The Joy of The Tuba - Music Essay

The Joy of The Tuba - Music Essay
Ahhh! The tuba (That’s Latin - : - Trumpet). The tuba is the biggest and the shiniest of all the brass family. It is also very possible, that it is heavier than all the other brass instruments put together.

Let’s imagine if we were to couple together this instrument with an outlandish larrikin, let’s call them tubists, politically more correct woodwindests may call them he-persons and their friends may call them crazy, no – matter, this formidable instrument is like a leopard tank to the infantry as it is to a military band, it’s kind of big and loud, however, when you need it, it’s there with power. Please enjoy this informative, yet very sarcastic view on a tuba from the eye’s of a he-person/ crazy/ tubist.


The aim of this essay is to promote the tuba, not only as an instrument, but also as a character of the band. By showing and explaining the history, development and characteristics of the tuba, only then can other musicians appreciate and understand what on earth would possess someone to start playing that.

Funny picture of tuba here

History and development

Patented in 1835 by Wiebrecht and Moritz in Germany the tuba surfaced to replace the Serpent and the Ophicleide (no relation to the centipede).

The Tuba is constructed from brass, an alloy (combination of metals) comprising of copper & zinc. Generally silver plated, however it can be lacquered to give it the appearance of gold. And the cost is not too far off gold either, with some tubas now approaching the $45,000 mark.

Now, to be serious, but not for long. The tuba was derived from the ophicleide, a type of keyed bugle that was designed and built in the 1800’s, before valves were the cool thing to use back then. Its mega legend status started in the brass bands of Great Britain were they used a Helicon (not related to helicopters) was used for easier portability, not that much has changed. Many variants were created but Richard Wagner created a variant based on the French horn which was used for his Ring cycle of Operas and has since been called the Wagner Tuba. In the 1860’s John Phillip Sousa commissioned an audience friendly version (which has never been perfected) of the Helicon and all of sudden, we have a Sousaphone.

After realizing that this thing is too damn hard to make, the design has remained the same. But the creative minds have worked hard and variants with four, five and six valves have been sent to test the tubists of today’s world. With the input of many a he-person (remember that’s what the politically correct woodwind call tuba players), other changes have been introduced, such as the rotary valve for the short fingered he-person, fiberglass sousaphone for the he-persons with a bad back and convertible tubas for those he-persons going through a mid life crisis. Please forgive my humor as that the real purpose of convertible tuba’s is not to get girls, it was actually made so that the audience could hear the superb qualities of the tuba as demonstrated in the picture below.

Insert funny Sousa pic here

Tubas can now be found in the most diverse range of shapes, sizes, pitches, colours, weights and price of ANY instrument and this isn’t saying that they haven’t got it right yet, it just takes time to perfect 8 metres of brass tubing wrapped around a light post.

To make matters a little more complicated, not that the invention of the fourth valve was enough, the diversity and obscurity of the tuba becomes multiplied when the introduction of the tenor tuba is released. I am of course referring to the Baritone/Euphonium. A welcome friend of the tuba family, however, with two noticeable differences.

1.) The Euphonium shrunk in the wash (that means it’s half the size of the tuba)
2.) The Euphonium music is ten times harder to play than tuba parts.

Not exactly value for weight savings there.

Another new addition to make tubas heavier, although this has been a huge improvement, was the introduction of compensating tubas. This does not mean that the tuba player gets paid extra money for a using a compensating tuba (they should because it weighs more) but what it does mean is that the tuba has extra tubing to correct the tuning when multiple valve combinations are in use. I’ll confuse you later with the specifics of this.

With the development of the tuba comes one of the most significant features. Tubas can come in five different keys (BBb, CC, EEb, F and the GG Bugle “Not available for bugle calls as yet Sir” ).

With an upright bell or forward facing, (forward facing bells provide excellent sound projection in marching bands) fourteen to thirty inches in bell diameter (that’s 355.50mm to 762.00mm), two to six valves, rotary or piston, student or professional models, convertible or standard, the rare but available double belled euphonium, sousaphones and tubas with or without compensating or non- compensating tubing. The tuba has more selling features than a brand new Holden Monaro and is similar in price.

