The tuba, which produces the lowest pitched sound of all brass instruments, brings an essential luster and sheen to any musical genre from jazz and classical through to pops.

The Origins of the Tuba

One of the seminal events in the history of brass instruments was the invention of the valve apparatus in the 1820s. After their invention, valves were incorporated into a variety of brass instruments and spurred the creation of one new musical device after another. The basstuba, historical precursor to the modern tuba, made its appearance on September 12, 1835. The German military bandmaster Wilhelm Wieprecht and the musical instrument inventor Johann Moritz were the basstuba's creators.

The name "tuba" comes from the Latin word for "tube," but was also used for an ancient bronze instrument used in Greece and Rome. The name was later used as a blanket term for horns, trumpets, and bugles. Moritz called his invention the "basstuba" since it had a lower tone than historical "tubas." Although their structures were entirely different from the tuba, the ophicleide, serpent, and other instruments had a similar function to the modern tube in orchestras. Widely used until the mid-19th century, these used keys (metal caps over the tone holes) like woodwind instruments. For example, Mendelssohn's overture A Midsummer Night's Dream (1826) calls for an ophicleide. Also, when Wagner first wrote his Faust Overture in 1840, he did so with the serpent, not the basstuba, in mind. Before the trumpet and horn were equipped with valves in the 19th century, they were used in simpler forms without valves. However, since the tuba was invented in the 19th century, it had valves from the very beginning.


Three years after inventing the basstuba, Moritz created the tenor tuba, an instrument with a higher tonal range. A fellow German named Ferdinand Sommer made the tubes of the tenor tuba thicker and more tapered. He called this instrument the "euphonium." The name was taken from "euphonos," which means "beautiful sound" in Greek. While Sommer was developing the euphonium in Germany, Adolphe Sax, noted father of the saxophone, was creating one saxhorn instrument after another in Paris. First the sopranino, then the soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxhorns all had high tonal ranges that exactly matched the increasingly popular euphonium. The bass saxhorn, in fact, was sold under the name euphonium and was a great success. Incidentally, the baritone saxhorn made by Adolphe Sax became the prototype for the modern baritone.

Tubas are brass instruments with the lowest tonal range, but they have slight variations. In addition to different possible structures, the four main pitches are F, E♭, C, and B♭. The baritone, euphonium, and sousaphone are also companions of the tuba. The sousaphone was created by redesigning the tuba in a larger size. John Philip Sousa, the famous American conductor and composer of many marching tunes, came up with the idea for the sousaphone. An instrument manufacturer completed it as a special order in 1890. The sousaphone's prominent feature is the large bell that sits over the player's right shoulder and faces forward, which allows the instrument to project its sound toward the front. The large, round bell is often a symbolic feature of marching bands and other troupes that line up and play in formation.

The alto horn is an E♭ tuba five tones lower than a trumpet and is sometimes played by trumpeters or horn players. Called the alto horn in Japan and the U.S., it is referred to as the tenor horn in the U.K. Occasionally, the same name is used in the U.S. to refer to the baritone. Also, in Germany, the name tenor horn can describe an instrument of an entirely different shape. If you hear "tenor horn" in Japan, it may refer to this German instrument. Usually equipped with three piston valves, the baritone horn has the same tonal range as the euphonium. Some euphonium and trombone players will also play the baritone. The timbre is bright and the tubes are considerably thinner than the euphonium. In the U.S., a euphonium with the bell and pistons facing forward may be called a baritone to differentiate it from a true euphonium.