Brass band

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The Lochgelly Band, a Scottish colliery band, circa 1890
The Lochgelly Band, a Scottish colliery band, circa 1890

A brass band is a musical group consisting mostly of brass instruments, often with a percussion section. In some traditions other types of instruments like a clarinet or saxophones may be added, but other traditions do not accept woodwinds as part of a brass band.

While brass instruments had long been used together in various contexts, the first modern brass bands were developed early in the 19th century in Prussia, when all military and government bands were issued the new technology of rotary valve instruments and instructed to use standard tuning. This allowed musicians to much more easily play with other bands and for smaller bands to be combined into large bands.


United Kingdom

A modern British brass band
A modern British brass band

Brass bands in the British tradition are limited to cornets, flugelhorns, tenor horns, baritones, euphoniums, trombones, tubas (known as basses in brass bands), and percussion; but not trumpets or french horns, since they are orchestral and Concert band instruments.

Most bands compete against each other in contests and are graded according to their results from Championship Section (being the highest) to 4th Section, with a separate Youth Section (usually up to and including 19 years of age). The grading of a band can also be indicative of the commitment required, be it a once a week engagement for 4th Section, or 3 or more times a week for the Championship Section bands.

Competitions among bands usually consist of a performance of at least one of the following: a test piece (which may be set by the contest organisers or chosen by the band), a march, a hymn, or an entertainment selection. In British National Championships, only one - usually newly written - test piece will be performed by all bands. The most important contests, which are all held annually, are the British Open (held at Symphony Hall, Birmingham), the Nationals (held at the ICC in Harrogate and the Royal Albert Hall in London) and the All English Masters (held annually at the Corn Exchange, Cambridge). There is also an annual European Championship the venue for which changes every year.

Marches performed in contests are not usually street marches, since contest marches are usually too difficult for use on the road and are usually played at a faster tempo. Contest marches are a sub-genre in their own right. The most famous march contest is the annual Whit Friday march held in the villages of the Saddleworth and Tameside areas to the north and east of Manchester.

The instrumentation used in brass bands is:

  • Cornet in E♭ (called a soprano cornet)
  • Cornets in B♭ (solo(x4), repiano, 2nd(x2), 3rd(x2))
  • Flugelhorn in B♭
  • Tenor Horns in E♭ (solo, 1st, 2nd)
  • Baritones (Treble Clef B♭) (1st, 2nd)
  • Tenor Trombones (Treble Clef B♭) (1st, 2nd)
  • Bass Trombone (Bass Clef)
  • Euphonium (Treble Clef B♭)(x2)
  • E♭ Bass (x2)
  • B♭ Bass (x2)
  • Percussion (x2/3)

The make-up of a Salvation Army Band is very similar to a competing band, except there is no Repiano cornet part and some parts (solo horn, 1st trombone) may use more than one player.

With the exception of the bass trombone and percussion, all parts are transposing and written in the treble clef, which means that for every instrument, from the big Basses right up to the Soprano Cornet, the fingering for the written notes is always the same. This system, which is unique to UK-style Brass Bands, ensures most parts can be covered when there is less than a full complement of players.

Many of the UK's bands originated as works bands or bands sponsored (and long identified with) various industrial concerns and coal mines. Of the leading bands, the Black Dyke Mills Band was sponsored by a cotton mill, the YBS Band was until recently sponsored by the Yorkshire Building Society and originally the Hammond Sauce Works, the Foden and Fairey bands by the respective truck and aircraft manufacturers, and the Grimethorpe Colliery Band was composed of miners and members of the associated coalfield community. With the decline of these industries the links between bands and their origins were dissolved, and membership is now drawn from all industries and parts of the community. Sudden loss of sponsorship, however, has caused many a top band to die. The Brighouse & Rastrick Band have operated continually at the highest level without the aid of sponsorship; the band makes money to survive from their regular concerts, by selling recordings and other merchandise, and from public donations.

The leading bands in Wales are Buy As You View Band (formally known as The Cory Band) and Tredegar Band and in Scotland, the Scottish Co-op Band (formally CWS Glasgow), Whitburn Band and Kirkintilloch Band. All these bands compete at the highest level in the banding movement.


The Australian derivation of a brass band is the same as the UK brass band, i.e. standard instrumentation with no woodwind. Contesting bands in Australia are graded from A Grade to D Grade, and in past years, a separate Country or E Grade was also used. National Contests are held each year at Easter, with the location moving from state to state. Each state also conducts their own championships. National and state contests are generally of the same format: a set test piece for each grade, a hymn, an own choice piece (usually of the same standard as the test), and a street march. Smaller regional contests often replace the major works with an own choice concert program.


There is an existing - though small - Brass Band movement, with more than twenty competing bands and a number of non-contestants (see below). These bands have their biggest venue each year on St. Patrick's Day.

A small number of non contesting brass bands still exist, however due to the difficulties of recruiting players, these bands tend to change to a "Concert Band" format, which includes woodwind, trumpets and other instrumentation.

The Salvation Army also has a large number of brass bands for use in their services, however, these bands do not participate in competition.

United States

The US derivation of a brass band is notably varied from the UK standard in that sousaphones, saxophones, flutes and other instruments are included. This evolved into the current US versions of concert bands and marching bands. However brass bands in the British tradition are becoming more popular through the efforts of the North American Brass Band Association [1].

Brass bands were very popular throughout the United States in the late 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century. Composers like John Philip Sousa and Karl King wrote many pieces for them. Well known bands of virtuoso musicians toured widely, and most towns had their own bands that put on weekend music concerts. Other groups, ranging from Benevolent societies to large factories, would often have a band. The brass band movement has undergone a resurgence in the late twentieth century, lead by the North American Brass Band Association. The United States boasts a number of professional brass bands, including the River City Brass Band.

The vibrant brass band tradition in New Orleans, Louisiana was key in the formation of jazz around the start of the 20th century. Brass bands remain a part of many ceremonies and celebrations (including funerals) in the city, some playing not only marches and jazz, but funk music and hip hop influenced music as well.

Latin America

Brass bands long enjoyed popularity in many parts of Latin America as well. In 19th century Mexico very large bands were formed, such as that of composer Juventino Rosas. In parts of Mexico brass band concerts remain a popular entertainment.


Brass bands in the British tradition, sometimes sponsored by employers, existed in Canada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The geography of Canada (e.g., large distances between communities, making regular contests and migration of players difficult) was a key factor among many challenges that led to the demise of most such bands.

Today, excepting the Salvation Army bands, there are few British-style brass bands (perhaps fewer than two dozen) in Canada, most of which are in Ontario. Most operate as recreational, amateur, "community" bands. An exception is the professional Hannaford Street Silver Band which is widely recorded and broadcast. There is no organized, regular contesting in Canada.


Brass bands in Germany are not as widespread as in other European countries like Switzerland or the Netherlands. There are just a few bands (about five) playing in authentic British instrumentation. This is primarily due to the popularity of wind_bands, particularly in Southern Germany.


Band Associations

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