Below you will find descriptions of the instruments commonly found in a typical brass band in the UK. It often surprises people that instruments such as the trumpet and french horn are not typical brass band instruments, although even instruments such as these can make an appearance for special pieces. The french horn is more at home in a full orchestra and the trumpet can feature in the likes of a jazz band as well as an orchestra.
Brass instruments can usually be found in two different finishes (or colours), either lacquered (resulting in a brass colour) or silvered (giving a silver or chrome colour). The finish of a brass of the instrument is not particularly relevant to the design of the instrument, but it is said that the lacquered finish sometimes produces a slightly more mellow sound. Most brass instruments are made in either lacquered or silvered finishes and you can see instruments in both finishes below. Just because we have shown one finish or the other does not mean that that particular instrument must come in that finish. The choice of finish for an instrument used by a player usually comes down to personal preference.
Most types of cornet are in the key of B♭, except for the Soprano Cornet which is in the key of E♭ and has the highest pitch of all brass band instruments. Cornets usually have three valves although some instruments also have a forth trigger valve. The cornet section of a band is typically made up of several cornet players, and musical scores are usually written for various positions such as Repiano (Rep), Soprano (Sop), Solo, First, Second, Third and Forth.
The top picture is an example of a typical B♭ cornet with a lacquered finish. Below is an example of an Soprano (E♭) cornet with a silvered finish.
Like most cornets, the flugel is in the key of B♭ and even has the same pitch. Some instruments also have the forth trigger valve. However, its design gives it more mellow sound than the cornet and it happily sits between the sharper sound of the cornet and the lower sound produced by the tenor horns. It is particularly suited to soft melodies and jazzy style music where it often leads the piece, or can happily follow either the cornets or tenor horn sections of music as required.
Also known as the Alto Horn, this instrument is tuned to the key of E♭ (a lower note than the flugel). Scores are often written for Solo Horn, First Horn and Second horn. Only the musical parts are different, as the type instrument played is the same for each.
Typically referred to as simply the Baritone, this instrument is tuned to the key of B♭, a lower pitch than the tenor horn. Some instruments; especially so in newer models; have a forth valve (as in the picture here) which is used to obtain lower notes and is pressed using the left hand whilst supporting the instrument. Its role in a brass band typically accompaniment, but pieces are sometimes written for Baritone which enable it to show off the beautiful sounds the instrument is capable of.
Like the Baritone, the Euphonium is tuned to the key of B♭ and typically includes a forth valve for the lower notes. Newer designs sometimes include a trigger on the first value to assist with tuning. Its role in a brass band is varied and due to its beautiful mellow sounds and wonderful versatility it is considered a very important instrument, up there with the importance of the solo cornet.
Very often a favourite instrument with the audience, due to the almost comical actions of players during fast and complex moments in some music, the trombone differs from most brass instruments in using a slide to alter the length of the instrument to change the notes being played. There are version of the trombone that use triggers to assist with playing and even more unusually there are trombones that make use of valves. Pictured above is a normal trombone, sometimes referred to as the Tenor Trombone, which is in the key of B♭. Below that is a Bass Trombone, which is usually slightly larger and with a longer slide to enable the deeper notes, which is in the key of C-natural. Musical scores often make good use of the trombone during loud sections, and their ability to slur notes easily using the slide is often used during comical moments; for example if emulating in music, the comical antics of a circus clown.
The powerhouse of the brass band, the bass section of instruments make up the largest and deepest sounding instruments in the band. These instruments are sometimes referred to as Tubas. They come in two basic varieties as described below. It is common for these instruments to have four valves, enabling the lowest possible musical notes to be reached.
The E♭ Bass tends to lead the bass section of the band. Obvious by its name, it is tuned to the key of E♭ but due to its size, at a lower pitch that the instruments above. Although it looks in this picture rather like the picture of the euphonium above, it reality it is a much larger (and heavier) instrument! It takes a lot of breath and physical stamina to play a bass instrument well. Although the general role of the bass is to accompany the other instruments, there are a few scores which spotlight the bass, and these are generally played on the E♭ version of the instrument.
Tuned to an even lower note (in the key of B♭ of course), these instruments make up the largest instruments in the band. The Double-B♭ Bass being the largest and deepest sounding instrument of them all. The instrument pictured here is indeed the BB♭ Bass (Double-B♭ Bass). The deepest notes from these instruments can be felt in the body as well as heard through the ear, as they are so deep.
Often ridiculed by the other sections of the band, the percussion section is used to accompany those instruments in a vast variety of ways. The role of percussion is often to keep the tempo (speed) of the music, although it is not uncommon for the blowers in the band to accuse the percussionists of being the worst pace makers in the band! (As your WebMaster here is in the percussion section, I vigorously refute that common misrepresentation!). The common percussion instruments are the Drum Kit and Timpani Drums (also called Kettle Drums) which are shown below. But these are also accompanied by a huge variety of other tuned or un-tuned instruments that can be struck or shaken to make the appropriate sounds.
The driving force of the percussion section, the drum kit is made up from various (un-tuned) instruments, including a floor tom, usually at least two tom toms and a snare drum which is probably the main drum used. There will also be a variety of cymbals within the drummers reach, including hi hat (played using a foot pedal), crash cymbal and ride cymbal. Other instruments to be hit are often attached to stands and can include such items as cow bells, wood blocks, bell trees and many more.
The Timpani Drum is often referred to as the Kettle Drum or abbreviated to simply Timps. These large and heavy instruments perform the same role in the percussion section, as the basses do in the brass section of the band. In fact they often musically follow the bases in music. However, they are often used at important points in the music such as the climax of a piece or at cadence points. There is usually at least two timps used, but larger or finically better off bands may have anything up to five. Originally, timps were un-tuned instruments, but the introduction of the pedal timp has enabled each drum to have its tuning changed (even during a piece) by the use of a foot pedal. The tuning note is indicated on a dial on the side of the drum. Pedal timps can reduce the number of timps a band may need to purchase and own, whilst still being able to play music requiring variously tuned instruments. Like the kit player, the timpanist may also have other instruments at his/her beck and call, including cymbals, gongs, triangles, tambourines and many more.
There is a huge variety of instruments that can be made use of in the percussion section. Several have already been mentioned above, but they only scrape the surface really. There are various tuned instruments such as the glockenspiel, xylophone and vibraphone which are struck with either two or four sticks, or even tubular bells which are struck with mallets. The remainder of the percussion section can be made up of just about anything that when struck or shaken makes the desired sound. These include the many types of cymbals and gongs, bongos, triangles, tambourines, wooden blocks, claves, guiros, maracas, shakers, breadboards and so many others. At KCB, we often hand out a variety of this kind of percussion instrument to the younger members of the audience at our own concerts so that they can join in with several of the pieces. This always seems to go down well, and some regular young members even bring their own instruments along to play now.