Articles, Blog

How brass instruments work – Al Cannon

August 14, 2019


What gives the trumpet its clarion ring and the tuba its gut-shaking
“omm pah pah?” And what makes the trombone so jazzy? The answer lies not in the brass
these instruments are made of, but in the journey air takes from the musician’s lungs
to the instrument’s bell. Like any sound, music consists
of vibrations traveling through air. Instruments are classified based on
how those vibrations are produced. Percussion instruments are struck. String instruments are plucked or bowed. Woodwinds have air blown
against a reed or sharp edge. For brass instruments, however, the vibration come directly
from the musician’s mouth. One of the first things a brass player
must learn is to breathe in deeply, until every possible particle of air
is crammed into the lungs. Once all that air is inside,
it must come out through the mouth, but there, an internal battle takes place as the musician simultaneously tries
to hold their lips firmly closed while blowing enough air
to force them open. The escaping air meets resistance
from the lip muscles, forms an opening called the aperture and creates the vibration
that brass players call “the buzz.” When a mouthpiece is held up
to those vibrating lips, it slightly refines the buzz, amplifying the vibration
at certain frequencies. But things get really interesting depending on what instrument
is attached to that mouthpiece. A brass instrument’s body
is essentially a tube that resonates with the air
column blowing through it. The way that sound waves
travel through this column forms a limited pattern of pitches
known as the harmonic series, with notes spaced far apart
at the lower end, but coming closer together
as the pitch increases. The musician can alter
the pitch of the note through slight contractions of the lips
and alterations to air volume and speed. Slower, warm sighing air
produces lower pitches, and faster, cool, flowing air
produces higher pitches in the series. But any single harmonic series has gaps
where pitches are missing and the versatility of brass instruments lies in their ability to switch
between multiple series. On instruments like the trumpet,
valves can be lowered to increase the length of tubing
the air travels through, while on a trombone,
this is done by extending its slide. Lengthening the tube stretches
the vibrating air column, reducing the frequency of vibrations
and resulting in a lower pitch. This is why the tuba,
the largest brass instrument, is also the one capable of playing
the lowest notes. So changing the instrument length
shifts its harmonic series, while slight variations of the air flow
and the player’s lips produce the different notes within it. And those notes finally emerge through
the flared bell opening at the end. What started as a deep breath
and a vibrating buzz on the lips has now been transformed
into a bold and brassy tune. The musician’s skillful manipulation
of every part of the process from lungs, to lips, to the mouthpiece, to the instrument itself creates
an amazing palette of pitches that can be heard in musical genres
across the globe. By harnessing the power
of natural resonance in a flexible and controllable way, brass instruments are great examples
of the fusion of human creativity with the physics of our world.

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100 Comments

  • Reply Fergus །། March 28, 2017 at 8:19 pm

    I play tuba

  • Reply Exzavior Williams April 3, 2017 at 1:51 am

    the trombones slide in the thumbnail is facing the wrong side

  • Reply Connor Brozny April 3, 2017 at 2:34 am

    EVERYONE IS COMPLAINING ABOUT NO EUPH BUT WHAT ABOUT THE BAD TECHNIQUE THAT WAS SHOWN!!!! THE TEETH WERE TOGETHER IN THE ANIMATION WITH THE LIPS BUZZING FROM THE SIDE VIEW! NO MUSICIAN SHALL EVER PLAY A BRASS INSTRUMENT WITH THERE TEETH CLENCHED TOGETHER!!! OPEN YOUR MOUTH PEOPLE!! BETTER TONE QUALITY!!!

  • Reply Abel Aguirre April 13, 2017 at 1:13 am

    wheres my euphonium players???

  • Reply Kevin Chen April 18, 2017 at 9:50 am

    0:25 We don't exhale O2, we exhale CO2 xD

  • Reply Cathryna Annaliese April 22, 2017 at 1:55 pm

    Where's French horn and euphonium? I feel so insulted that we are most of the time forgotten as brass instruments!

  • Reply Gonzalo Murillo April 28, 2017 at 9:17 pm

    wood wind is better than brass

  • Reply Colin P May 3, 2017 at 11:21 am

    Thank you so much for this! You actually describe the difficulty of playing a brass instrument! As a trumpet player myself, it was really great seeing music mixed with science!

  • Reply Oskari M May 10, 2017 at 12:13 pm

    The trombone's slide in the thumbnail is in the wrong side.

