Tubas are some of the most recognizable musical instruments in the world. Their thundering, low-pitched tones are an essential part of many different types of music and can be heard in everything from classical and operatic compositions to modern jazz and movie soundtracks. There is no such thing as ‘the tuba’; rather, the word tuba refers to a family of brass musical instruments.
Tubas are both some of the largest horns in the brass family of musical instruments, and some of the lowest pitched. As is the case with most brass instruments, tubas are played by the musician blowing into a mouthpiece while vibrating their lips and manipulating a set of valves on the body of the instrument with their fingers. A musician who plays a tuba is usually referred to as a tubist.
Along with being some of the largest, tubas (which is actually Latin for the word trumpets) are also among the newest of the brass instruments. They did not start widely appearing on the musical scene until the mid-1800s, when they began to be used in place of the ophicleide and the serpent (discussed below) in classical compositions, in large part due to their increased versatility.
Generally speaking, the tubas most commonly used today utilize the largest mouthpieces manufactured for brass instruments, and will have four or five piston valves, although some models will have six valves. Some three-valve tubas are also manufactured, and are often used by individuals first learning to play the instrument; five and six-valve models are exclusively used by professional tubists. Tubas also have some of the largest bells of all ‘wind’ instruments, sometimes measuring over 30 inches in diameter.
Most tubas come in two basic designs: upright – meaning that the bell faces upward and the instrument is designed to sit in the tubist’s lap—and forward-facing, meaning that the bell faces forward. Upright tubas are usually found in orchestras and other ensembles, while forward-facing tubas are most often used in marching bands and some other applications, such as in recording studios.
Most tubas are made of brass tubing with various bore sizes throughout (the smallest near the mouthpiece and the largest at the bell), which are responsible for the sound and tonal quality of the instrument. The tubing is bent during manufacture to produce the final product. Tubas will usually utilize between 10 and 18 feet of tubing, depending on the type.
The size of a specific type of tuba (contrabass, bass, etc.) is usually expressed using a numerical “quarter” system. A 4 / 4 instrument is a standard, normal size tuba for its type, while smaller versions are usually called 3 / 4 and larger versions 5 / 4 or 6 / 4. A 6 / 4 is the largest commercially produced version of any specific type of tuba.
In terms of cost, tubas are generally some of the most expensive brass instruments due in part to their size and the complexity of manufacturing. New tubas will range from about $1,500 for a beginner model to over $40,000 for an orchestra quality instrument. The tuba is also one of the heaviest moveable musical instruments, often weighing 50 pounds or more.
Tubas are commonly offered for rent by retail music outlets, and there is a large market for used tubas, which will usually dramatically reduce the cost.
So, let’s take a look at the different types of tubas.
While not exclusively played in orchestras, an orchestra tuba can be broadly defined as any tuba that is primarily designed to be played while the tubist (and the rest of the musicians with whom they are playing) are stationary. It should be noted that some types of orchestra tubas (such as the flugelhorn) can also be used in non-stationary applications.
The contrabass tuba is the most popular and widely used tuba in the music world today. An upright tuba, it produces the lowest pitches of all commonly used tubas, and is usually the instrument of choice for professional orchestral tubists. When you hear the ‘tuba sound’ in a classical piece, brass band or movie soundtrack, the odds are that you are listening to the contrabass tuba.
Most contrabass tubas are tuned to either C or Bb (B flat) and will usually have four piston valves, although professional-quality instruments will sometimes have five or six valves to provide the tubist with a greater range of sounds.
The Bb version of the contrabass will usually have about 18 feet of tubing, while the C version is a bit smaller, and usually has about sixteen feet. A smaller, more compact version of the contrabass – referred to as a 3 / 4 – with about three-quarters of the standard tubing (and therefore a significantly lighter weight) is often used by beginners and younger tubists. Larger, 5 /4 and 6/4 versions of the contrabass are also often used.
Most professional tubists – particularly in orchestral settings – prefer the C version of the contrabass tuba, as it produces clearer and more controlled tones. The Bb version is widely used in high school and college orchestras, some European orchestras, brass bands and jazz ensembles due to the broader sound they produce.
Contrabass tubas will usually weigh between 30 pounds (for the 3 / 4 student versions) and 50 pounds. In terms of cost, student versions can be as low $900, while orchestral quality instruments will generally run between $10,000 and $40,000 – with some five and six valve models running even higher. These tubas can usually be rented from most major brick-and-mortar music outlets.
