brass band music

Brass Band Music: History, Instruments, Where to Start

I thought I’d do a brief article on the wonderful world of brass band music. In the U.S., it’s possible to go through the standard path and become a professional low brass player without ever once being exposed to this vast world.

I was completely unaware of the tradition until I was thirty. Now it has become an essential part of my life (as a first baritone player in one), and hopefully, this article will get you interested in it as well.

The term “brass band” is pretty broad. It can technically mean any large ensemble made of brass instruments (and percussion).

But that’s not what I mean when I say it for this article. I’m going to use the term to refer to a much more specific tradition: the British brass band.

British Brass Band History

The setting is the early 1800’s England. The Industrial Revolution is in full swing.

Local brass bands existed before this point for various purposes from official ceremonial music to church music.

It’s hard to tease out all the causes of the surge in popularity of brass bands in this time, but some of them have become clear.

First, the Industrial Revolution itself allowed for cheaper and better instrument design. The piston valve was invented and was mass made with much better precision.

This led to more standardization of the instruments and higher quality performance.

The next cause was the rise of uniform working class communities. These communities banded together after work and made music together. If this seems strange to you, then you’re right.

This didn’t randomly happen on its own. Large industrial companies actually encouraged people in this direction by funding the bands and competitions in order to keep these communities from political unrest that could upset the power dynamics.

The rise of these competitions pushed everyone to get better with monetary incentive. These “community bands” quickly became extremely good. With all this infrastructure in place, the popularity of bands grew exponentially.

Many of the bands that got their start back then remain the greatest brass bands in the world today: The Black Dyke Mills Band (funded by the wool mill of that name) and the Grimethorpe Colliery Band (funded by the coal mining company of that name).

Some estimates claim around 20,000 distinct brass bands have existed in Great Britain alone since 1880.

American Tradition

In the mid-to-late 1800’s bands of similar composition started to pop up in New England, particularly centered around Boston. These American Brass Bands varied slightly as they depended on innovations and production of instruments in the local area.

These bands soon spread throughout the U.S. The funding wasn’t as pervasive, and so the competition scene didn’t push bands to the same levels as in England.

Most of these initial bands have died off, but many have been revived under different names.

Brass bands (in the U.S.) have gained prominence in the past fifty years in part due to increased competitions and conferences, many of which are funded by the North American Brass Band Association.

Brass Band Instruments

The types of instruments used in British brass bands hav shifted over the last century, but it has now settled into a fairly standard arrangement these days.

There are no trumpets. Instead, cornets are used. These conical bore instruments are mellower than the cylindrical bore of a trumpet (see my article on these differences for more information). The cornet section consists of one soprano (E-flat) and the rest standard B-flat.

But the cornet section has a huge number of parts: a principal solo cornet, three more solo cornet parts, a repiano (basically interpolates between soprano and flugelhorn), two seconds, and two thirds.

The middle brass consists of a flugelhorn, a solo (E-flat) tenor horn, first and second tenor horn, first and second baritone horn.

The low brass consists of first and second euphonium, first and second trombone, a bass trombone, and then E-flat and B-flat basses (tubas).

You might be surprised if a brass band wanted to commission a piece from you, and you’ve never seen this type of thing. You can’t write three trumpet parts. You need 10 separate cornet lines.

These highly diverse and specific arranging guidelines help produce the unique sound that is a brass band.

Brass Band Music

The music played by brass bands is some of the most varied of any musical ensemble. It’s common for brass bands to play orchestral transcriptions—sometimes of major works, including full symphonies.

The other end of the spectrum consists of popular music such as Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” or songs by the Beatles.

But these types of pieces can be found in most ensembles. One thing that makes brass band music so unique is the competition scene.

Prominent composers are often commissioned to write pieces designed specifically for brass band competition. These pieces will not be heard in any other setting, and they test the limits of modern brass band playing.

These competition pieces show off flashy and impressive technique, gorgeous homophonic sections, and heart-stopping climactic finales.

One of the more fascinating aspects of a brass band is how it is sometimes closer to a choir than a traditional instrumental group. This is because all the instruments can produce remarkably similar timbre.

Some of the biggest names currently composing have excellent pieces for the ensemble: Bulla, Gregson, Curnow, Sparke, Horovitz, and many more.

Recommended Albums

Honestly, it’s hard to go wrong, and if you’re completely unaware of brass band music as a low brass player, you should just dive into whatever style music you like best.


Great Cinema Hits Black Dyke Brass Band

Black Dyke Band – Great Cinema Hits

This is exactly what it sounds like: brass band arrangements of movie themes.

Obviously, the technique of this group is mind-boggling, so any of the fast stuff usually played by strings is awesome.

But I think the piece that really shines on this one is the theme from Out of Africa. It showcases the mellower sounds of flugelhorn and cornet. It’s chilling.

Floral Dance and Other Requests Brighouse and Rastrick

The Brighouse and Rastrick Band – Floral Dance and Other Requests

This is just as the title suggests. These are some of the most popular and requested pieces for brass band. They usually serve as encores.

You’ll probably recognize Floral Dance, 76 Trombones, and Pomp & Circumstance.

The standout song on this album is Copland’s Hoedown. They execute this song at the appropriate tempo cleanly.

But most of all, I think this song is really underrated. It, unfortunately, has the reputation as a punchline due to its use in beef commercials. The song is an excellent and intricate composition.


Classic Brass Band Grimethorpe Colliery

Grimethorpe Colliery RJB Band – Classic Brass

This has a bunch of well-known classical pieces arranged for brass band. Ones you might be familiar with are Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, Elgar’s Nimrod, and Dvorak’s New World Symphony.

But to me, the standout is the phenomenal arrangement of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. That’s a piece that’s rough for a pianist. I’m blown away that a brass band can do it justice like this.

Music for Battle Creek: Brass Band Music

Brass Band of Battle Creek – Music for Battle Creek

This album has some great classics like the second movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10. I don’t know why, but I always think Shostakovich is particularly great when transcribed for brass band.

Unless I’ve overlooked something, this is the only album I’ve recommended with actual modern music written for brass band on it.

In particular, Music for Battle Creek by Philip Sparke is an amazing showcase of what such an ensemble can do.

Find One Near You

If any of this is interesting to you, I strongly urge you to find out if there are any brass bands near you to go see live and support.

Many are even hurting for members (or at least substitutes), so if you want to volunteer your time and talents, it’s an extremely rewarding community to be a part of.