Why do clarinets squeak? Why do trumpets have spit valves? What’s with all these instrument oddities? Musical instruments are strange things. Hollow tubes with holes in them. Long metal pipes bent into strange shapes. Boxes with hammers and strings. Holes where you don’t expect holes to be. What’s with all this? Here are the answers to some of those strange questions you always wanted to ask but never did.
Why Do Clarinets Squeak?
Have you ever been in beginning band? Have you had to attend a beginning band concert? It seems like the clarinets are always squeaking! Why does that happen? What can they do to stop the squeaking?
Many factors affect whether a clarinet squeaks. And all these are things that the clarinet player must learn and practice. Beginners are still learning – give them a break when they squeak.
Here is a list of some of the more common reasons for clarinet squeaks:
Biting down, or clamping down too hard on the mouthpiece
Having too much or too little of the mouthpiece in the mouth
Incorrect tonguing technique
Bad reed – old, chipped or dried out
Good news – the more a clarinet player practices, the less he will squeak. So practice away, my clarinet friends.
If you want more information about this, see here and here.
Why Does a Piano Have Three Pedals?
Almost all pianos have two pedals. Some pianos have three pedals. What’s the difference? Does it matter if your instrument has two or three pedals?
The pedal on the right is the damper pedal. When pressed, this pedal raises all the dampers (or long felt-covered bars) from the strings inside the piano. The strings will then continue to vibrate and sound until the pedal is released and the dampers are reapplied to the strings. If you have a grand piano or open the top of your upright piano, you can see this happen.
The left pedal on a piano is the soft pedal. Depending on the piano, this pedal works in one of two ways. Either the use of the pedal causes the hammers to strike fewer strings, or the hammers are moved closer to the strings so they cannot strike the strings as hard as usual.
Every key you see on your piano attaches to two or three strings inside the piano. When you strike a key, you activate a hammer inside the piano that strikes the strings related to that key. When you press the soft pedal the hammer slightly moves so it only strikes a portion of the related strings (two strings instead of three, or one string instead of two).
Other pianos use a slightly different system to get a similar result. In this system, the soft pedal causes the entire set of hammers to move slightly closer to the strings. This means that the hammer cannot strike the strings with as much force, resulting in a softer sound.
And then there is the third pedal. Not every piano has a third pedal. This third pedal will do one of two things, but not both. On some pianos, the third pedal, called the sostenuto (sustaining) pedal, allows certain notes to sustain (or hold) without holding all the other notes at the same time. It is an interesting effect. However, unless you are playing advanced piano literature, you probably will not need to use this third pedal.
Some piano makers have taken that third pedal and given it a completely different purpose. Sometimes that third pedal performs as a “practice” pedal or a “silent” pedal. If you live in an apartment, perhaps the neighbors aren’t too excited to hear your late-night practicing. Or your early-morning arpeggios. What should you do? Put your piano in “silent” mode, by pressing that third pedal, and practice away.
What’s So French About a French Horn?
What’s so French about a French horn? Actually…not much. And it appears that the term “French horn” is only used in the US, Canada, and Britain. Everyone else just calls it a horn. So where did the term “French horn” come from? Guess what – no definite answers exist. But there are three theories about the use of that term.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, a German Count went to France, picked up some hunting horns, and brought them back to Germany. These horns were a bit different than the ones they already had in Germany. Because of that, the people may have referred to these as the French horns to differentiate them from the German horns that were already in the country.
Horn originally developed from hunting horns. The hunting horns in Britain were different than the French hunting horns. The French hunting horns were larger. When musicians began to use these new horns in Britain they reminded people of the larger French hunting horns, so they called them French horns.
In the late 1600s instrument makers crafted horns in Britain, Germany, and France. Each country made the horns slightly differently, and each country contributed different features in the development of the modern horn. Evidently, the best horns of the time came from French makers, so musicians called them French horns. (Not to be confused with the British horns, the German horns, etc.)
