Tuba’s are a part of the valved brass family of instruments, which means it’s operated with a player’s hands to introduce additional tubing. The tuba has a conical bore, which includes tubing that constantly increases in diameter predominates. Conical bone instruments have a more mellow quality than cylindrical instruments. Finally, the tuba uses a whole tube, which has larger bores in relation to the tubing length, which means the player can play the fundamental tone with precision and ease.
A person who plays the tuba is called a tubist or bass player, but up until the mid-19 century, few people could call themselves a tuba player. The tuba is one of the newer instruments used in modern concert and orchestra bands and shares many similarities to the ophicleidist.
If you’re interested in playing the tuba or want to learn more about your favorite instrument of choice, we got you covered. Let’s take a look at the history of the tuba and how its predecessors laid the foundation for what the tube became.
Who Invented the Tuba?
The true inventors of the tuba were Wilhelm Friedrich Wieprecht and Johann Gottfried Mortitz, who created the bass tuba in F1 on September 12, 1835.
Wilhelm Friedrich Wieprecht studied acoustics later in his career after he left the royal orchestra. He wanted to correct the deficiencies in military instruments, and he succeeded when he improved the valves of brass instruments by constructing them on better acoustic principles.
Along with instrument builder Johann Gottfried Mortitz, they invented the bass tuba, or bombardon, to give richness to the bass parts. In recognition of this achievement, Wilhelm Friedrich Wieprecht was honored by the Royal Academy of Berlin in 1835.
Prussian Patent No.19 included the bass tuba in F1, which had used five valves. The Berliner Pumpen (Berlin Style Pistons) was the standard piston style of the time, which have a unique tuning style:
1 – two half steps, 2 – one-half step, 3 – three half steps, 4 – one flat half step, 5 – 7 half steps.
This tuning style resembled the five-valve tuning popular in France at the start of the 20th century, which was improved upon by François Perinet. Unlike the French tuning system, the Berliner Pumpen used the more modern third valve tuning of 3 half steps. It’s rare to find surviving tubas from the 19th century, but most of them are still playable.
The additional valves on the tuba instrument made it possible to play low harmonic notes while still being able to play the complete selection of notes intended for a brass instrument. Before these valves, a brass player could only play very high notes with respect to their fundamental pitch (lowest wavelength form). Tuba’s could take advantage of the middle three harmonic octaves before a pitch.
Only 3 years later in 1838, Carl Wilhelm Mortiz, the son of Johann Gottfried Mortitz (original inventor of the tuba), invented the tenor tuba.
History and Types of Tubas
The history of the tuba isn’t long or extensive by any means. Although the first tuba-like instrument did appear during the Middle Ages there was a very little invention or innovation on the horn-tuba until after the Dark Ages. As far as tuba’s go, they are one of the newest instruments on the planet that’s still used regularly.
Middle Ages (500 AD-1500 AD)
Keeping to the stereotypes of the era, the horn didn’t see any innovation for over 1000 years. However, there is evidence of a hollowed-out log covered in leather that was made into military instruments, likely to warn enemies of an incoming force.
These “tuba’s” are decorative and typically have compass directions, maps of symbols of the crown etched around the horn. With no pistons, the player could only blow into it to make a one-toned noise that could be adjusted based on the pitch of the blower. When blown, the horn produces a deep sound.
Sixteenth-Century: The Serpent (1590)
The serpent is a wind instrument that descended from the cornett, an early wind instrument that dates from the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods and popular from 1500-1650. The serpent replaced the cornett because it was easier to play with.
Although the serpent is made out of wood and uses finger holes instead of valves, it’s classified as a brass instrument because a player needs to practice “embouchure (lip)” techniques to play it. Serpents also use the Hornbostel-Sachs scheme of musical classification, which is important as it’s the most widely used classification method for instruments.
Invented by a clergyman named Edmé Guillaume in 1590 in France, this distant ancestor of the tuba was invented to fill in the empty-sounding low end of the orchestra. Its long, curvy shape gave it its name, and the mouthpiece, typically made of wood, bone, oxhorn, ivory, or ceramic typically outlives the instrument’s body.
It previously had a sacred role in church services and was designed and redesigned several times to fit different roles. Composers Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Beethoven Meyerbeer, and Wagner famously used the serpent in many of their symphonies.
The contrabass Anaconda, an off-shoot of the serpent, briefly appeared in the 1840s. It’s so large that it can be both bigger and longer than the player.
