What Is The Hardest – Easiest Brass Instrument To Play?
People often ask me “what’s the most difficult brass instrument to play?” or “What’s the easiest brass instrument to play?” and in this article I’m going to give my best shot at answering those questions.
The hardest brass instrument to play is the piccolo trumpet. This is because it presents all the difficulties that accompanies playing ANY brass instrument PLUS it takes a very well developed and strong embouchure to play. In addition to this the piccolo trumpet is also more difficult to play in tune than all the other brass instruments. This is why it’s not uncommon to hear, even first class trumpeters, struggle when performing the small piccolo trumpet.
We’ll take a look at the easiest brass instrument to play further down in the article.
You might want to take this article with a grain of salt
Now, of course, being a trumpet player myself I’m somewhat biased and perhaps not the best person to be writing this article in the first place…
…heck, I might even offend some brass players with it.
So, I will write this post in a slight humorous spirit and you may want to take some of it with a grain of salt. That said there are some general things we can take a closer look at because each brass instrument do have their own difficulties. And, of course, these could be some important things to consider before choosing what brass instrument to start playing.
Ah, the royal brass instruments and their festive and powerful sounds. Let’s take a look at them one by one…
The Tremendous Tuba
The tuba is of course the big papa of the brass family, playing the bass part in all kinds of ensembles. The tuba can be found in many places from symphony orchestras to wind orchestras, brass bands, and smaller ensembles like brass quartets or traditional brass septets.
Sure we can sometimes hear the tuba as a solo instrument, with the tubaist playing an interesting piece in front of the orchestra. But for the most part, however, we can see and hear it in the back row of the orchestra, playing the very bottom of the chords and acting as a solid foundation.
The difficulties of playing the tuba
- The tuba takes a lot of air to play
- All physical movements we use to play a brass instrument must be bigger when playing the tuba, therefor it becomes more difficult to play very fast passages, especially in the lowest register.
- The lowest register can be a bit challenging getting to”speak”
- And, of course, the tuba is heavy to carry to the gigs…especially uphill 😉
What aspects are easier
- The tuba player does not have to build the embouchure muscles in the same way as those who play smaller brass instruments do, as the embouchure muscles do not have to be as tight, and thus endurance problems is not as likely to be an issue when playing the tuba.
- For the most part, the tuba part in the orchestra is not as difficult to play, technically, as the trumpet parts. There are of course many exceptions to this but generally speaking. This is because the tuba are playing the bass part and thus, more often than not, the part is not infused with a lot of fast technical difficulties. This point could piss off some tuba player though… I’m fully aware of that…but hey, my father plays the tuba 🙂 …
…anyway, I digress….
The Tantalising Trombone
As you probably already know the trombone is a bit different than the rest of the brass family members in that it uses a big slide instead of valves. Well, some trombones nowadays do have a valve for the thumb to extend the lower range and also give the trombone player a few new options.
The trombone can bee seen and heard almost everywhere and you may also see it in front of a band playing an interesting solo piece, perhaps even more often than the tuba, but it’s still more common with trumpet or cornet solos.
The difficulties of playing the trombone
- Due to using a slide it is more difficult to play extremely fast passages. It can be done but you can never touch a cornet when it come to agility and speed, for example.
- The trombone player can find himself in playing situations where he has to play for a long time. Even though playing the instrument is not as demanding when it comes to pure embouchure strength, as the trumpet, the trombone player does indeed need to have a robust and well developed embouchure.
What aspects are easier
- The big slide makes it possible to instantly adjust the intonation without having to “lip down” or bend the pitch up, like we have to do with the rest of the brass instruments. This makes the trombone resonate better because playing in tune by lipping down or up a note, and bending it in tune, comes at the expense of sound and resonanse…
….all this requires the player to have a good ear to begin with, of course.
