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Tuba History – Origins and Evolution

The Tuba is a musical instrument of the brass family with a somehow recent history when compared to other band instruments.

There are tubas of various types, but mostly they consist of a cylindrical tube bent over itself ending in a bell-shaped hood. Equipped with a nozzle and three to five pistons, it has all the chromatic degrees.

Since its appearance in the first half of the 19th century, it has been a common presence in school bands, orchestras, military bands, marching bands, brass bands, and more recently in jazz bands.

In any of these types of bands, the tuba has the fundamental role of harmonic support, since it composes the suite of instruments that acts in the grave register.

The Origins of the Tuba as a Musical Instrument

Its creation was the result of new musical trends and tastes that prevailed at the time. A direct descendant of the ophicleide and the serpent, the modern tuba was born thanks to the technical advances in a century in which craftsmanship reigned in all stages of construction.

The first instrument with the name of tuba was patented on September 12, 1835, by the German instrument makers Wilhelm Wieprecht and Johann Moritz.

They adapted the piston system invented twenty years earlier by Stölzel to the ophicleide. This first tuba, intoned in F and with 5 Berlin valves, was a mixture of the piston mechanism invented by Stölzel, adapted to the bass horn.

Although this instrument was the first to be named tuba, the truth is that previously others could be considered prototypes of the tuba and the euphonium, such as the Stölzel bass horn and trumpet or the Czech Cerveny bass tuba of 1834.

Its creation was due to the need to put together an instrument with harmonic, musical, and technical characteristics under romanticism since no predecessor had these characteristics.

Ten years after the first tuba patent, the Belgian instrument maker, Adolph Sax, also responsible for the invention of the Saxophone, perfected that first tuba by intoning it in Bb and modifying its shape. That shape continues to be the same until these days, with a size that ranges between 3 and 5 meters in length, widening progressively from the mouthpiece to the bell, at the same time that it coils on itself.

It was in 1869 that this instrument began to play an important role in Richard Wagner’s orchestral music, using a variant of the instrument based on the English Corne, which is why the so-called Wagner Tuba appeared. Although a few years earlier, in 1862, the work “Triumph of Love” by the Englishman Wallace, is considered one of the first to use the tuba in its composition.

Evolution of the Tuba

The main design and general concept of the tuba remained unchanged, but several variants were introduced, including instruments with 4, 5, and 6 pistons, pistons with rotary valves, fiberglass sousaphones (to be used in parades).

Great Variety of Forms

Today, tubas can be found in the most different shapes and combinations and the variety increases dramatically if we include in this categorization the Baritone and Euphoniums.

You can find tubas in different tunings (Sib, Do, Mib, and Sol), with hoods from 36 to 77 centimeters in diameter, facing up or forward, lacquered or chromed, with normal pistons or with rotating valves (or both), with 2 to 6 pistons, etc…. and the variety is even greater if we add the various changes of the Sousafones (such as the very rare Sousafone with 2 hoods).

Presence in Different Types of Bands and Music Genres

At the beginning of the 19th century, the presence of hunting horns in Russia was registered, which can be considered the predecessors of the modern tuba, although not in such an immediate way as the ophicleide.

In that country groups of 16 to 36 people were formed who played hunting tubes.

Supposedly, the helicon, a circular tuba, was invented in Russia in the middle of the 20th century. Its main particularity is that it curls around the trunk, which makes it ideal especially for musicians of military bands, who often have to play while marching.

Starting to be a Common Presence in Orchestras

Parallel to the development of helicon, the modern tuba was perfected in 1845 by the inventor of the saxophone, Adolph Sax, and gained a place in all orchestras, representing the role of the bass in the brass section.

Sax gave the tuba greater amplitude, increased the hood, tilted it slightly to the right, and established the vertical position of the pistons at the top. Such improvements contributed to the development and diffusion of the tuba in the different musical areas.

The Wagner Tuba, a Very Popular Choice

In the middle of the 19th century appeared what is mistakenly known as the Wagner tuba, because Richar Wagner was its inspiration, an instrument that, in reality, belongs to the cornophone family.

The Wagner-tuben has the central hole halfway between the horn and the euphonium, they have four pistons and were thought to be played by the horn players, who used the mouthpieces of their instrument.

The composer was looking for a bridge between the horn and the trombone, in his eagerness to give the orchestra new sound shades. The new tuba model extended the sound of the horn to the bass register and reached the least bass of the trombones.

First used in The Ring of the Nibelung in 1869, they continued to be used in quartets (two in each of the tunings). In addition, other composers, such as Bruckner, Mahler, Strauss in Electra, or Strewinsky in the original version of The Firebird, also used the Wagner tuba in their compositions.

Spreading the Use in Military Bands

During the 1860s, the so-called Wurm Bands of the Russian army, which owe their name to German trumpeter and conductor Wilhelm Wurm, popularized the use of the tuba.

