The tuba is the largest and lowest pitched of the brass instruments. Sound is produced by vibrating or "buzzing" the lips into a large cupped mouthpiece. It is one of the most recent additions to the modern symphony orchestra, first appearing in the mid-nineteenth century, when it largely replaced the ophicleide.
Among the instrumental groups of definite pitch in the modern symphony orchestra, each group consists of four voices, not unlike that of a vocal chorus: high voice, mid-high voice, mid-low voice, low voice (soprano, alto, tenor, bass.) Within the brass section, the four voices consist of trumpets, horns, trombones, and tuba. The tuba represents the bass "voice" of the traditional brass section.
In the tradition of the four-part harmonic composing of "the common practice" period from 1650-1950, the bass voice was more often than not, the primary or fundamental voice on which harmonic triadic harmony is based. Hence, in orchestral composition, the tuba, along with bassoons (reeds) and contrabasses (strings) are the instruments that provide the harmonic underpinning for triadic harmony.
An orchestra usually has a single tuba, serving as the bass of the brass section, though its versatility means it can double as reinforcement for the strings and woodwinds, or increasingly as a solo instrument.
Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz was the first major work orchestrated for tuba. It was originally scored for two ophicleides, but Berlioz changed it after hearing the newly invented tuba. Other composers also composed influential parts for the tuba, including:
- Richard Strauss (Also sprach Zarathustra, Eine Alpensinfonie).
- Shostakovich (Fourth symphony).
- Stravinsky (The Rite of Spring).
- Edgard Varèse (Déserts).
- Richard Wagner (Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Ride of the Valkyries).
- Sergei Prokofiev (Fifth Symphony).
Tubas are also used in concert bands, marching bands, and in drum and bugle (and drum and brass) corps. In British style brass bands, both E♭ and B♭ tubas are used and are normally referred to as basses.
Types and construction
Tubas are found in various pitches, most commonly in F, E♭, CC, or B♭ in "brass band" pitching. The main tube of a B♭ tuba is approximately 18 feet long, while that of a CC tuba is 16 feet, of an E♭ tuba 13 feet, and of an F tuba 12 feet (not including any valve branches). Tubas are considered to be conical in shape as the bore of their tubing steadily increases in diameter along its length, from the mouthpiece to the bell.
A tuba, with its tubing wrapped for placing the instrument on the player's lap, is usually called either a tuba or concert tuba. Some have a bell pointing forward as opposed to upward, which are often called recording tubas because of their popularity in the early days of recorded music, as their sound could more easily be directed at the recording instrument. When wrapped to surround the body for marching, it was traditionally known as a hélicon. The modern sousaphone is a hélicon with a bell pointed up, and then curved to point forward. Some ancestors of the tuba, such as the military bombardon, were wrapped such that the bell extended far backwards over the player's shoulder.
Bass clef music for tuba is usually in concert pitch. However, traditional brass band parts for the tuba are usually written treble clef, with the B-flat tuba sounding two octaves and one step below the written pitch and the E-flat tuba sounding one octave and a major sixth below the written pitch. Consequently, the tuba is generally treated as a transposing instrument when it is written for in the treble clef, but not in the bass clef. Thus, tubists must know the correct fingerings for their specific instrument.
The lowest pitched tubas are the contrabass tubas, pitched in C or B-flat; (referred to as CC and BB-flat tubas respectively, based on a traditional distortion of a now-obsolete octave naming convention). The BB-flat is almost exclusively used in brass bands because the other instruments are usually based on B-flat. The CC tuba is used as an orchestral instrument in the U.S. because they are perceived to tune more easily with other orchestral instruments, but BB-flat tubas are the contrabass tuba of choice in German, Austrian, and Russian orchestras. Many younger players start out with an E-flat tuba, and the BB-flat tuba is still the standard adult amateur instrument in the United States. Most professionals (and those trained or training to be professionals) in the U.S. play CC tubas, but most also are trained in proficiency on all four pitches of tubas.
The next smallest tubas are the bass tubas, pitched in F or E-flat (a fourth above the contrabass tubas). The E-flat tuba often plays an octave above the contrabass tubas in brass bands, and the F tuba is commonly used by professional players as a solo instrument and, in America, to play higher parts in the classical repertoire. In most of Europe, the F tuba is the standard orchestral instrument, supplemented by the CC or BB-flat only when the extra weight is desired. In the United Kingdom, the E-flat is the standard orchestral tuba.
