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Breath Sounds

00:00-12 – breath sounds with dynamic variation
00:13-18 – exhale vs. inhale
00:19-end – whispering and mumbling

00:00-09 – (mostly) plosive consonants
00:10-16 – fricative consonants
00:17-end – plosives, gradually pulling away from mouthpiece

Breathing through the instrument without lip buzzing results in a resonance of breath within the body of the instrument. The degree to which the sound is muffled and its articulation obscured (e.g., for speaking/whispering) depends on how far the mouth is placed into the mouthpiece. It is also possible to accentuate and make perceptible the difference in sound between inhalation and exhalation. NB: At higher volumes, absent the resistance of lip buzzing, a performer will run out of air far more quickly.

Dynamic range. Niente to f.

Buzzing and Mouthpiece Sounds

00:00-13 – Buzzing into tuba leadpipe (no mouthpiece)
00:14-26 – Buzzing into back of mouthpiece (no tuba)
00:27-44 – Buzzing into back of mouthpiece (placed against tuba)
00:45-end – Buzzing into back of mouthpiece (into mute)

Buzzing, the primary technique by which brass players produce sound on their instruments, can be performed with the mouthpiece removed from the instrument, directly into the instrument’s leadpipe, or separate from the instrument or mouthpiece entirely. Buzzing on its own or into the mouthpiece alone typically assumes a precariousness of intonation, due to the lack of the instrument’s resonant tendencies. Buzzing into the instrument also assumes precariousness, but here it is because the embouchure required by the aperture of the leadpipe is small enough to excite extremely high partials that in turn suggest indeterminate pitch.

Whether buzzing into the tuba without the mouthpiece, or into the mouthpiece without the tuba, this soundworld is primarily a function of embouchure and air speed (lungs). Graphic notation is encouraged, particularly for the latter, given the inherent instability. Opportunities for amplification through hardware include: 1) placing the mouthpiece against (and thus exciting) the tuba, and 2) directing the sound into a (metallic) straight mute. The former gives considerably more body, the latter the impression of distance/reverb.

Extra Hardware

Varieties of mutes

In theory, any kind of mute can be made for the tuba. In practice, this is generally not the case (imagine a plunger mute for a tuba). Generally speaking, it is a rather safe assumption that the tubist will have a straight mute (used in the sound clip above). Asking for other kinds of mutes should be based on consultation with the performer.

Flutter Tonguing


Flutter tonguing is performed with a silent rolling of the “r” (i.e., without vocalization), adding a rhythmic flutter to the sound. Different speeds are possible, changing the perceived height of fluttering independent of other sonic elements (e.g., ordinario pitch). In the case of an aspirated flutter tongue (breath instead of ordinario), the result is similar to the revving of a motorcycle engine.

Pitch range. Depends on the technique being “fluttered.” In the case of ordinario, pitch range is unchanged.

Dynamic range. Same as ordinario for standard flutter tongue; niente to f for aspirated flutter tongue. At higher dynamics, this technique uses up the player’s air very quickly.

Gliss Cusps and Split Tones

Gliss cusps

Especially when the distance between adjacent partials is large, there is a gap in which the tuba refuses to sound. As the player approaches the cusp slowly from either side via lip glissing, the instrument struggles to phonate, eventually leaping up or down to the next partial. The sound of the struggle followed by the jump is similar to that of a vehicle stalling out, especially if the tubist cuts off before the next partial locks in. It should be noted that the latter, in particular, is difficult to do, owing to the precariousness at the cusp (i.e., the likelihood of suddenly and unpredictably locking into the next partial).

Split Tones


Split tones are produced by forcing the tuba to phonate between partials, resulting in the illusion of a diad multiphonic. The technique is inherently unstable and will likely require considerable practice to control. Timbres vary greatly depending on register: between lower partials, the sound is highly unstable with a rumbling, intensely rhythmic quality; between higher partials, the sound is much more focused and of clearer pitch content.

It is possible to approach the split tone like a gliss cusp (i.e., via embouchure), only in this case, one attempts to hold the phonation between the two partials. It is also possible to enter directly into a split tone. However, in either case there is a degree of insecurity. While it is possible to lock into the diad, there is always the risk of jumping suddenly to one of the two partials. This may be reduced through practice.

