Trumpets are the most famous brass instrument, a family of instruments named after the metal they are made from.
Brass instruments are defined by the way they produce sound. The player’s lips are formed into an embrasure, which vibrates to produce a sound.
Brass-made instruments like saxophones aren’t brass instruments because they produce sound through the vibration of a reed. Wooden brass instruments are brass instruments because they produce sound through a vibrating embrasure.
While brass instruments aren’t defined by metal, the vast majority of them are made from brass, and the instrument family is even named after the metal.
So why are trumpets and brass instruments so overwhelmingly made from brass?
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What Are the Main Reasons Trumpets are Made of Brass?
It’s Easy to Work:
Brass instruments have a lot of tubing.
A Bb trumpet, one of the smaller brass instruments, has 1.4m (4’6”) of tubing! That’s excluding additional tubing connected to the valves.
All that tubing needs to be folded up comfortably to hold and play, which means brass instruments contain some seriously complicated shapes.
Metal is easy to work, and straight metal tubing can be bent into tight curves rather than needing complicated hole-boring.
While other materials are prone to breaking, metal is very sturdy.
So why brass specifically over any other metal?
This is partially also down to robustness. Copper, for example, is very soft and might deform or break under pressure.
Brass is stronger and more likely to stand the test of time.
It Doesn’t Rust:
Brass instruments are constantly subjected to all kinds of nasty chemicals from saliva.
One chemical, which can be particularly damaging to some metals, is water.
Brass doesn’t rust, making it much better suited for trumpet-making than ferrous metals (those containing iron).
Brass’ Resonant Qualities:
Instruments made from brass sound good.
Much of brass instruments’ bright, warm sound can be attributed to the metal’s resonant qualities.
Are All Trumpets Made of Brass?
The majority of trumpets are brass, but several other materials are also popular.
Some trumpets are made entirely of these materials.
Brass-made instruments also sometimes contain components made from other metals:
What Other Materials Are Used in Trumpets?
Nickel-silver is an alloy similar to brass. As well as copper and zinc though, it also contains nickel.
Nickel-silver is harder than brass and has different tonal qualities. Many players find that nickel-silver accentuates the sounds produced by the instrument’s design.
A design that would produce a bright sound will sound brighter if made from nickel-silver. Designs that would produce a darker sound will sound darker with nickel-silver.
A big advantage of nickel-silver is its resistance to red rot.
In recent years, several companies have started producing plastic trumpets.
Plastic trumpets have a bad reputation amongst some trumpet players who’ve reported issues with build quality in some of the more popular models.
Some players also report that plastic trumpets are much harder to play. The resonance of the plastic makes it much more difficult to produce notes. This is an issue because they’re often marketed as cheap instruments for beginners.
That said, these instruments do sound good! Or, at least, better than one might expect. They’re light, cheap, and resistant to dents and red rot (although not to cracks).
Some trumpets are made from solid silver or gold.
These trumpets are uncommon, largely because these materials are expensive for most players.
Professional trumpets sometimes have solid silver bells, as the bell has a greater impact on the instrument’s sound than other components.
Trumpets plated in silver or gold are much more common, especially silver-plated trumpets. These coatings are much thinner and more resilient than lacquer.
Silver-plated trumpets tend to have a brighter tone, closer to raw brass.
What Were Trumpets Originally Made Of?
When people refer to trumpets, they’re usually envisioning a modern three-valved trumpet.
“Trumpet” is a loose term, though, and can refer to any brass instrument with a high register.
Trumpets have been used, in some form, since the beginning of human history. Hollowed-out animal horns and wooden brass instruments can be considered trumpets, and both pre-date modern brass-made trumpets.
Metal trumpets also date back a really long time. The oldest surviving examples are silver and bronze trumpets from 1500 BC, taken from Tutankhamun’s tomb.
These trumpets are valveless and look very different from modern trumpets. Valved brass instruments are relatively recent – they were invented in 1818 by Heinrich Stölzel.
Brass was already the standard material for brass instruments before the addition of valves. The archetypal three-valved trumpet has always been most commonly made from brass.
Are Silver Trumpets Better than Brass?
Trumpets made entirely from sterling silver are very uncommon, but high-end trumpets often have sterling silver bells.
Players use these instruments for the silver’s tonal qualities – sterling silver generally produces a darker sound than brass and can be played louder without distorting.
Some players prefer the sound of sterling silver belled trumpets, but this is mostly a matter of personal preference.
What are the Differences Between the Many Types of Brass?
The most commonly used types of brass are yellow, red, and gold brass.
The difference between these metals is their ratio of copper to zinc:
- Yellow brass contains 70% copper and 30% zinc.
- Yellow brass is harder, and yellow brass instruments have a brighter sound with more projection.
- Gold brass contains 85% copper and 15% zinc.
- Gold brass is a little softer, and gold brass instruments have a slightly darker tone.
- Red brass contains 90% copper and 10% zinc.
- Red brass is very soft, which means it produces a much darker, warmer tone.
- Its projection can be lacking compared to yellow or gold brass.
Red brass also has the advantage of being more resistant to red rot due to its lower zinc content. It’s primarily used for student trumpets and particularly for the trumpet’s lead pipe.
Yellow brass is the ‘default’ for trumpets. Unless a trumpet is advertised as using another material, it’s probably made of yellow brass.