Is there a final answer to the question about the term “French” horn? Of course not. And if you are in a rehearsal and the conductor asks the horn section to play a section of music, does he mean just the French horns or the entire brass section? Play it safe, and assume he is just referring to the French horn section.
Spit valves are just gross, right? Trumpet players get to some rests, and the first thing they do is blow spit all over the floor. What’s with that? Ewwww! Think about how trumpet players produce sound. They blow – directly into their instrument. And with all the air that blows, you also get saliva. The air blows out through the horn, but not the saliva. It stays in the horn and collects.
Pretty soon, our poor trumpet player begins to sound like he is playing underwater. Because he is – sort of. And since he is not playing “Under the Sea,” we don’t want it to sound like that. The spit valve on a trumpet (and all other brass instruments) is located where the saliva collects in the horn. The brass player can open the spit valve, blow through his horn without making a sound, and empty all the water from his horn. Then he can continue to play with a good sound. Just be glad you don’t have to clean the floor after the band concert!
Why Are There Holes in the Tops of Violins?
The reason for the holes in the top of a violin (or viola, or cello, or bass) is simple – to let the sound out! Imagine if you are in your bedroom with the door shut and you want to tell your brother or sister to bring you a snack. You yell, but they never bring your snack. They will say they never heard you. But if you open your door and yell, they will hear you and bring you your snack (you hope). That’s the idea behind the holes on the violin. They are called f-holes – because they look like fancy letter f’s. Or some might call them sound holes. Vibration inside the body of the violin causes the sound, but that sound needs a way to get out. The f-holes let the sound out.
If the idea of f-holes fascinates you, you can read more about it here.
So, now you know the answers to some of life’s perplexing questions. You can impress your friends with your vast musical knowledge!
What are some other questions you have about instruments? You know, those questions you have always wanted to ask, but thought everyone else already knew the answers to. Ask away, and I will try to find the answers.
Leave your questions in the comments!
And check out some of our posts about specific instruments!
What do you know about buying a brass instrument? Do you have someone begging for a new horn for Christmas? Let me give you several things to consider before buying that brass instruments.
What is a Brass Instrument?
While most brass instruments are made of brass, that is not the main factor in determining a brass instrument. The primary thing that sets these instruments apart from others is the way the sound is produced. In all brass instruments the vibrating of the player’s lips produces the sound. Mouthpieces on brass instruments only amplify and focus the sound produced by those vibrations. The main members of this family of instruments are the trumpet (or cornet), the French horn, the trombone, the baritone (or euphonium), and the tuba.
Basic Brass Instrument Buying Guide
Know Your Price Range
Instruments of all kinds are expensive. Study the price range of the new instrument market for the instrument you are looking for. To a certain extent, price reflects quality. Understand why pricing varies between student, intermediate, and professional models. Check out the pricing on the used market. After you have done this, you can establish a realistic price range for the instrument you are looking to buy. The key here is a realistic price range! Don’t expect to find a fabulous instrument with all the best options for under $100. Not realistic at all!
Know the Exact Instrument You Want
Are you looking for a trumpet, or is a cornet what you want? Euphonium or baritone? French horn or double horn? Basic trombone or F Trombone? Many options exist for each instrument category. Know what you are shopping for! Some of these instruments come in different keys. If you know exactly what you are looking for you will be less confused once you start the shopping experience.
Know the Sound You Want
Know what kind of sound you want. Bright and clear? Mellow? The instrument and its design will affect the sound of the horn. Two of the main factors to consider here are the bore of the horn, and the size and shape of the bell. Go to a few music stores and try a variety of instruments. When you find a sound you are happy with, find out what it is that makes the horn sound the way it does. Is it the bore? Is it the shape or size of the bell? Does a particular brand of horn consistently give you the sound you want? Consult with the music teacher or band director – get their opinion on the kind of sound you should be listening for.