Pitch range. Same as ordinario. It should be noted that there is a modest degree of inward microtonal convergence in the partials, as neither is allowed to fully settle in to its proper resonance.

Dynamic range. Register-dependent. For lower split tones, the instrument peaks around mf; for higher ones, at f or even ff. It is generally possible to play split tones at a variety of dynamics and also to swell and/or decay while sustaining them.

Practice tip(s). We have found that the best means of playing split tones is to decouple fingering and embouchure, such that one fingers the appropriate valve configuration for the desired partials and aims half-way between the two with embouchure (e.g., if sustaining a split tone between C2 and G2, an E-quarterflat2 embouchure is recommended). A comprehensive chart of fingering and embouchure combinations and their corresponding split tones will be included as an appendix to a later draft of this catalog.



There are two main techniques of producing a glissando (a directional slide of pitch) on the tuba—changing lip embouchure and shifting slides—of which the former is far more traditional than the latter. It is also possible to traverse the overtone series through a fast slurring of partials in what is called a harmonic glissando.

Lip glissando

Range. As a rule of thumb, approximately one semitone, though this decreases as partials get closer together. Once partials are less than a semitone apart, the instrument will jump to the next partial before the full semitone of gliss is achieved. Conversely, in lower registers, it can become possible to gliss downward beyond a semitone (in extreme cases, as much as a minor third). In general, downward glissing is easier than upward. It should be noted that glissing to, or even near, the limits of range in a given register risks a sudden, unpredictable jump to the next partial or a split tone.

Slide glissando

Range. Approximately one semitone. This option does not carry the risk of partial jumping and does offer a certain precision through visual reference, but it also requires the time and capacity for a physical shift of hardware. Depending on the horn, it is often the case that from its “tuned” position a slide will only produce a pronounced gliss when pulled out, that is for a downward gliss. Pushing the slide in may only create a very slight variation in pitch. Once lowered, the tone can of course return up to the default pitch, but the slide will not allow for moving beyond it.

Harmonic glissando


A harmonic glissando is performed by changing embouchure and degree of overblowing while maintaining a single fingering in order to cycle quickly through the partials of a harmonic series. Cascades from high to low are generally easier to perform and potentially more dramatic in quality than ascensions from low to high, though both can be effective. A few particulars: It is possible to begin and/or end a harmonic glissando on precise pitches. It is also possible to change direction (pivot) mid-glissando. This can be done to a relatively virtuosic degree of speed/density. Further, it is possible to change the fingered series mid-glissando without being noticed. And finally, because partials are closer together in the higher register, cycling through them will produce a clearer sense of glissando than their lower counterparts.

Pitch range. Same as ordinario.

Dynamic range. Same as ordinario.

Maximum speed. Up to the where individual partials blur together; 12 per second and faster.


00:00-47 – fixed pitch in different registers with one, two, three, four, and five valves halved, respectively
00:48-end – full-register glissando with one, two, three, four, and five valves halved, respectively

In half-valving, one or more valves are depressed halfway while attempting to produce ordinario phonation. As a result, there is a greater reliance on embouchure for determining pitch. Additionally, the timbre is changed, and the range of lip glissing increased significantly.

If the traditional sound of the tuba (ordinario) might be described as a spectrum from bright, focused tones in the highest register to dark, rumbling tones in lowest, this manipulation of hardware exerts a “muffling” filter onto that sonic field, giving it a veiled, hoarse quality. The sound lacks its usual robustness, and perhaps sounds a bit swallowed. It should be noted that while not perceptibly linear, the transition in number of valves halved from one to many is noticeable, especially when comparing the extremes.

Regarding glissando, the greater the number of valves halved, the wider the range. With all valves halved, it is possible to gliss the entire sounding range of the tuba with only one or two perceivable jumps.

Pitch range. Same as ordinario. Intonation is less consistent, because the partials are obscured. A player may become more confident with specific fingerings/embouchures with practice, but it will likely always be a struggle, if not impossible, to keep virtuosic, half-valved figurations from sounding sloppy and inaccurate.

