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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.



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.

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.

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.