The euphonium is sometimes referred to as a tenor tuba, and is pitched one octave higher (in B-flat) than the BB-flat contrabass tuba. The term "tenor tuba" is often used more specifically, in reference to B-flat rotary-valved tuba pitched in the same octave as euphonium. Examples include the Alexander Model 151, which is a popular instrument among tuba players when the use of the tenor tuba is appropriate. One much-debated example of such application for orchestral tuba players in the U.S. is the Bydło movement in Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.
The "Small French Tuba in C" is a tenor tuba pitched in C, and provided with six valves to make the lower notes in the orchestral repertoire possible. The French C tuba was the standard instrument in French orchestras until overtaken by F and C contrabass tubas since the Second World War.
Though extremely rare, there have been larger BB-flat subcontrabass tubas created. There were at least four known examples created. The first two were built by the Gustav Besson on the suggestion of American Bandmaster John Philip Sousa. The monster instruments were not completed until just after Sousa's death. Later, in the 1950s, British musician Gerard Hoffnung commissioned the London firm of Paxman to create a subcontrabass tuba for use in his comedic music festivals. These three instruments were all pitched in BBB♭, one octave below the standard BB-flat tuba. Also, a tuba pitched in FFF was made in Kraslice by Bohland & Fuchs probably during 1910 or 1911 and was destined for the World Exhibition in New York in 1913. This tuba is "playable," but two persons are needed; one to operate the valves and one to blow into the mouthpiece.
Tubas come in both piston and rotary valve models. Rotary valves are based on a design that is derived from the Berlinerpumpen used on the very first bass tuba patented by Wilhelm Wieprecht in 1835. Červeny of Graslitz was the first to use true rotary valves, starting in the 1840s or 1850s. Piston valves are based on valves developed by Perinet for the Saxhorn family of instruments promoted by Adolphe Sax around the same time. Pistons may either be oriented to point to the top of the instrument (top-action, as pictured in the figure at the top of the article) or out the front of the instrument (front-action or side-action). Debate abounds as to the advantages and disadvantages of each piston style, with assertions concerning sound, speed, and clarity commonly proclaimed but with little or no scientific measurement. The German tradition prefers rotary valves; the British and American traditions favor piston valves (top-action in the case of British; front-action in the case of American), but this is not absolute and choice of valve types remains up to the performer.
Tubas generally have from three to six valves, though some rare exceptions exist. Three-valve tubas are generally the least expensive and are almost exclusively used by beginners and amateurs, and the sousaphone (a marching instrument which is just a different way to wrap the tubing of a B-flat tuba) almost always has three valves. Among more advanced players, four and five valve tubas are by far the most common choices, with six valve tubas being relatively rare except for F tubas intended to be used by European orchestral performers.
The valves add tubing to the main tube of the instrument, thus lowering its fundamental pitch. The first valve lowers the pitch by a whole step (two semitones), the second valve by a semitone, and the third valve by three semitones. Used in combination, the valves are too short and the resulting pitch tends to be sharp. For example, a B♭ tuba becomes (in effect) an A♭ tuba when the first valve is depressed. The third valve is long enough to lower the pitch of a B♭ tuba by three semitones, but it is not long enough to lower the pitch of an A♭ tuba by three semitones. Thus, the first and third valves used in combination lower the pitch by something just short of five semitones, and the first three valves used in combination are nearly a quarter tone sharp.
The fourth valve is used in place of combinations of the first and third valves, and the second and fourth used in combination are used in place of the first three valves in combination. The fourth valve can be tuned to lower the pitch of the main tube accurately by five semitones, and thus its use corrects the main problem of combinations being too sharp. By using the fourth valve by itself to replace the first and third combination, or the fourth and second valves in place of the first, second and third valve combinations, the notes requiring these fingerings are more in tune.
The fifth and sixth valves are used to provide alternative fingering possibilities to improve intonation, and are also used to reach into the low register of the instrument where all the valves will be used in combination to fill the first octave between the fundamental pitch and the next available note on the open tube. The fifth and sixth valves also give the musician the ability to trill more smoothly or to use alternative fingerings for ease of playing.
