There is a great deal of information about the tuba available
on the web: this will serve as a small summary. The tuba is a conical
bore brass instrument, generally considered the lowest horn in the band
or orchestra. Bass tubas are pitched in F and Eb, while the contrabass
tubas are pitched in CC and BBb. In general, F and CC tubas are preferred
for orchestral applications, while Eb and BBb tubas are more commonly used
in bands. The helicon and sousaphone are tubas adapted for marching,
coiled in such a way that it can be worn over the player's left shoulder.
Both typically pitched in Eb or BBb, with BBb the most common. Helicons
are seldom seen today, and can be distinguished from the modern sousaphone
by its much smaller bell. Other brass instruments of similar range
include the bass and contrabass trombone, and the cimbasso (which is like
a contrabass valve trombone). The French Horn, baritone, euphonium,
and bass and contrabass trumpets also overlap a significant part of the
The F and Eb bass tubas are higher horns: the whole
range of an F tuba is from the subcontrabass-F# to c2 on the treble clef
and the Eb's from scb-E to Bb1 on the treble clef. The lower part is not
very useful though. The range from scb-F#(F tuba)/scb-E (Eb tuba) to B
below the bass clef(F tuba)/A below the bass clef(Eb) is not very agile.
The C and BBb contrabass tubas are pitched lower. Their range
extends lower than the bass tubas', but their upper register is more limited
and thinner in timbre. The subcontrabass-C (BBb) and subcontrabass-D (C
tuba) are the lowest notes possible, but no rapid figures can be obtained
below contra-F (BBb) or contra-G (C tuba). The upper limits are more or
less vague, depending on the prowess of the tubist, but in general, the
treble clef is too high for these instruments - the timbre gets too thin
to be of use.
The tuba sounds solemn and mellow, being very round
in tone. It blends well with double basses and cellos as well as bassoons
and other low woodwinds. The sound of the bass tubas (F & Eb) in the
extremely low register (contra-octave) is rather rumbling and less round
than their contrabass counterparts' but the singing quality of these higher
instruments in the high register (from f on the bass clef to c2 on the
treble clef) is more praised by solo literature composers. The term
"tuba" encompasses a surprisingly diverse group of instruments, that vary
in bore size, taper, and timbre. A tuba player may own several instruments,
for example, a large CC horn for orchestral work, a smaller F tuba for
solo passages or chamber work, a BBb tuba or sousaphone for band engagements.
Larger and smaller versions of each horn exist (typically referred to as
"3/4, 4/4, 5/4, and 6/4", depending on size), and it is generally felt
that the smaller horns are preferred for small ensembles and chamber groups,
while the largest horns might be used in large bands or orchestras.
Selection of which horn to use is typically left to the player and/or conductor.
Tubas are all written at concert pitch (with the exception
of British brass band music, in which Eb and BBb tubas are written in treble
clef and treated as transposing instruments). The player is expected
to play the pitch as written, regardless of which horn is selected.
In other words, the tuba is not treated as a transposing instrument.
With the exception of the British brass band style (which specifies Eb
and BBb parts), the selection of instrument is typically noted only as
"tubas", or even "basses." If a particular range or timbre is desired,
one may specify "bass tuba" (for F or Eb) or "contrabass tuba" (for CC
The tuba (bass and contrabass) can be surprisingly agile,
particularly outside the lowest registers, and makes a worthy solo instrument
(e.g., "Bydlo" in Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition").
Student model tubas, and some older instruments, may be equipped
with only three valves. This can lead to intonation problems for
particular notes that require 13, 23, or 123 valve combinations (where,
for example, "13" means that the first and third valve are used together).
In the lowest registers, notes which require these combinations tend to
be sharp. The player may compensate by pulling a valve slide to bring
the note into tune, or may have a "compensating" tuba, which routes the
bore through a longer set of valve slides whenever the third valve (or
lowest valve, if there are more than three) is depressed. The notes
that are affected are different for each pitch of tuba (e.g., Eb on a CC
tuba would be fingered 23, but would be open "0" on an Eb tuba).
The professional player is expected to play well in tune, whatever instrument
is used. However, there may be insufficient time to adjust pitches
on quick passages.
The tuba blends well with double basses, bassoons and
lower woodwinds. Use with trombones in octaves is particularly popular.
It can also be well used as a bass instrument of the french horn section.
Interesting timbre is also achieved by writing the tuba in unison, but
an octave higher than the contrabassoon or bass trombone.
Tubas are sometimes scored in octaves, particularly where a thick texture
is desired. Bands often have more than one tuba, whereas an orchestra
may have only one (at least, one regular player).