The Fantastic French Horn
The French horn is also used in all kinds of ensembles but perhaps not really as frequently as trombones or trumpets. Take the traditional big bands, for example. Most of the time you will find four trumpets and four trombones, when going to a big band concert, and you won’t see a French horn. However, there are exceptions to this and some tunes and arrangements call for the Frenach horn.
The French horn is widely used in brass ensemles like brass quartets and brass quintets. That said it is probably in the symphony orchestra, where it gets to shine the most, since composers have for many years now learned to take advantaged of the colorful and very expressive instrument.
The French horn is a difficult brass instrument to master and a lot of people consider the French horn to be the hardest brass instrument to play. And perhaps rightfully so. One reason for this is…
….well, this brings me to the next sub heading…
The difficulties of playing the French horn
- The tubing on a French horn is very long. This makes it harder to stay “in the slot” of the note. In other words you split and crack notes much more easily on the French horn than on other brass instruments. This happens when a note jumps over to the next partial, and the longer the tubing is, the closer to each other the partials are, and also, the easier the player “miss” the landing on the intended partial.
What aspects are easier
- Playing very expressional and emotional music with a broad span of colors is well suited for the Frenach horn because, in addition to all other features of a brass instrument, the French horn players can also use their hand to manipulate the sound. This is done by having the right hand inside the bell. However…
…I’m not saying this is something that necessarily makes it easier to play, in fact one might contradict it and say that it is just one more aspect to master, but what I’m saying is that it gives an edge over other brass instruments when it comes to the possibilities of coloring the music.
The Amusing Alto Horn
It’s difficult to write about this instrument because almost every country have a different definition or name for it. Some say “tenor horn”, some call it “althorn” while I think the correct American term for it is “Alto horn”. What I’m talking about now is a horn pitched in Eb, with a bore that is mostly conical, like the cornet or flugelhorn. It sounds an octave lower than the Eb-trumpet.
The Alto horn is a somewhat forgotten member of the brass family and if you go to a concert with a symphony orchestra there is no guarantee at all that you will either see or hear this beautiful instrument. The same goes for, if you got to a concert with a brass quintet playing. You CAN, but for the most part, the French horn sits on this chair.
In the traditional brass bands, that are still very popular in England, the Alto horn is alive and well however. And what’s even more, in that setting the French horns are actually forbidden. Smaller bands also use the Alto horn as a standard member. Here in Scandinavia we have a lots of brass septets and brass sextets that all take advantage of the nice and round sound of the alto horn.
The Alto horn is a beautiful instrument and there should be no reason at all for it being such an “outsider”. It can play very gorgeous melodies, festive fanfares and everything in between. Perhaps it will grow in popularity in the future….
…let’s hope it does!
The difficulties / easy aspects of playing the Alto horn
- It’s a brass instrument and therefore it is not easy to play. That said, the alto horn IS perhaps the easiest brass instrument to play. This is because it is small enough for the player to be able to control, when playing very fast musical passages, and yet it’s big enough for the player to not need an incredible strong embouchure, like for example the piccolo trumpet player has to have…
…in addition to this, the music literature for the alto horn, is for the most part, a bit easier to play compared to what trumpet / cornet players can find on their music stand. This is if we are talking about the traditional brass septet / sextet music. The Alto horn will often “somewhat” take the role of a rhythm instrument and play the after beats in marches , waltzes and so on. Again, there are of course exceptions to this.
The Empathetic Euphonium
The euphonium is a wonderful brass instrument that does its job in the middle register of the brass family. It’s pitched one octave above the big Bb-tuba and one octave below the Bb-trumpet.
Just like the Alto horn this instrument should be used much more often and in more musical settings that it currently does. The euphonium is a little more popular then the Alto horn though, but here too you will mostly find it in traditional brass ensembles like the brass bands, brass septets and brass sextets….
…don’t get me wrong, there are big band parts that call for an euphonium sometimes and the same goes with symphony orchestras. But it is still pretty rare though and I hope to see this change in the future. Of course the Euphonium also plays a big role in the wind orchestras around the world, just like all of the brass instruments do.
