The Same but Different
There’s very little difference between the tuba and sousaphone.
With identical timbres, B flat transpositional tuning, and a common compositional application, they’re essentially the same instrument. But there must be a reason why they’re both still used.
What, if any, are the defining features of these brass goliaths?
The most substantial difference is their physical appearance. A tuba is held entirely in front of the musician, the bell opening upwards towards either 11 or 1 O’clock depending on whether the player is left or right handed.
The main tube of a sousaphone wraps in a circle under the player’s arm, around their back, and over their other shoulder, the bell flaring out in front and to the side of their head.
This whimsical and sinuous design makes playing the sousaphone while moving much easier, taking strain off the supporting wrist and reducing shifting. Due to this enhanced musical mobility, sousaphones have become a staple in marching band ensembles, earning them the name, marching tubas.
Size and Tunings
The bell of the sousaphone can be as wide as 32 inches, but the bell of a tuba is typically between 12.5 and 20 inches. Another size discrepancy occurs in the main tube length.
Most Sousaphones are tuned to B flat and have the same 18-foot main tube length as B flat tubas, but tubas are also often found in C with a 16 foot tube, E flat with a 13 foot tube, and F with a 12 foot tube.
Both of these bass instruments appear in a variety of weights, but generally speaking, a sousaphone is going to weigh a lot more than a tuba.
Tubas tend to weigh somewhere between 1.3 and 13.6kg, whereas sousaphones start in the region of 8kg and can reach a truly knee-buckling 23kg. We hope you’ve been hitting the gym if you plan on shouldering one of those brassy bad boys.
Another oft-unknown difference between these two honkers lies in their materials.
Traditionally, both were made from brass, but to keep the overall weight down, it’s not uncommon these days for sousaphones to be crafted using fiberglass instead.
Valves and Range
Valves are another defining factor between the tuba and the sousaphone, but only in certain cases. Modern day sousaphones almost always have three valves, but between the 1920s and 30s, many 4-valve sousaphones went into production.
As time went on, they became quite rare as, although the fourth valve added extra intonation and a lower range, it brought a lot of extra weight to the sousaphone.
Tubas, on the other hand, can have anywhere between three and six valves. So, tubas more commonly have a wider overall range than sousaphones.
The only other thing that sets these two instruments apart is the fact that you can uncouple the giant bell of the sousaphone from its gooseneck for portability and storage.
The tuba only has a removable mouthpiece.
What Came First?
As you’d expect, the tuba was invented first in the 1830s by German musician, composer, and inventor Willhelm Friedrich Wieprecht and instrument builder Johann Gottfried Moritz in Germany. The official patent for their bass tuba design was posted on September 12th, 1835.
It wasn’t until over half a century later in America that J.W. Pepper invented the sousaphone at the behest of a prominent bandleader, John Phillip Sousa.
With Sousa’s name taken for the instrument, people often mistake him for the sole inventor, but it was in fact a trio of efforts that finally produced the instrument that Sousa desired.
It took Sousa to dream it, Pepper to plan it and make a prototype, and finally, C.G. Conn to craft the final version.
Although concert tubas were the inspiration for the sousaphone, the actual design was already well established in the form of the helicon, a brass instrument in the tuba family that circled around the player.
The biggest deviation in design we see in the early sousaphone is the upward-facing bell, earning them the name, rain catchers. Other alterations were made to the bore and throat of the sousaphone to attain that frumpy low-end tuba-esque tone.
Is One Harder to Play than the Other?
Playing these two instruments will feel very dissimilar at first due to the physical differences in design, but technically, they’re almost exactly the same to play. If you learned to play on one, you will almost certainly be able to play the other.
All things considered, the sousaphone is probably slightly easier to play as its weight is more equally distributed, and it often has fewer valves.
Does One Cost More than the Other?
Both of these instruments come in a massive range of price points, so it’s hard to say if one is generally cheaper than the other. Having a quick look around online will illustrate that you can buy entry-level models of either instrument at around the $400 mark.
Pricing goes up incrementally from there for both instruments depending on quality, builder, size, number of valves, and brand.
The most expensive of the two that we’ve found in popular music outlets is a $20,000 tuba. The nearest sousaphone in price was a classic C.G. Conn KW that retailed at just over $11,000.
Sousaphones, being the more obscure and niche instrument of the two, do seem to be a little more scarce than tubas, but the ubiquity of the tuba may also come down to a few other factors.
Firstly, there are a greater variety of tubas available. Sousaphones do come in different sizes and materials, but tubas are more commonly tuned in different pitches, leading to more being produced.
Secondly, Sousaphones bring into question, body type. A sousaphone must fit around the body comfortably, so unlike tubas, there is no one-size-fits-all. This may indicate that a lot of sousaphones are custom orders and never see general release as musical retail products.
The final reason tubas are more readily available is simple: supply and demand. More people are aware of the tuba and what it sounds like. Sousaphones aren’t as much a household name so to speak, meaning fewer people wish to play them.
Conclusion - Brass Tax
So, are they the same? Yes and no. There are the obvious aesthetic differences to consider, but other differences could just as well be between individual tubas or individual sousaphones, and despite said differences, tubas and sousaphones inhabit largely the same musical recess.
Fundamentally, they’re both bass instruments and the largest of the brass family. Even with differing numbers of valves, they’re almost interchangeable in terms of what parts they can play and are suited to.
So synonymous with one another are these instruments that legendary players associated with either one of them are tossed into the same category of ‘tuba greats’.
Which should you play? Well, that depends on where and how you wish to play. If you see yourself parading in formation with other brass players, a sousaphone is the only way to go.
If you’re aiming to be a concert musician or perhaps just need the most practical of the two, the tuba is the one for you.
Both of these stunning instruments produce the same low-end rumbly brass noise, so if those are the sounds you feel are the most expressive, the sounds you’re most drawn to, either one will do just fine.