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A brass instrument is a musical instrument whose tone is produced by vibration of the lips as a player blows into a tubular resonator. Brass instruments are also called labrosones, literally meaning "lip-vibrated instruments" (Baines, 1993).
The view of most scholars (see organology) is that the term "brass instrument" should be defined by the way the sound is made, as above, and not by whether the instrument is actually made of brass. Thus, as exceptional cases one finds brass instruments made of wood, like the cornett, and woodwind instruments made of brass, like the saxophone.
Families of brass instruments
Brass instruments nowadays generally come in one of three families:
- Natural brass instruments, where the player can only play notes in the instrument's harmonic series, for example the bugle. The trumpet was a natural brass instrument prior to about 1795, and the French horn before about 1820. Natural instruments are still played in authentic performances of older music, and for some ceremonial functions.
- Valved brass instruments use a set of valves (typically 3 or 4 but as many as 7 or more in some cases) operated by the player's fingers that introduce additional tubing into the instrument, changing its overall length. This family includes the modern trumpet, cornet, flugelhorn, saxhorn, euphonium, tuba, sousaphone, mellophone, and French horn. The valves are usually piston valves, but can be rotary values. Rotary valves are the norm for the French horn and are also prevalent on the tuba.
- Slide brass instruments use a slide to change the length of tubing. The main instrument in this famility is the trombone (although some valve trombones are also made) and the slide trombone's ancestor the sackbut. Some modern trombones also have rotary valves in addition to the slide. The folk instrument the bazooka is also in the slide family.
In the past, a fourth type was common:
- Keyed or Fingered brass instruments used holes along the body of the instrument, which were covered by fingers or by finger-operated pads (keys) in a similar way to a woodwind instrument. These included the cornett, serpent and keyed trumpet. Such instruments were difficult to play and became obsolete with the invention of the valve, though have had a renaissance with the growth of the early music movement.
Some other brass instruments
- alphorn (wood)
- conch (shell)
- shofar (horn)
- Vladimirsky rozhok (wood, Russia)
- Didgeridoo (wood, Australia)
- Wagner tuba
Sound production in brass instruments
Because the player of a brass instrument has direct control of the prime vibrator (the lips), brass instruments exploit the player's ability to select the harmonic at which the instrument's column of air will vibrate. By making the instrument about twice as long as the equivalent woodwind instrument and starting with the second harmonic, players can get a good range of notes simply by varying the tension of their lips (see embouchure). Brass players call each harmonic a "partial".
Most brass instruments are fitted with a removable mouthpiece. Different shapes, sizes and styles of mouthpiece may be used to suit different embouchures, or to more easily produce certain tonal characteristics. Trumpets are characteristically fitted with a cupped mouthpiece, while French horns are fitted with a conical mouthpiece.
One interesting difference between a woodwind instrument and a brass instrument is that woodwind instruments are non-directional. This means that the sound produced propagates in all directions with approximately equal volume. Brass instruments, on the other hand, are highly directional, with most of the sound produced traveling straight outward from the bell. This difference makes it significantly more difficult to record a woodwind instrument accurately. It also plays a major role in some performance situations, such as in marching bands.
For a comparative list of the pitch of various brass instruments see pitch of brass instruments.
- Baines, Anthony (1993). Brass Instruments: Their History and Development (4th ed.). New York: Dover Publications, Inc. ISBN 0-486-27574-4.
- The traditional manufacture of brass instruments, a 1991 video (Real Player format) featuring maker Robert Barclay; from the web site of the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
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