The tuba is the largest and lowest-pitched musical instrument in the brass family. Like all brass instruments, sound is produced by vibrating or "buzzing" the lips into a large cupped mouthpiece. It first appeared in the mid 19th-century, making it one of the newer instruments in the modern orchestra and concert band. The addition of valves made it possible to play low in the harmonic series of the instrument and still have a complete selection of notes. Prior to the invention of valves, brass instruments were limited to notes in the harmonic series, and were thus generally played very high with respect to their fundamental pitch. Harmonics starting three octaves above the fundamental pitch are about a whole step apart, making a useful variety of notes possible.
Tubas are found in various pitches, most commonly in F, Eb, C, or Bb. The instrument has a conical bore, meaning the bore diameter increases as a function of the tubing length from the mouthpiece to the bell. The conical bore causes the instrument to produce a preponderance of even-order harmonics.
A tuba with its tubing wrapped for placing the instrument on the player's lap is usually called a concert tuba or simply a tuba. Tubas with the bell pointing forward (pavillon tournant) instead of upward are often called recording tubas because of their popularity in the early days of recorded music, as their sound could more easily be directed at the recording microphone. When wrapped to surround the body for cavalry bands on horseback or marching, it is traditionally known as a hélicon. The modern sousaphone, named after American bandmaster John Philip Sousa, resembles a hélicon with the bell pointed up (in the original models as the J. W. Pepper prototype and Sousa's concert instruments) and then curved to point forward (as developed by Conn and others).
Most music for the tuba is written in bass clef in concert pitch, but traditional British-style brass band parts for the tuba are often written in treble clef, with the Bb tuba sounding two octaves and one step below and the Eb tuba sounding one octave and a major sixth below the written pitch. This allows musicians to change instruments without learning new fingerings for the same written music. Consequently, when its music is written in treble clef, the tuba is a transposing instrument, but not when the music is in bass clef.
The lowest pitched tubas are the contrabass tubas, pitched in C or Bb, referred to as CC and BBb tubas respectively, based on a traditional distortion of a now-obsolete octave naming convention. The fundamental pitch of a CC tuba is 32 Hz, and for a BBb tuba, 29 Hz. The CC tuba is used as an orchestral instrument in the U.S., but BBb tubas are the contrabass tuba of choice in German, Austrian, and Russian orchestras. In the United States the BBb tuba is the most common in schools (largely due to the use of BBb sousaphones in high school marching bands) and for adult amateurs. Many professionals in the U.S. play CC tubas, with BBb also common, and many train in the use of all four pitches of tubas.
The next smaller tubas are the bass tubas, pitched in F or Eb (a fourth above the contrabass tubas). The Eb tuba often plays an octave above the contrabass tubas in brass bands, and the F tuba is commonly used by professional players as a solo instrument and, in America, to play higher parts in the classical repertoire (or parts that were originally written for the F tuba, as is the case with Berlioz). In most of Europe, the F tuba is the standard orchestral instrument, supplemented by the CC or BBb only when the extra weight is desired. Wagner, for example, specifically notates the low tuba parts for Kontrabasstuba, which are played on CC or BBb tubas in most regions. In the United Kingdom, the Eb is the standard orchestral tuba.
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