Dynamic range. The lower end is the same as that of ordinario. The upper end depends on the number of valves halved: one valve allows for a maximum of ff, whereas all valves allow only for mf.

Practice tip(s). Try to keep a halved valve as close to halfway depressed as possible—that is, unless it is desirable to explore the spectrum from fully open (complete phonation) to fully closed (complete phonation, different fingering), with maximum obscuration of the partial in between.


As with the glissando, the two main techniques for producing microtonal intonation, apart from the natural tunings of partials, are embouchure and slide adjustment (hardware).


Sounding partials of various harmonic series, the tuba—like brass instruments in general—has a natural capacity for certain microtonal intonations. Natural intervals should be easily accessible for most players, provided they can counteract the years of training spent adjusting the instrument to equal temperament.

As explained in the section on Glissando, embouchure can in most cases be used to alter the base pitch by up to a semitone in either direction. However, range decreases as higher partials become closer together.

Cultivating the muscle memory to immediately find specific microtonal tunings via embouchure takes a great deal of practice. Most often, there will be a “best guess” approximation, followed by a quick adjustment. Again, capacities for speed and accuracy of microtonal intonation will vary from performer to performer. However, the composer should avoid writing virtuosic microtonality to be produced with this technique, unless willing to accept a great deal of inaccuracy.


The adjustment of a slide allows for an across-the-board shift in tuning for all fingerings that connect to the slide in question. Thus, the tubist could play a fast series of quartertones by fingering traditional well-tempered partials, which are detuned by the slide shift.

Playing and Vocalizing


It is possible to sing, growl, and engage in other vocalizing while simultaneously playing the tuba in a traditional capacity. The general effect on the vocalized component is one of muffling timbre and obscuring articulation. In some cases, this allows for a more natural blend of vocal and tuba phonation in the resulting multiphonic.

Pitch range. Vocal range depends on the performer in question (gender and fach). Tuba range is as normal.

It should be noted that many of the same muscles used to change embouchure are used in the production of vocal phonation. Changing the pitch of one may result in an undesired, but physically unavoidable, shift in the other. It is especially difficult to sing below the phonated pitch. Simply put, register and context are everything. It is highly recommended, therefore, that all examples be checked with the performer in question beforehand. In some cases, a given simultaneity or phrase might become possible with practice; in others, not.

Dynamic range. ppff.

Removal of Hardware

scale with 4th slide removed


Removing valves is an extreme technique in that it completely modifies the sound of the instrument by producing the tone through the valve casing, bypassing the remainder of the tubing and the bell entirely. Note that any single valve removed will have this effect and the effect cannot be turned on or off (except, of course, by replacing the valve).


The removal of a slide is similar to the removal of a valve in that it bypasses the remaining tubing and the bell, with the important distinction that the effect is only present when the corresponding valve is pressed. Thus, for instance, the first valve slide can be removed without affecting the sound of the tuba until the first valve is pressed. The removal of multiple slides can produce a simple spatializing effect as the sound will be produced from different points of the instrument. Further, because each valve has tubing of different lengths, certain sounds can be given relative pitch difference when multiple slides are removed. It should be noted that any tone produced through a removed valve will be subject to a marked difference in timbre and volume.

It is of importance to consider that certain slides are relatively easy and quick to remove, particularly the short 2nd slide, while other slides are considerably more cumbersome, e.g. the long 4th slide. If the removal is meant to be subtle or even unnoticeable in performance, it can be prepared in advance or kept limited to a shorter slide. On the other hand, the removal of the 4th slide can serve as a dramatic performative gesture.


Though they are quite rare, there are tubas with removable bells. These were primarily made for recording sessions so that special forward-facing bells could be attached. If one is able to find such an instrument, the bell can be removed entirely, altering pitch and timbre to a rather large degree, in effect making the sound seem unfocused. Almost all sousaphones, of course, are made with removable bells, though tubists should not be expected to own a sousaphone.

Tongue Rams and Flicks

Tongue ram

00:00-21 – dynamic variation with pitch held constant
00:22-end – pitch variation with dynamic held constant

This technique involves ramming the tongue forward, completely stopping the flow of air. The resulting sound is that of a rush of air (which can be accentuated or diminished as desired), followed by a percussive reverberation of pitch, a sort of thump.

