Instruments | Tuba | Brass

The tuba is essentially a large, valved bugle, designed to take the bass part in an orchestra or band. Like the trumpet, it is sounded by buzzing the lips into a mouthpiece. It is conically bored, like the horn, and consequently has a smooth, velvety sound.


The tuba is a youngster among brass instruments; it is one of a number of instruments developed in the furiously inventive atmosphere of the early-nineteenth century. The invention of the piston valve around 1815 breathed new life into brass-instrument design. Ten years later an entirely new range of tenor and soprano instruments had appeared, but the valves were too long to work adequately at the scale required for a lower-pitched instrument. In 1827, however, the self-proclaimed inventor of the valve, Heinrich Stölzel, devised a shorter piston valve that was suited to bass instruments.

By 1835, the first tuba had been created. Prussian bandmaster Wilhelm Wieprecht and instrument-maker J.G. Moritz, worked together on a design for a bass tuba in F (playing a fundamental of F') with five valves. Their instrument soon caught on and by the mid-1840s there were tubas of all shapes and sizes, including a version using the rotary-valve system developed by J.F. Riedl in Vienna. The saxhorn family designed by Adolphe Sax in the 1850s clearly shows the influence of the tuba.

The Tuba in the Orchestra

Up to the early-nineteenth century, the bass instrument in the brass section of the orchestra had been the keyed ophicleide. While this had proved successful, it had significant drawbacks – including loss of tone quality on some notes and a lack of power compared to the higher brass in use by this time. It also had an effective compass that only reached as low as C – already regarded as inadequate by many musicians.

The tuba solved all these issues and quickly became a regular orchestral member in Germany. In the rest of Europe, however, it was slower to catch on, despite the advocacy of the ever-adventurous Berlioz. In France and England, the change from ophicleide to tuba only took place after the 1870s; players in some orchestras were required to be skilled on both instruments right up to the turn of the century.

Types of Tubas

One of the difficulties associated with the tuba is the lack of standardization of instrument choice. The original tuba in F (with a fundamental of F') was the standard instrument in most European orchestras until the mid-twentieth century, when it was replaced by an Eb tuba (often known as EEb, or double Eb, to make clear its low fundamental of Eb'), which remains the most common orchestral tuba today.

In the United States, an even lower tuba in double C (with a fundamental of C') is used. This is particularly useful for playing in the sharp keys that form the majority of the orchestral repertoire. There is also a double Bb tuba which is normally...

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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