Know the Main Parts of the Instrument and How They Should Function
Look at a diagram of the instrument and learn the main parts of the horn. Understand what the different valves and slides do. Do you know where the water key is? Be sure you know what parts move, and what parts don’t.
Do Your Research
All this takes some research! Put in the time and effort to learn about the instrument you will be buying. You can do research online. You can also talk to teacher, band directors, other students, their parents. Don’t just follow the advice of the salesperson at the first store you visit. Be an informed consumer.
Specific Things to Look For
When buying an instrument, be sure to look at it carefully! This is especially important if you are shopping in the used market. Look for dents and pitting. While many used brass instruments will have some dents, none of them should be large. Large dents could indicate carelessness or neglect of the instrument.
Check the water key (commonly known as the spit valve). The key should line up completely with the hole and completely cover the hole. The cork should provide a good seal.
All brass instruments have slides. Be sure all the slides move freely, both in and out. Check the valves – do they move freely? Take them out (one at a time!) and see if they are scratched or dented. Look at the bell of the instrument. Better horns have one-piece bells.
Does the instrument look well-cared for? Ask if you can take the horn to your music teacher for an evaluation. Play (or have someone else play) the instrument. How is the sound? Is it the sound you want? Does the horn respond well? Be very diligent and careful in your evaluation. You want to get the best instrument for the budget you established.
For more suggestions, see these articles: Here and Here
A More Specific Look at each Instrument
Trumpet or Cornet?
When shopping for a trumpet the first thing you must decide is whether you want a trumpet or a cornet. What’s the difference? Good question. While the two instruments play the same and use the same fingerings, there are important differences between them. Trumpets have cylindrical bores and are longer than cornets. They usually produce a brighter, more direct, and more piercing sound. Cornets are more compact than trumpets, have a conical bore, and produce a warmer, rounder, more mellow sound.
Although the instruments are different sizes, the amount of tubing in each instrument is the same. The tubing is wrapped differently, making the cornet more compact in size. The conical bore of a cornet is also easier for a beginner to play. That is why band directors will often start all the beginners on cornets instead of trumpets. As they progress beyond their student instruments, they will need to decide whether to stay with the cornet or switch to the trumpet.
Trumpets also come in different keys and sizes. There are C trumpets, piccolo trumpets, pocket trumpets, etc. The most common instrument for students is the trumpet in B Flat. Unless specified otherwise, this is the trumpet you will be shopping for.
What to Look For
When considering a trumpet or cornet, either used or new, carefully evaluate the horn you are looking at. The valves should move quickly and smoothly. The best option is to have hand-lapped valves, meaning the final fitting of the valves are done by hand by a professional. Nickel-plated valves are often used in student instruments because they can handle infrequent cleanings and are more durable than other materials. Better quality trumpets will have valves of either Monel alloy or stainless steel.
While student models of trumpets and cornets often have two-piece bells, the better option is a one-piece, hand-hammered bell. The bell can be made from different materials. You need to try the different options to see which will give you the sound you prefer.
Trumpets also are available in different finishes. Many student models have lacquer finishes. They do not require as much care as other finishes. The best option seems to be the silver-plated finish.
The French horn is probably the most complicated and, therefore, most expensive of the brass instruments. You need to do your research carefully, because you want to get the best horn you can for your budget. You need to learn about your options and your choices will affect the sound from your horn.
Single or Double Horn?
Do you want a single horn or a double horn? What? A single horn is a horn in F. These horns are what most beginners use. They are lighter and less complicated than double horns. But they have limitations. By high school, most horn players will switch to a double horn. A double horn is actually two horns fit into a single framework. It has the horn in F with and extra lever that will cut off a portion of tubing to switch to a horn in B flat. This will give the player better accuracy and make it easier to play in certain ranges.
Kruspe or Geyer Wrap
On a double horn all the tubing can be wrapped in two different ways. One of the key differences between the two is the location of the change valve. But the wrap also affects the sound of the horn. Generally, the Kruspe wrap produces a warmer and bigger sound, while the Geyer wrap gives a sound that is typically brighter or edgier.
