British Brass Band Movement: A Quick Guide for Non-Brits

by Georgia Brass Band

Originally published to

The Brass Band movement is a truly British phenomenon. With its roots in the working classes of the early nineteenth century it retains a principally amateur status and remains a home for amateur music makers the length and breadth of the country.


Many of the early bands were created and sponsored by large employers like coal mines and mills, and served as a worthy distraction from an otherwise monotonous existence. The bands became the nucleus of the communities providing a sense of pride and purpose as well as entertainment.

Children of players would have a cornet or a horn placed in their hands the same time they would have a pencil or a book. The child would often be encouraged to practice for long stretches by their parents or other relations. Harry Mortimer, recognized as one of the finest cornet players and musicians of his day, is quoted as saying: “I don’t think I was even asked if I wanted to learn – it was as much a matter of course as cleaning my teeth or polishing my boots.” And so the tradition was continued.

Technical developments

Two significant developments in the first half of the 19th century gave birth to the Brass Band. First was the development of the piston valve, followed by the creation of the saxhorn family of instruments by the renowned instrument maker, Adolphe Sax, in the 1840’s.

The saxhorn family gave the brass a complete set of instruments, with a homogenous tone, from the highest treble to the deepest bass. In combination with the cornet and trombone, these saxhorns have evolved into the present day instrumentation of E flat and B flat cornets, flugelhorn, tenor horns, baritones, trombones, euphoniums, B flat and E flat basses. Finally, and only within the last 40 years or so, the percussion section has emerged as an intrinsic part of the brass band.

Concerts and contests

However talented or prestigious any band might become it was not always possible to fill a concert venue, but bring several local (and sometimes not so local) bands together and have them compete for prize money and you have a recipe for packing the largest concert hall…all day.

The contest music could be either their own choice or a set piece, according to the organizers, and bands were ranked into sections with others of similar standing and ability. In this way, bands of all standards had something to aim for, whether it be to impress at local concert halls or national contests in front of mass audiences.

Contests today

Today, contests remain the lifeblood of the brass band world and rivalry is intense. Rules and regulations abound and are strictly adhered to. To this day, most brass band competitions are judged from inside an adjudication box where the adjudicators can hear — but not see — the competing bands.

Once safely installed in the box, competing bands draw to select the order in which they will play and until the results are tallied at the end of the day the adjudicators know them only as Band Number One, Band Number Two, and so on.

Some figures

There were an estimated 40,000 amateur brass bands in the British Isles in 1889 – one musical instrument maker had over 10,000 bands on his books. By 1900 there were over 200 contests running each year.

Today the bands in Britain number about one tenth of that early total, but a similar number of contests are still run. The number of bands actually belonging to works and companies has also reduced dramatically over the years, but sponsorship from industry and commerce still provides much needed support to many of the amateur bands in the country.

American banding

Although brass bands were an important part of life in nineteenth-century America, they were superseded by larger concert and marching bands. However, many fine historic brass bands are still actively performing there today.

During the course of this century The Salvation Army was predominantly responsible for maintaining the brass band tradition in America through their music ministry.

Only in the last 20-25 years has a brass band resurgence begun in North America. There are presently several hundred brass bands in North America and it is not only exciting to see the tradition making a return, but also represents a valuable and unique contribution to the rich musical heritage of the USA.

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