How Do Brass Instruments Produce Sound?

Written by michael monet
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How Do Brass Instruments Produce Sound?
Brass instruments are named for the method with which their sound is produced, not the material they're made of. (detail of an old brass instrument image by Tomo Jesenicnik from

It's common to think that brass instruments are named for the material they're made from, but in fact they are named for the ways in which they produce sound. The complex relationship between the player and the instrument involves the manipulation of the player's lips and airflow, the instruments slides, valves and other constructions, along with the use of mutes.


Understanding the construction of a brass instrument is key to figuring out how it produces sound. All brass instruments "consist of a tube, at one end of which is a mouthpiece shaped so that the player can make an airtight seal" with his lips, according to "The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments." At the end of the tube is a bell. The mouthpiece, tube and bell all play an important part in producing the desired sound. The player's manipulation of his lip tension when blowing air interacts with the air column of the tube, which interacts with the air that comes out at the bell, or the end of the instrument. When the bell catches the sound, it will strengthen and radiate it throughout the room.

Sympathetic Vibration

It may come as a surprise that music is closely connected to science, and for brass instruments, particularly to physics. Brass instruments produce sound through a sympathetic vibration of air in the instruments tube, which acts as the resonator. The simplest textbook definition of sympathetic vibration is "vibration produced by resonance," where resonance is an "intensification or prolongation of a sound." This vibration occurs because the way in which the player blows air into the instrument causes a disturbance at a certain frequency, making the sound resonate at an identical frequency as it is produced by the instrument.


The term "embouchure" simply refers to the alteration of lip tension of the player as he blows into the instrument. The greater the player tenses his lips, the higher the pitch will be when he blows into the instrument. According to the instrument, the embouchure will change. As a player becomes more skilled, he will know exactly how to tense and use his lips and facial muscles to produce particular notes and sounds.

Slides and Valves

Slides and valves also change the pitch, but they do so by changing the length of the tubing in the instrument momentarily. By changing the length of the tubing, the harmonic series itself is changed, making available six further sets of notes. When a particular valve is pressed, it sends the air being blown into the instrument into a unique tube, either combining with or separating itself from the sound made through the main tube.


Mutes are another way to change the sound produced by a brass instrument. There are three kinds of mutes: a straight mute, a cup mute and a harmon mute. Mutes change the volume of air coming out of the instrument and therefore the sound that is produced. Mutes on brass instruments are usually hung or clipped to the bell and can be made from many different materials, included brass, copper or plastic, all of which produce a different sound. The player may physically hold the mute in his left hand while playing the instrument, muting and unmuting the instrument to stylistically effect the song being played.

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