String or Mechanical?
On a French horn, the keys are linked to rotors that turn to adjust the tubing for any given note. There are two ways the rotors are linked to the keys – string or mechanical. The string linkage is the most common system in the United States. It is a quiet operation, but the strings will wear out and break, and then they must be replaced.
The mechanical rotor linkage is more common in Europe – and they don’t break like strings do. But the system is not as quiet, so in soft passages sometimes you can hear the metal connectors. If you take good care of the instrument you will probably be happy with the string rotor linkage. When the strings break you can take it to a repair shop, or you can learn how to replace them yourself. At a repair shop you can expect to pay about $25-$50 per rotor for restringing.
Metals and Lacquers
The material a French horn is made of can have affect the sound of the horn. Many horns are made of yellow brass, the most common material for horns. This gives the instrument a medium dark sound. Some are made of rose brass. This is a softer material and provides a darker sound. Unfortunately, it also dents more easily. Other horns are made of Nickel Silver. The silver refers to the color of the nickel – no real silver is involved. And this is not a plating, either. It is a very hard material and gives a very bright sound. Some say that having the French horn lacquered dulls the sound. So, not all horns have the lacquered finish. Unlacquered horns require more care and maintenance.
Attached or Detached Bells
The bell of the horn is the large opening where the sound comes out. Some bells are permanently attached to the horn. Others are detached – meaning they can be screwed on and off. This allows the case to be a nice rectangular shape – easier to travel with. This is often more of a convenience factor, or a preference, but some say that the detached bell will affect the sound. It will also add to the cost of the horn.
Always play the horn before you purchase it! Go to several music stores and play several horns. Keep track of what features you like, what sounds you like, which ones are most comfortable. After you find what you like, then you can look for specific horns on the used market. Take your time, do your research, shop around, and find the best horn in your price range.
Did you know there are different kinds of trombones? Of course there are – otherwise life would be too easy. The main two you need to be concerned about are the straight tenor trombone and the trombone with the F attachment. Most beginners start with a straight trombone and move up to a horn with the F attachment about the time they get in high school. Why not sooner? Mainly, a horn with the F attachment is heavier. Also, they are generally more expensive horns that need a bit more care and maintenance than a grade school child is likely to give it.
Having a trombone with an F attachment extends the playing capabilities of a trombone. It adds notes to the lower range of the horn. It also provides alternate ways of playing certain passages that make them easier to play. The F attachment adds additional tubing to the horn. This extra tubing is accessed by the use of a rotor valve. There are two options for this added tubing – standard wrap and open wrap. Standard wrap horns are more compact and have more resistance. Open wrap horns have less resistance, more openness to them. This is mainly a matter of personal preference.
Bores and Bells
The bore of the trombone refers to the inner diameter of the inner slide. Horns with a smaller bore provide more resistance and a brighter, more focused sound. Larger bore horns offer less resistance and a darker, warmer, bigger sound.
Bells of trombones matter also. The bell is the opening at the end of the horn where the sound comes out. Bells can be different colors, made of different metals, and come in different sizes. Each of these affects the sound of the horn. Yellow brass is the most common and gives a brighter sound. Rose brass has a higher copper content and gives a darker sound. Orchestral trombones tend to have the largest bells
If you are buying a trombone for a beginner look for a horn with a smaller bore. Those are usually easier for beginners to make a sound with. Also, beginners usually start with a straight tenor trombone. But if you find a great deal on a horn with an F attachment, don’t pass it up. Until the student learns how to use the trigger for the F attachment the horn plays just like a straight trombone. The only issue might be the weight of the trombone.
Check These Things
First of all, when buying a trombone it is critical to be sure the slides move easily and freely. Obviously, this should apply to the main slide, but also to the tuning slides. Check for dents. Dents and corrosion on the slide are indicators of problems. If you are looking at a horn with the F attachment, check the rotor trigger. Make sure it moves easily. Check to see if the string needs replacing.
