Basement Dwellers: The Bass Instruments

How many of us, when listening to music, are consciously aware of the lowest or bass part? I would venture to say hardly any of us would fit into this category. After all, we usually take in the totality of the sound. We either enjoy what we hear, are indifferent about it, or dislike it.

Composers, on the other hand, are keenly aware of the lowest or bass part, as it is the foundation of the other parts of the music. An analogy has been drawn to the foundation of a house that supports its superstructure and the foundation of a musical chord. The bass part, in many instances, is the determining factor of the harmonic structure.

Tuba with reflectionBass Instruments

There are several instruments in the string, woodwind and brass families that represent the lowest and the largest of the bass instruments.

In the string family the String Bass, as most people know it, is the lowest member of the string family. It is also called the Double Bass, Contrabass or Bass Viol. The String Bass sounds an octave lower than the Cello. Its open strings are E, A, D, G. Usually there are six to eight Double Bases in a symphony orchestra. The String Bass is the only string instrument used in concert bands.

The Bass Clarinet is made of wood with a metal bell. It has a metal lead pipe connecting to the mouthpiece. It sounds an octave lower than the regular clarinet. The top register or higher notes are relatively less pronounced and not very satisfactory. The lower notes are very rich and sonorous.

The Bass Clarinet has a wide dynamic range. It resembles a saxophone somewhat in structure. The earliest forms date back to the early 18th century; the modern form we know today was designed by Adolphe Sax of Brussels, around 1838. The Bass Clarinet is used in both band and orchestra.

The Baritone Saxophone was also invented by Sax in the early 1840s. It is a woodwind instrument made of brass with a conical bore and slightly flared bell. It has a single reed mouthpiece like the clarinet. The Baritone Sax is used almost exclusively in bands as saxophones are not commonly used in orchestras. Even though it is called a Baritone Sax, it is used as the bass or lower part in the saxophone family. There are Bass Saxophones, but they are not commonly used in today’s bands.

The Contrabassoon is pitched an octave below the regular Bassoon. If the instrument was stretched out it would be more than sixteen feet in length.  Because of its length it is doubled on itself several times in order to bring the keys in proper playing position. The bell points down instead of up like a regular Bassoon. The lowest and highest notes are not very pleasant, hence they are not regularly used. In 1880, Johann Heckel produced an instrument similar to today’s Contrabassoon. If one were to purchase a Heckel Contrabassoon, you would have to get a mortgage on your house. They are extremely expensive.

The Tuba is the lowest member of the brass family. Over the years it has been produced in many sizes and shapes. In modern times it is oblong in shape with a wide conical bore terminating in a flared bell pointing upward. The Tuba has three to five valves and a cup-shaped or funnel-shaped mouthpiece. The Tuba is the main bass instrument in bands and orchestras. Its function is to provide a strong, firm bass to the upper brass group of horns, trumpets and trombones.

The Sousaphone is a very popular instrument today, especially in marching bands. It has a long, detachable bell that originally pointed upward and was nicknamed a “rain-catcher.” Later is was redesigned to point forward; much better on the march rather than the sound going up in the air, only to be lost or not heard at all.

This form of the instrument was suggested by John Philip Sousa, hence the name, Sousaphone, in honor of the great composer and bandmaster. Confusion exists because so many people called the Sousaphone a Tuba. That, of course, is not correct. The Sousaphone is a circular instrument carried on the shoulder, whereas the Tuba is played in an upright position in front of the player.

The Bass Drum, a very important part of the ensemble, provides the basic beat for all the musicians to play together in the correct tempo. It is an indispensable member of the percussion family that gives the ensemble its solid foundation. The Bass Drum is the heartbeat of the band.


Rare Instruments

The Helicon is a Bass and Contrabass Tuba-like instrument. It is in a circular shape, similar to the French Horn, instead of the upright shape of the Tuba. The player can carry the instrument over his shoulder like the Sousaphone.  It was first used in the mid- 19th century and was prevalent in Russian military bands.

The Ophicleide first appeared in the early 19th century. It is made of metal with a wide conical bore and a slightly flared bell. It has a cup-shaped mouthpiece and a three octave range. The instrument is made in various sizes but the bass version is most widely used.  It was more common in bands than in orchestras and was eventually replaced by the Tuba.

The Serpent is an s-shaped wooden tube, about seven feet in length covered with black leather. The instrument has a cup-shaped mouthpiece.  Its early uses were primarily for sacred events rather than secular. “The Serpent can be compared to a drainpipe suffering from an intestinal disorder,” is how the Harvard Dictionary of Music described this serpentine instrument.

The Sarrusophone is in a family of double reed brass instruments. It was invented by French bandmaster Sarrus, in 1856. It was made in eight different sizes, from highest to lowest range. It has the same range as the Contrabassoon, although it is preferred by French composers to the Contrabassoon.

In music it is so important to have a solid, firm foundation. The bass instruments supply this need by supporting the other instruments in the group, providing a strong lower voice. These ’bass’-ment dwellers are the mainstay in most musical ensembles, providing support and cohesiveness to the musical score.

One of the things I am so proud of is the five Tuba players we are so fortunate to have in the Danville Community Band. They provide depth, solid support and richness to the music. Without the bass instruments the music would lack the complete message the composer intended.

The Danville Community Band presents “Museums around the World,” our Annual Blackhawk Museum Concert, Sunday, April 10, 2016 at 2:00 p.m.  Blackhawk Museum, 3700 Blackhawk Plaza Circle. Free concert with admission to the Museum. Free parking.   


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