3.2.4 Sound characteristics

Describing the sound of an instrument in words and measuring it is a complicated and abstract task. This section therefore refers to two specific characteristics of the sound of a brass instrument, the projection and the brass potential. Nevertheless, it is interesting to know how composers, musicians and critics have described the sound of the Wagner tuba in words. Felix Draeseke makes a compilation of these adjectives used for describing its sound, which shows the diversity of emotions that can be generated by the sound of the Wagner tuba: 

Solemn, dignified, heroic, dark, richly mellow, very noble, a totally unique, exalted, ceremonial character, full, smooth, a new brass timbre something on the dark and smoky side, holy, sovereign, a profound strength, rich, round, solemn, a grave majesty, very deep, sonorous, characteristic tone that is more potent and somber than that of the horn, a stately power and hallowed grandeur, strange and individual, impossible to describe, and not to be forgotten.

  • Projection: 

Survey responses: 

    1. For sure the tuba projects much more! The range is usually not so high, so the sound isn’t piercing, however the instrument’s bell is facing up, also the bore is larger, so the sound is quite mellow, but usually quite audible, still less than trombones, but more than horns.
    2. I dont change the volume. I play as I would on the horn. The sound is more free, so for solo’s you should take advantage of that: dont hold back!
    3. The Wagner tuba blends very well in Tutti passages but also projects well when playing alone. As a hornplayer you have to get used to the fact that the sound production is very near to your ear. Therefore you think you play too loud. And the other thing is that the attack is more direct than on the horn. Its difficult too slide in to a note as you can do on the horn. It feels like the tuba is either ON or OFF.
    4. Projection is of course very different. Much more direct because of the shape of the instrument and no hand in the bell. Because the bell and therefore the sound is so close to the ear it sounds even more loud and direct. So playing soft has to be judged more from the feel rather than from the sound. It might still appear rather loud when it is actually soft already.
    5. Tuba is a little louder, since the bell is upward and not backward
    6. Dynamic levels on Tuba are more limited. Harder to play soft and if you play too loud sound splits and intonation is off...
    7. I think the WT sounds more bright than the horn, since you don’t hold your hand in the bell. Therefor you have to be careful with dynamics, also because it projects more directly than the horn.


With these answers it is clear that the constructive difference of both instruments changes the projection and the feeling the player has. If we look at the placement of the bells, the horn points backwards and the tuba points upwards, so it is obvious that they do not project the same. For this reason, it is something that has to be taken into account.

It is clear that the Wagner tuba offers a more direct sound and that the fact that the bell is placed close to the player's ears increases the sensation of volume. This can dull the dynamic perception and limit its range, as it will always be heard at a considerable volume. Therefore, one should rely on personal feeling (using as a guide the same feeling we have with the horn) and pay even more attention to the conductor's indications. Therefore, the sound of the tuba in comparison to the horn is more audible and freer, but still easy to blend in the orchestra.


  • Brassiness potential


In terms of sound qualities, the study carried out by Lisa Norman, Arnold Myers, Murray Campbell, An Investigation into the Brassiness Potential of Wagner Tubas (2010) gives us the opportunity to physically understand the sound of the Wagner tuba and to situate it within the brass family. It analyses in depth the Wagner tuba with respect to the rest of the brass instruments in one of the most characteristic aspects of this family of instruments, the brassiness potential. In this study, the speed with which the tone becomes brassy with increasing dynamic level is analysed by measuring the rate of spectral enrichment during a crescendo, using a loudspeaker placed at the entrance of the instrument as an excitation mechanism.

The brassiness potential is the rate at which the spectral content of a tone increases (more strength in the higher frequencies, i.e. brighter sound) when it is subjected to an increase in dynamics, also called rate of spectral enrichment. This is mainly influenced by the size of the body of the instrument (and the width of its tubes), but other factors such as the dimensions of the mouthpiece, the level of the player or the materials of the instrument also have an impact on this.


The results of the study show first of all the brassiness potential of the Wagner tubas, tenor and bass types (of different brands). As might be expected considering the difference in dimensions of the two types, the bass tuba achieves a higher brassiness than the tenor tuba.


Secondly, the Wagner tuba is compared with other brass instruments, the horn, the trombone, the cornophone and the euphonium. What is clear from the analysis is that in the case of the horn and the Wagner tuba, the speed at which they reach higher brass potential is different, the Wagner tuba being more gradual than the horn. However, as the horn has a longer cylindrical section, it exceeds the maximum level of brassiness obtained with the tuba (in a more extreme way) and can obtain a brighter sound. The same happens with the trombone, "Despite the shorter overall length of tubing, the trombone by its very nature has a substantial cylindrical section (through the slide) and this provides the potential for the build up of shockwaves in the air column, leading to greater brassiness at loud dynamic levels". Finally, the cornophone and the wagner tuba show the most similar behaviour between the two.

The cornophone is a little known brass instrument, which was popular for a short time around the end of the nineteenth century, particularly in France where it was often used as a substitute for the Wagner tuba.