AAA Brass

By Miles Horn, Brass Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Miles Horn, Brass Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Miles Horn

I grab my Miles Davis, “Live Around the World” CD and slide it into my car’s player. As the disc is fed into the machine and I hear the familiar whir of plastic parts, I ponder about the technology behind the music coming out of my speakers. Not the technology in the speakers nor in the CD player, but technology on a more basic and much more fundamental level: how does Mr. Davis’s trumpet produce those amazing tones? How did the trumpet evolve time? And what, if any, is the importance of those little valves?

As to the history of valves and the brass family, it’s best to start at the beginning of it all. No one is positive what the first lip reed instruments were, but certain historians believe they were conch shells, hollowed tubes from specific plants (like bamboo or eucalyptus), or hollowed animal horns and bones. An early example was the Shofar, a goat’s horn used to call members of the Jewish faith to prayer. It wasn’t until humans were able to forge more malleable metals into thinner forms that the modern lip reed family truly blossomed. Bronze was used early on to contsruct horns but was too bulky and did not resonate richly, but the introduction of brass, an alloy of copper and zinc, marked a large step forward for the development of horn instruments.

Brass made shaping horns much easier. Compared to bronze, the alloy has a lower melting point, is more malleable, and produces a brighter clearer tone. The material helps create resonance and makes tuning easier because each metal has a different resonating frequencies.

Equally important is the shape and length of the horn, for they contribute to the production of the harmonic series of any brass instrument. The discovery of the harmonic series is credited to a priest named Marin Mersenne. He discovered that within each note were multiple overtones that do not sound as loudly. These overtones make up the harmonic series which, before the invention of the valve, were the only notes that could be played on a horn, meaning that there was one fundamental note and then the next note at exactly double the frequency and so on until the player reached the instrument’s physical limits. This is why bugle calls, like the familiar ‘Taps’ melody or the theme for the Kentucky Derby, are so sparse in notation; bugle players could play chromatically but only after reaching the 18th partial in the harmonic series. On a pipe tuned to concert A above middle C, which has the frequency 440 Hz, the next partial is at 880 Hz, and to play chromatically, the player must start playing at 7920 Hz. This is hard to achieve for any musician, and in the early days of brass music, the men who played herald trumpets and signal horns in the royal courts sported the best teeth of anyone around.

On December 6, 1814, an inventor named Heinrich Stölzel wrote a letter to King Frederick William III of Prussia asking if the King would use Stölzel’s new invention, the valved horn, in his royal and military bands. Unfortunately for Stölzel, few the big composers, sponsors, and even players tolerated the use of early valved instruments, and Stölzel was repeatedly rejected during his correspondence with the royal court.

Meanwhile, also in Prussia, Friedrich Blühmel was also trying, unsuccessfully, to patent his new invention, a different variation on the valved horn. Since these two men could not patent their new designs alone, they decided to work together, and on April 12, 1818, the two men received their joint patent. Two minutes later, Stölzel turned to Blühmel and purchased his half of the patent for 200 Thalers, or dollars, and sent another payment two months later..

With the invention of the valve, the playable range of an instrument was extended beyond the harmonic series of that instrument. The valves added length to the horn and created a new harmonic series in the instrument, opening the door to chromatic playing within a more comfortable range. Chromatic playing meant to the music industry of the early 19th century a new step in melodic lines. Suddenly, a player could play any note within multiple harmonic series by simply depressing a button or lever. Anybody, even those with poor dental hygiene, were capable of playing music.

The valved horn is a relatively simple mechanism. Air is pushed into the horn through the mouthpiece, creating sound by the vibration of the buzzing lips of the player. With the horn at its natural position, with no valves depressed, it is at a set length and will respond to a certain manipulation within its own harmonic series at that length. The valve redirects the air into passageways that lengthen the horn enough to create a dramatic difference. Think of a slide whistle and the effect of pulling the slide out: lengthening the instrument lowers the tone . Now imagine if you could instantly have the slide at the bottom of the whistle by pressing a button or lever. Presto! You have the basic concept of valves on a brass instrument.

It might not seem that moving the air from the primary pipe into the valve pipes matters, but there are ways to tailor valves to certain styles of playing. Stölzel’s design was a fairly simple one and is still used today on instruments like the modern trumpet, baritone, euphonium, and some tubas. The design, called a piston valve, consists of a single cylinder that holds the entire construction of the valve.

All types of valves have their pros and cons, most of these cons have to do with how cleanly the air is redirected and what happens to it when it does. when the valve is depressed on the modern trumpet, the air is sent through several 90 degree turns which contribute to sound degradation and creates more pressure within the instrument, making it harder to blow through and produce tone. The sound degrades because of the shape of the tubing and the bend within that tubing. When a player buzzes into the mouthpiece, they create a pressure difference that moves laterally, and as a result, the sound waves continue to move in their initial path and do not respond well to turns or changes in direction. This happens in the valve that Stölzel invented. Stölzel’s design is much better for playing fast licks because the valve moves much more smoothly, but it requires a few more pumps between notes and playing legato was more difficult for the musician. The valves Blühmel invented is more capable of playing long slow legato lines but is not as quick as the piston valve. Blühmel’s valve design, instead of sending the air through 90 degree redirections, maintained the lateral direction on which the air flows. The tubing lined up in a straight line, and the instrument was lengthened without losing any quality of sound. Instead of turning into the lengthened pipe, the valve just continues straight ahead, causing no reflection or refraction of sound waves.

There are many options for valve construction that have been invented since, one of which is the rotary valve. It is very similar to the piston valve but lays on its side. The rotary valve has many of the draw backs of the piston valve but is better for playing legato lines.

Though brass has been evolving for millenia, we have not seen the last of brass design. People are still tweaking the instruments to make them more well rounded for playing in all styles. One of the new horn designs that was once being worked on by Mark Veneklausen, who tried to remove all 90 degree turns from his model of the French Horn. Unfortunately, he lost funding for his project and the Vhorn, as it was called, was lost. However, the demise of the Vhorn shows that the evolution of Brass design has not stopped.


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