The bass tuba is slightly smaller and higher pitched than the contrabass, and is normally tuned to Eb or F. Another upright instrument, today the bass tuba is normally found in classical and other types of orchestras (where it is often used for tuba solos), brass bands, and in some jazz ensembles.
The bass tuba is the oldest member of the modern tuba family, and dates back to the mid-1830s; most of the orchestral pieces for the next 50 or 60 years were composed utilizing this instrument for the lower brass parts. Today, most professional orchestral tubists will own a bass tuba in addition to the more commonly played contrabass as some older classical pieces cannot be played correctly using the larger tuba.
Bass tubas are usually constructed using from 12 to 14 feet of tubing, and will almost always have at least four valves (although five and even six-valve versions are not uncommon). Bass tubas tuned to F are very commonly used in orchestras in most of Europe and the United States, while those tuned to Eb are widely used in British orchestras, brass bands, and jazz ensembles.
Most standard size bass tubas will weigh between 35 and 40 pounds. Larger 5 / 4 and 6 / 4 versions are available and, obviously, these will weigh and cost more. Professional quality bass tubas will usually start at around $7,000 and can go up to $20,000 or more.
The euphonium (roughly translated from the Greek as meaning ‘sweet sounding’) is usually an upward facing tuba, although a forward-facing marching version is manufactured. Also called the tenor tuba, and sometimes referred to as the ‘cello of the brass band’, the euphonium is most often found in brass and other types of large bands, marching bands, and some jazz ensembles and funk groups. It is rarely called for in classical or operatic compositions.
Smaller and higher-pitched than either the contrabass or bass tuba, the euphonium is almost always tuned to Bb and usually utilizes four valves, although some student models will have only three. The bell is smaller than those found on some other upright tubas – usually between 10 and 12 inches – and less tubing (usually around nine feet) is used in its construction, accounting for its higher pitch.
The euphonium was invented in the mid-1840s, and was at first designed to bridge the gap between the trombone and the bass tuba. Although only utilizing a maximum of four keys, the euphonium is considered by many to be among the most difficult instruments in the tuba family to master.
Often described as having a dark, ‘velvety’, warm sound, the euphonium is used as a lower range solo instrument in many brass band compositions, sometimes taking the place of the base tuba. In some jazz pieces, the euphonium is used in place of the trombone for solo segments.
Euphoniums will usually weigh somewhere between 20 and 25 pounds, although the marching variety will usually weigh somewhat less. Three-valve beginner models will start at around $600, while professional quality instruments will range from about $3,000 up to around $10,000.
While you might not think it to look at one, the flugelhorn is actually a member of the tuba family, although it is most often played by trumpet or cornet players and not by traditional tubists. Flugelhorns come in a variety of sizes, and are the smallest instruments in the tuba family.
The flugelhorn is a forward-facing instrument, and one of the only tubas that is completely hand-held (as opposed to supported in the lap or by the shoulder). Invented in the early part of the 19th century for use in orchestral and traditional band music (and still widely used in these applications), today the flugelhorn is also a very popular instrument in jazz, swing, Latin, pop music and in marching bands.
Flugelhorns commonly use a three-piston valve system, although there are some specialty four-valve variants. They are usually tuned to Bb, and utilize a smaller mouthpiece than most other tubas – about the size of those used for trumpets and cornets. The sound of the flugelhorn is sometimes described as being a cross between the trumpet and French horn.
Because flugelhorns utilize less (and narrower) tubing in their construction than other tubas, they are consequently some of the lightest members of the tuba family, and will usually weigh between seven and 10 pounds (the rarely used piccolo flugelhorn can weigh as little as four pounds).
In terms of cost, flugelhorns tend to be at the lower end of the tuba pricing scale. Starter instruments can be found in the $300 to $400 range, while professional-quality instruments can cost up to about $6,000.
Rarely used today, the Wagner tuba (also called the Bayreuth tuba and Wagner horn) is an upward facing hybrid instrument commissioned and at least partially designed by composer Richard Wagner for use in his four-opera Ring Cycle, and is still sometimes used in performances of his operas today. A few other 19th and early 20th century composers have written parts specifically for the Wagner tuba, and they are also occasionally used in some brass quartets.