Instrument range

The tuba is a hidden talent, a soft and sweet sound that does not promote itself as a soloist because it doesn’t ‘bite’ the listener like a trumpet or vocalist does. However it is an extremely capable instrument, it can’t be thrown very far physically, but it’s sound can be thrown further than the ears of the listener and deep into heart and mind of the appreciative audience.

The Tuba is mostly associated with the “oom-pah-pah” and the fourteen million litres of beers that Austrians and Germans drink at Oktoberfest (and perhaps a few Aussie tuba playing Beer drinking legends), the tuba is much more capable than the1st and 3rd beats in the bar. The tuba can be soft and lyrical to loud and bombastic and even fast and complex. With a total range of four octaves (and some lance corporals can produce five when they practice more often) not to mention the goorus of tuba playing, for example - Steven Sykes and the Childs Brothers, that can produce whatever they feel like because they are awesome.

Characteristics – harmonic series, hexachords, flexibility, acoustics, harmonics and construction

The tuba is not just about technical advances in design, or how much it costs or weighs or even how wide a range the instrument has. It is about how it sounds and how that sound fits into the orchestra or ensemble.

Why does the tuba sound different, most primary school kids would say that it’s because it’s bigger. This is true, however, what is the sound that we hear?

Most musical notes are sounds that have a particular pitch. The pitch depends on the main frequency of the sound, the higher the frequency of the sound waves, and the shortening of the wavelength, the higher the pitch is. The sounds that we hear day to day are not just one frequency, some sounds have many frequencies, like a wave crashing on a beach, but this is not a particular pitch, and it is not considered a musical note. If an old mobile phone produces a note of particular pitch, a C for example, this note is only one particular frequency and it does not sound like a tuba or clarinet. That is, that Tuba’s, and in fact most Instruments don’t produce just one frequency, they produce only a very particular set of frequencies. So we can’t all pre-program our phones to play 1812 because we could not separate the difference in sound of those playing clarinet, and those playing tuba.

When an instrument plays a note the sound that we hear is a smooth mixture of different pitches, these different pitches are called harmonics and the blending together of these pitches is produced so well that we don’t hear the separate notes, instead the harmonics give the note it’s colour or timbre.

But where do these harmonics and the timbre come from? In the case of a tuba or wind instrument for that fact, the sound comes from a column of air vibrating inside a tube. When this column of air vibrates within the tuba the main pitch that we hear is the fundamental (Eb for an Eb tuba, Bb for a Bb etc.) This column of air can also vibrate in halves, thirds, fourths and so on of the fundamental. The difference is the relative loudness of all the different harmonics compared to each other. So when a clarinet plays a note, perhaps we can only hear the odd- numbered harmonics and when a tuba plays the same notes, perhaps the fifth and tenth harmonics are the strongest. This is what separates the sound of the clarinet in comparison to the tuba, and of course the tuba sounds better.

So even if a tuba sounds different to a clarinet, how does it play all the notes in a chromatic scale? Well apart from practice, the tuba and all brass instruments have a harmonic series. As a xylophone player gets only one note from each plank of wood, different in length, or a string player can change a note by tightening the string by using tuning pegs or pressing down in a different place, the tuba or brass player can produce different notes without changing the length of the tubing. The musicians do this by playing the harmonics of the instrument. Brass instruments excel in getting notes from the same length of tubing. This is produced by vibrating the lips at different speeds, by doing this, the player can produce a harmonic of the air column to sound instead of the fundamental.

The harmonic series can have any note as it’s fundamental, so there are many harmonic series, but the relationship between the frequencies of a harmonic series is always the same. The second harmonic always has exactly half the wavelength (and twice the frequency) of the fundamental. The third harmonic has exactly a third of the wavelength (three times the frequency) of the fundamental and it continues through the range of the instrument.