Nineteenth-Century: The Tuba
The Ophicleide (1810)
The ophicleide is a keyed brass instrument that sounds similar to the tuba but predated the instrument by nearly 10 years. Invented in 1821, the ophicleide seems to have no resemblance to the serpent as it was made of brass, had hey and pads like a saxophone, and stood upright. However, the interior design looks similar to a brass instrument with its conical bore which changes the pitch.
Inventor Joseph Halliday of Dublin Ireland, who created the keyed bugle previously, wanted to fuse the saxophone and ophicleide to make a hybrid wind instrument, but after several failed attempts he gave up. Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, also tried but failed.
The ophicleide went on strong for many years until it finally expired in the 1920s. However, there has been a recent resurrection of the instrument and many faithful replicas to play.
The Russian Bassoon (1820)
The Russian Bassoon, which actually originates from Belgium, is a configuration of the ophicleide invented in 1820. It had two main pipes that meet at a wooden joint. Most Russian bassoons were crafted with snake-like bells.
The Bass Horn (1810s)
Not much is known about the bass horn, but it predates the ophicleide by nearly 20 years. It was quickly retired, likely due to the sound quality. Its inventor likely lived in England.
The Helicon (1830s)
The helicon was invented in Russia in the 1830s to be used in marching bands. It was carried on the shoulder, but smaller hand-held versions are commonly used. This instrument was the forerunner of the Sousaphone, which plays and looks similar but has a directional bell grafted on. It was mass-produced in 1850 by Ignaz Strowasser of Vienna, the inventor of the helicon, to be used in the cavalry.
Most Helicon’s exist in B Flat but others exist such as:
- Tenor in E♭
- Baritone in B♭
- Soprano in E♭
- Contrabass in BB♭ (or CC)
- Bass in F (or EE♭)
The helicon exploded in popularity in the United States and Europe.
Invented by Wilhelm Friedrich Wieprecht and Johann Gottfried Mortitz in 1835, the tuba comes in multiple keys: BB flat, CC, E flat, F, and GG even though it’s considered a non-transposing instrument. The original tuba was an F instrument.
There are many different design configurations of the tuba, which uses the compensating valve to play the true pure pedals in tune. The Miraphone’s tuba, held in reverse, has four rotary keys and up to five valves, either inline or with an extra two placed near the left hand.
A tuba’s bell diameter can vary between 15-30 inches, is often built out of brass (though silver, copper, and nickel varieties exist), or they can be made from fiberglass or plastic. The bell’s tubing can be wide like a funnel, or small and ending in a larger bell.
The Parts of the Tuba
The tuba has multiple distinct parts that we’ll discuss by name throughout this article. If you’re unfamiliar with the following definitions, refer to them as you read.
An instrument’s construction refers to what it’s made of. Tubas are generally made of brass, that can be lacquered or unfinished or electroplated with nickel, silver, or cold. Unfinished brass will tarnish with time, and while that won’t affect how the instrument plays, it will start to look old and unfit for concert play.
Pitch and Size
The size of a tuba will change the pitch of the instrument, which is how high or low the instrument will sound to the ear. A tuba will use a quarter system to indicate its size. For example, a 4/4 tub is full-sized, but 3/4 tubas are smaller and typically used by younger players.
The quarter system doesn’t include the bell (largest part) of the instrument, as that’s usually a separate measurement that uses millimeter sizing distinctions.
The mouthpiece is where the player puts their mouth to play the instrument. It’s the first point of contact for players, and the sound of the tuba can change based on the size, shape, and rim of the cup.
There are three basic parts of the mouthpiece: rim, cup, and shank, which all help to produce a sound. Tuba players often have over a dozen different mouthpieces in their collection.
A mouthpiece is inserted into the lead pipe, which is often reinforced to ensure no air escapes while playing. A leak between the shank and lead pipe will impact the sound of the instrument. Both the mouthpiece and lead pipe should be cleaned regularly to maintain quality.
Tuba’s have either rotary valves or piston valves.
- Rotary Valves: First used in the 1840s, rotary valves are preferred by German players. They are low-maintenance in comparison to piston valves, however, they are difficult to re-assemble once they are cleaned.
- Piston Valves: Developed to accompany saxophones, piston valves are the method of choice for British and American players. Depending on the manufacturer, piston valves can appear on the front, side, or both. While they are more high-maintenance than rotary valves due to frequent oiling, they’re easy to assemble.
Most tubas will have three to six valves. Beginner tubas have three, although sousaphones will always have three, professional players will choose a four-five valve tuba.
Automatic compensating valves are easier to play, as the instrumentalist doesn’t have to adjust the slide positions. Unfortunately, compensating valves can make the instrument much heavier and sound stuffier due to its resistance to airflow.
