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What Is a Brass Band?

By Wanda Marie Thibodeaux
Updated May 23, 2024
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Brass bands are musical ensembles made up almost exclusively, if not entirely, of instruments from the brass family. These types of bands are some of the most versatile ensembles, as brass bands can perform everything from orchestral arrangements to pop tunes. They may perform indoors or out of doors and provide a rich, warm but powerful sound.

Brass bands normally consist of instruments that span from soprano to bass in range. These include trumpets, cornets and flugelhorns, trombones and tubas. Some brass bands, depending on the context and style of music performed, also contain concert or marching versions of french horns, bartiones, euphoniums, and sousaphones.

The definition of a brass band means that the saxophone is the only woodwind instrument that technically fits in these types of ensembles. Even so, some bands comprised primarily of brass players still call themselves brass bands if they have a few clarinetists or flautists in the group. This often is associated with certain regions. New Orleans brass bands, for example, routinely contain at least one clarinetist due to the strong connection to dixieland and jazz works.

Percussion players, even though they do not play brass instruments, also are standard in a brass band. These players help other members of the ensemble keep basic time, but they also add their own colors and sounds, providing effects and emphases brass players alone could not achieve. Percussion players perform on instruments such as the cymbals, snare and bass drum in most works, but they also can play instruments like the chimes, triangle, timpani and marimba. A typical brass band has one to three percussion members.

It is the type of instruments included in a band that determines whether the group is a true brass band, not the number of musicians. Brass bands thus may be small ensembles such as brass quintets. They also can be massive ensembles of 100 players or more. These larger groups usually are marching brass bands that perform at events like holiday parades and sports events, but some large brass bands also perform as part of major concerts or conventions. Many brass bands compete at the local, state, national or even international level through various organizations such as the North American Brass Band Association.

The brass band has a long history that extends back to the early 19th century. Brass bands of various composition first were founded by employers in Europe who wanted to give their employees a leisure activity to do. Later, politicians adopted the use of brass band to enliven political campaigns. As the bands grew in popularity, so too did the competition circuit and the number of pieces composed for these groups.

In North America, the brass band provided the same purposes as in Europe. They were not as successful in North America as some other ensemble types, however. Specifically, concert and marching bands overshadowed the brass band. The Salvation Army played a critical role in maintaining the brass band tradition within the United States.

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