12 Metallic Facts About Brass Instruments
Brass instruments have been around in one form or another for thousands of years. They've played a part in historical military campaigns, religious ceremonies, and—of course—the development of music around the world. Dedicated to marching band players, jazz fanatics, classical music buffs, and music lovers everywhere, here are 12 facts about brass instruments:
1. THEY'RE SOMETIMES CALLED LABROSONES, MEANING "LIP-VIBRATED INSTRUMENTS."
All brass instruments produce sound through the vibration of the player’s lips. Musicians alter their pitch by vibrating their lips at different speeds into the instrument’s mouthpiece.
2. NOT ALL INSTRUMENTS IN THE BRASS FAMILY ARE MADE OF BRASS.
Instruments like conch shells and shofars (made of hollowed out animal horns) are still considered brass because they produce sound through lip vibration. They’re often referred to as “natural trumpets,” since they’re minimally altered from their original form, and don’t have valves or slides to control pitch. Other traditional brass instruments, like trumpets and trombones, though primarily made of brass, may also have some copper or other metals mixed in.
3. METAL TRUMPETS DATE BACK TO AROUND 1500 BCE.
Silver and bronze trumpets have been found in Ancient Egyptian graves, and ancient versions of the instrument have also been found in Asia, South America, and Scandinavia. But that doesn’t mean King Tut was playing in a jazz band—the earliest trumpets were used for military and religious purposes, not for making music.
4. DURING THE RENAISSANCE, THE TROMBONE WAS CALLED A "SACKBUT."
The goofy-sounding term is believed to come from the combination of two French words: saquer (to draw) and bouter (to shove). Though the sackbuts of the Renaissance were slightly different in size and shape from the trombone, they’re the ancestor of the modern trombone.
5. BEETHOVEN'S FIFTH SYMPHONY WAS THE FIRST ORCHESTRAL PIECE TO USE THE TROMBONE.
The instrument was introduced in the finale of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in C Minor, written between 1804 and 1808.
6. THE FIRST RECORD PUT OUT BY A NEW ORLEANS BRASS BAND WAS BUNK JOHNSON'S BRASS AND DANCE BAND 1945.
Released in 1945, the album featured the eponymous Bunk on trumpet, along with an alto horn, bass horn, baritone horn, snare drum, and bass drum. According to Jazz on Record, “the band … is so out of tune that it makes the music difficult to listen to.” Fortunately, Bunk Johnson and his group improved substantially on subsequent albums, and the New Orleans brass band tradition is going strong to this day.
7. MILES DAVIS HAD A SURPRISING CAMEO IN THE MOVIE SCROOGED.
The trumpeter and jazz innovator appeared as a street musician in the 1988 Bill Murray Christmas comedy, along with former Late Show with David Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer.
8. LEGENDARY JAZZ TRUMPETER DIZZY GILLESPIE RAN FOR PRESIDENT IN 1964.
Gillespie put himself forward as a write-in candidate, facetiously announcing that, if elected, he'd rename The White House "The Blues House." He also, less facetiously, advocated withdrawal from Vietnam.
9. MANY MARCHING BANDS USE A SPECIAL TUBA CALLED A SOUSAPHONE.
Because traditional tubas are difficult to walk with, many marching bands use a sousaphone—a specialized tuba that fits around the body of the musician—which was named for famed march composer John Philip Sousa, who made several requests and suggestions for its design.
10. THE POPULAR MARCHING BAND "TROMBONE SUICIDE" ROUTINE IS NAMED FOR ITS TENDENCY TO CAUSE INJURIES.
In the routine, a line of trombone players bends and stands in time to a drumbeat, so that one player's trombone is where a neighboring player's head was moments earlier. Players who get the timing wrong in practice often end up with a broken nose or black eye—which is how the routine got to be known as a "trombone suicide." It's also been called a "head chop" for obvious reasons.
11. BRASS INSTRUMENTS CAN BE HEARD IN MUSICAL GENRES AROUND THE WORLD.
From the traditional symphonies of Europe to the marching bands of America, from New Orleans jazz bands to Balkan folk music—brass instruments are a crucial part of traditional and contemporary music genres everywhere.
12. IF YOU STRETCHED OUT ALL THE TUBING IN A TRUMPET, IT WOULD REACH APPROXIMATELY 6 1/2 FEET.
Trumpets may not be as imposing as the tuba or the trombone, but if you stretched out all the tightly-packed metal tubing that makes up the instrument, it would reach an impressive 6 1/2 feet.