An introduction to: Brass Bands

Following on from our look at barbershop singing and wind bands, in this article we take a look at the ins and outs of brass banding in the UK. What is a brass band and where did they come from? What is it like to be part of a brass band today? And how can you get involved?

What is a brass band?

A brass band is a musical ensemble consisting almost entirely of a standard range of brass instruments. The typical brass band sound comes from the set types and shapes of instruments used: the flugelhorn, soprano cornet and baritone horn, for example, help to create the bright, melodic sound of a brass band, very different to the dark and symphonic sound typical of orchestral brass.

West Chiltington Silver Band playing (summer 07)

Image: West Chiltington Silver Band playing (summer 07)

Just as important as the group of instruments that makes up a brass band is the tradition that surrounds them; a tradition of (mostly) friendly rivalries, contesting, local pride, and community. Brass banding is a social pastime as much as a musical one.

Traditionally for the musicians of a brass band, brass banding is a hobby. But as with all music making, it being a hobby does not mean the standard is low – many brass bands play to an extremely high standard spurred on by the continual competitions they take part in. Brass bands continue to thrive all over the UK today and for many brass banding is a way of life.

Where did the brass band come from?

Brass bands can be found in various forms around the world today, but the standardised British brass band originated in the early nineteenth century and England’s Industrial Revolution. Two key factors contributed to making this the prime time for the birth of brass bands:

  • A sudden increase in the amount of raw metal available meaning instruments could be made more cheaply and available in areas of the country that hadn’t previously had access
  • Companies and individuals began to take an interest in providing a hobby for local workers in an effort to improve the local area and keep the workforce occupied in their spare time

With the help of the initial injection of cash from a patron, or support from an employer, brass bands in many industrial towns and villages grew quickly into bands performing to high standards. They held many local performances and the community would pay to see their home bands perform, or to see high quality bands from elsewhere who had come to visit.

It’s easy to imagine how this theme of local pride soon became competition and brass bands became a valued part of everyday life in industrial Britain.

Hetton Colliery Silver Prize Band, photographed in front of Hetton Hall, early 20th Century (TWAM ref. 220).
Image: Hetton Colliery Silver Prize Band, photographed in front of Hetton Hall, early 20th Century via Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

Whilst Brass bands were becoming popular in industrial towns and villages championed by employers and individuals alike, they were also springing up as part of the activities of Salvation Army corps across the country.

The popularity of brass bands grew and grew until the First World War when widespread enlistment and financial uncertainty hit. During and after the war, many bands moved their activity from outdoor public locations to indoor venues: with smaller bands and smaller potential audiences they could no longer fill a park as easily as they used to. Subsequently, brass bands were less commonly heard at the centre of their community and in many cases this decline led to the loss of banding as a local way of life.

Thankfully this decline was not the end. In many parts of the UK, particularly in Yorkshire and Wales, brass bands have grown in popularity right up to the present day and with the founding of youth bands have welcomed new generations to continue the tradition. Through participation in regional and national competitions they have continued to develop extremely high standards of performance and to present a need for new, exciting, and challenging repertoire – a challenge to which many composers continue to rise.

Ready for a bit of friendly competition?

So how does the competition element of brass banding actually work?

Similarly to leagues and divisions in football, there are different levels of brass band contest called sections. Each competing brass band takes part in contests and is ranked based on their performance. Changes in rankings can lead to a band being promoted or demoted from section to section. Contests are governed by strict rules and cover a wide range of repertoire from set pieces, to hymn tunes, and quick step (marching) contests, to entertainment contests.

As well as the occasional offer of cash prizes, contesting is an important method by which brass bands define themselves and build a reputation. The results of contests and subsequent movements in rankings are hotly followed by bands and fans alike.

Find out more about contesting, the repertoire, rules and results via:

The instruments

Well they’re all brass, right? Wrong! Despite its name, a brass band includes not only brass instruments but usually percussion as well. This is especially true in recent brass band history; 2 to 3 percussion players play an important role in the repertoire adding that extra sparkle and punctuating the rich brassy sound.

A standard British brass band consists of a set number of players and types of instrument including:

  • Cornets,
  • Tenor, baritone and flugel horns,
  • Euphoniums,
  • Tenor and bass trombones,
  • Basses (Eb and Bb tubas)
  • Percussionists

What about trumpets? Trumpets and cornets are very similar members of the brass band family but they are slightly different shapes. This has a huge impact on the sounds they make and the ensembles they are used in as a result. Whilst trumpets are predominant in orchestras and can also be found in jazz and big bands, a traditional British brass band uses cornets.

This set configuration of instruments and the fact that they are all ‘conical bore’ instruments is what gives the British style brass band its distinctive sound. Like wind instruments the sound a brass instrument makes is created by the vibrating column of air passing through the instrument controlled by the player. The shape of an instrument therefore has a huge impact on the timbre of the sound produced and the two different types of shape most commonly found in wind and brass instruments are:

  • Cylindrical bore: here the diameter of the instrument remains the same along its length – this is the shape of a flute, clarinet or trumpet.
  • Conical bore: this is the shape of the instruments in a brass band; just like an ice cream cone, the width of the instrument increases linearly with the distance from the end of the instrument.

The shape of the instrument governs its timbre, but what about the pitch? Since the shape of most brass instruments is fixed and the sound is produced by a vibrating column of air passing through the instrument, the pitch control falls largely to the players’ ability to manipulate that stream of air.

The instruments of a brass band almost all use the same method of pitch control; they rely on the players’ ability to control the stream of air for pitch control within a set series of notes (the harmonic series), and an additional system of three valves. This short video explains more about how pitch control of a brass instrument works.

The instrument chooses you – literally

People often feel an affinity to a certain instrument or know from a very young age what instrument they’d like to learn, many will learn one instrument and stick to it for life. However in the brass band world the player-instrument relationship can be a little more fluid.

Apart from the bass trombone (which was a later addition to the brass band), all parts are written in the treble clef meaning no transposition is needed on any instrument. As discussed above, the method of pitch control is also similar for most brass band instruments. This means players can, and often have to, switch instruments within a band as needed. This is important in understanding how brass bands have survived so well – when numbers are low, or with the flow of players in and out of an area, if a band suddenly had an abundance of one instrument and not enough of another, some of the players could simply switch.

Brass bands around the world

In this article we’ve focussed on British brass bands but there are other types of band which share similar roots around the world:

  • Balkan brass bands – originate in 19th century, with fast beats and roots in folk music. They were brought to the attention of a wider international community through the Serbian film maker Emir Kusturica’s Black Cat, White Cat.
  • In Belgium, the Netherlands and some of Germany, fanfare orchestras are common. A fanfare orchestra is similar to a brass band but with the addition of the whole saxophone family.
  • Brass bands in New Orleans date back to the late 19th and early 20th century and played an important role in the development of jazz. They included a wider range of instruments than a traditional brass band, for example sousaphone and double bass.

Find out more and get brass banding

If brass banding sounds good to you then why not go and see a performance or join a band near you.

Read all about recent goings on the brass band world, contest results, news and opportunities via 4barsrest.