The Anatomy of a Brass Band

Breaking Brass

If you think that brass music is only appreciated by the elderly and played by colliery brass bands in mining towns in the UK, then you are sorely mistaken. Brass has a huge place in music whether it is in schools up and down the country, at big band performances adding a sweet, warm timbre and depth to the sound, or in some enjoyable brass covers of fairly current songs such as Thrift Shop from the Broken Brass Ensemble. Traditional brass brands are of course extremely popular in the UK, with most towns, villages, and cities having at least one brass band that meets regularly, making the playing of brass instrument as much of a social gathering as it is a purely musical conquest. Many often enjoy the sound of brass bands without actually knowing all that much about which instruments comprise the ensemble however, and anyone with even a mild interest in music may be curious as to how such a sweet sound is produced by such a large number of people. This short article is intended to inform you about the make-up of a traditional brass band so that you can acquire a better understanding of which sound is produced by which instrument.

Colourful image with an orange background of three  men playing a brass instrument

The British Version

Much to the surprise of many, the traditional brass band that is often referred to as the ‘British’ style of band doesn’t contain a bunch of trumpets or some of the more obvious instruments. Below is an example of the instruments used in the setup of modern Salvation Army Brass Band, who are a shining example of high-quality brass music in the UK. Note that the number of each instrument used may vary from band to band.

  • 1 Soprano Cornet (E Flat)
  • 9 Cornets (B Flat) These are arranged differently with front/back rows, a repiano cornet, 2nd cornets and 3rd cornets
  • 1 Flugelhorn (B Flat)
  • 3 Tenor Horns (E Flat)
  • 2 Baritone Horns (B Flat)
  • 2 Tenor Trombones (B Flat)
  • 1 Bass Trombone
  • 2 Euphoniums (B Flat)
  • 2 Basses (E Flat) Also known as E Flat Tubas
  • 2 Basses (B Flat) Also known as B Flat Tubas
  • 2-4 percussion parts

As you can see, the closest thing to a trumpet in the traditional British brass bad is the cornet. British bands don’t traditionally include the trumpet though some bands from the United States do include them.

Instrumental

Here is a little more about each instrument in the ensemble:

Cornet

A musical cornet on a dark background

This is a close relative of the trumpet with the same pitch range of its larger relative. The above-mentioned soprano cornet is simply a smaller version of the regular B Flat cornet. Its tone is midway between the brightness of a trumpet and the darker tones heard from a flugelhorn.

Flugelhorn

This instrument has an even darker tone than the cornet or trumpet, with the softness and sweet pitch of a French horn.

Horn

The horn sound makes up the “middle” sound of the brass band’s tone and is a key component, possessing a bright sound with extremely subtle dark tones that are often lost in the full sound of a brass band.

Baritone

This instrument’s pitch is on the lower end of the spectrum and its sounds is between the bright timbre of a trombone and the more subtle euphonium sound.

Trombone

With no valves to speak of to produce different notes, the Trombone has a slide which produces the characteristically smooth transition between notes. The regular trombone has a very bright sound and can contrast with the mellower instruments of the band while the bass trombone has an extremely powerful sound and its sound can almost be described as a blare that can cut through the rest of the instruments.

Euphonium

This makes up the tenor voice of a brass band and is a large, upright instrument with one of the most subtle timbres in the entire of the brass band.

Bass

Also known as the Tuba, this is the largest of all brass instruments. Much like the bass guitar in a band, the Tuba/Bass provides a foundation for the rest of the brass ensemble.

Percussion

Varying from full drum kits in modern-day brass bands to separate snare, bass drum, and cymbals/other pitch-specific percussion, percussion provides rhythm and strong accents to certain notes should the music call for it.