The Euphonium has a very pleasing sound and they often play very lyrical and singing music parts that as an ornament to the melody part. This often happens in the high register of the instrument, which instantly disqualifies it from being a candidate for the easiest brass instrument to play. It can indeed be very demanding and challenging to play the Euphonium….
The difficulties / easy aspects of playing the Euphonium
- The player needs to be both flexible and strong. You will often hear lyrical passages in the very upper register of the Euphonium, demanding a robust embouchure by the person playing the instrument. Being smaller than the tuba, it is easier to play fast passages on the euphonium and the middle register requires little to no embouchure strength….
…so the Euphonium has its “walk in the park” sides as well…
The Thrilling Yet Troublesome Trumpet
Ok, we have finally arrived to the trumpet…
The thrilling yet troublesome trumpet.
Even though I’m a trumpet player myself I don’t think I’m being unfair when I say, the trumpet is probably the most well known instruments of all the brass instruments. One reason for this is perhaps because it’s also used in more musical settings then any of the other brass instruments….
…big bands, symphony orchestra, brass ensembles, big wind orchestras, pop music and so on. On top of that it is very common to see and hear the trumpet playing a solo on a special gathering like weddings, funerals, grand openings etc.
For example, who has not heard the famous “Taps” played on a bugle or trumpet, or the very popular “Trumpet voluntary”, sounding in church on a big wedding, and so on. You can also very often hear a screaming trumpet ride on top of a brass section in pop, funk, latin, jazz bands. And thus giving it even more exposure, since pop music is by far more popular than classical music.
The difficulties of playing the Trumpet
- 99,9% of all trumpeters have struggled with endurance issues at some point in their lives and for most trumpeters this is an ongoing struggle.
- The high register is very demanding and difficult to master. At least if it has to sound good. When it comes to the high register there are incredible difficult pieces and screaming lead parts that only a few handful trumpeters on the planet are able to play, even though they are not that technically difficult, and this alone pretty much answers the title of the whole blog post.
- The trumpet player needs a very strong embouchure and when working to develop this a side effect is that it can also make the lips stiff and unresponsive, which can become quite a problem, in and of itself, and is one more challenge the trumpeter has to deal with.
What aspects are easier
- The trumpet takes less air to play than the bigger brass instruments. You will never have to move the same amount of air, in and out, on the trumpet as you do on the big tuba. This is actually one aspect that is easier on the trumpet.
What’s The Hardest Brass Instrument To Play, The Final Verdict…
…The Trumpet, and especially the piccolo trumpet is the hardest brass instrument to play!
When going even smaller in size we get up to the piccolo trumpet. It’s still a trumpet so I will not give it a category of its own even though it should perhaps deserve one. This is because the piccolo is a beast and even more difficult to play than the bigger trumpet.
In addition to all the other demanding and challenging aspects of playing the standard Bb-trumpet, the piccolo trumpet is much more difficult to play in tune…
…this in combinatoin with all the high register playing is why we often hear even first class virtuosos struggle a bit when paying the piccolo trumpet.
What’s The Easiest Brass Instrument To Play, The Final Verdict…
…The Alto horn is the easiest brass instrument to play!
Now this is a bit unfair because the music literateure is so much smaller for the alto horn. And in my mind I mostly think of the Alto horn having to play beats and almost play the role of a rhythm instrument in the traditional horn septets….
…and of course this put’s the Alto horn at risk for being considered a bit easier to play than other parts.
However, it is still a brass instrument and it too demands a lot of practice to be able to master….
…that said, if I HAD TO CHOOSE ONE brass instrument as the easiest, which I have to do right now, then it would be the Eb-Alto horn. It is the music literature in combination with the fact that it’s small enough to have great agility yet big enough to not be too demanding for the embouchure muscles, that makes me come to this decision.
