By Katherine Hodge, Project Archaeology Interim Program Lead
This week we will be picking back up with the archaeology and music series. Today, we will be focusing on brass instruments and our final blog in this series next week will look at woodwinds.
Can you recognize a brass instrument? If you’ve watched Jurassic Park, Apollo 13, or Star Wars, you’ve likely heard french horns, trumpets, and trombones heavily featured. Brass instruments, however, have been around far longer than modern cinema.
As one might expect based on the name, brass instruments are made of brass, which is an alloy (or mixture) of copper and zinc. Brass instruments are part of the aerophone family. This instrument family includes instruments that require breath to create sound. This includes woodwind instruments that use reeds. The real difference between woodwind and brass instruments are the way the players use their breath. Woodwind players simply blow air into the instruments to produce sound, usually with the aid of a reed that vibrates, while brass players must blow air as well as making a buzzing sound with their lips. While woodwind instruments usually rely on the reed to help create vibrations that make sound, brass players must produce the vibrations themselves.
The oldest instruments in the brass family are not made from brass, but instead from animal horns, antlers, or large shells like conches. These instruments can be found all around the world and were used by many different cultures. Some of these ancient instruments are still used today. For example, the shofar is an ancient Hebrew brass instrument made from a ram’s
horn that is still used in Jewish religious ceremonies.
Brass instruments that we would recognize did not come around until very basic versions of a trumpet developed in ancient Greece and Rome. Much later in time, around the 1400s, brass instruments developed into forms that look much more similar to modern-day instruments. These instruments were mainly used by and for the military, since they had the capacity to be extremely loud. Soldiers would be able to hear brass instruments from great distances or even when distracted in the midst of battle.
For a great deal of time, brass instruments were only thought of as loud sound producers that the military could use, but in the 18th century different composers recognized the potential
brass instruments had and began writing pieces for horns that featured their ability to convey emotion, not just loud sounds. At the same time these composers were experimenting with new sounds, other people were testing new shapes and folds to brass instruments. This led to new and more complex horns beyond trumpets, like trombones, French horns, and tubas. The new tubing and folds of the instruments created the ability to make different types of sounds and tones than they were able to produce before the modifications. Rather than one note horns that created loud sounds to pierce the chaos of the battlefield, there were now brass instruments that could play a huge variety of notes with inflection and emotion.
Composers in the middle ages saw this variability and began composing solo pieces for horns as well as incorporating them into their orchestras. This led to prominent parts for horns as people began to get accustomed to the new sounds.
These composers paved the way for modern movie soundtracks to prominently feature bass instruments in a huge variety of ways. For example, French horns are more commonly known today as instruments that can produce powerful and loud music with a great deal of emotion behind it rather than instruments reserved for the military. This instrument, as well as the others of the brass family can all be heard in some of the most famous soundtracks.
Next week, we will cover the last instrument family: woodwinds and their archaeology and history!