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Title: Oystein Baasdvik, Tuba—Encounters II for Tuba Solo, by William Craft; Oystein Baadsvik, tuba. Label: Simax. Format: CD. Catalogue#: PSC 1101. Track: 10.

Contextual Associations

The tuba is an end-blown lip-reed aerophone outfitted with valves (either piston or rotary) that make it fully chromatic. Originating in Europe, the tuba today (usually pitched in B-flat) can be found throughout the world wherever cosmopolitanism has taken root. It is most commonly found in the symphony orchestra, military, marching, concert and brass bands, in brass ensembles, certain types of jazz ensembles, and some European vernacular dance ensembles (such as polka bands). As the tuba gradually became an accepted member of the symphony orchestra from the middle of the 19th century, composers started to increasingly write for it; by the end of that century it could be said to be a standard orchestral instrument. Its acceptance into mid-19th century military bands was far swifter. The tuba has substantial solo and brass ensemble repertoires associated with it. The performance of these repertoires is today most concentrated in university music departments and conservatories around the world, which typically include in their faculty a professor of tuba and offer degrees in tuba performance at both the undergraduate and graduate levels; some of this repertoire is also heard in the domain of secondary school music programs where it is utilized for solo competitions. Professionals operate primarily in the classical music/music education domain, centered in professional orchestras and academic institutions where performers teach, present formal solo recitals, perform in faculty chamber ensembles, solo with school ensembles, and direct student ensembles. Amateur tuba players find performance opportunities in school (secondary and tertiary) and municipal bands, orchestras, and Dixieland jazz combos.


The tuba pictured here is basically an 18-foot length of mostly conical brass tubing pitched in B-flat with a cup mouthpiece inserted at one end and a somewhat funnel-shaped bell at the other. This tubing, initially cylindrical in profile, passes through four rotary valves that, when rotated individually or in combination, add varying lengths of tubing to the instrument’s basic length. When a valve rotor is unengaged the air column passes directly through a channel bored into the rotor; when the valve is engaged by pressing the rotor key down two different channels come into alignment, one directing the air column out of the valve and through an additional length of tubing, and a second one allowing the air column back into and through the valve. The amount of tubing that is added is different with each valve: the first valve, closest to the mouthpiece end, adds enough tubing to lower the pitch of the instrument by a whole step (M2); the second valve by a half step (m2); the third valve by a minor third (m3) and the fourth valve a fourth (P4). Activating this fourth valve alone basically turns the tuba into a 24-foot instrument pitched in F (similar to engaging the ‘F-attachment’ on trombones except an octave lower). Each additional length of tubing has its own tuning slide at a U-bend, and there is a main tuning slide for general tuning, operated by the player’s left hand while playing, located after the final valve. It is after this point that the diameter of the bore begins to increase steadily all the way to the bell with a pronounced conical profile. A detachable, silver-plated-brass mouthpiece with a deep cup is inserted at the player end of the instrument’s tubing.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player, when seated (this tuba is designed for playing in the seated position, though it could be played while marching with the aid of a sling), rests the final U-bend in its tubing on his/her lap so that the mouthpiece touches their lips and the bell faces upwards (the tuba pictured here is inverted). It is called a ‘left-facing’ tuba because in playing position the bell stem is to the left of the performer’s face. The four fingers of the right hand operate the rotary valve levers. With any given length of tubing (of which there are seven for the first three-valves [the basic length and six combinations of additional tubing] and seven more when the fourth valve is in use), the performer may produce a fundamental pitch (called a pedal tone) and the notes in the natural harmonic series above it by controlling the force of the airstream (with their diaphragm muscles) and its modulation (with their embouchure muscles adjusting lip tension). The fundamental (pedal tone) of the basic tube length of the tuba is B-flat0; the practical range of the instrument is E1 to B-flat3, though many players can extend both ends of this range. Across this range it is fully chromatic. Production of its pedal tones (E0 - B-flat0) is not dependable and therefore seldom written for. A tuba with a fourth valve, like the one pictured here, holds the potential to produce the chromatic notes between E1 and the pedal B-flat0, but these become progressively more difficult to make speak. Tubas are in general non-transposing instruments written at pitch in the bass clef. Because of its wide conical bore, the tuba has a full and rich sound quality. Variation in the timbre of the instrument is achieved through the use of a mute (not pictured here) placed in the bell of the instrument. Contemporary composers for the tuba have on occasion employed expanded techniques of sound production, including but not limited to singing while playing. For a video illustrating the player-instrument interface for this instrument, view the Philharmonia Orchestra website chapter on the tuba.


It is difficult to pinpoint a moment of origin for the tuba because so many European makers were simultaneously experimenting in the second quarter of the 19th century with applying one or another of the new valve mechanisms to a bass-register brass instrument. By 1845 tubas pitched in B-flat (18-foot) with rotary valves were being produced by the Bohemian maker Vaclav Cerveny, so perhaps the 1840s might be considered the period during which the design of the tuba pictured here had its origins. Such instruments were well received as a fully chromatic bass-range instrument for use in the fast-changing world of the military band, albeit in different designs from the one pictured here that were more conducive to being played while marching or on horseback (for cavalry units). It was from this same decade that the tuba’s acceptance into the orchestra also gained momentum.

Bibliographic Citations

Baines, Anthony. 1976. Brass Instruments: Their History and Development. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Bate, Philip. 1966. The Trumpet and Trombone: An Outline of their History, Development and Construction. London: Ernest Benn Limited.

Bevan, Clifford. 1984. “Tuba (i).” NGDMI v.3: 664-668.

Campbell, Murray, Clive Greated, and Arnold Meyers. 2004. Musical Instruments: History, Technology, and Performance of Instruments of Western Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Carse, Adam. 1975 (1965). Musical Wind Instruments. New York: Da Capo Paperback.

“Instruments.”  Philharmonia Orchestra website, accessed September 14, 2015: http://www.philharmonia.co.uk/explore/instruments


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

423.231.2 aerophone--wide-bore chromatic labrosone valve bugle with long air column (more than 2m); the tube is predominantly conical

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - conical with flaring open distal end

Source and direction of airstream: player exhalation through mouth into air cavity; unidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: lip reed (player’s lips) placed over cup mouthpiece at end of tube

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: incremental lengthening with valve mechanism of air cavity in which the standing wave is active

Overblowing utilization: overblowing at consecutive partials

Pitch production: multiple - changing length of standing wave by adding tube length with valves or slide and by selecting partials through overblowing


39.8 in. length

Primary Materials

metal - sheet
spring - spiral




YBB 641

Entry Author

Roger Vetter