The bell is the first thing most people identify, as it’s the largest part of the instrument. It’s the cone of the instrument that sound disperses from, and this part may point upwards or to the front.
Tuba players that play inside may need to use a mute, which is placed inside the bell. This part of the instrument tends to accumulate the most dust and debris and thus, needs to be cleaned often.
Tuning slides are small adjustment levers that lengthen the column of air, which affects the sound. Tuba players will lubricate this part often, as they can get stuck and be unmovable.
The Water Key
Brass instruments accumulate a lot of spit, which is where the water key comes in. The water key is a small lever that you can turn to remove the water (spit) from your instrument after playing it.
When and how did the tuba become popular?
The tuba is an instrument that was needed way before its creation. Many inventors were experimenting with ways to fill the bottom end of an orchestra, especially when they were growing in size. What made creating the tuba or an instrument similar to a tuba so difficult was the size necessary to create these tones.
Similar to most other instruments, inventors had the orchestra in mind, meaning they wanted something that could be played by more than one person. The giant horn that became the tuba was very outside of the box. At the time, the serpent was the closest thing to that octave but was much too large and heavy to transport.
An orchestra usually has a single tuba, rarely two, and it serves as the bass of the orchestral brass sections. It perfectly compliments bass voices of woodwinds and strings or the bass of brass choices and quintets. However, it is seen as a solo instrument.
As the instrument can weigh upwards of 20-pounds, the player had to be muscular to carry it or sitting, so the tuba had to be made smaller and lighter for use in marching bands, drum and bugle corps, and jazz bands. Before that, many composers were fond of the tuba and used them in multiple famous pieces.
- Modest Mussorgsky (orch. Ravel): Pictures at an Exhibition – Bydło, Night On Bald Mountain (1874)
- Shostakovich: All Symphonies, except for the Fourteenth symphony (1960s)
- Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (1913), Petroushka (1911)
- George Gershwin: An American in Paris (1928)
- Ottorino Respighi: Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome (1920s)
Concertos were written by many famous composers, who made good use of the tuba as a concert instrument. To make it portable, the marching style tuba was invented, which could rest on a player’s right shoulder.
Besides concerts directed at royalty, the rich, or the military, the tuba was adopted by jazz players in the 1920s, particularly in the New Orleans jazz scene. Louis Armstrong used the tuba (or brass bass) prominently, especially in his album Hot Five.
Since the tube is a solo instrument, many bands at the time would use take a moment to show off their skills. Rebirth Brass Band and Dirty Dozen Brass Band from New Orleans are famous for their solos, Bill Barber provided some heat to multiple Miles Davis albums, and tubist Marcus Rojas often performed with famous saxophonist, Henry Threadgill.
Tuba players still find a home in marching bands and orchestras. As a classical instrument, it rarely shows itself in popular music.
Famous Tuba Players
There are endless examples of famous tubists – seriously! While popular in the 1920s and 30’s jazz scene, the tuba frequently pops back up again in modern music.
- Øystein Baadsvik: A Norwegian tubist, Baadsvik has played the instrument since he was 15. He was already playing publicly at 18 and has played in competitions and concerts such as the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. Baadsvik currently teaches tuba at The Juilliard School.
- Roger Bobo: A renown player, he played in the Los Angeles Philharmonic for over 20 years. Bobo is one of the most accomplished brass players in the world and is still highly in demand. You can find him teaching in Tokyo, where he currently lives.
- Carol Jantsch: Tubists are typically men, as it’s widely considered a masculine instrument. Jantsch breaks these barriers by taking up the instrument herself and paving the way for other female players. She was the first female and principle tuba player in the Philadelphia Orchestra. Jantsch is one of the youngest members to date.
- Yasuhito Sugiyama: A native of Hyogo, Japan, Sugiyama joined the Cleveland Orchestra as the principal tuba player in 2006. He was the first successful Asian applicant for the Wiener Staatsoper Orchester, studied under Shuzo Karakawa from the Osaka Philharmonic, and is an overall incredible player.
- Velvet Brown: As a female POC tubist that broke the glass ceiling, she is a self-condiment and bold player who continues to have a successful career. Brown is everything at once: a recording artist, orchestral player, international chamber ensemble performer, and an international soloist.
Other famous tubists include Charles Dallenbach, Alan Baer, Gene Pokorny, and John Fletcher.
Types of Tubas
There are approximately 11 types of tuba, each of which has its own purpose. The biggest point of variation between each instrument is the size, portability, and sound.
Basic Variants of the Tuba
The following tubas use a typical tubas pitch range, which is usually F, E♭, C, or B♭. On average, an F tuba is 12 feet long, an E♭ tuba is 13 feet, C tubas are 16 feet, and a B♭ tuba is the tallest at 18 feet.