  • Reply Wheatley May 17, 2017 at 6:28 pm

    "Where's the euphonium" Now the real question is, where the fuck is the bassoon

  • Reply MR MANSKI May 21, 2017 at 2:46 am

    As a french horn player this makes me mad. First, the horn is only put in with the bell part, second there is nothing about rotors, and your lips technically don't even buzz, you also breathe out CO2 and not O2

  • Reply Richard πiazza May 24, 2017 at 9:16 pm

    it's all correct…good job!

  • Reply Bruce Roberts June 5, 2017 at 10:03 pm

    I don't think 'crammed' is the best word to describe filling the lungs. To me it suggests tension which is undesirable when playing a brass instrument. My lips don't begin to vibrate when the air reaches them but only when it creates a standing wave in the lead or mouthpipe which reflects back to the lips.

  • Reply Justin O’Donnell June 7, 2017 at 1:28 am

    Very good way to describe brass.

  • Reply jpstenino June 18, 2017 at 5:50 pm

    Third rate information pretending to be an information video.

  • Reply Comic Sans Forever June 25, 2017 at 3:33 pm

    Euphoniums are fake instruments for people who can't decide between the trombone and tuba. Get over it.

  • Reply Jimmy Cook July 7, 2017 at 6:40 pm

    I love how he put o2 for air when we breathe out Co2 genius

  • Reply Possessy July 10, 2017 at 5:38 am

    Mellophone, Fluglehorn, and lots more…

    brass doesn't matter…

  • Reply Ave Satana August 4, 2017 at 2:15 am

    Great video! Came to YouTube looking for comparisons between brass instruments but instead found out how they work, which is just as, if not more, rad.

  • Reply Hank__ Bk August 9, 2017 at 3:37 pm

    FRENCH. HORN.

  • Reply Tuba Jesus August 24, 2017 at 5:23 am

    TUBAAAAQQ

  • Reply Justine Faith Paulo August 26, 2017 at 12:22 pm

    Hi there! Will there be any clips explaining about the history of western music?

  • Reply 금관악기 September 15, 2017 at 12:46 am

    dislike=woodwind

  • Reply Z3 Ace September 20, 2017 at 3:23 am

    I play trombone

  • Reply Tyler Melanson September 29, 2017 at 9:03 pm

    i play a trombone

  • Reply Christofer Riche October 10, 2017 at 4:05 am

    So that's how they work!

  • Reply Danner Massey October 16, 2017 at 4:37 am

    Obviously wasn't done by a musician but still extremely accurate

  • Reply Baguette November 2, 2017 at 12:04 am

    shout out to all the French horn players

  • Reply Christian Lund November 6, 2017 at 3:29 am

    i’ve been playing trombone for 6 years why am i watching this

  • Reply Harumph, or Who's been rubbing your lamp? November 9, 2017 at 6:17 am

    wow, that was terrible

  • Reply Egriff123 November 9, 2017 at 11:38 pm

    Y U NO DO HOW WOODWIND INSTRUMENTS WORK VIDEO??

  • Reply Nathan Leder November 10, 2017 at 1:18 am

    Tuba: OMM PAH LOOM PAH

  • Reply Bryan Gaytan November 22, 2017 at 4:54 am

    I play the trombone but I want to play the trumpet

  • Reply Holobrine November 23, 2017 at 9:28 pm

    Oh, so you can only play overtones of the resonant frequency of the tubing? Sounds simple enough. But how does half-valve work?

  • Reply Mr. Spock Chap November 28, 2017 at 10:33 pm

    Humans breath out CO(2), not O(2)… The animation in the beginning is inaccurate

  • Reply Dominic Valerio November 29, 2017 at 11:34 am

    Tuba isn’t even the largest brass instrument…

  • Reply CoolDudeClem December 10, 2017 at 3:15 am

    So wait … brass instruments dont use a reed or anything like that, it's just essentially one long length of coiled tubing with a horn at the end? I always thought they used a reed or something similar like a saxophone does and that's what makes the sound. I did wonder how trumpet players could play so many notes with just 3 valves, I thought different combinations of which ones were up and which ones were down gave different notes or something.

