Also:       Cornett      Kornett      cornetta      

Title: The Golden Age of Brass—Whirlwind Polka, by Jules Levy; David Hickman, cornet, American Serenade Band, Henry Charles Smith, cond. Label: Summit. Format: CD. Catalogue#: DCD 121. Track: 8.

Contextual Associations

The cornet is an end-blown lip-reed aerophone outfitted with valves (either piston, like the one pictured here, or rotary) that make it fully chromatic. Originating in 19th-century Europe, the cornet today (usually pitched in B-flat, although higher-pitched E-flat cornets are also made) can be found throughout the world wherever Western cosmopolitanism has taken root. It is played both by professionals and amateurs, males and females. Through the end of the 19th century it was a standard instrument in the symphony orchestra (eventually usurped by the trumpet), and the favored soprano-register brass instrument in military, marching, brass, and concert bands. In the early jazz era it was widely used as both a solo or section instrument in jazz bands and combos. A small but spectacularly virtuosic repertoire of works featuring a solo cornet was produced in the U.S.A. during the heyday of the wind band, from the very end of the 19th century through the first few decades of the 20th century (listen to audio clip). The extensive classical solo repertoire of original pieces and transcribed works for the trumpet, both unaccompanied and accompanied (by a keyboard instrument or an orchestra, i.e., concertos), dating from the Baroque era to the present, can also be played on the cornet. Today, the cornet remains the preferred soprano range brass instrument in British brass bands and is found in combination with trumpets in military bands worldwide. In the American concert band tradition as practiced in the contexts of high schools, universities, and communities, parts labeled ‘cornet’ and ‘trumpet’ are today all typically performed on trumpet.


The b-flat cornet is basically a 4.5-foot length of moderately conical brass tubing with a cup mouthpiece inserted at one end and a flared bell at the other. This tubing passes through three spring-loaded piston valves that, when depressed individually or in combination, add varying lengths of tubing to the instrument’s basic length. Its three valves are located side-by-side at approximately the middle of the instrument. When a valve piston is unengaged (at the top of its casing) the air column passes more-or-less laterally through a channel in the piston; when the valve is engaged by pressing the piston down to the bottom of its casing 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 piston. 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); and the third valve by a minor third (m3). Each additional length of tubing has its own tuning slide, and there is also a main tuning slide for adjustments to the basic length of the tube located at the first U-bend after the mouthpiece. Visually, older cornets have a distinctive rounded turn called a ‘shepherd’s crook’ after the tube exits the first-valve casing (see detail #1), as is the case with both of the cornets pictured on this page. The older cornet pictured here (gallery #2) differs from the newer one in that it has two interchangeable straight mouthpiece shanks (the one currently inserted makes its basic pitch ‘b-flat’ while the longer one seen at the bottom of gallery #2 lowers the instrument’s pitch to ‘a’ when it is inserted) and no condensation valve (which was an invention of the 1880s).   

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player, either seated or standing, grasps the three valve casings with his or her left hand and positions the trumpet so that the mouthpiece touches their lips, the valve buttons point upwards, and the bell faces forwards. The first three fingers of the right hand operate the three valves. With any given length of tubing (of which there are seven--the basic length and six combinations of additional tubing), 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 of the basic tube length of this cornet is B-flat2; the practical range of the instrument is E3 to B-flat 5, though some amateur and most professional cornet players can extend the upper end of this range considerably. Cornet parts are notated in the treble clef. The B-flat cornet is a transposing instrument written in C but sounding a major second (M2) below. The cornet has a wide dynamic range and a mellower sound then its cousin the trumpet. Variation in the timbre of the instrument is achieved through the use of mutes (not pictured--see entry for trumpet) placed in or held in front of the bell of the instrument.


Cornets like the one described above and seen in the gallery photo were being manufactured by the 1860s, but because so many instrument makers throughout Europe and in the United States were designing and re-designing cornet-like instruments throughout the later-half of the 19th century it is impossible to credit any one individual as its inventor. It is generally agreed that what we call the cornet today evolved from the cornet à pistons, also known as the cornopean. Unlike its precursor, cornets were not outfitted with several crooks (used to alter their fundamental pitch), and used Périnet valves, a design patented in 1839, rather than Stölzel valves (see Of Tubes, Slides, and Valves for an explanation of these two piston valve designs).

Bibliographic Citations

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

________. 1984. “Cornet (i).” NGDMI v.1: 496-497.

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

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.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Western Europe

Formation: cosmopolitan (Euro-American)

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

423.232.11 aerophone--narrow-bore chromatic labrosone valve horn with short air column (less than 2m); the tube is of intermediate bore profile

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


16.3 in. length

Primary Materials

metal - sheet
spring - spiral


Frank Holton & Co.


1921 Holton-Clarke Model

Entry Author

Roger Vetter