Playing technique and position underscore the fact that the Wagner tuba is molded entirely on the French horn. Wagner tubas are played by hornists because both instruments use a horn mouthpiece. The four valves are operated with the left hand, and not, as on all other tubas, with the right. Unlike the horn, however, the bell faces upward, while the instrument rests on the musician's lap.
Generally notes from the 1st to the 12th natural are used (notes up to the 16th natural are possible but very difficult to play and are not asked for). On both instruments (Bb and F) pedal tones (1st naturals) are used up to Eb1 only.
The entire chromatic scale can be played throughout the whole compass. This means that Wagner tubas are whole-tube instruments (instruments with four valves that make it possible to lower the pitch of the 2nd natural eleven times so that the gap to the first natural of the fundamental pitch can be bridged).
As on all bugle-horns, attack and speech is very easy and soft.
Wagner tuba in Bb
The four valves mean that the natural harmonic series of the fundamental Bb can be lowered by eleven steps. The compass therefore consists of the following natural harmonic series:
Natural harmonic series from Bb1: From the 1st–12th natural (13th–16th are very hard to play).
Natural harmonic series from A1 down to Eb1: From the 1st–12th natural (lowest note Eb1).
Natural harmonic series from D2 down to B1: From the 2nd–12th natural.
1st valve: whole tone lower
2nd valve: half tone lower
3rd valve: minor third lower
4th valve: fourth lower
All notes down to Bb1 can be played at every dynamic level (also ff). Lower notes are played by the Wagner tuba in F, on which they can be played ff, even though they can still be played on the Bb instrument.
Wagner tuba in F
The four valves mean that the natural harmonic series of the fundamental F can be lowered by eleven steps. The compass therefore consists of the following natural harmonic series:
Natural harmonic series from F1: From the 1st–12th natural (13th–16th are very hard to play).
Natural harmonic series from E1 down to Eb1: From the 1st–12th natural.
Natural harmonic series from D2 down to Gb1: From the 2nd–12th natural.
The Wagner tuba makes great demands on the musician because intonation is more problematical and the embouchure less stable than on the horn. The notes respond consistently and smoothly, and the horn mouthpiece makes them similar to the notes of the horn, so that good tonal balance is achieved between the two instruments. The wider bore profile means that the embouchure is less sharply defined and precise than on the horn, but the notes can be blown more freely. Wagner tubas are best suited for the evocation of solemn, stately and heroic moods and their timbre bridges the gap between the horns and the low brass as well as between the bass tuba and the trombones.