However, the interpretation, and therefore the final result, was far from exemplary. The musicians did not practice and played more out of obligation than out of devotion.

It was only in the mid-1870s that a reform of the military bands began, in which Nikolaj Rimski-Korsakov and the prestigious brass instrument manufacturer Cerveny, which instituted the use of fine-tuned models.

Military parades

At the beginning of the 20th century, the sousaphone, another member of the tuba family, appeared on the American scene. It was a variant of the helicon designed in 1908 by composer John Philip Sousa.

The Portuguese descendent composer was closely connected to military bands, from which all the Russian tubists got inspired.

He started playing at the age of thirteen in the Marine Band, formation for which he was appointed regent in 1880. However, he resigned to form his orchestra, Sousa’s Band, with which he got recognized all over the world.


The sousaphone is characterized by the exclusive use of pistons instead of cylinders and by a greater amplitude of the hood when comparing to the conventional tube.

Although it is usually considered that the sousaphone was invented by company C. G. Conn, in statements made in 1922, Sousa himself recognized that the instrument bearing his name was initially built by a Philadelphia manufacturer named J. W. Pepper.

The Rise of the Tuba in Classic Music

If throughout the 19th century the tuba occupied a determining role in the military bands, which to a certain extent still maintains, from the 20th century it increased its importance in the field of classical music.

As its importance in the orchestra grew and it no longer just supported the trombone line but, on the contrary, gained more importance as a soloist instrument, the composers of the 20th century gave it greater weight in their quintets.

The compositions of Leonard Bernsteins, Iannis Xenakis, Hans Verner Henze, Joan Guinjoan or Xavier Montsalvatge stood out.

Many other composers have dedicated several works to it, and interpreters from the most diverse countries have begun their learning. Thus, it is in this field that we have to look for the great masters of the tuba.

William Bell, Jéns Jorguensen, John Fletcher, but most importantly Roger Bobo and Philip Catelinet have achieved a deserved international recognition.

It is necessary to mention that the virtuosity of these men is such that some composers have written pieces specially designed for their interpretative characteristics.

Spreading its Use as a Musical Instrument

The military camp was not the only one where the instruments of the tuba family stood out. Other band formations, specifically the brass quintet, formed by two trumpets, a horn, a trombone, and a tuba, conferred very relevant roles to the instrument, especially throughout the 20th century.

Getting Popular as a Jazz Instrument

Since the first decades of the 20th century, the tuba was decisive in the early days of jazz. The jazz formations of New Orleans, Louisiana, as well as the dance orchestras, adopted the tuba, together with the helicon, to perform the work that would later be performed by the bass.

The figures of Cyrus Saint Clair, Bill Benford, John Kirby, or Billy Tailor stood out during this period. Although the tuba (or sometimes the helix) began in the world of jazz at the same time as the new century began, it did not take long to

After a period of abandonment, because during the 1930s several musicians had left the tuba in favor of the double bass, much lighter, the tuba was recovered by Miles Davis and introduced again in numerous formations, in which today it continues to play an important role.

Miles Davis, aware of the expressive possibilities of the tuba and had the help of Gil Evans’s compositions and arrangements.

From then on, the bands that included tubas began to proliferate.

In 1941 the Yereba Buena Jazz Band, by Lu Watters, a truly mass phenomenon emerged where great tuba performers like Bill Carroll, Ray Cadd, or Dick Lammi, combined the tuba with the helicon and the sousaphone and proposed a simple and clear style.

Trumpeter Lester Bowie, leader of the Art Assemble of Chicago, created the Brass Fantasy in the 1980s, a formation in which the tuba was fundamental.

Formed by eight musicians who played brass and percussion, it offered a well-known repertoire but was characterized by a high capacity for innovation, based on funk, Latin music, pop, and R&B (rhythm’n’blues).

Some Famous Appearances in Rock Music

The tuba sporadically appeared in the world of rock music by the hand of Peter Gabriel, of The Alan Parsons Project, in Pyramid, of Supertramp, in Breakfast in America, or of Pink Floyd, in The wall.

The International Day of the Tuba

Considering all the history and evolution behind the instrument, it is not a big surprise that it has an international day. The International Tuba Day is held every year on the first Friday of May and has been celebrated since 1979.

Such a day is to recognize tubists in musical organizations around the world who have to go through the hassle of handling a tuba, as is stated on the event’s website. This day also serves to highlight the importance and value of an instrument that usually lies hidden behind the orchestra or at the end of the band’s row. That’s because otherwise, it would “suffocate” every other instrument, due to the size and sound volume.

A tuba player has to have some strength to carry it and, if he’s too far ahead, he hides the staff from the woods, leaving only the top of the bassoons visible.