Since the bass tuba in F is pitched a fifth above the BB-flat tuba and a fourth above the CC tuba, it needs additional tubing length beyond that provided by four valves to play securely down to a low F as required in much tuba music. The fifth valve is commonly tuned to a flat whole step, so that when used with the fourth valve, it gives an in-tune low B-flat. The sixth valve is commonly tuned as a flat half step, allowing the F tuba to play low G as 1-4-5-6 and low G-flat as 1-2-4-5-6. In CC tubas with five valves, the fifth valve may be tuned as a flat whole step or as a minor third depending on the instrument.
Some piston-valved tubas have a compensating system to allow accurate tuning when using several valves in combination, simplifying fingering and removing the need to constantly adjust slide positions. Such systems are used mainly in United Kingdom brass bands. The most common approach is to plumb the valves so that if the fourth valve is used, the air is sent back through a second set of branches in the first three valves to compensate for the combination of valves. This does have the disadvantage of making the instrument significantly more 'stuffy' or resistant to air flow when compared to a non-compensating tuba. This is due to the need for the air to flow through the valve block twice. It also makes the instrument heavier. But many prefer this approach to additional valves or to manipulation of tuning slides while playing to achieve perfect intonation within an ensemble.
Tubas are generally finished in raw brass, lacquered brass, or silver-plated brass. Some believe that the external finish of the tuba can play an important role in the tone production, though this has never been objectively measured. Performers have individual preferences on the finish that they select, and will sometimes have horns in more than one finish for different musical settings. Although tone quality is subjective and there is no scientific basis for these claims, tuba players generally agree that silver-plated brass affords a brighter tone, while raw brass produces a richer tone for lower notes.
Some tubas are capable of being converted into a marching style, known as "marching tubas." A leadpipe can be manually screwed on next to the valves. The tuba is then usually rested on the left shoulder (although some tubas allow use of the right shoulder), with the bell facing directly in front of the player. Some marching tubas are made only for marching, and cannot be converted into a concert model. Most marching bands opt for the sousaphone, an instrument which is easier to carry and almost always cheaper than a true marching tuba. Drum and bugle corps players, however, use marching tubas, which in this context are referred to as contras. Standard tubas can also be played while standing, with the use of a strap which is joined to the tuba using two rings. The strap is then put over the player's shoulder like a sash, allowing the instrument to be played in the same position as when sitting.
Tubas have been used in jazz since the genre's beginning. In the earliest years, bands often used a tuba for outdoor playing and a double bass for indoor jobs. In this context, the tuba was sometimes called "brass bass," as opposed to the double bass, which was called "string bass." It was not uncommon for players to double on both instruments.
In modern jazz, the role of the two bass instruments remains similar. Tubas are usually featured in a supporting role, although it is not uncommon for them to take solos. Many jazz bands actually use a sousaphone, commonly but technically incorrectly called a "tuba" in this context. New Orleans style brass bands like the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Rebirth Brass Band, and Nightcrawlers Brass Band feature a sousaphone as a jazz bass. One of the most prominent tubists specializing in jazz is the New York City-based Marcus Rojas, who has performed frequently with bandleader Henry Threadgill. Another notable group is the Modern Jazz Tuba Project, founded by R. Winston Morris, which consists entirely of tubas and euphoniums with rhythm section.
The tuba has also played a large role in ragtime music, and in big band music. The tuba (usually bass tuba pitched in E♭) would provide a walking bass similar to that of a double bass, but with a larger range.
Tubas have recently found popularity with the rise of Tex-Mex and similar music, where they compete with the bass guitarrón and electric bass guitar.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Bevan, Clifford. The Tuba Family. NY: Scribner, 1978. ISBN 0-684-15477-3
- Borger, Matthew. Tuba. Van Nuys, CA: Backstage Pass Productions, 1991. OCLC 25660990
- Morris, R. Winston, and Daniel Perantoni. Guide to the Tuba Repertoire: the New Tuba Source Book. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-253-34763-7
All links retrieved May 2, 2023.
- The International Tuba-Euphonium Association. www.iteaonline.org
- International Tuba Day www.tubaday.com
- The Wagner tuba www.wagner-tuba.com
- Acoustics of Brass Instruments from Music Acoustics. www.newt.phys.unsw.edu.au/
- Tuba/Sousaphone as blues instruments www.wirz.de
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