When archaeologists discovered primitive musical instruments, they found that human cultures developed compositions thousands of years ago.
Those first instruments were made from organic products, with most of them being bone.
As humanity moved from the stone age to start using metals, we figured out that these items could be useful in several ways.
In each era, including copper and iron, we’ve continued to evolve our sound development processes while making life easier in other ways.
When we created brass, everything changed for the music world. We now had an impressive metal that could be made into several instruments.
Yellow, Red, or Gold Brass: What’s the Difference?
The different brass colors reflect the copper content in the metal. Yellow brass is the industry standard for instruments, providing a 70% copper alloy. Gold brass contains up to 85% copper, while rose brass has a 90% copper rating.
Humans found that copper was useful in several ways in its purest form.
Although bronze (which is copper and tin) became more popular to use, it wasn’t the only alloy we discovered.
Brass was an accidental discovery. Early miners found copper while exploring areas rich in zinc.
They could remove all of the other impurities, but they couldn’t get rid of zinc since it’s such a hard component.
The humans of that time (about 3,500 years ago) shrugged their collective shoulders and decided to produce metal from the copper-zinc alloy anyway.
Their blacksmiths discovered that the metal was more rigid, but it was also malleable.
Although musical instruments can be made out of virtually anything, brass is the preferred metal for several options.
It is unusual to find trumpets, trombones, baritones, euphoniums, tubas, French horns, and saxophones made from any other material.
Brass provides three unique benefits that make it an attractive option for these instruments.
- The metal delivers an excellent resonance to create consistent vibrations that produce high-quality acoustical tones.
- It comes with a bright golden sheen that reminds people of gold, adding an elegant aesthetic quality to the playing or listening experience.
- Instrument manufacturers can stretch, roll, and hammer it without having the metal break, enabling it to form tubes, channels, and bells for different tones.
As instrumentalists discovered more about the copper content in brass, they found out that different alloy percentages could create different tones.
That’s why you’ll see yellow, red, and gold brass available for modern instruments. In some situations, you can find all three on the same product!
Yellow vs. Red vs. Gold Brass Instruments
If you’re in the market for a new brass instrument today, you’ll see some product descriptions that might not make much sense at first.
What does it mean if a trumpet has a golden brass bell? Why does it matter if a trombone has a red brass slide?
Although it seems like these descriptions are for the metal color to expect with the instrument, the manufacturer is trying to communicate what to expect from the playing experience.
If you compare the tone and quality of each note played, you’ll find that yellow, red, and gold brass create different sounds.
Although these differences might seem irrelevant to beginners or amateurs, a professional player must account for the alloy differences to ensure the perfect sounds get created each time.
Here is an overview of what to expect when comparing yellow vs. red vs. gold brass for today’s instruments.
|Yellow Brass:||• This metal alloy is the industry standard for musical instruments today. |
• If you don’t receive any specification or product description information about the brass composition in your item, it’s probably this one.
• It delivers reasonable resonance, bright tones, and a direct sound that rings loudly to the back of the room.
• It’s perfect for anthems and fanfare.
|Red Brass:||• You’ll find the highest copper content in brass with this option, which is sometimes called “rose” in the manufacturer’s description. |
• It provides a rich, mellow tone that adds warmth to a composition without as much carry.
• You’ll find it may need a microphone to be heard over a full arrangement.
• Most student instruments use it for the leadpipe, the area closest to the mouthpiece, to prevent corrosion.
|Gold Brass:||• This alloy is slightly darker than yellow brass since it contains 15% more copper. |
• It’s an excellent compromise because it adds warmth and broadness to each note without eliminating all of the benefits that come with projection.
• If you want to deliver full sounds with consistency, investing in instruments with this composition is a wise choice.
Where Do Instrument Manufacturers Focus on Brass Differences?
The two places you’ll want to review for yellow, red, or gold brass are the bell and the leadpipe.
Most instruments use rose brass at the leadpipe because the mix of saliva and debris creates a corrosive combination.
If you’ve ever heard of a trumpet, trombone, or baritone developing “red dot,” it’s because the brass corroded from that combination.
You’ll find brass differences at the bell can change the tone of an instrument dramatically.
Even if the entire composition is made from yellow brass, using the red alloy for the bell will substantially alter the notes a player produces.
That’s why you’ll want to pay attention to the manufacturer’s description of the instrument. Here are a couple of examples.
“This trumpet is made from 100% yellow brass, although we’ve added red brass as the mouthpiece for added durability. You’ll get a consistent sound with each note played so that the listeners in the back of the room can hear you.”
That description indicates the trumpet has a yellow brass bell, which means it offers a bright, energetic tone to each note. It’s the classic sound you’d expect from this instrument.
Here’s another example to consider.
“This trumpet is constructed of 100% brass. You’ll find that we used red brass for the bell and leadpipe to give it a stunning look while incorporating gold brass into the tubing.”
