We say it all the time, “Brass instruments." But when it comes down to it, do we actually understand what brass really means? If you look into it, brass is an umbrella term that covers a wide array of different materials. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines brass as: “An alloy consisting essentially of copper and zinc of variable proportions." With that being said, what’s an alloy?! Again, defined by Merriam-Webster, an alloy is: “The degree of mixture with base metals." A more intricate definition could be: “A substance composed of two or more metals or of a metal and a nonmetal intimately united usually by being fused together and dissolving in each other when molten”. So, in layman’s terms, our instruments are a bunch of liquid metals mixed together and made into the shape of a horn, wow!
Now that we have a better understanding as to what brass is, let’s discuss some of the types of brass we see most often. The alloys we find most often as brass instrument players are yellow brass (the most popular), rose brass, and gold brass. Some other alloys we hear about once in awhile include nickel silver, stainless steel, and monel. The “mixtures” of these alloys are as follows:
The most common, this type of brass is usually made from about 67% copper and 33% zinc.
The middle child. Combines approximately 85% copper and 15% zinc.
The softest alloy, due to it having the highest copper content, is usually 90% copper and 10% zinc.
**Please note: These percentages are generalizations. To have exact figures on what certain horns are made of would mean exposing instrument manufacturers’ best-kept secrets!**
Other common alloys found on our brass instruments are made of:
Found on other parts of the given instrument such as top and bottom valve caps, parts of the leadpipe, waterkeys, and more. This type of alloy is generally comprised of 70% copper, 20% zinc, and 10% nickel. Why is it called nickel silver? The world may never know!
Stainless steel on a brass instrument? What?! Yes, on older model instruments many rotors and pistons were made from stainless steel due to it being readily available. Any stainless steel found on our instruments were usually comprised of 90% copper and 10% chromium.
The modern day equivalent to what stainless steel was used for on our instruments. This particular alloy is commonly made from about 65% nickel, 30% copper, and the rest would be a mix of iron, manganese, and silicon (yes, really).
Although not yet mentioned, sterling silver is a fairly common material used for a bell (usually trumpet). Most often, sterling silver is comprised of about 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper. There is a rather long standing debate regarding the effects a sterling silver instrument component will have on playability and sound. For that reason, it’s best to try whatever you can get your hands on and see what it does to your playing, we are all different!
Understanding your equipment and how it affects your your playing is all part of being a musician. When making your next decision regarding equipment, consider the materials it’s made from!
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Growing up and living in the Western New York/Buffalo area, John R. Hylkema is currently pursuing his Bachelors of Music degree in Music Business from the Crane Institute for Music Business and Entrepreneurship at SUNY Potsdam and is anticipating graduating Magna Cum Laude at the end of this Spring, 2017.
As a lifelong lover of the music products industry, John aspires to work for a musical instrument manufacturer designing and repairing instruments.
Watching Buffalo Bills football and Buffalo Sabres hockey games are among some of John’s favorite things to do, along with traveling, camping, and hiking. He is also a lover of dogs as well as an avid Ole Miss Rebels fan when he isn’t busy drooling over cars or anything with a motor.