The modern tuba that we see now being played in parades, concerts, and orchestras has its origins from the bass tuba patented in 1835 by German inventor Johann Gottfried Moritz and army bandmaster Wilhelm Friedrich Wieprecht. The valve mechanism has allowed the instrument to have a complete selection of notes, including a low range of tones during harmonic series, unlike in the past where brass instruments have limited range.
Today, the name “tuba” is a Latin word with the English translation of trumpet, but in the past, the Latin word tuba translates to tube in English, which was used to call any ancient Greek or Roman bronze instrument. In modern times, it has evolved and became the generic term for bugles, horns, and trumpets.
Different Tuba Groups and Types
In the eyes of the general public, the tuba looks practically the same and only comes in one form. The tuba has evolved over the decades and has developed into numerous types. Let us look into the different groups and types of the tuba.
Generally, the orchestra tuba refers to the kind of tuba which is predominantly used in the stationary form. This would mean that the tuba player or tubist is staying in one place along with other musicians.
1) Bass Tuba
This was the first tuba to be invented, and most of the orchestral musical compositions in the 1800s have the Bass Tuba in mind when composers created them. Today, we have a bigger version, and it generally comes in the key of Eb or F with the Eb commonly used in the United States and F are usually used in the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe.
It comes in different sizes, but the standard ones weigh around 35 to 40 pounds. Constructing a regular-sized Bass Tuba would cover around 12 to 14 feet of tubing. The most common is with four valves, but there are other versions too. A quality bass tuba would cost around approximately $7000 and above.
2) Contrabass Tuba
Today, it is highly regarded as the most popular tuba used by musicians around the world. The contrabass tuba has more often replaced the bass tuba in the orchestra and other musical compositions. The tubist or tuba player would only switch back to playing the bass tuba during certain performances if it cannot mimic or recreate a particular sound. It produces the lowest pitch in the family of brass instruments, and it comes in the key of C or Bb. Most commonly used is those with the four-piston valves, but professional and skilled tubists would normally play the five or 6 piston valves.
The construction of each tuba would require about 18 feet of brass tubing for the Bb version, whereas the C version would only need around 16 feet. There are smaller versions that would fit those with small stature, and naturally, they weigh much lighter than the standard ones. These are specifically designed for beginners and young tuba players.
The contrabass tuba in the key of Bb is normally used by high school/college students and amateur musicians. In contrast, the one with the key of C is used by professional musicians in an orchestra or concert bands.
The euphonium is a bit similar to the bass tuba as they are both a conical type of instrument but quite smaller, at least half shorter. Smaller in size allows the euphonium to produce sounds that are an octave higher than the Bb tuba. It uses a valve mechanism, and most modern versions have piston valves instead of rotary. It is often called tenor tuba, but the name “Euphonium” comes from the Greek word, “Euphonos,” which means sweet-voiced or good sound. There are four kinds of euphonium: compensating euphonium, double-bell euphonium, five valves euphonium, and marching euphonium.
Appearance-wise, one may not think that a flugelhorn would be a member of the tuba family as it looks similar to a trumpet, and it is often played by trumpet players instead of a tuba player or a tubist. This was originally made for traditional band music and orchestral music. Still, today, musicians have included it in marching bands, modern jazz, and Latin bands along with swing and pop music compositions. From all the tuba instruments, it is the only one that is handheld and has the lightest weight between 7 to 10 pounds. It is also the only instrument in this tuba group that can be used in non-stationary events.
5) Wagner Tuba
It was partly designed and commissioned by German composer and conductor Richard Wagner hence the name. The Wagner Tuba is rarely used by musicians today except for those who want an authentic sound for Wagner’s compositions such as Ring Cycle. Other than that, it has been unused by the most modern orchestra. Unlike other instruments, this tuba uses a rotary valve instead of a piston valve mechanism. Among the tuba family, it has been a subject for debate since its introduction to the public. Many insist that it should have just been regarded as a revised or upgraded horn and not a tuba. However, Wagner’s followers argued that since it produced a solely low range of tones, then it should be referred to as a tuba.
