a mouthpiece you blow into.
The sound is formed by blowing a raspberry with your lips. To get higher notes you squeeze your lips together.
The bigger the instrument the lower the sound.
They all have a bell at the end of the instrument where the sound comes from.
You can get different notes using just your lips, but the range is limited. Therefore brass instruments use valves and slides.
If you want to get a staccato sound you tongue the notes, which entails flicking the tongue (simple explanation) on the mouthpiece. To get a legato sound blow a continuous stream of air into the instrument and change notes as you blow.
Players can use a mute to change the tonal quality of the instrument.
Types of Mute
Straight Mute - The most common and straightforward of mutes. This is conical in shape and has cork pieces towards the bottom to hold it in place and to allow the air to flow through the bell (which is where the mute sits). The tone produced is best described as nasal. When used on a French horn the sound created is a far away one.
Cup Mute - This is a close relation of the straight mute and has an inverted cup on the end. It is commonly used in jazz and big band music. The tone produced is mellower than that of the straight mute.
Harmon Mute - Also known as the wah-wah mute. There are two main differences with this mute: first the cork goes all the way round the mute which then forces the entire sound to travel through the mute rather than split between the mute and the bell. The second difference is that there is a stem that can be in, out, or part way between the two. With the stem in, you can use your hand to cover and uncover the mute and this gives you the “wah-wah” sound. If you take the stem out, you suddenly get transported to an underground, smoky jazz club. Miles Davis loved using this mute on his trumpet.
Plunger Mute - If you’ve ever seen Snoopy on telly and heard Charlie Brown’s teacher “whomping” in the background, that sound is (likely) created using a plunger mute. The plunger looks just like that rubber thing on a stick you sometimes find under the sink (used to unblock drains), only you don’t use the stick! If you use flutter tongue in combination with the plunger mute you get an awesome growl. It’s used in jazz a lot.
The Derby - Named after the hat it looks like, this mute is similar to the plunger in that it covers the bell, it just does’t sound as bold. It can produce a quite startling effect in that when it’s used it can make the instrument sound way off in the distance, but once removed the instrument is suddenly in the room again.
The Bucket Mute - This one has spring clips to attach to the outside of the bell. It produces a dark, mellow tone and is used a lot in small jazz combos.
Stop Mute - This is used in with the French horn and creates a brassy, edgy sound.
Your Hand - Using your hand is the cheapest way of muting your instrument. It won’t necessarily give many effects and it does take a lot of co-ordination and technique (especially on a French Horn) but sometimes, if all you have is your hand…go for it!
The Practise Mute - Not generally used in a musical setting (though there’s no real reason why it shouldn’t), but it is used to practically silence the instrument when you’re practising….parents can thank me later!
Instruments In The Brass Family
There are many instruments in the brass family. Some are transposing instruments, meaning that the note written is different to the note that sounds. For example if you read “C” and play “C” on a B-flat transposing instrument it’ll sound like a B-flat. This would mean that your accompaniment would need to be a tone lower than the B-flat instrument part. The list below is of the common instruments and shows the common keys for them:
Instrument Key Clef
Trumpet B-flat Treble
Cornet B-flat Treble
French Horn F Treble
Trombone C Bass
Euphonium C Bass
Tuba C Bass
It should be noted that the French Horn is a rare beast. Players either play middle to high or middle to low. It is very rare that you’ll get a player who can play the full range of the instrument.
Here is a chart showing the ranges of the instruments.
Other brass instruments include (but are not limited to):
The photographs were taken by Marc Bolwell Sports & Performing Arts Photography