  • Reply James Rhile December 13, 2017 at 3:26 am

    I love how hard you make brass sound

  • Reply TromboneSliderr _ December 25, 2017 at 11:55 pm

    Trombone is best instrument

  • Reply Irfan Abdurrahman January 9, 2018 at 8:50 pm

    80% comment here about euphonium, 10% about nostalgist, 10% about folks that want to learn any of these instruments

  • Reply Kaiden Smith January 16, 2018 at 11:25 pm

    ayy ay you forgot the eupho/baritone

  • Reply Dennis Wang January 18, 2018 at 1:27 pm

    dont worry guys
    eupho is still best girl

  • Reply Laura Lynn Crytzer January 22, 2018 at 3:56 am

    Sad to see that this video did not incorporate the writings of Arthur Benade, showing the relationships between quantum mechanics and how horns make sound as well as how the players lips, after initial vibration, actually vibrate sympathetically with the resonating column inside the instrument that is returned to them at a nodal point on the bell.

  • Reply ligma b January 25, 2018 at 4:59 am

    "im got a lip concussion i cant play"
    band director:
    " use more air"

  • Reply SDRUFFA February 20, 2018 at 12:53 am

    You're mother is worth sharing

  • Reply no yes March 16, 2018 at 11:56 pm

    Trombone fam, where you at?

  • Reply ryan dackadacka May 2, 2018 at 8:01 am

    As a trombone I can confirm this

  • Reply Randumb skits May 9, 2018 at 12:27 am

    a trumpet mouthpiece on a baritone can be played almost as high as a normal trumpet.

  • Reply Andrew Aycock May 19, 2018 at 11:22 pm

    1:41 the trombone is in a left handed position 😕

  • Reply Honk Honk May 31, 2018 at 2:56 am

    That was actually well explained. Much better than how i wouldv put it

  • Reply Sub2Pewdiepie4V-Buck June 4, 2018 at 3:10 pm

    Where are all of me Trombones at!

  • Reply Catstuffies Tran June 12, 2018 at 4:49 am

    What about the flute? :/

  • Reply AA Productions July 15, 2018 at 7:28 pm

    If it was made from thinner metal would the pitch be lower?
    What if it was made from a different metal?
    What if it wasn't even made from metal at all?
    And why does plastic seem like it wouldn't make much of a sound? Would it?

  • Reply Tal Farnbach August 9, 2018 at 2:42 am

    Hahahahahahhahaha 🤣 has to a day like that he has to come home 🏡

  • Reply Aviator Dylan September 17, 2018 at 1:44 am

    Why is the slide on the wrong side of the trombone on the thumbnail

  • Reply pro gamer October 5, 2018 at 11:36 am

    Why us the euphonium never in there? ;(

  • Reply FB I October 8, 2018 at 12:34 am

    COUGH COUGH SAX??????

  • Reply Ruofan Yu October 10, 2018 at 6:24 am

    conical > cylindrical bore dont at me

  • Reply rothaarbiker October 10, 2018 at 7:57 pm

    Great explanation!

  • Reply Frosted Corn Flakes October 14, 2018 at 1:26 pm

    no euphonium?

  • Reply Hazel Fitz October 14, 2018 at 4:32 pm

    All of her angry euphonium players here make me feel seen

  • Reply KorZenAudio October 15, 2018 at 12:00 am

    Woodwinds are hard to learn but easy to master. Brass is the other way around.

  • Reply Blazing Fire October 15, 2018 at 4:49 am

    I saw the silver tubs in the thumbnail and at first thought it was a euphonium. I got excited because it’s not a well known instrument outside of band and I play so it was nice to see it being recognized here. But nope, just a tuba.

  • Reply Martin Isaksson October 15, 2018 at 8:13 pm

    Very good vid

  • Reply The Music Kid October 15, 2018 at 10:18 pm

    R.I.P euphoniums

  • Reply Ike Eichenberg October 16, 2018 at 11:38 am

    I play trombone and most of this was stuff I already knew, but it was a very entertaining watch nonetheless

  • Reply 相鉄とHornをこよなく愛す高校生 October 16, 2018 at 2:10 pm

    ホルンも最高なのに何で取り上げないんだろう?

  • Reply Criação de mundos, a arte de criar October 16, 2018 at 11:01 pm

    1:22 that what we phonologists/ phonolgy studants call a a voiced bilabial fricative, represented with the symbol <β>.

