Brass Band Instrumentation

Definition

The strict definition of a brass band requires that only brass instruments are included (except for the percussion section). No strings or reeds, only instruments where the sound is produced by buzzing the lips into a cup-shaped mouthpiece. This eliminates the saxophone, which is generally constructed of brass but uses a single reed as the sound source.

Instruments Used

The modern Salvation Army band is based on the English contest band. The instruments used include cornets, flügelhorns, horns, baritones, trombones, euphoniums, and basses. Percussion instruments are used in most bands.

In a contest band, the number of players is fixed by rule, and the compositions are tailored for that size. In Salvation Army banding, there is no set size for a group. In fact, music for Salvation Army bands is published for groups as small as four players. In order to play the most complex Salvation Army pieces, as many as 25 players are required.

An example of the distribution of instruments in a brass band is provided by listing the instruments used in the National Capital Band of the Salvation Army, which is based in Washington, DC. (This list is based on the composition of the band in February, 2002.)

Voices

The most basic arrangements for a band consist of four parts, corresponding to the four basic voice parts in a choir – soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.

InstrumentsVoice Parts
Cornet, FlügelhornSoprano, Alto
HornAlto, Tenor
BaritoneTenor
TromboneTenor, Bass
EuphoniumTenor, Bass
Bass (Tuba)Bass

These are the “normal” assignments. Composers frequently use the instruments in different ways to achieve the musical effect they desire. Different combinations of instruments can make the sound remarkably different even when all of the notes are exactly the same. One of the more extreme examples is the euphonium solo Shenandoah, by Stephen Bulla. In the band accompaniment, the cornet section is not used at all. In arrangements for larger groups, special effects such as trombone quartets can be used.

Color

In a musical context, the term “color” refers to a quality of sound. This is most often described in terms of light: “bright” sounds or “dark” sounds. A bright sound is clear and ringing; a dark sound is mellow and complex. In general, brass instruments are bright when compared to other orchestral instruments. One of the limitations of an all-brass instrumentation is that the range of color is small. Within the brass instrument family, there are shades of color. Brass instruments whose bore is mostly cylindrical, such as the trombone, are the brightest. Mellow instruments, such as the flügelhorn, have a conical bore.

In the typical brass band, the cornets and trombones are the bright instruments. Flügelhorn and euphonium are the dark instruments. The other instruments (horns, baritones, and basses) are somewhere in between, closer to the mellow quality.

Composers employ several different methods of extending the color range of the brass band. Mutes of various types have the most pronounced effect. More subtle differences can be introduced by the use of different keys and pitch registers. Well-trained players have some control over the brightness of the sound.