what is a brass band?

Brass Band History

The brass band dates back to the early nineteenth century and England’s Industrial Revolution as an outgrowth of the medieval waits (public musicians).

With increasing urbanization, employers began to finance work bands to decrease the political activity with which the working classes seemed preoccupied during their leisure time. Thus, the brass band tradition was born.

Taking advantage of improved mechanical skills, rapid advances in metallurgy and metal machining and fabrication, as well as the rise of conservatories and music departments at universities, the standards of instrumental technology and performance quickly improved. By 1860 there were over 750 brass bands in England alone. Although these bands were not fully comprised of brass instruments until the second half of the nineteenth century, the tradition developed to the present day current instrumentation of cornets, flugelhorn, tenor horns, baritones, trombones, euphoniums, B flat and E flat basses and percussion.

Brass bands in Great Britain presently number in the thousands with many of the bands having origins prior to 1900. Originally coal mines and mills, funded the bands and many today retain corporate sponsorship. To this day, brass bands use only non-professional musicians. Many were employed by the sponsoring company in their earlier years.

The Uniqueness of a Brass Band

What makes the brass band unique? All brass band music – with the exception of the bass trombone, a later addition to the brass band lineup – is scored in treble clef. Over the years this characteristic has allowed for remarkable freedom among certain bands, making the transition from one instrument to another somewhat easier.

The number of members and instrumentation is quite rigid, usually limited to between twenty-eight and thirty players. The repertoire, however, is unusually flexible with concert programs consisting of anything from original works, orchestral transcriptions and featured soloists to novelty music, marches, medleys, show tune and hymn tune arrangements.

The typical brass band sound comes from set types and shapes of the instruments used: the flugelhorn, soprano cornet and baritone horn, for example, help create the bright, melodic sound of a brass band, which is very different to the dark and symphonic sound typical of orchestral brass. With the exception of the trombones, all instruments are conical in design, producing a more mellow, richer sound, yet one that has wide dynamic and coloristic variety.

Although brass bands were an important part of life in nineteenth-century America, they are often superseded by concert and marching bands. However, many fine brass bands are actively performing today. During the course of this century the Salvation Army was predominantly responsible for maintaining the brass band tradition in America through their music ministry. The last fifteen years has seen a brass band resurgence in North America.

Brass Band Instrumentation
The unique sound of the brass band sets it apart form other performing ensembles which use brass instruments. The brass band has a richer and more mellow sound featuring Cornets instead of Trumpets, E-flat Tenor Horns instead of French horns and English bore baritone horns.
The unique sound of the brass band sets it apart form other performing ensembles which use brass instruments. The brass band has a richer and more mellow sound featuring Cornets instead of Trumpets, E-flat Tenor Horns instead of French horns and English bore baritone horns.

1 Eb Soprano Cornet

The Soprano Cornet serves as the piccolo voice of the band. It requires a delicate touch and is used frequently as a soloist or to add brightness to the Cornet tutti sound.

8-10 Bb Cornets

The Solo Cornets are the lead voices in the ensemble. The use of four Solo Cornets permits players to switch off on parts that are frequently very demanding and continuous throughout the entire piece. Divisi parts are also frequent. 2-3 Second Cornets and 2-3 Third Cornets fill out the Cornet choir.

1 Bb Repiano Cornet

The Repiano Cornet is unique to the Brass Band and serves as the “roving linebacker” of the section. Often used as a solo voice or doubling the Soprano Cornet in unison or at the octave, the Repiano is also used to add weight to the other Cornet parts.

1 Bb Flugelhorn

The Flugelhorn serves as a bridge between the Cornets and the Tenor Horns. Its darker, more mellow sound is frequently featured as a solo voice and is often used as the top voice in the horn family.

3 Eb Tenor Horns

The Solo, First and Second Tenor Horns often perform as a choir with Flugelhorn and Baritones with the Solo Horn serving as a frequent solo voice. Although referred to as the Tenor Horn, it is technically the contrapunctal voice pitched higher than the tenor voices provided by the Euphoniums, Baritones, and Trombones, but lower than the soprano voices of the Cornets. The Tenor Horn is an upright, three-valve instrument with a lighter sound than the French Horn.

2 Bb Euphoniums

The Euphoniums are the Cello section of the brass band. They are the predominant solo tenor voices and also function as tutti enforcers with the Basses.

2 Bb Baritones

The Baritones are often doubled with Euphoniums. However, they work best as lower extensions of the Tenor Horn section. As separate voices, their ability to blend and add a middle-low voice without heaviness is a unique feature of the brass band.

2-3 Bb Tenor Trombones

The Tenor Trombones provide punch and drive because of their cylindrical construction. The role of the Trombone section is to balance the brightness of the Cornets with the warmth of the Euphoniums and Basses.

1 Bass Trombone

The Bass Trombonist gives a low end of support to the Trombone section while also articulating the bass voice of the Tubas.

4 Basses (Tubas)

2 Eb Tubas and 2 Bb Tubas, also known as the “Basses,” give composers an extraordinary flexibility in dictating the sound of the bass part. The lighter quality of the E-flats can have all the lyricism of the Euphoniums while the fatter B-flat sound adds depth and weight. In octaves or fifths, the Bass section gives the brass band an incredible richness of tone unavailable in any other musical ensemble.

3 Percussionists

Three Percussionists cover the entire spectrum of percussion instruments.