Pitch range. Given the nature of the technique, overblowing is impossible, meaning the only pitches available are the instrument’s fundamentals. Tongue ram pitch, however, appears to be perceived as an octave above these fundamentals, perhaps as the second partial, yielding the following pitch range on an F tuba:

Dynamic range. Niente to mf.

Maximum speed. Approximately six to seven per second.

Practice tip(s). The easiest way to conceive of a tongue ram is by closing off the opening of the lips with the tongue. It might be helpful to imagine the air as propelling the tongue forward.

Tongue flick

00:00-12 – dynamic variation with pitch held constant
00:12-19 – maximum loudness/pitch content
00:20-end – pitch variation with dynamic held constant

The tongue flick is similar to the tongue ram, but instead of stopping the flow of air completely, the tongue merely interrupts it with a flick. Thus, with a steady underlying bed of breath, flicks can be performed at higher speeds and with greater dexterity than rams. An experienced player will be able to perform most rhythms as flicks without much difficulty.

There is a fairly smooth transition from noise to pitch as tongue flicks are made louder, from niente to mf. However, even at the full mf, pitch differentiation is relatively weak. Individual pitches are perceptible, but at fast speeds—and especially in this very low register—changes in pitch are perceived more in terms of relative height.

A notational remark is in order: Inherent to this technique is the activation of breath before the flick itself can take place. Thus, in seeing a notehead at the desired point of flick articulation, the player’s first instinct is to start the physical effort (breath) at that point, resulting in a delayed entrance of the flick itself. One possible solution we arrived at was to use breath–notehead grace notes as a preemptive direction. This approach was noticeably helpful in bringing the flicks in at their desired entrance.

Pitch range. Like the tongue ram, the flick cannot be overblown for differentiation of pitch; only the instrument’s fundamentals are available. However, with the tongue flick, whatever pitch content is perceivable seems to occur at the fundamental frequency, rather than an octave up (like the tongue ram):

Dynamic range. Niente to mf.

Maximum speed. Approximately eight per second.

Practice tip(s). Think of the technique like a tongue ram, but without fully stopping the airstream. Instead, produce a rapid back-and-forth motion, possibly with a soft th, as in through.


00:00-46 – single and double tonguing in different registers
00:47-end – fast-as-possible (double) tonguing

Tonguing is the articulation and/or rearticulation of phonation by means of an enunciated ta or tu, or for softer articulation, da or du. There are three main varieties—single, double, and triple—the latter two generally faster than the former, though this may not hold true for all players. Double and triple tonguing involve the alternation between ta/da (or tu/du) and ka (or ku). For example, double tonguing is performed with repetitions of ta-ka (yielding a duple emphasis), and triple, with ta-ka-ta, ta-ta-ka, or even ta-ka-ta-ka-ta-ka (yielding a ternary emphasis).

As a general note to composers, it is not necessary to specify tonguing, unless one wants to for compositional purposes. Players study this traditional technique early in their training and are used to figuring it out for themselves as part of learning a piece.

With extensive use of fast tonguing, fatigue is likely to set in and hinder a player’s ability to continue tonguing at maximum capacity. How quickly a player will tire depends on physical ability and practice regimen.

Single tonguing

Pitch range. Same as ordinario.

Dynamic range. Same as ordinario.

Maximum speed. Approximately 9–10 per second.

Double tonguing

Pitch range. Same as ordinario, though more difficult and sloppier at extremes.

Dynamic range. Same as ordinario.

Maximum speed. Approximately 12 per second and faster.

Triple tonguing

Pitch range. All registers, though more difficult and sloppier at extremes.

Dynamic range. Same as ordinario.

Maximum speed. Approximately 12 per second and faster.

Trills and Tremolos


Standard trill

A traditional trill is the rapid alternation between two tones no more than a whole step apart.

Pitch range. Same as ordinario; whole-step trills become increasingly tricky and precarious in the highest register, where partials are so close together that slight fluctuations in embouchure result in a change or even failure of pitch. It should also be noted that some combinations may be more difficult for trilling based on a player’s manual dexterity.

Dynamic range. Same as ordinario.