They Are All Wonderful Instruments
Now, music is not a competition and I love each and every brass instrument. This whole post was meant to be read in a humorous spirit, and even though there are a lot of truth in it, it is to be taken with a grain of salt as well.
Thanks for reading, keep practicing and remember to have fun while doing it!
P.S. If you are considering, and thinking about, starting to play a brass instrument then I recommend starting out on the trumpet. Of course I do, I’m a trumpeter, but seriously, the trumpet opens up the most opportunities in the brass world. And if you would like to know some good beginner trumpet brands then click here and read my article best trumpets for beginners.
PPS. What brass instrument do you think is the hardest / easiest to play? Please feel free to comment something in the comment section below. I would love to hear from you!
4 thoughts on “What’s The Hardest – Easiest Brass Instrument To Play ?”
This reasoning about brass instrument difficulty is persuasive, but it doesn’t match my experience. I’ve attended a bunch of professional orchestra concerts (NY Phil, Philadelphia Orch/Boston Sym/London Sym/Berlin Phil/Vienna Phil/Chicago Sym/Cleveland Sym/Concertgebouw/ SF/Atlanta Sym, etc). All these orchestras have played in Boston’s Symphony Hall over the last forty years (I’m old). It’s clear to me the French Horn is the hardest instrument to play in an orchestra–of any type (string/brass/woodwind/percussion). It’s the only instrument where I regularly heard missed or “cracked” notes. Of course, brass instrument players sit around for most of the concert and then have to start playing abruptly. Hitting a note on a French Horn “cold” (especially a high one) is clearly much harder than the other brass instruments. If your measure is which instrument is harder to play on a solo piece (i. e. “The Carnival of Venice” transcribed for each brass instrument), things might be different. But I personally doubt even that. BTW, I studied euphonium and bass trombone at Boston U Sch of Fine Arts and have played all the brass instruments. I eventually realized all of the brass instruments were “too hard” for me and made a living in another field.
The answer is: It depends!
Assuming that you have the musical ear, commitment and patience required for all musical instruments, then:
If you have a moderate to fairly thin upper lip that fits into the trumpet mouthpiece nicely and vibrates higher pitches easily, learning the trumpet, including the piccolo when you are older, may progress very well for you. If your lips are fleshier and fuller, as were mine, you may struggle with range and endurance. I actually found the piccolo very enjoyable to play, though.
If you have a very good ear, the horn may be quite successful for you. If not, you will probably get frustrated. When you become advanced, the horn has the finest solo literature of the brass family.
Trombone players need long arms and a keen ear. You can play out of tune in 52 positions!
The euphonium can be successful for many who may not have a thin lip or long arms.
To play the tuba, you have to really want to play the tuba. It is heavy and takes a lot of air. Once in a while you might get to play the melody for two measures! Actually, when you become more advanced, there are many fun pieces to play.
The most important thing is being excited about the instrument you choose and being willing to practice and stick with it when things are frustrating – making working to become a great trumpet, horn, trombone, euphonium or tuba player your number one priority, rather spending most of your time on social media or video games. The sense of accomplishment and lifelong enjoyment in making your own musical sounds and bringing your personal expression to a piece of music will become a far more rewarding part of your life than video games. And, if you have a fuller lip, but love the trumpet, go for it!
Great article but you didn’t cover the baritone. Similar but not the same as Euphonium
If you’re considering the higher-keyed members of the brass family then how about the alto trombone which plays in the higher range but doesn’t use the smaller mouthpiece of the soprano trombone? However it’s not quite an octave higher than the tenor trombone the way the piccolo trumpet is compared to the standard trumpet in Bb and so would not have all the same challenges that the piccolo trumpet does.
So then how about the piccolo trumpet’s horn equivalent, the descant horn, which is an octave higher than the standard horn in F? All the difficulties of the piccolo trumpet and horn combined! Double ouch!