Varieties of the Tuba and Their Characteristics

A brief history

The tuba is one of the only, if not the only, instruments to have a recorded date of creation, or least of patenting: September 12, 1835.  This first tuba, or basstuba, was pitched in F with five valves.  The number of valves was perhaps the most significant feature of the new instrument, because it meant that by design almost every chromatic pitch through the tuba’s range would be accessible (a feat not possible without special techniques on the other brass instruments).  The tuba seems to have been largely inspired by both the ophicleide and the serpent, two of the then-predominant solutions for a bass wind instrument.  In fact, the earliest orchestral tuba part was originally written for ophicleide, from Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique.  Soon further members were added to the family, such as the contrabasstuba now usually known as CC, the tenor tuba usually pitched in Bb an octave higher than the contrabasstuba, and the French C tenor tuba.

The tuba and its parts

Left: Bass tuba in F (Gronitz PF-125). Right: Contrabass tuba in CC (Gronitz PCK, 6/4).


Tubas are commonly available in four tunings: Bb, C, Eb, and F, each being traditionally attached to certain performance practices. For instance, Bb tubas (often referred to as BBb) are the first choice for beginning students, yet are also widely used in German orchestras and British (or otherwise) brass bands. The brass band, particularly the military band, is also home to the Eb tuba. F tubas are commonly used by European orchestral players and are the standard for smaller ensembles and solo contexts for players in the United States. Lastly, C tubas (often CC) are the effective standard for orchestral use in the United States, functioning in a largely supplementary role in orchestras elsewhere.

Professional players in the United States will quite commonly own both a C and an F tuba. Relatively few will own tubas in three or more tunings. If one wishes to write for a particular tuning (for issues related to fingerings or available partials, for example), one must, of course, confirm that the intended player has a tuba in that tuning.

It must be noted that the tuba is, in nearly every context outside of the brass band tradition, a non-transposing instrument. Regardless of the tuning of the horn used, all music is read in C.

Figure 1. F Tuba Sounding Pitch Range and Registral Characteristics.

a.     Rumbling, unfocused sound with audible breath component; insecurity of attack and high respiratory fatigue set in (especially B-natural and below), and pitch becomes more a question of relative height; maximum dynamic drops considerably toward bottom of register—this trend asserts itself on all techniques related to the traditional sound of the tuba or ordinario (e.g., trills, tonguing, etc.)

b.     Dramatic, energized, gravelly sound

c.     Softer, velvety timbre with increasing focus of tone moving up through register

d.     Tone is still warm, but growing tighter, thinner, possibly with a slight breathiness

e.     Trend of d. continues, but at this point partials are very close together, resulting in decreased accuracy/dependability; high muscular fatigue


Ordinario Phenomenology



Outside of basic mechanical characteristics and tuning requirements, the tuba is largely non-standardized, particularly when speaking of the size of the instrument. Traditionally, tubas are categorized into four sizes, ranging from (smallest to largest) 3/4 through 6/4. Unfortunately, these sizes are not consistent across manufacturers, and even models from the same manufacturer will differ in size within each size range. To confound matters further, size is generally dependent on tuning, such that a 4/4 Bb tuba will be sized differently than a 4/4 F tuba.

In the United States, the 4/4 Bb tuba is the most common, if only because of its adoption as the standard student instrument among middle and high schools and some universities. Beyond this, the size of the tuba used depends on the performance context. For solos and small ensembles, 4/4 (and occasionally 3/4) tubas are used because of their slightly more compact sounds and generally greater dexterity. 6/4 tubas are usually reserved for orchestral settings where their larger and less directional sounds are desirable. 5/4 horns can be used rather effectively in either setting. Professional tubists in the United States will often own either a 3/4 or 4/4 F tuba and either a 5/4 or 6/4 C tuba.

Figure 2. Spectrum of Tuba Size, Timbre, and Commonality.

Valve designs

Another area in which standardization is somewhat lacking is the number of valves available on the tuba. Most elementary student models (and most sousaphones and helicons) feature three valves, functioning to lower the fundamental—in order from first to third valve—by two semitones, one semitone, and three semitones. Advanced student models and some professional models add a fourth valve, which lowers the fundamental by five semitones. The majority of professional horns feature a fifth valve, operated by the thumb. There are two common tunings for this valve: a flat two semitones or a flat three semitones. This valve is primarily used to aid in playing low tones with accurate intonation. A handful of manufacturers offer tubas with a sixth valve that generally lowers the pitch by a flat semitone.


The different partials of a given series are determined by the speed of lip buzzing or overpressure produced. Thus, to play a stepwise scale, the tubist fingers different fundamentals and overblows in order to access the desired pitches from their corresponding series.


Given that tuba phonation is built upon the harmonic series, it stands to reason that it tunes to natural intervals. Tubists learn early on to adjust their embouchure to modify tuning to equal temperament, but with practice can retrain themselves to produce other intonations with accuracy.

General capacities

Dynamics range. For the purposes of this catalog, all dynamics are viewed as relative to the instrument’s minimum and maximum output with ordinario phonation, which we will define as pppp and ffff, respectively.

Maximum Speed. For single-tongue rearticulation, this is approximately eight per second, slurred stepwise movement, 12 per second. The maximum speed of larger interval jumps depends on various factors, including interval size, dynamic, register, and, of course, context. With the tuba as with most instruments, smaller intervals are more easily performed in rapid succession. However, with a strong player, the tuba can be quite acrobatic, so composers should not rule out the possibility of leaps, even fast ones.

Accounting for breath

First, a general caveat: the bigger the instrument, the more air is required to play it. Breath capacity depends first and foremost on the player, next on the size of horn, register and dynamic of material, and the context.

While ideally a player would be able to take a relaxed breath before every entrance, in reality players often must take in as much air as possible in the shortest time possible. Thus, one must keep in mind that the faster the breath, the louder and less efficient the breath will be. Circular breathing is possible on the tuba.