No strings attached: Get to know the instruments in a concert band

The University of Minnesota Concert Band performed in Russia in 1969. UMN School of Music/Band Alumni

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The need for a new library of original band music of artistic and imaginative merit became and still is the objective of all musicians who believe in the unlimited scoring potentials of the wind-percussion ensemble. The time has come to discard the old idea that a concert band is an orchestra without strings relegated to the performance of utilitarian, inferior music.
— Joseph Wagner, 1970

Because of the orchestra's long history, many people compare what they feel is the "new" ensemble, the concert band, to the well-established orchestra. The concert band does in fact have a long history, so it's unfair to treat the orchestra as a sort of musical standard-bearer.

But for comparison's sake, what exactly makes the concert band different from the orchestra?

The main difference is the absence of stringed instruments in the band. If you're familiar with the wind section of an orchestra, you'll notice that the wind ensemble is basically an expanded version of that section, with a few additions.

Many people feel that the concert band resembles a large pipe organ. It's a comparison that works well. Think about it: Each instrument in the concert band (excluding percussion) requires air to be blown through it to create sound, in the same way that an organ blows air through its pipes. There are breathy, high-pitched sounds, as well as rumbling, feel-it-in-your-chest, low sounds. Concert bands can control these sounds with incredible accuracy, as though an organist was simply pressing on a handful of keys and 70 musicians responded to the command.

Let's go through the instruments of a concert band.

Woodwinds

Flutes: The flute section is made up of four to 14 players, split between two parts. The piccolo is used in the concert band, both as a solo instrument and as part of the flute section, often highlighting the top of the range. This army of shiny silver contributes to the upper woodwind sound, and can play softly and lyrically, or with striking confidence and heat.

Oboes: While the oboe in the orchestra is often used as a feature or soloed instrument, the oboes in a band contribute to the entire woodwind texture as team players. (Don't worry — they still get to solo!) The section is small, usually only two or three players, with one player on the English horn, whose darker tone bridges the gap from oboe to bassoon.

Clarinets: Clarinets are the engine of the concert band's woodwind section. Often split among three parts, there might be up to 16 players. They have a wide range, from low, reedy textures to shrieking high notes. The standard B-flat clarinets in the concert band are often joined by the higher E-flat clarinet, a couple of bass clarinets, and the contrabass and contralto clarinets. Altogether, that can total 21 players. With so many registers, the clarinets mirror the strings in the orchestra.

Bassoons: The bassoon family grows in the concert band, with two to four players making up the section. Sometimes, a piece calls for the contrabassoon, which can play even lower than the average string bass.

Saxophones: Here's something you won't usually see in an orchestra. The saxophone family usually includes four altos, a tenor sax or two, and a baritone saxophone. The soprano saxophone is occasionally used as a solo instrument, making for a fully voiced saxophone choir. These instruments bridge the gap between the brass and woodwind sections. Outside of the concert band setting, you'll often see saxophones used in jazz, and sometimes those jazz elements find their way into concert band writing. Additionally, some orchestral composers do write for the saxophone: Maurice Ravel's orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Sergei Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet's "Dance of the Knights," and Ralph Vaughan Williams' Sixth Symphony.

Brass

Trumpets: The trumpet section expands greatly in the band compared with the orchestra, doubling or tripling in size. Trumpet sections in a concert band might also include cornet parts. The cornet is a "conical bore" instrument, which means that the brass tube basically gets wider and wider as it curls into the cornet shape. This results in a rounder, mellower tone than the trumpet, which is a straight tube until it widens at the bell. Sometimes a composer will write for the high-pitched piccolo trumpet, or the flugelhorn, another conical bore instrument with a lower range.

Horns: Just like in the orchestra, the horns in a band often play some of the most epic brass lines. The horn is also a conical bore instrument, which is why they have such a warm tone. Confused about why we often call them "French" horns? Check out this article.

Trombones: Again, there's not a lot of difference between orchestral and concert band trombone sections, except in number. The trombone section will include several trombones divided among two to three parts, plus a bass trombone.

Euphonium: Here's one you might not have heard of. The euphonium plays in the same range as the trombone, but with the mellow timbrel quality of the flugelhorn or tuba. (Thanks, conical bore!) Usually, two to four players make up the euphonium section. As a valved instrument, the euphonium has similar agility to the trumpet. Its home was traditionally the European brass band, but the euphonium has been used in a few orchestral pieces, such as Gustav Holst's The Planets, Richard Strauss' Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben, and Gustav Mahler's Seventh Symphony. It also pops up as a "tenor tuba" in "Bydlo" from Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Concert band composers have embraced the euphonium as a prominent solo instrument, because it can sound dramatic and somber as well as flashy and bright.

Tubas: The tuba section of a concert band might be made up two to four tubas, whose bass part holds up the entire ensemble. Because of its size, marching bands often use the wrap-around Sousaphone, invented by the March King, John Phillip Sousa, himself.

Percussion and more

Percussion: These players are the acrobats of the wind ensemble. If you ever find yourself at a band concert, watch the members of the percussion section. They're often running from cymbals to xylophone to snare and back again, within a matter of measures. Percussion is almost always used in the concert band setting, either to provide rhythm like in a traditional march, or, in modern compositions, to provide a soundscape that no other instrument could achieve. Mallet instruments such as the vibraphone and marimba have become incredibly important to band composers, who also include the piano among these voices.

String bass: Oh, look, a stringed instrument! Many concert bands have included the string bass, which might double the tuba part or have its own part — often providing the more delicate pizzicato accents when a tuba might not be able to achieve the same soft dynamic.

Harp: Wait, another stringed instrument? Yes! Concert bands often also include a harp, which might provide arpeggios or delicate articulation. The two stringed instruments in the concert band, the bass and the harp, are often used in a percussive fashion by plucking the strings.

In addition to these major instrument categories, composers have gotten creative about adding other instruments, including guitar, featured string or voice, or electronics. The band world has been incredibly welcoming of new music, and composers have realized that it's an awesome playground for sound experiments and serious musical performances.

Ella Harpstead is a former classical intern for American Public Media and Minnesota Public Radio who is majoring in music composition at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. She's also the pep band director and a leader of Musika Nova, and has served as euphonium section leader in the St. Olaf Band and as a director of the school's Valhalla Band.