1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Tuba

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TUBA, in music. The tubas — bombardon, helicon, euphonium (Fr. tuba, sax-tuba, bombardon; Ger. Tuben, Tenor-bass, Bombardon, Kontrabasstuba, Helikon; Ital. basstuba, bombardone) — are a family of valved instruments of powerful tone forming the tenor and bass of the brass wind. In the orchestra these instruments are called tubas; in military bands euphonium (tenor), bombardon and helicon (bass).

The modern tubas owe their existence to the invention of valves or pistons (Ger. Ventile) by two Prussians, Stölzel and Blümel, in 1815. The tubas are often confounded with the baritone and bass of the saxhorns, being like them the outcome of the application of valves to the bugle family. There is, however, a radical difference in construction between the two types: given the same length of tubing, the fundamental octave of the tubas is an octave lower than that of the saxhorns, the quality of tone being besides immeasurably superior. This difference is entirely due to the proportions of the truncated cone of the bore and consequently of the column of air within. By increasing the calibre of the bore in proportion to the length of the tube it was found that the fundamental note or first sound of the harmonic series was easily obtained in a full rich quality, and by means of the valves, with this one note as a basis, a valuable pedal octave is obtained, absent in the saxhorns. Prussia has not adopted these modifications; the bass tubas with large calibre, which have long been introduced into the military bands of other countries and retained in that country, are founded on the original model invented in 1835 by Wieprecht and Moritz, a specimen of which is preserved in the museum of the Brussels Conservatoire. The name “bass tuba” was bestowed by Wieprecht upon his newly invented bass with valves, which had the narrow bore afterwards adopted by Sax for the saxhorns. The evolution of the modern tubas took place between 1835 and 1854 (see Valves).


Britannia Tuba Bombardon.png

BB♭ Bombardon or Contrabass Tuba (Besson).


The instruments termed Wagner tubas are not included among the foregoing. The Wagner tubas are really horns designed for Wagner in order to provide for the Nibelungen Ring a complete quartet having the horn timbre. The tenor tuba corresponds to the tenor horn, which it outwardly resembles, having its tube bent in rectangular outline and being played by means of a funnel-shaped mouthpiece. The bore of the Wagner tenor and tenor-bass tubas, in B♭ and F, is slightly larger than in the horn, but much smaller than in the real tubas. The bell, funnel-shaped as in the German tubas, is held to the right of the performer, the valves being fingered by the left hand. There are four valves, lowering the pitch respectively 1 tone, ½ tone, 1½ tone, 2 tones (or 2½ tones). The harmonic series is the same for both instruments, the notation being as for the horn in C.


C. Real Sounds.
B flat Tenor.
Britannica Tuba B flat Tenor Sounds.png
F Bass.
Britannica Tuba F Bass Sounds.png
N.B. — The black notes are difficult to obtain strictly in tune as open notes.


By means of the valves the compass is extended downwards an octave for each instrument. The timbre of the tenor tuba is only slightly more metallic and less noble than that of the French horn with valves. Many motives in the Ring are given out by the quartet of horns and Wagner tubas.

The modern tuba finds its prototype as well as the origin of the name in the Roman tuba (the Greek salpinx), definite information concerning which is given by Vegetius.[1] Compared with the other military service instruments of the Romans, the buccina and cornu, the tuba was straight and was used to sound the charge and retreat, and to encourage and lead the soldiers during action; it was sounded at the changing of the guard, as the signal to begin and leave off work, &c. The tuba is represented, together with the buccina and cornu, on Trajan's column in the scenes described by Vegetius.

During the middle ages the tuba was as great a favourite as the busine (see Buccina and Trumpet), from which it may readily be distinguished by its marked conical bore and absence of bell. It is recorded that King Frederick Barbarossa gave an order on the 14th of January 1240 in Arezzo for four tubas of silver and for slaves to be taught to play upon them.[2] During the middle ages the Latin word tuba is variously translated, and seems to have puzzled the compilers of vocabularies, who often render it by trumba (Fr. trompe). (K. S.)


  1. De re militari, iii. 5 and ii. 7.
  2. Dr Alwin Schultz, Höfisches Leben, i. 560, note 3.