Also, look for the water key (spit valve); it should close completely. It needs to completely cover the hole and provide a good seal. Be sure the cork is in good condition.
Finally, check the condition of the lacquer. The lacquer is the horn’s protection against corrosion. It should be in good condition, not peeling off. If you have found a horn that you love, but the lacquer is not great, you can take it to a shop and get it relacquered. That will probably cost a couple hundred dollars.
Play any horn you are considering purchasing. Try several horns at different music stores to find what you like. Listen carefully to find the sound you like. How does the horn feel when you play it? Is it easy to play? Take your time, do your research, and find a great trombone!
Although the terms are frequently used interchangeably, and there are many similarities, the two instruments are different. The two horns play the same range of notes and use the same basic techniques and embouchure. They can also both read treble clef or bass clef notes.
Euphoniums are generally larger instruments. They have a larger bell, a larger and wider bore, and more conical tubing. This gives them a larger, darker, and more powerful sound. Baritones are usually slightly smaller and lighter instruments. They have a smaller bore and a smaller bell. The tubing in a baritone is mostly cylindrical and is more compactly coiled than that of a euphonium. Usually they have a brighter and lighter sound. Because of their smaller size and lighter weight, baritones are usually recommended as starter instruments for children.
Beginner baritones often have just three valves, the euphonium usually has four. The four valves on a euphonium give the horn a greater range and allows for better tuning throughout the range.
A Baritone works and plays like a trumpet, but it is twice the length of a trumpet. It has the same range as a trombone but uses valves instead of a slide. Tuba players often start on baritones. They are very similar instruments, but the tuba is twice the length of a baritone. Good baritone players are in great demand because there aren’t as many of them as, say, clarinet or trumpet players.
Before shopping for a horn, decide which of the two instruments you really want – baritone or euphonium. Research the price ranges so you know what reasonable pricing is. As with all the other brass instruments, try several horns. Decide on the features you like, decide on the metals and finishes. Evaluate each instrument carefully. Be sure the tuning slides are easy to move, that the valves work easily. Check for large dents, and for corrosion. Choose your horn well.
Even with tubas there are several decisions to make! Which tuba do you want? The main two options are the B Flat Tuba and the C Tuba. The C Tuba has a clearer, more compact sound. It is preferred in orchestras. But not all tuba parts are written for C Tubas, so you may have to do some transposing. B Flat Tubas have a broader sound with more weight to the sound. Bands, especially marching bands, prefer the B Flat Tuba. For an “all-round” multi-purpose tuba, the B Flat option is the best.
Materials and Finishes
Tubas are made of one of three materials: yellow brass, gold brass, or rose brass. Gold brass gives a darker sound, while rose brass produces a warmer tone. After choosing the metal, you have a couple options for the finish. Most student models have a lacquer finish. This is a durable and affordable option. The lacquer can come in different colors, like gold, silver, or clear, but the color of the lacquer does not affect the sound quality. More advanced tuba models will have a silver-plating finish. This adds to the cost, and it also requires more effort to keep the finish in good condition. This finish does affect the sound – it gives the tuba a warmer sound.
How Many Valves?
Beginner tubas usually come with only three valves. While this is enough to play all the most common notes, it is not sufficient for more advanced players. Anyone beyond the beginner level should look for a tuba with four valves. The extra valve will allow the player all the lower range notes with better intonation. Some tubas have five valves, but that is mainly for professional players.
Be sure to check all the tuning slides. They should not be stuck or difficult to move. All the valves need to work easily. You do not want to see any dents in the tubing between the mouthpiece and the first valve. Check every soldered joint. None of them should be loose. Also, you should not find any leaks or holes in any of the tubing!
Study the available options. Decide on the best tuba for you. Research the going price range for the tuba that interests you, both on the new and used markets. Try playing different tubas. Ask your teacher or band director for recommendations.