Brass wind instruments feature in many different styles of music and are a source of confusion when it comes to what they’re called and how they sound. In this blog, we’ll sort them by pitch and go over the differences.

Brass Wind Instruments From High to Low

Brass Instruments Made of Wood?!

While most brass wind instruments are made of brass, the material they’re made of doesn’t actually determine the way they’re categorised. The commonality here has to do with how the tone is shaped, which is done by tensing the lips, placing them on a funnel-shaped mouthpiece and blowing air into it. The instrument then converts the vibrations into sound. Adjusting lip tension results in a lower or higher pitch, and the way tone is shaped is essential for the categorisation of brass wind instruments. Saxophones, for example, are made of brass, but belong in the woodwind instrument category because they use reeds to produce sound.

Cylindrical versus Conical Bore

Brass wind instruments can be subdivided into a group of sharp-sounding and a group of soft-sounding instruments. This refers to their individual timbres, which is largely determined by the way it’s shaped: the boring. Brass instruments must have a long, curved tube that ends in a bell. Sharp-sounding brass instruments get their brightness from a cylindrically-shaped tube, meaning that the diameter at the mouthpiece is the same as right before the bell. Trumpets and trombones are excellent examples of instruments with a cylindrical bore. Contrarily, soft-sounding brass instruments have a conical boring to help shape a warm tone. With conical bores, the tube width gradually increases across the entire length and the tube is basically an extremely stretched out cone. Take a look at bugle or euphonium for instance. In general, soft brass instruments are used to play melodies, while the sharp-sounding ones take care of the accompaniment. Instruments such as the cornett and horn even feature both conical and cylindrical elements, and are used both ways. Each instrument has its own timbre, but this does, of course, depend on the pitch.

Small Brass versus Big Brass

A second way of sorting has to do with size: small brass versus big brass. This also takes us to the title of this blog. As expected, small brass instruments have shorter tubes than big brass instruments and, the larger the instrument, the lower-pitched the sound. In the overview below, I’ve listed the most common brass instruments sorted by pitch and divided into three groups: small brass, big brass and the mid range.

Small Brass Instruments


Used in many styles of music, from classical to pop, most people are already familiar with the trumpet. The instrument was inspired by the natural trumpet, which was used on the battlefield for signalling and consisted of nothing but a long, valveless tube and a mouthpiece. At some point, musicians started using natural trumpets for classical pieces, but were limited by the fact that the instrument is only able to play overtones. Then came the invention of valves, which opened up the possibility to play entire scales, and standard trumpets these days come equipped with three of these valves. By pressing one of the valves, air is led to a longer tube, resulting in a lower sound. By combining the valves, essentially all notes can be played.

Brass Wind Instruments From High to Low


The cornett is often seen as the trumpet’s little sibling, but this is not entirely correct. It actually stems from the post horn, used by 18th and 19th century postal services to let people know mail’s arrived. The main difference lies in the boring, which is cylindrical at first and gradually becomes conical. The build is also a little more compact but does have larger curves, giving the cornett a slightly warmer sound compared to a trumpet.

Brass Wind Instruments From High to Low


The flugelhorn was invented by Adolphe Sax and yes, that’s the same guy that invented the saxophone. Sax was looking to craft an instrument that sounded like a trumpet, but warmer, explaining why both instruments look very much alike. The flugelhorn, however, has a conical boring and can even be seen as closely related to the horn.

Brass Wind Instruments From High to Low

Mid-Range Instruments


The shape of the horn reminds most of that of a hunting horn and, just like the cornett, is both cylindrical and conical. The relatively large bell offers a huge range compared to other brass wind instruments and, while horns can usually be found in orchestras, you’ll also occasionally hear one or two featured in big brass-backed pop music.

Brass Wind Instruments From High to Low

Tenor Horn

At first glance, the tenor horn looks more like a tuba than anything else. In reality, its size is closer to that of a flugelhorn and, again, we’re looking at a conical instrument with a warm sound. The range of a tenor horn matches the mid-range and the instrument can typically be found in brass bands, marching bands and concert bands.

Brass Wind Instruments From High to Low

Big Brass Instruments


Big brass instruments like the euphonium have a lower voice and are often a part of brass bands and wind orchestras. Conically shaped and literally translated as ‘sweet-sounding’ in Ancient Greek, the euphonium is used to play melodic parts and not to be confused with the baritone.

Brass Wind Instruments From High to Low


If you’re going off appearances, any confusion is completely understandable. Still, the baritone really is a completely different instrument than a euphonium and has a sharper sound due to its cylindrical shape. Like the tenor horn, it’s frequently used in brass bands, marching bands and concert bands.

Brass Wind Instruments From High to Low


Let’s get this straight right away: the trombone is not a slide trumpet, that’s a different instrument. They do both have cylindrical borings and a brighter sound, but tube length differs. The trombone is essentially valveless and its sound is changed via a sliding tube. Since this happens seamlessly, it’s possible to slide past seven semi notes in one go. These days, many trombones come with a valve, and the ones that do, even slightly resemble a trumpet but have had their sound lowered by an octave.

Brass Wind Instruments From High to Low


Finally, there’s the mighty tuba, or rather, bass tuba. We’ll be specific here because technically, the euphonium is also a type of tuba. Commonly responsible for the lowest registers in accompaniment parts, the instrument obviously has a conical boring ending in a very large bell. Actually, since tubas can be a little unwieldy to march with, the sousaphone was brought into existence. The latter is more cylindrically-shaped and is wide enough to be worn around the body.

Brass Wind Instruments From High to LowBrass Wind Instruments From High to Low


This blog was written to introduce you to the world of brass wind instruments, but it’s by no means a complete overview. Each of the instruments discussed here alone come in various tunings, models and flavours. Take the piccolo-trumpet or the bass trombone. As with most types of instruments, prices range from effortlessly affordable to ouch-that’s-expensive, but it’s worth knowing that maintaining your brass instrument is actually fairly simple. For more on this, check out our blog on brass instrument maintenance.

See Also

» Tips To Keep Your Brass Instrument In Pristine Condition

» Brass Wind Instruments
» Wind Instrument Stands
» Trumpets
» Music Books
» Mouthpieces
» Wind Instrument Cases
» Wind Instrument Maintenance

2 responses
  1. Dr. D says:

    Your comment about the sousaphone being a “Smaller sibling” to the tuba is highly questionable. To be more creditable I suggest you post a photo of both a tuba and sousaphone of the same pitch (i.e. BBb) side by side. Having played both I don’t consider the sousaphone a “Smaller sibling”

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