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Brass Instruments in the Orchestra

23rd January 2019

orchestra in concert hall

Brass instruments in the orchestra traditionally fall into the four categories of horns, trumpets, trombones and tubas.

A typical combination of such instruments in a full symphony orchestra is four horns, two trumpets, three trombones and one tuba. However, the exact numbers in a given orchestra has been known to vary considerably according to historical period, geographical location and composer preference.

As their name suggests, brass instruments are unsurprisingly made of brass. They essentially resemble very long pipes that widen into a bell-like shape at their ends. The pipes are curved and twisted in many different ways, to enable them to be held and played more easily.

So, whether you are interested in a trombone, French horn or tuba, what do you need to know about the brass instruments in the orchestra to make the most informed buying choices?

What is the largest brass instrument in an orchestra?

The tuba is both the largest and lowest brass instrument. It produces a beautifully warm and rich sound that anchors the harmony of not only the brass family, but the entire orchestra.

A tuba is easily recognisable due to its distinctive silhouette of a long metal tube curved into an oblong shape, concluding at the end with a huge bell. With tubas typically consisting of between nine and 18 feet of tubing, you might not be surprised to learn that playing one requires some serious breath!

Alternatively, you may be most interested in the French horn

While the terms ‘horn’ and ‘French horn’ are often used synonymously, the French horn and the English horn differ markedly. Whereas the English horn is neither English nor a horn, the French horn is absolutely both a horn and French in origin!

The French horn’s dimensions aren’t as intimidating as those of the tuba, however, as its 18 feet of tubing is rolled up into a circular shape. The tuba can produce very soft and loud sounds alike, and is even considered by many to be the most beautiful-sounding instrument in the orchestra.

How many trumpets in an orchestra?

It’s typical for between two and four trumpets to be used in an orchestra. Many people perceive trumpets as simply being very loud, but they actually play the flexible soprano role in a brass section otherwise not known for its agility.

The trumpet’s ability to play extremely rapid sequences of notes has long made it an invaluable attention-grabber for a composer. However, you may also be surprised by the sweet and gentle sounds of which it is capable when a soft melody is played with a mute.

Last but not least, the vital trombone

The trombone differs from other brass instruments in its use of a slide for changing pitch, instead of valves. It comprises two thin U-shaped pipes that are linked at opposite ends to form an ‘S’.

A trombone in an orchestra is often characterised by grandness and power, but this instrument can also produce especially soft and melodic sounds.