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Early Cultures

Modern brass instruments are classed either as horns or trumpets, depending on the form of their tubing: horn tubes are mainly conical, trumpet tubes cylindrical. This distinction was first made about 300 years ago, when the first modern orchestra instruments were developed.

Cow horn    Sea snail trumpet
 Cow horn  Sea snail trumpet

Prior to this, no such distinction was made. In early civilizations it was possible for the same instrument to have a cylindrical tube or a conical one or a mixture of both. The tube form was of no relevance and was determined solely by the material.

Wind instruments existed in the very oldest cultures in New Guinea, Brazil and Australia. They were made of the most conveniently available material. This was often an animal horn, but tusks, sea snails and mollusks, hollowed-out branches, bark, bamboo, reeds and even fruits (e.g. pumpkins) were also made into simple instruments for use in religious and magical rites or for signaling purposes.

The Australian didgeridoo is an example of one of the very first trumpets: a wind instrument with a cylindrical tube.


The didgeridoo is a long, hollow wooden tube with a mouthpiece formed out of beeswax. It is still used by the Aborigines today as a kind of megaphone, increasing the volume of a ritual song or chant. The embouchure is similar to the trumpet’s, and a special breathing technique called circular breathing is used to produce a mysterious-sounding continual drone.


Animal horns were blown either at the end, where the tip had been chopped off, or through a hole bored in the side. [Foto: Kakaki] On the very earliest instruments only a single note could be produced, but gradually more notes became available as finger-holes were added or mouthpieces fashioned either by shaping the horn’s aperture itself or by making a separate mouthpiece and fitting it onto the tube.
In addition, a wider range of materials was introduced; trumpets made in 500 A.D. show that instruments were also being made of clay and precious metals.


Ancient civilizations such as the Egyptians, Indians, Chinese, Hebrews, Greeks and Romans were already making metal wind instruments with cup mouthpieces and bells. The instruments were used for signaling, military and religious purposes.


Among the most ancient types of metal wind instrument known today are the Egyptian snb, the sound of which was likened to the braying of a donkey by the Greek writer Plutarch; the Israeli trumpets hasoserah and chazozra, which only priests were allowed to play, and the shofar, which was made of a ram’s horn; the Greek salpinx was a bronze instrument with a 1.5 m long, narrow-bored cylindrical tube and a short, conical bell; and the Etruscans had bronze instruments with detachable bells.


The Etruscan tuba was later adopted by the Romans, as was the lituus, which had an animal horn fitted onto its bronze tube as a bell. Both the tuba and the lituus reportedly sounded harsh and terrifying. Another of the Romans’ brass instruments was the curved cornu. Other instruments known to have existed are the Germanic, S-shaped lur from the Bronze Age and the Celtic karnyx, which had a bell in the shape of a dragon’s head. In China there were the long metal trumpets hao t’ung and la pa.


The dung is an almost five meter long giant trumpet from Tibet with a broad and shallow mouthpiece. It is played by Buddhist monks using the same circular breathing technique as on the didgeridoo. This technique makes particularly long notes possible.


It was the development of the Roman instruments which was of greatest significance for the brass wind instruments used in today’s orchestras. The Romans had acquired such skill in instrument-making that the shape and performance of some Roman horns do not differ greatly from later natural horns. The Romans were already familiar with the technique of overblowing and were therefore able to produce a number of naturals on their instruments. The tubing was often over three meters long and could either be straight, as on the Roman tuba, or wound, as on the bucina.

However, the art of instrument-making was lost in Europe during the migration of the peoples (in around 800 A.D.) and had to be rediscovered in the Middle Ages.

The Middle Ages

The direct ancestor of all modern brass wind instruments is the buisine, a medieval fanfare trumpet which emerged in southern Italy in the 11th century. The name is derived from the Latin term bucina. However, the Roman bucina had a curved tube, whereas the tube of the medieval buisine was long and straight, flaring immediately before the bell. The relatively narrow bore and the thin metal tube meant that higher partials were also playable on the instrument, which had a cup mouthpiece. It was thus predestined to undergo further development.

Two instrument types evolved from the buisine, both of which featured a cup mouthpiece.

The first type was a brass instrument with a narrow, straight and cylindrical tube on which a widely flaring, shallow bell was mounted. It was from this instrument that trumpets and trombones were to evolve.

The second type had a tube which tapered only slowly before ending in a deep bell. In addition, the tube was curved after the fashion of an animal horn and even coiled on instruments with longer tubes. This was the forerunner of French horns and bugles.