A tuba that can be used for non-stationary applications is categorized as a mobile tuba. They are specifically designed to enable the tubist or tuba player to play the instrument efficiently while moving without difficulty. Basically, tubas in this category are often used in marching bands both in schools and the military corps. You would seldom see them in an orchestra or concert bands.
Before Sousaphone became popular, Helicon was the go-to tuba for marching bands. It was explicitly designed to be worn by a tubist or a tuba player with the bell in an upright position, and it is why it was referred to as the rain catcher in the past. It is commonly pitched on the key of Bb or Eb, but there are those with other keys except that they are now rarely used.
In appearance and weight, a Helicon is smaller than the other standard-sized tubas and sousaphones. It weighs around 16 to 22 pounds with a bell diameter of 18 to 25 inches. While it is not as popular as Sousaphone today, it is still the preferred mobile tuba by European tuba players.
2) Marching Tuba
The marching tuba is sometimes referred to as the contrabass bugle, which is the mobile tuba version of the contrabass tuba used in the orchestra. It was invented only in the 1960s specifically designed to be used by tubists in drum and bugle corps. The musical marching band needed the low range of the tuba but designed in such a way that the tubist can carry it comfortably on their shoulder when they move. Two versions of the marching tuba are available in the market today, which is either pitched in the key of Bb or C. Basically, it weighs comparatively the same with an orchestral contrabass tuba there is a lighter version in the form of the ¾ types.
In the latter part of the 1890s, the legendary American composer and conductor, John Phillip “March King” Sousa, commissioned the creation of the Sousaphone hence the name. He is largely credited for having improved the standard of excellence that the United States Marine Band has been known for, and that has earned him a reputation that has been unequaled by any marine band director.
The Sousaphone dethroned its predecessor helicon as the most popular mobile tuba in military marching bands or other marching bands. It is often played in jazz and brass bands as well. It has evolved over the decades and made it more suitable for playing while marching or moving. It has a circular design that enables the tubist to wear it comfortably around him with the left shoulder as support and the right hip as its resting place.
Original designs weigh up to 45 pounds, but modern technology has helped create a fiberglass version weighing only about 20 pounds, less than half of the original weight. These are not only lighter but way more affordable, but to the tuba purists, they sound less deep and less rich than those of the brass-made tubas. They are pitched in the key of Bb with three valves, whether used by amateurs or professionals.
4) Baritone Horn
Often called just a baritone, this low-pitch instrument is similar to the alto horn and flugelhorn in the sense that it comes equipped with piston valves and a conical bore.
Moreover, the mouthpiece of a baritone horn is wide-rimmed and shaped like a cup, similar to the trombone and the euphonium. Another similarity that the baritone tuba has with these two instruments is the fact that it’s considered both a transposing and non-transposing instrument.
The baritone contains roughly the same length of tubing as the trombone, with the only difference being that the design of the instrument is closer to the shape of a small tuba.
With this in mind, while the range of the baritone tuba may resemble that of a trombone, the sound exuded from the instrument is far mellower. Furthermore, the baritone also uses valves rather than a hand slide.
Things You Should Know About Tuba
Tuba Keys (Bb, C, Eb, F)
Tubas in any design are all pitched in the keys of Bb, C, Eb, or F. The standard size tuba which is about 18 feet of tubing would normally be pitched in the key of Bb and those with 16 feet of tubing would fall in the category of C. Those using 13 feet of tubing are pitched in the key of Eb. Usually, those with 12 feet are pitched in the key of F. There are tweaks here and there, but generally, the length of the tuba dictates the key pitch.
The Bb tubas are the most common and popular instrument in school bands in the United States. Professional tubists would often prefer using the C tubas as they produce sound more distinctively and clearly. They are commonly used in orchestras and some collegiate musicals. The Eb tubas are preferred by military bands and brass bands, and the F tubas are often used for solo performances.