The ophicleide is/was the logical extension of the keyed bugle. Prior to the development of valves, brass instruments were either equipped with slides (as in the sackbut/trombone and slide trumpet), or played only the natural overtones (as in the natural trumpets and horns), or varied the effective pipe length by means of fingerholes (as in the cornett).

Keyed bugles were essentially bugles with 9-11 padded keys (similar to modern saxophone keys). The keys allowed performers an essentially chromatic scale. The ophicleide is essentially the 8' (sounding length) version of the keyed bugle. It is said to be the foundation for the bass saxophone. Before the invention of valves and the tuba, the ophicleide was the most common bass voice in the orchestral brass section.

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