In the second example, the gold brass tubing has less influence on the sound than the red brass used for the bell.
If you can imagine placing a mute in the bell of an instrument made from yellow brass and eliminating the nasal qualities of what you hear, you’d have an idea of what this second trumpet would sound like when played.
Other factors, such as the bore size or metal thickness, can also influence an instrument’s final tone.
The first consideration should always be the yellow, red, or gold brass since the copper content has the final say on the quality of what you hear.
What If My Instrument Has Nickel Silver in the Alloy?
You know that a yellow brass instrument contains 70% copper and 30% zinc. That combination produces a forceful timbre that sounds bright in any acoustic situation.
What would happen if the instrument manufacturer were to add a nickel-silver coating to the brass?
If you find a nickel-silver instrument for sale, you’ll discover that it contains 60% copper. That means you get a more resonant sound with better rust-resistance, but it also becomes more sonorous.
Although you’ll get a pleasing aesthetic change with a nickel silver instrument, you’ll want to play it first before you settle on it.
The sound alterations from a true brass product are enough to be off-putting, even to the casual player.
You’ll need to carefully read the product description on your instrument to see if any plating or lacquer got added to the metal.
Four different options are typically used in the industry, and each one can leave a subtle change to how players can express themselves through music.
|Silver Plating:||• This design option creates more cheerfulness for each tone, producing more nuance while adding gentle warmth to each note. |
• It’s an excellent choice for anyone who plays classical pieces with piano accompaniment.
|Gold Plating:||• If you select an instrument with this option, you’ll hear sounds with significantly more mellowness than any other design. |
• When there isn’t enough air support behind each note, it can cause the timbre to sound muted, hollow, or dull.
|Clear Lacquer:||• This choice is the industry standard for most instruments. |
• It allows the luster of the brass to shine throughout without interruption while mellowing out the brightness of the attack.
• You’ll see it used on trumpets frequently.
|Gold Lacquer:||• When you need an instrument to deliver a powerful, sharp sound with consistency, this design choice is the only one to use. |
• It increases the crispness of each tone, providing a timbre that demands attention.
• Because it has these qualities, you’ll also discover that any mistakes that get made tend to be more noticeable.
What If My Instrument Has Braces?
If you look at a trumpet (and a few other instruments), you might notice that the design has braces that support your primary tube.
This component adds more weight to the instrument’s tone, delivering an impressive timbre that’s instantly recognizable.
It also changes the feel and balance for the player, creating distinctively different ways to play.
When your instrument has no braces, you can expect it to play with clear definition and brightness. It has a light timbre with solid expressiveness that highlights the melodic sounds a player produces.
If it has one brace, you’ll feel more resistance in the instrument. You’ll get a richer tone when playing, but it’ll be a heavier sound getting produced.
When there are two braces on the instrument, you’ll notice a significant difference in how it plays.
The timbre becomes heavier, almost like sludge, and a massive resistance level can make it feel like you must fight to get the notes you want.
What Does the Bore Size Mean?
When you look at the bore of a wind instrument, you measure the tube’s internal diameter where air passes when a player initiates a note.
That means you also calculate how much breath volume is necessary to produce a consistent tone.
Most manufacturers describe their instruments as having a medium, medium-large, or large bore.
If you find something on the smaller end of the spectrum, you won’t need as much breath support to produce a beautiful tone and timbre.
If the instrument has a large bore, you’ll need significant lung capacity to produce the dazzling tones that are possible with the design.
That means an instrument with a larger bore is naturally louder than those with smaller ones because of the air volume needed to create sounds.
The bell’s size plays a small role in this design process. If you have a smaller diameter for it as the air escapes, you’ll get a higher sound. When it is bigger, the tone dips lower.
That’s why a tuba hits the bass notes while trumpets, French horns, and some saxophones play at the higher end of the scale.
How to Care for Your New Brass Instrument
After you’ve selected the yellow, red, or gold brass instrument that fits your playing style and needs, it is time to learn how to care for it.
The first step after playing is to remove all moisture from the instrument.
You’ll want to remove each slide while holding down the valve or piston that corresponds to it. If you hear a “pop,” it wasn’t taken out correctly.
Use a small towel or brush to extract the moisture from the slide before returning it to its original position. You’ll want to use the water key to remove additional moisture.
Once you have the water out, it helps to lubricate your instrument with valve oil. Undo the cap screw, slowly extract the piston, and apply a few drops to the surface.
It helps to move it up and down a few times to work in the product.
As a final step, you’ll want to wipe down your instrument with a polishing cloth to remove any dirt. You’ll preserve the finish and keep the shine levels high.
If you have one with silver plating, it will eventually tarnish some, but that finish provides a protective layer.
You can use a standard silver polish on that finish to restore its shine.
When you understand the differences between yellow, red, and gold brass, you’ll find it is easier to select the best instrument for your playing style.
Once you take that step, you’ll find that a few other decisions can lead you to the perfect timbre.