Initially the Wagner tuba was tuned to either Bb or F, although most in use today are ‘double’ instruments that can be played in either key. Wagner tubas utilize a three-valve rotary valve system, unlike the piston valve systems found on most other brass instruments today. The sound produced by the Wagner tuba can perhaps be described as a marriage of the French horn (which it most closely resembles) and the tenor tuba (euphonium).
The Wagner tuba has been a matter of controversy since its invention in the 1850s, with many music historians contending that, despite its name, it should not be considered a member of the tuba family at all but is rather simply a modified horn. Wagner enthusiasts and some other groups contend that since the bell points up and it is designed to play almost exclusively in the lower registers it is, indeed, a tuba.
As these are specialty instruments which see very limited use, Wagner tubas are not mass-produced and are only manufactured (usually on a commission basis) by a few musical instrument companies, almost exclusively located in Europe.
Mobile tubas, as the name indicates, are designed to be played while the tubist is moving. These tubas are mostly used in marching bands, military and cavalry bands, and drum and bugle corps. Mobile tubas are rarely used in orchestral or operatic compositions.
Not to be confused with the marching tuba (discussed below), the sousaphone is a type of tuba created in the late 1890s at the request and under the direction of legendary band conductor and composer John Phillip Sousa (and was subsequently named after him) for use in marching bands and other military-style bands. Today the sousaphone is still primarily used in marching bands, although it is also sometimes found in brass and New Orleans-style jazz bands as well.
Undergoing a number of changes over the years, the sousaphones most often used today are forward-facing instruments with the large, broadcasting bell positioned over the tubist’s (and other musicians’) head. They are designed in a circular pattern that, in effect, allows the player to ‘wear’ the instrument. In most cases, the sousaphone will be supported by the tubist’s left shoulder, and rest on their right hip.
Like the contrabass, sousaphones are usually tuned to Bb and have between 16 and 18 feet of tubing; unlike most other tubas, sousaphones will normally only have three valves, even in their professional applications. Sousaphones have the largest bells commonly found in the tuba family, sometimes ranging over 30 inches.
While sousaphones will typically be made of brass and weigh between 35 and 45 pounds, in recent years a number of well regarded tuba manufacturers have begun producing fiberglass sousaphones which will often weigh as little as 20 pounds. Though considered by some tubists to be less rich in their sound, fiberglass sousaphones have become very popular in high school and college marching bands due to their decreased weight and cost.
A good quality brass sousaphone will cost anywhere between $3,000 and $9,000, while fiberglass models can start as low as about $900 and go all the way up to $5,000 for the top of the line.
The marching tuba – also often called the contrabass bugle – is, in effect, a mobile version of the standard orchestra contrabass tuba. Marching tubas are widely used in drum and bugle corps and some military marching bands.
One of the newer members of the tuba family, the marching tuba was invented in the 1960s and designed to provide the low range of the tuba while still complying with the very specific regulations governing the type of instruments allowed in drum and bugle corps bands. This type of tuba is rarely used outside of marching band applications.
Marching tubas are normally forward-facing instruments, and are designed to be carried on the tubist’s shoulder as they march. Most marching tubas are designed to be carried on the left shoulder, although recently some manufacturers have started producing right-shoulder and ‘convertible’ models.
Like the upright contrabass, most marching tubas are tuned to Bb or C and will have 16 to 18 feet of tubing. The majority of marching tubas utilize a trumpet style three-valve system, although in recent years some manufacturers have begun producing four-valve models.
Generally speaking, a marching tuba will weigh about the same as its contrabass orchestral counterpart, although 3 / 4 versions – which are quite popular – will weigh less. In terms of cost, marching tubas normally start at around $2,500 and will top out at around $10,000.
The helicon is an upward (and sometimes side) facing circular tuba designed primarily for marching bands. Largely supplanted in many marching applications today by its more popular direct descendent the sousaphone, the helicon is still popular in military bands (particularly in Eastern and Central Europe), jazz and folk music, and some brass bands.
Like the sousaphone, the helicon is designed to be ‘worn’, with its weight supported by the shoulder and balance maintained by the hip of the tubist. The helicons manufactured today are mostly four-valve instruments, and are usually tuned to Bb (contrabass) or Eb (base). Soprano, tenor and baritone versions are also manufactured, but are not as widely used.