Maximum speed. As fast as valve can be moved: approximately 12 per second.

Bisbigliando (timbral trill)


A bisbigliando is the rapid alternation between two fingerings of the same pitch. These often have slight differences in timbre, resulting in a timbral trill. There is also the inherent rhythmic element of changing air flow with every switch of fingering. On the tuba, this results in valve noise, which can be diminished/augmented with an appropriate direction to the player. There is also a slight variation in pitch between many such alternate fingerings.

Pitch range. Availability depends on tuning and number of valves. Generally speaking, more trills become available in the middle register and upward, as more alternate fingerings naturally occur. Timbral trills in the lower range tend to produce a sloppier result.

Dynamic range. Same as ordinario, though at lowest dynamics, valve noise overshadows pitch; timbral trills are generally easier at higher dynamic levels.

Maximum speed. As fast as valve can be moved: approximately 12 per second.

Practice tip(s). Depending on the difference in number of valves for each fingering, there can occur a (significant) change in resistance to the air stream. One should keep in mind the possibility that one may need to increase the air pressure put into the horn (i.e., beyond that required for one fingering, so as to account for the other).


A tremolo is the rapid alternation between two tones more than a whole step apart. One can use this technique on a tuba, though with less agility than on a smaller instrument (e.g., trumpet), as there is so much more sound to “move.”

Pitch range. Same as ordinario, though more difficult (a) as partials get closer together and (b) with larger intervals.

Dynamic range. Same as ordinario.

Maximum speed. Same as trill, though accuracy is less certain.

Practice tip(s). It is important to emphasize the top note of the tremolo (i.e., to make the top note the focal point), as it is much easier to slur down than up, and tremolo necessarily involves both.

Valve Taps

00:00-23 – valve taps
00:24-end – valve taps activated through breath

Standard valve taps

Valve taps are a direct corollary to key clicks on a woodwind instrument. One depresses (and releases) a valve, and a percussive clunk sound is produced. There is no great, observable difference in the sound of different valves, unless one is in a close-miked situation. Even then, differences are extremely subtle.

Dynamic range. Niente to mf.

Valve oil. Valve oil is used to prevent friction. While it reduces various noise artifacts (e.g., squeaks) produced along the sides of the valve hardware, it actually allows for greater volume of the valve tap itself. The use or nonuse of valve oil can be specified according to the composer’s wishes, though it should be noted that, with or without, the sounds are fairly understated.

Aspirated valve taps

Breathing through the instrument as with Breath Sounds, but with fingering of valves, creates percussive articulation of the breath with every valve tap, producing a flapping sound similar to a flag in the wind.

Rhythmic control and articulation (through breath) are easily achieved with this technique. As with ordinary valve taps, there is little perceptible difference in the sound of different valves. And as with other, non-buzzed breath sounds, the lungs empty quickly at higher volumes.

Dynamic range. Niente to mf; flapping sound is drowned out by breath at higher volumes.



Vibrato is a traditional technique on the tuba produced one of two ways—moving the jaw up and down (embouchure) or a controlled flexing of the diaphragm (lungs)—resulting in a pulsation of the sounding dynamic. With the tuba, unlike other instruments such as strings or the human voice, vibrato is primarily a function of volume, so wideness of pitch oscillation is not a controllable parameter. NB: In contemporary music, players will usually assume non vibrato unless otherwise directed.

Maximum speed. Approximately six to seven pulses per second.

Water Bath and Saliva

00:00-33 – buzz activation
00:33-end – breath activation

The traditional purpose of a water bath is to clean out the inner tubing of the instrument. However, if left inside the tuba during performance, it can alter various parameters significantly, depending on the amount of water. Timbre and articulation, for example, incorporate a high degree of indeterminacy. Sounding dexterity is (severely) limited. However, with the tuba’s massive resonance, the sound of water sloshing around can be marvelous, and unlike anything the tuba could otherwise produce.

In playing the tuba, there is a natural buildup of saliva in the instrument. As the amount increases, so do the frequency and perceptibility of the sounds it makes, which are often of a percussive nature, linked to sudden excitations of the instrumental body. This can provide similar opportunities for experimentation as the water bath, or just signal that the player should empty the spit valve!