In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Brass Instruments

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Bibliographies
  • Iconography
  • Biography and Autobiography

Music Brass Instruments
Trevor Herbert
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0006


The general heading “brass instruments” is better, if less elegantly, described by the common organological definition “lip-vibrated” wind instruments or aerophones (in brass instruments, air is set in motion by the players lips vibrating in a cup-shaped mouthpiece). Not all instruments made of brass are members of the brass instrument, family (saxophones, for example), nor are all the instruments that fall into that family actually made of brass. This is particularly the case for non-Western cultures and earlier periods of modern Western history. For example, in Western music during the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, the cornett, an instrument made of wood and usually bound with leather, was one of the most common instruments within this classification. The history of brass instruments can be divided neatly, if a little broadly, into two phases, separated at about 1800. From this time, new mechanisms (first keys and then valves) were applied to facilitate easy access to a chromatic compass. Changes to the design of instruments were allied to a dramatic increase in their production and consumption, which in turn led to a widening of the franchise for their use. These factors and the development of new types of classical and popular music caused fundamental changes to performance idioms in both popular and art music. For this reason, much of the literature about brass instruments is devoted to one side or the other of this “moment” of change. Writings relevant to brass instruments have existed since the 16th century, including some directly aimed at explaining how brass instruments were or should be played. The corpus expanded in the 19th century due to a proliferation of didactic method books and a general trend towards the scholarship of music; but it was not until the 20th century that a more systematic, dispassionate, and discursive study of brass instruments developed. Initially this was caused almost entirely by organologists and antiquarians whose preoccupation was primarily with the nature and typology of instruments as material objects. It was not until the 1970s, in the wake of the “early music movement,” that attention shifted to the way instruments were played; this led to more specialized fields of inquiry, such as early performance techniques, jazz, and ensembles (such as various sorts of bands) in which brass instruments have been prominent. This pattern of development explains the shape of the generic bibliography of brass instruments, why its content seems to fall into relatively compact periods of activity, and why some of the standard works have been in place for so long. This article could have been organized in a number of ways, but what follows is an attempt to reveal the literature in a way that anticipates the most likely questions to which users will wish to find answers. One important caution should be emphasized, however: writings about all topics concerning brass instruments necessarily incorporate information about others. There are innumerable overlaps in the headings given in this bibliography, and the full value of this article will only be gained if users take this factor into account.

General Overviews

There are few scholarly discourses in the English language that stand as general overviews of brass instruments, but segments of books with a somewhat wider remit (such as Campbell, et al. 2004, listed under Organology and Acoustics) also provide a general mapping of the subject. Some volumes of the Historic Brass Society’s Bucina series of books are the outcomes of major symposia that span a wide historical period, and these publications invariably reveal something about the main concerns of scholars and players of brass instruments. Baines 1980 and Herbert and Wallace 1997 are regarded as the main general studies. The latter is more recent and embraces matters of style to a greater extent than does Baines 1980, which has a more organological orientation. Carter 1997 and Carter 2006 contain chapters by leading experts. Though they are all on historical topics, these works address several lines of interest, including performance, instrument history, and repertoire.

  • Baines, Anthony. Brass Instruments: Their History and Development. London: Faber and Faber, 1980.

    The only single-author general book to be devoted to the family of brass instruments, it is unerringly accurate and especially strong on the design of instruments (but less so on performance and repertoire). First published in 1976, it is still widely respected. Baines was one of the most important postwar organologists.

  • Carter, Stewart, ed. Perspectives in Brass Scholarship: Proceedings of the International Historic Brass Symposium, Amherst, 1995. Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon, 1997.

    The outcome of a major and much celebrated symposium held in Amherst, Massachusetts, which brought to together most of the world’s leading performers and scholars of early brass instruments. The book deals with a wide array of topics.

  • Carter, Stewart, ed. Brass Scholarship in Review: Proceedings of the Historic Brass Society Conference, Cité de la Musique, Paris, 1999. Bucina: The Historic Brass Society Series No. 6. Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon, 2006.

    A collection of papers focusing primarily on the 18th and 19th centuries. But there are some that are on earlier topics and one important contribution from Robert Philip on the impact of globalization on brass orchestral performance as evidenced by recorded music.

  • Herbert, Trevor, and John Wallace, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

    Probably the standard general work; more extensive than Baines, it contains eighteen chapters by leading experts covering each major type of brass instrument and several other themes, including non-Western brass, jazz, modern performance practice, and the development of brass instruments in the orchestra. Includes an extensive bibliography.

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