Somewhat smaller than traditional tubas and sousaphones, helicons will normally weigh between 16 and 22 pounds, depending on the style; most will feature a bell between 18 and 25 inches, which will also impact the weight. Due to the upright positioning of the bell, the helicon was sometimes referred to as the ‘rain catcher’ by early marching tubists.
Even though the helicon is considered a specialty tuba today, they are relatively inexpensive considering their size and will usually cost between $2,000 and $5,000 depending on style. Helicons are not commonly carried in brick-and-mortar music stores, but are available online and as special order items.
In case you are thinking that plastic tubas are some sort of children’s toy, they’re not. They are real musical instruments that mimic the sound of their brass counterparts – in some cases remarkably well. While no professional tubist plays – or is likely to play – a plastic tuba, in the last few years these instruments have made inroads into the student and high school orchestra tuba markets.
Much lighter than the brass instruments upon which they are based, plastic tubas are fully functioning upright contrabass tubas and euphoniums tuned to Bb, which feature four-valve piston or rotary value systems and slightly smaller than standard size bells. Generally speaking, the plastic tubas on the market today will weigh less than half of what brass tubas will, making them an excellent choice for younger beginning tubists.
In terms of cost, plastic tubas are not as inexpensive as one might think. Plastic euphoniums will usually start at around $300 and will range up to about $700, while the contrabass version will usually start at around $900 and can sometimes run over $1,800.
The subcontrabass tuba is a very large, very rare, very impractical member of the tuba family that was never widely used in any application. As far as is known, only about a half dozen of them were ever built – two of which were commissioned by John Phillip Souza in the late 19th century.
The subcontrabass is an upright tuba and stands over eight feet tall, weighs over 100 pounds, and has a bell over 40 inches in diameter. It is tuned to BBBb – the only instrument tuned in this way – and plays a full octave lower than the standard Bb contrabass. A minimum of two (and sometimes three) people are needed to play the subcontrabass – one to work the valves, and one to blow into the mouthpiece – with the possible third there to balance the instrument.
Most of the surviving subcontrabass tubas are currently housed in museums. One of the two instruments commissioned by Sousa is owned by Harvard University; it has been restored, and is occasionally used in their orchestra where it is played at special events.
No longer in use today, the ophicleide is an upright brass instrument first produced in the early 1820s, and is considered by most music historians to be the father of the modern day tuba. Looking more or less like an upright saxophone (which is also thought by some to have also descended from it) the ophicleide was a popular orchestra instrument prior to the 1850s, at which point it began to be supplanted by the modern day tuba in most orchestral arrangements.
The ophicleide was the first practical brass bass musical instrument used in orchestras and bands, replacing the serpent (discussed below), which had been used since the early 17th century. The instrument utilized a 9 or 12-key system in which each key would cover or release a large tone hole, in much the same way as the modern saxophone is played. The ophicleide was originally tuned to a tenor Bb like today’s euphonium; bass, alto, soprano and contrabass versions were all eventually manufactured, albeit in some cases very briefly.
The last of the ophicleides were manufactured in the late 19th century, and they had all but disappeared from the orchestral stage by the dawn of the 20th century, replaced by the tuba due to its increased versatility and relative simplicity of play (and, some music historians contend, a very aggressive marketing campaign by tuba manufacturers in Western Europe). Today, ophicleides are usually museum pieces, or played as musical curiosities.
Often considered the granddaddy of the tuba and the predecessor of the ophicleide, the aptly named serpent was invented in the late 16th or early 17th century (historians disagree) to provide a bass part for the choir music of the time.
Normally bent in an S or double-S shape, the serpent is made of wood (usually walnut) covered with leather, and features side holes like a woodwind instrument and a brass-style mouthpiece. Normally tuned to C, the serpent enjoyed an almost 200 year run, and was widely used in orchestral and band music through the mid-1850s.
Astonishingly, the serpent is still sometimes used today (although good luck trying to buy one) – most notably in the 1979 soundtrack for the movie Alien and the 2012 soundtrack for the PlayStation videogame Journey. Major orchestras including the Boston Symphony will occasionally perform the 1989 Serpent Concerto which prominently features the instrument.
Lisa has a Bachelor’s of Science in Communication Arts. She is an experienced blogger who enjoys researching interesting facts, ideas, products, and other compelling concepts. In addition to writing, she likes photography and Photoshop.