A World of Music: Brass

Oct 21, 2020

Over the last several weeks we’ve been exploring the wider world of musical instruments. We began with a look at the Spanish guitar before moving on to keyboard instruments of the world, and finally, last week, drums from all over! This week we’re going to take a look at another familiar section of the orchestra to see what sort of unfamiliar instruments we can find: the brass section!

Most of us are familiar with the trumpet, trombone, and tuba, but the brass family is much larger than just the instruments you’d find in a jazz band. In fact, not every member of the brass family is actually brass – or even made of metal!

Let’s dive in and check out some amazing brass instruments from around the world!


Originally invented in France in 1590, supposedly by Canon Edmé Guillaume, the serpent is a bass wind instrument that is descended from the cornett and is a distant ancestor of the tuba, yet looks nothing like either. Usually made of wood with a dark brown or black leather covering, the serpent gets its name from its distinct cone, twisted into a snakelike shape.

Sort of a hybrid instrument, it has a mouthpiece like more familiar brass instruments, but also has side holes like a woodwind, often with keys for holes out of reach of the fingers. Yet, despite looking like a twisted clarinet, it sounds brassy, and is usually classified alongside trumpets


The didgeridoo is a rather unique wind instrument developed by the indigenous peoples of northern Australia, sometime within the last 1,500 years. Still widely used in Australia, and around the world, the didgeridoo is something of a natural wooden trumpet, sometimes called a “drone pipe,” yet it is still classified as a brass instrument due to how it is played.

Modern didgeridoos are usually cylindrical, or cone shaped and can be anywhere from 1 to 3 meters (3 to 10 feet) in length, but most are around 1.2 meters (4 feet) long. The unique and distinctive sound of the didgeridoo is created with continuous vibration of the lips to produce the iconic drone, while also using a specialized breathing technique called “circular breathing” to create a continuous and uninterrupted tone.

Circular breathing requires the performer to breath in through the nose, whist expelling air stored in their mouth using the tongue and cheeks, at the same time. With this method, a skilled artist can fill their lungs without interrupting the tone. With practice, they can sustain a single note indefinitely!


Sometime called an alpenhorn or alpine horn, the alphorn is a brass instrument native to the mountainous regions of Switzerland and the Alps. What’s more, it’s another member of the brass family that’s not actually made of brass! Instead, they are usually constructed of wood or a natural horn, with a wooden, cup-shaped mouthpiece. With no openings in the body of the horn, pitch is controlled by the performer’s embouchure.

Although the exact origins of the alphorn are lost to history, there are a few theories. Collections of alpine myths and legends from the 17th to 19th centuries suggest alphorn-like instruments were commonly used as signal instruments in villages since at least the middle ages, often taking the place of church bells. What’s more, horn-like instruments like the alphorn are found in valley’s throughout Europe’s history, which means there could be many different reasons for having a horn like this handy!


Another brass instrument not actually made of brass is the shofur. An ancient musical horn, the shofur is made from a ram’s horn and has traditionally been used for Jewish religious purposes. However, more recently there has been an effort to incorporate this ancient instrument into contemporary classical music, as well as film and television soundtracks.

The shofur is somewhat similar to the modern bugle, as well as the didgeridoo and the alphorn, in that it lacks pitch-altering devices, such as keys, valves, or holes. Again, like the bugle, all pitch control is done through varying of the performer’s embouchure.

Cello Horn

Our final entry is something of a bonus, as it’s not really a brass instrument. But nor is it really a string instrument. It is, in fact, both. With a self-explanatory name, the cello horn is exactly that: a cello with a brass horn attachment.

The hybrid first made the pages of Popular Science Monthly magazine back in 1936. Played like a cello, the sound created by bowing the strings comes out of the brass horn rather than the traditional wooden body. Audiences say it creates a sound somewhere between strings and brass.

Have you got a passion for that brassy sound, but never got the nerve to give it a try, or have just been away from the band for a while? It’s never too late to start again! We offer live & interactive online lessons for trumpet, trombone, baritone, French horn, and tuba for all ages and skill levels.

As a beginning brass student at The Music Studio, you will focus on the development of proper breathing techniques through exercises designed to strengthen the muscles needed to produce a steady and strong air supply. Good posture is stressed as is the importance of developing a proper embouchure which involves learning to use your facial muscles and lips correctly to produce sound on your instrument. Tuning, music reading skills and correct fingering or slide positions are covered as well.

More advanced students may concentrate on refining their technique and interpreting brass repertoire representing a variety of musical styles.

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