The marching tuba was specifically made for use in marching bands. It typically has a lead pipe that can be screwed on and off next to the valves. Players would rest the instrument on the left shoulder and keep it steady with the right, bell reaching directly in front. Marching tubas aren’t used in concerts.
A sousaphone is similar to the marching tuba, as in it’s used for marching bands, but looks nothing like it. Instead of holding the tuba directly outwards, the sousaphone wraps around the body for proper weight distribution. Although the bell is large, its structure makes the sousaphone light and easy to play.
Upright tubas are the standard orchestra tuba that has the bell facing away from the player. The player would place the tuba on their lap. Despite its high weight (10-20 pounds), upright tubas are surprisingly light and easy to transport. The front-facing keys make them easy to play, carry and maneuver around.
Specialty Tuba Types
The following tuba types may still play in the same pitch as a traditional tuba but are used for specific purposes or musical styles.
The baritone is a low pitch tuba that acts and sounds similar to other horned instruments. It has a mostly conical bore and piston valves, similar to the flugelhorn, and a cupped mouthpiece, like the euphonium. Baritones can be played while sitting or standing.
While the instrument looks like a small tuba, its range is more comparable to a trombone (E2-F5) but mellower. Instead of a slide, the baritone uses valves, which makes the instrument sound deeper and darker than the trombone.
Pitched in F or E♭, they compliment the contrabass tuba by playing a full octave above that instrument. F bass tubas are used as solo instruments by professional players in the US, but European tubists will use the F tuba as an orchestral instrument.
Music in the 19th century was written with the bass tuba in mind, but nowadays it’s becoming less commonly played likely due to the contrabass tuba, which can replace most bass tuba parts.
The contrabass tuba is the lowest-pitched of all tuba variants. Pitched in C or B♭ (or CC and BB♭ “tubas”) The C contrabass pitch is 32 Hz, while B♭ tubas stay at 29 Hz.
C contrabass tuba is primarily used in concerts or orchestras in the United States, but Russia, Austria, and Germany prefer to use the B♭ tubas for their orchestras. The United States saves the B♭ tubas for marching bands, as it’s seen as an instrument for “amateurs.”
There are 5 different types of contrabass tubas, many of which are pitched in BBB♭, a full octave lower than BB♭.
The euphonium is the most varied of the tuba types. They commonly use piston valves, but you can find rotary valve euphoniums. As a non-transporting instrument, the euphonium can be played in the bass clef, while the transporting variety needs to be composed with the treble clef. The United States may use both clefs, but UK players mostly stick to bass.
Four types of euphoniums are made for different purposes:
- Marching: Smaller version of the euphonium that’s made to be carried. The convertible euphonium is a popular choice.
- Five Valves: The rarest euphoniums, most manufacturers typically may three-valve varieties. The five-valve euphonium has an additional two valves on the side. Not to be confused with the double bell euphonium, which also has 5 valves.
- Double Bell: Another five-valve euphonium, but has a second smaller bell that can be switched with a lever. It has since been replaced by the trombone.
- Compensating: The most common of all, the compensating euphonium has three valves plus one at the side.
Another name used for the euphonium is the tenor tuba, which refers to B♭ rotary-valved tubas pitched in the same octave as euphoniums. Regular euphoniums are called this name directly to refer to C tubas.
Invented by Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, the saxhorn has valves, a conical mouthpiece, and shape, and sounds quite mellow. Their range comprises of soprano to contrabass. Saxhorns are commonly used in marching bands in the following varieties.
- Flugelhorn: B♭ soprano saxhorn
- Alto/Tenor Horn: E♭ alto/tenor saxhorn
- Euphonium of Baritone Horn: B♭ baritone saxhorn
- Contrabass Saxhorns: E♭ bass, B♭ bass, and B♭
Most saxhorns sound similar to other tubas, making them the perfect instrument to swap in if another isn’t available.
Helicon tubas commonly use B♭, but there are tenor sizes and helicons in E♭ or F. They predate the tuba and have since been replaced by the sousaphone. As the helicon became more prominently used in orchestras back in the nineteenth century, inventors widened the bell up to 28 inches and added a goose-neck lead-pipe.
Similar to a French horn and trombone, the Wagner horn has many different names: the Bayreuth-Tuben, Bayreuth, or Tuben. Although it’s rarely used today, it used to be used in E♭ or F (keeping true to the original tuba).
Although called a horn and technically classified as such, it has more in common with a horn. The mouthpiece is shaped similarly to a French horn, which replaced the Wagner.
