The History of Brass Instruments


Brass instruments aren't necessarily made of brass. The term refers to wind instruments, which can be made of other materials as well, such as wood, shells or horns. The technical term for these instruments is aerophone ("aero" is air; "phone" is sound), and refers to the fact that the musician must blow air into the instrument in order to produce sounds. One example of the earliest brass instrument, a trumpet from the tomb of King Tutankhamun, still exists. Two trumpets were discovered in the tomb, one made of copper and one of silver. In 1939, a musician shattered the silver trumpet while making a recording. You can listen to part of the recording on the Philharmonia website (see Resources).

Brass Instruments
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The earliest aerophones were made of animal horns, giving rise to the designation that has stuck with brass instruments to this day, "horns." Possibly the most familiar horn instrument is the schofar, which is still used today. The Israelites used this instrument, made from a ram's horn, to mark significant religious occasions, herald oncoming processions and announce war. Ancient German armies (the Goths, Visigoths and Ostragoths) used cow horns to signal mealtimes and announce military matters. In ancient Britain, Romans used cow horns to announce the start of rugby and boxing matches, and Egyptians, Celts and Danes all used cow horns as ceremonial instruments. Throughout Asia, priests and monks used conch-shell trumpets to announce ceremonies and call others to worship, and Fiji Islanders played them for funeral processions. Natives of North and South America announced important events by blowing on instruments made of conch shells.

The First Horns
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The Israelite priests used a pair of silver trumpets, called hazozerot, to call members to meetings, invite other leaders or princes to gatherings, to warn their camps of danger and to signal during wars. People living in the mountains of Europe, from Sweden to Romania, used the Alphorn. Alphorns are carved from wood, the spruces or pines that grow on mountainsides, and are probably most associated with Switzerland, although the earliest record of its use there is in the sixteenth century. Going back much further in time, the Australian Aborigines documented their own version of the Alphorn, the didgeridoo, in cave drawings from about 100,000 years ago. And a mosaic from the second-century Romans illustrates a shepherd blowing an instrument much like an Alphorn. Ancient Egyptians created trumpets made of silver and bronze, with long pipes and the familiar bell. Two such instruments were found in Tutankhamun's tomb. These trumpets were probably used for religious rites, although most evidence found by archaeologists indicates that they were used mainly for military purposes. The Greeks and Romans fashioned straight and curved trumpets of bronze, wood and silver. The Roman names "tuba" and "cornu" survive as the modern-day tuba and cornet.

Early Manufactured Instruments
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In the early fifteenth century, instrument makers developed the first S-shaped trumpet, which resembled the modern trumpet. While it had brilliance of tone, it also had a limited range of notes. It was followed by the slide trumpet, which was awkward to play, and the sackbut, the forerunner of the trombone. With the sackbut, the instrument makers designed double tubes to shorten the distance the slide had to travel, while increasing the range of notes. During this period, brass instruments were used for heraldry and military purposes. It was not until the late sixteenth century that composers began to see the possibilities of brass instruments. In 1597, Giovoanni Gabrieli composed "Sonate pian'forte," the first piece of music to incorporate brass instruments.

Renaissance Brass
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In the early seventeenth century, designers improved the pitch of brass instruments by adding terminal crooks, and made tuning possible by adding tubing to mouthpieces. Throughout the century, sackbuts and trombones were played in courts and churches. Trumpets were still not viewed as musical instruments, and were used mainly for court and military purposes, and as hunting horns. The French horn was developed in France around 1650, and began to be used in orchestras in the early eighteenth century. Also in the eighteenth century, trumpets finally came into their own as musical instruments. Terminal crooks were added, which allowed them to be played in different keys, and a Dresden horn player developed a technique called hand-stopping to vary the pitch. Around 1826, valves were added to trumpets, and in 1828, Jean-Louis Antoine developed the cornet. That same year, the valved trombone appeared. Wilhelm Wieprecht and Johann Gottfried Moritz, two Berlin instrument-makers, invented the tuba in 1835. In 1838, Moritz created a tenor tuba, and in 1843, Sommar of Wiemar invented the euphonium. The modern trumpet with piston valves was entrenched by the end of the nineteenth century.

Later Developments
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In 1905, Mahillon, a Belgian company, created a piccolo B-flat trumpet. In mid-century, trombone makers added a second rotor valve to produce what has become the standard bass trombone.

Modern Brass
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