Brass is a malleable metal with excellent acoustic properties, making it ideal for creating musical instruments. This metal is primarily made up of copper and zinc, and the different proportions of the alloy affects the colour of the instrument – and the sound produced.
Brass is the only metal with an orchestral family named in its honour. Made up of a combination of copper and zinc, this alloy is perfect for producing everything from the piercing highs of the trumpets to the booming depths of the tuba.
Brass is responsible for the bold brash voices of the orchestra, conjuring up visions of military victories, hunting expeditions, ships cruising through the seas, and grey clouds parting to let the sunlight in. These instruments also make up the sound of jazz and bebop, funk and soul, rock n’ roll and RnB, polka and tropicalia, marching bands and big bands – and so much more.
Any colour you like
Metal has a direct relationship to the sound of the instrument. Generally speaking, the softer the material, the warmer and darker the sound produced. And, of course, harder metal gives a brighter and more responsive sound. There are generally three main types of brass alloy used in musical instrument manufacture today:
Yellow brass – Most trumpets are made with this metal. It’s a very resonant alloy made up of 70% copper, which produces a bright and direct tone that cuts through with ease.
Gold brass has a slightly darker colour because of the 85% copper content in the alloy. This gives the instrument a broader, fuller tone – whilst still retaining a good level of projection.
Red brass has the highest copper content, at around 90%. It gives a warmer and mellower tone, but because it is a softer metal, it doesn’t project as well as alloys with higher zinc content.
The brass family
The brass family consists of five major instruments: The trumpet, the French horn, the trombone, the euphonium, and the tuba. The player produces sound by “blowing raspberries” with their mouth.
The trumpet is the highest and smallest member of the brass family, with sound produced by the player buzzing their lips together into the mouthpiece.
The French horn is a brass instrument that is larger than a trumpet, so it’s pitched lower. It’s known for its intricate tubular arrangement that transports the sound through its coil into a flared bell.
The trombone is considered ‘low brass’ and reads from the bass clef, as opposed to the higher treble clef. Rather than using valves or keys, the trombone uses a slide to change pitches.
The euphonium is a low sounding horn with rich, low tones. Think of it as a double-size trumpet or a half-size tuba.
The tuba is one of the largest and lowest instrument of the brass family. Its deep tones act as an anchoring bass for the brass section.
So next time you are listening to a James Brown horn section or a Schubert concerto, you’ll know that the amazing sounds are created by the most important metal in music. And this rich, full brassy tone is only possible because of the all-important copper-zinc ratio.
After all, it’s not called the brass section for nothing.