Finding a working subcontrabass tuba is like finding a needle in a haystack, as it’s one of the rarest tubas on the planet. When it was used, the pitch varied from BBB♭, BB♭, FFF, C, or B♭. The FFF subcontrabass required two players: one to blow into the mouthpiece and the other to work the valves.
Tubas are incredibly expensive and can range between $2,000-$11,000. However, you can buy a decent, concert-ready tube for $3,000-$6,000. Most tubists would recommend starting on a mid-range instrument, so you can hear the true depth of the notes.
Jupiter 378 Series 3-Valve ¾ BBb Tuba 378 L Lacquers
The Jupiter 378 series has one of the best features: the detachable lead pipe, making them an ideal marching tuba. It has 3-valve action nickel silver pistons, which are incredibly fast, and the valve body + bell offers easy to repair and maintenance.
The piston valves are larger a heavier than other models, which makes the Jupiter 378 the perfect beginner’s instrument. It has a sounding device measure 3/4 in size, which band directors will cherish.
Vento VETU5200 500 Series Model 5200 ¾ Size BBb Tuba
The Vento VETU5200 is a beautiful tuba that has an incredible command of play and intonation, thanks to its three front actions. Its stainless steel design offers superior sound and piston quality, despite the cheapness of the model. Its affordability, yet astounding sound quality, is perfect for young players who want to dip their toes in the tuba world.
Glory Brass GTU3 3 Key B Flat Tuba, Gold Finish with Mouthpiece
Incredibly affordable, the Glory Brass GTU3 is a B♭ tuba that is both comfortable and unique with its 3 front action stainless steel pistons, which almost unheard of for the price. Its quick response and impressive projection are due to the 370 mm bell size, and the 16.m bore. The GTU3 also comes with gloves and a hard case.
Jubital JTU1110 Concert Tuba Lacquered
For the musician who’s having a hard time deciding between different tuba-based music programs, the Jubital JTU1110 is the optimal choice. This well-rounded tuba comes with a complete selection of different valve configurations and sizes, but the 4 pistons is the best quality.
The Jubital JTU is atoningly playable, smooth, and fast, and has open wrap valve tubing, which is unique to this product.
Yamaha YBB 641 Professional Rotary Tuba
Yamaha always seems to find the perfect cross-section between affordability and quality, and the Yamaha YBB 641 is no different. The YBB 641 sounds similar to European tubas due to its 4 rotary valves, a lacquer mouthpiece, and long lead pipe.
The rotary valves specifically show the instruments genius craftsmanship, as it’s responsive, easy to change, and noiseless when pushed down.
Facts About the Tuba
Historically, the Tuba allowed brass instruments to be extended into lower ranges. Due to the instrument’s flexibility and range, the tuba plays an essential part in the orchestra.
- Tubas are held upright while playing, unlike the trumpet.
- Tubas have been orchestra staples since the 1850s.
- Tuba is Latin for horn or trumpet.
- The most common tuba keys range between E♭, F, CC, and BB♭.
- A tuba can either be front or side facing.
- Many composers have used tubas in symphonies and concertos.
- Tubas replaced the ophicleide in orchestras.
- The first valve on the tuba will lower the pitch by one step, the second by a half-step, the third by one-and-a-half steps, and the fourth by two-and-a-half steps.
- The rare fifth and sixth vales improve intonation.
Although the ophicleide sounded similar to the tuba, it was replaced by the tuba thanks to clever marketing.
Answer: While the tuba isn’t a difficult instrument to learn, its overwhelming size and weight make it hard to play. Younger players may feel too small to handle the instrument, which is why students are typically given 3/4 sized tubas rather than the full 4/4 size.
Answer: The trombone and trumpet will sound differently depending on the bore size, but the same can’t be said about the tuba. A tuba’s bore size indicates the diameter of the slides, but a top action and rotary-valved tuba will sound relatively the same. What will change is the pitch range, which is mostly determined by the bell.
Answer: Yes. Tuba players are in high demand because few musicians play the instrument, and even fewer tubists are female. If you want to become a professional tuba player, you’ll find a lot of work in marching bands, orchestras, and movies.
The tuba is both a marvel instrument and the product of clever marketing tricks. While the ophicleide sounded similar to the tuba, came before it, and was more widely spread, thanks to the tuba’s framing as an upgraded instrument the ophicleide became obsolete. Its success was entirely dependent on its tenacity!
A word of advice: If you plan on picking up the tuba, you should choose a mid-range instrument. A mid-priced tuba can help beginners hear the depth of the instrument, which can help them improve as musicians. Otherwise, they’ll spend most of their time frustrated from fighting the cheaper tuba.