  • Reply George Mooradian October 17, 2018 at 4:37 pm

    0/10 not enough French Horn

  • Reply A.J. _Bascom October 17, 2018 at 8:34 pm

    Dear French hornes, euphoniums, etc,

    “OMG THEY DIDN’T MENTION [instrument]!!1!!1 HOW DARE THEY!1!!”
    That’s what you sound like. Literally all they were doing was illustrating a simple point with the better known brass instruments. I mean come on, the video is 4 minutes long. Get over yourself

  • Reply xander king October 17, 2018 at 9:48 pm

    I’ve been playing trombone for 5 years and this is so true

  • Reply Twig October 17, 2018 at 11:50 pm

    Poor Bari (The baritone), no one knows what he is 🙁
    #BariLivesMatter #EuphoLivesMatter #BaritonesAreAwesome #JrBariSeniorBariMoreBari #BringBariBack

  • Reply Bill Ratcliff October 18, 2018 at 2:36 am

    Sorry. The lip oscillation is created sympathetically by the vibrating air column within in the instrument. This misunderstanding is why so many young brass players are taught in correctly and sound so bad.

  • Reply Riley Southby October 18, 2018 at 11:17 pm

    Fun fact: french horns aren’t real

  • Reply WinRARE October 19, 2018 at 3:42 am

    77 woodwind players disliked

  • Reply kickmyassp October 20, 2018 at 1:25 am

    After watching the video, I came to think that it was made by someone who is not a brass player. Buzzing is not created by lips but the standing wave vibration, which in turn is created by air blown into small hole with certain velocity and volume. Lips simply react to the vibration.

  • Reply capableloop October 20, 2018 at 2:01 pm

    Still can’t play trombone properly

  • Reply maddie October 21, 2018 at 4:37 pm

    This is offensive. Where are the euphoniums?!

  • Reply han w October 21, 2018 at 5:03 pm

    yeah tubas!

  • Reply richard barrett October 22, 2018 at 8:48 am

    Your intro song is from an Alesis QS7 Keyboard

  • Reply Hydro Bread54234 November 13, 2018 at 3:58 am

    Some brass bands have vocalists.

  • Reply Mr. Quercus Mischievous Wizard-Knight November 29, 2018 at 10:00 pm

    Yay brass instruments! 😃😃😃🎺🎺🎺🎺

  • Reply Fern Productions December 4, 2018 at 2:09 am

    Why do big brass hate trumpets lol

  • Reply The Star Wars Craft December 5, 2018 at 5:51 am

    I play a brass instument, why am i here?

  • Reply Royさん December 25, 2018 at 1:44 pm

    サムネとか1:44チューバは一体、、、

  • Reply Adrian Duchniak December 25, 2018 at 2:07 pm

    0:06 oh yeaaaahhh

  • Reply Socket January 8, 2019 at 11:37 pm

    No baritone 🙁

  • Reply yeah oh February 14, 2019 at 3:47 am

    Me a band nerd: ah, it's easy. You see-
    They are just big

  • Reply Nero The Pero March 9, 2019 at 6:59 am

    They forgot where you have a river of spit that messes up the instrument

  • Reply Absolutely Speechless March 22, 2019 at 3:48 am

    Rests.

  • Reply Svensk Gamer March 31, 2019 at 7:28 pm

    Too bad euphoniumists! Why don't you play a real brass instrument?

  • Reply TheNoobGuy21 April 21, 2019 at 11:50 am

    i play the trumpet and this is true brass heaven

  • Reply Ryan Fong April 28, 2019 at 2:16 pm

    I know you love lipstick but don't use this on this video or instrument players will put on lipstick to play instrument

  • Reply legit lemonade May 3, 2019 at 12:45 am

    2:04 boo

  • Reply Betsy May 3, 2019 at 4:03 am

    MAKE MORE PLS

  • Reply Ralph Serr May 11, 2019 at 5:17 pm

    As a guitar player, wtf am I doing here?

  • Reply fartx211 May 25, 2019 at 4:34 am

    It's odd to think that technically, a didgeridoo is a brass instrument

  • Reply soundatrumpet July 2, 2019 at 2:35 pm

    https://youtu.be/MVs2G60-ilo

  • Reply Darryl Jones July 2, 2019 at 9:27 pm

    No. Air speed or "volume" does not influence pitch

  • Reply Adam Tessmer August 2, 2019 at 5:02 am

    Ombechure.

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