Just like a bugle , the tuba can play any note in the harmonic series that falls within the players range. So before valves were cool the tuba had the same range as a bugle, but the introduction of 3 valves added extra tubing to the instrument. Each time a valve was opened (or pressed) an extra length of tubing was added, adding a new harmonic series to the instrument.

The first valve usually adds one half step to the harmonic series, the second valve one whole step and the third valve adds one and one half steps lower than the valve-less instrument. The valves can also be used together creating another harmonic series. So technically speaking the tuba in it’s middle register can produce a valve combination that will give a reasonably in-tune version for every note of the chromatic scale.

Insert examples of open tubing harmonic series here etc (sibelius).


The tuba has one major downfall. It’s size, although this is it’s greatest asset, talk about paying Peter to rob Paul. The tuba needs a lot of vibrating air in the tubes, but this creates problems with flexibility. The Tuba has a very large mouthpiece and to supply a lot of air into the large mouth piece requires virtually the whole mouth to cover the mouthpiece.

Possible trills & alternate fingerings – emphasis on alternates and tech difs

Uses ensembles, styles etc

The Tuba is so awesome that no group, band or ensemble could leave home without it.
Let’s start with the typical bands/ensembles that you find a tuba:-
• brass quintet
• Orchestra
• Concert band
• Brass band
• Military band
• Marching band
• Big band
• Oktoberfest beer band

And then of course, there is the ultimate of all small group ensembles the:-

Tuba Quartet

As you would notice above that there is a broad range of opportunity for the up and budding tubist and the variation in style of music is from one extreme to the other.

Popular styles for the tuba would consist of :
• Orchestral. Including Opera, Symphonic, chamber music and Solos.
• Concert band. Including folk tunes, easy listening, latin, country, popular & some classic rock & Roll.
• Brass Band. Brass bands originated in Great Britain and are widely known for the very challenging contest pieces. Varying in difficulty and asassociated with the various grades, a typical contest would consist of a hymn, set test piece, Bands own choice and of course, a march.
• Brass quintet / Tuba Quartet. These ensembles will touch on arrangements of pieces from the Baroque period in the 1600 -1700s to current day traditional pieces like Amazing grace. Bach gets a chance to shine and is not outdone by the brashness of Dixieland or the glamour of Broadway.
• Marching Band. Marches are perhaps the pinnacle of tuba pieces, not only is the music technically difficult, regardless of the competency of the musician and no matter how physically strong a tubist is, marching and performing the tuba is a task that no performer would claim to master.
• Big Band. The tuba is slowly finding it’s way into the swing of the big band. Generally reading 4th trombone parts, the tuba adds to the lower end of the trombone section, filling in especially on the low frequencies where the bass trombone tends to ‘crack’ a note.
• Oktoberfest Beer Band. This is where the tuba and it’s master really come together. German beer songs from the Second World War were used to entertain the troops. This music poses the tubist with very few challenges musically , generally only playing the 1st and 3rd beats, however, does add a sporting value of performing under extreme circumstances.

Insert funny picture of beer here

There are probably a hundred more styles of music, and various bands that you would find a tuba, but remarkably, there are few bands that don’t use it. It’s obviously that good. As far as other uses of the tuba goes, and this is only speculation, but no other instrument has been used as:-
• A flower pot
• A place to store cold beers for the long trip home after the job
• A door stopper

Balance, tuning examples of practice exercises to assist technical problems


At the start of this informative work, I promoted the fact that most people ask, why would you want to play that? As you can see, the tuba is a remarkable instrument. Virtually most styles of instrumental music require the use of a tuba. It can produce the very low frequencies of sound that almost border on the hearing range of the human ear, giving any ensemble the depth of sound to south the soul. The tuba, the largest, most expensive brass instrument in any ensemble, although works on the same principles as any other brass instrument. Although the tuba seems cumbersome, it’s agility and flexibility is that of a trumpet. I’m also sure that after reading this, that playing a tuba now would seem a lot more complicated than building one. I hope that you have enjoyed my humour and can use the technical information.

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