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What is a Sousaphone?

A sousaphone is a brass instrument, designed for marching bands, with a rich, deep tone. It wraps around the player's body, culminating in a large, flared bell that projects sound forward. Invented by John Philip Sousa, it's a portable alternative to the tuba. Curious about its unique shape and sound? Discover how the sousaphone became a staple in marching music. Keep reading!
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

The tubas—including the baritone, euphonium, Sousaphone, and tuba proper—form one of the four main groups into which the brass family of instruments is often divided, along with trumpets, trombones, and horns. The Sousaphone is a type of bass tuba, used—like the marching tuba—mainly in marching bands, although in early days it was used in concert band settings as well. The Sousaphone is not used in the modern orchestra.

The sousaphone is one of a small group of instruments the names of which are eponyms, instruments that have been named after their inventor. The concept of the Sousaphone was created by the American composer and bandmaster John Philip Sousa, putting it in a category with the Wagner tuba—a horn conceptualized by German composer Richard Wagner—and the Saxophone, one of the numerous inventions of Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax.

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Man playing a guitar

Sousa created the specifications for the first sousaphones, which were modeled on the instrument called a helicon, which wraps around the player, resting on the left shoulder, and built in the 1890s. He requested a bell-up design, leading to the nickname “the rain-catcher,” and it was only in the early twentieth century that the bell-forward model was first made. In southern Europe, the Sousaphone is actually called the helicon.

While both marching tubas and Sousaphones are designed to be carried, the Sousaphone is distinctive in encircling the player, making it almost appear to be worn, rather than carried. Beginning in the 1960s, fiberglass bodies replaced the metal construction, making the instruments lighter, easier to handle, and less susceptible to dents.

The Sousaphone, like the tuba, may be pitched in Eb or Bb and is a non-transposing instrument. Because it is sometimes used off the playing field and parade ground, a special “sousaphone chair” has been developed to hold the instrument in a concert setting. The chair has braces to support the instrument, so a seated player does not have to bear the weight. Harry Wenger, a music educator and inventor, holds a patent for the Sousaphone chair. The chair enabled children who were too small to support the instrument to learn to play it.

Notable sousaphone players of the twenty-first century include Tuba Gooding, Jr. in the hip hop band The Roots and Nat McIntosh in the Youngblood Brass Band. A notable New Orleans brass band Sousaphone player is Kirk Joseph of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and his teacher, Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, was a noted sousaphonist of the late twentieth century.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a sousaphone and how does it differ from a tuba?

A sousaphone is a type of tuba designed to be worn over the shoulder of a marching band musician, with the bell pointing forward. Unlike a concert tuba, which is typically played in a seated position and has a vertically oriented bell, the sousaphone's bell is directed above the player's head to project sound forward. This design makes it ideal for outdoor performances and marching bands, where mobility and directional sound projection are essential.

Who invented the sousaphone and why is it named after John Philip Sousa?

The sousaphone was invented by J.W. Pepper in 1893 at the request of John Philip Sousa, the famous American bandleader and composer. Sousa sought an instrument that would sound better outdoors and could be easily carried in parades. The sousaphone was named in his honor due to his significant contributions to the design and his promotion of the instrument in his band, thus cementing its place in marching music.

What materials are sousaphones typically made from, and how does this affect their sound?

Sousaphones are commonly made from brass or fiberglass. Brass sousaphones produce a rich, warm sound that is preferred in traditional settings, while fiberglass models are lighter and more durable, making them suitable for marching bands that require ease of movement. The material choice affects the instrument's timbre and resonance, with brass offering superior sound quality but at the expense of increased weight.

Can a beginner learn to play the sousaphone, and what are the challenges involved?

Beginners can learn to play the sousaphone, but they may face challenges such as managing its size and weight, developing the necessary breath support, and mastering the fingerings and embouchure required for brass instruments. Starting with a smaller brass instrument, like a baritone or euphonium, can help build the foundational skills needed to transition to the sousaphone.

How has the sousaphone been incorporated into different music genres outside of marching bands?

The sousaphone has found a place in various music genres beyond marching bands, including jazz, where it often replaces the double bass to provide the bass line. In New Orleans brass bands, the sousaphone is a staple, delivering the characteristic bass sound that drives the ensemble's rhythm. Its versatility has also led to its use in genres like funk, hip hop, and even rock, showcasing its adaptability and the rich, deep tones it contributes to different musical styles.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to MusicalExpert about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to MusicalExpert about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

LisaLou

One of our friends works at a music store repairing musical instruments. He is very musically talented and can play almost every instrument he repairs.

Even though there are many instruments he can play very well, he has his favorites, and the sousaphone happens to be one of them.

He plays in many productions throughout our city every year, but always looks forward to Christmas when he plays at several Christmas gatherings.

The sousaphone is the instrument he usually plays and he always gets lots of comments on it. To me it looks so big and heavy, that I don't know how he stands or even sits very long with that wrapped around him.

It has a beautiful sound though and blends in well with the other brass instruments that are played in his group.

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