A sousaphone is a member of the brass family. It is a valved instrument and is similar in musical range and tube length as a tuba.
They are named after an American composer known as John Philip Sousa. He was known for American military marches, and was even dubbed The March King. A Philadelphia instrument maker known as J. W. Pepper created the sousaphone at his request in 1893.
In 1898, the company C. G. Conn made their own version of the sousaphone. Sousa preferred this to Pepper’s invention.
What does a sousaphone look like?
It is shaped in a large metal ring that surrounds the musician as they are playing. It is similar in design to an older instrument known as the helicon.
The bell of the instrument sits above the player’s head and points forwards. It was designed like this to project the sound over the other instruments in the concert band and to give a warmer tone to the sound.
The weight of the instrument rests on the musician’s left shoulder. Some valves sit in front of the player just above their waist.
The bell is detachable to make storage and transportation easier. This refers to the open end that the sound is emitted from.
What is the standard sizing?
The earlier models of sousaphones had bells with a diameter of 560mm or 22 inches. In the 1920s the diameter of the bells increased to 610mm or 24 inches.
They got bigger again in the 1930s, and we have kept with this size until modern day.
Modern sousaphones have bells which are 660mm, or 26 inches, in diameter.
What key do they play in?
Older sousaphones were pitched in the key of E♭ although this is largely unpopular in modern instruments. Modern ones are created in the key of BB♭ (double B flat) as the invention of valves allowed them to change the range of the instrument.
There are some sousaphones in the key of C, F, and EE♭, although they are less common. These are only really used as concert instruments due to the richer tone they create.
How many valves do sousaphones have?
Traditionally, sousaphones have 3 valves inside rather than the 4 you would find inside a concert tuba. 4 valved sousaphones were common in the 1920s and 1930s for professional use.
They fell out of favor as they weigh more than 3 valved sousaphones. The 4th valve allows the instrument to play notes in a lower range (a sub-contra register) and improves the intonation.
False resonances (also known as false tones) are created within most sousaphones due to the large size. These allow musicians to play the sub-contra register even without the extra valve.
A good way for musicians to achieve this is to learn what is known as a raised embouchure. This is where one of the player’s lips fills the majority of the mouthpiece area. It provides almost twice as much room for the vibration of one lip. Their music is written in the bass clef.
Where are they traditionally played?
Sousaphones are a traditional instrument in a New Orleans brass band and make a common appearance in marching bands the world over. Kirk Joseph and Edward Lee, Jr. are sousaphone players in the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Soul Rebels Brass Band respectively.
In the 1920s it occasionally formed part of some jazz groups.
It has recently gained popularity as an element of European and Asian street bands. One of which is the Guggenmusik bands found in Southern Germany and Switzerland. The Mexican state of Sinaloa uses a sousaphone in place of a tuba in their musical genre Bana Sinaloense.
The co-founder of Youngblood Brass Band is a sousaphone player known as Nat Mcintosh. Their band plays a mixture of hip hop and New Orleans-style bass band music.
A sousaphone can also be found in Brooklyn band Red Baraat. They are a dhol and brass band fusing hip hop, go-go, jazz, and North Indian Bhangra.
What is a sousaphone made of?
Traditionally sousaphones were made from sheet brass that was either silver or yellow. These can be plated with silver or gold lacquer.
In the 1960s, a manufacturer began to build sousaphones out of more lightweight materials. The company was Conn and the Selmer Co. and they began building sousaphones with fiberglass bodies and fitting and brass valves.
These sousaphones are much more portable and much harder to dent. The fiberglass reinforces the plastic bodies of the instruments.
How much does a sousaphone weigh?
Depending on the material the sousaphone is made of, they can weigh between 18 and 50 pounds. Brass sousaphones tend to be around 30 to 35 pounds plus. Fiberglass sousaphones are about half of this, averaging around 15 pounds.
Sousaphones that weigh closer to 50 pounds are known as jumbo sousaphones. These are primarily made by Conn and King and are 6/4-sized. These have not really been produced since prior to World War II.
What is the difference between a sousaphone and a tuba?
A sousaphone is essentially a revamped tuba, designed to make it easier to play while walking. They have the same length of tubing.
The bell is the main difference between the two instruments. In a sousaphone the bell points forwards and is detachable for storage. Tuba bells face upward and are better suited for playing while seated.
The tuba has a larger range and 4 valves inside. They can be pitched in a variety of keys, as opposed to the sousaphone’s 4. The bore of a sousaphone is huge at up to 0.75 inches. In tubas, the bore increases in diameter along the length of the interior tubing.
While sousaphones are designed for use in marching bands, tubas can be used in a variety of instances. These include brass ensembles, wind bands, concert bands, jazz bands, and orchestras. They are very similar and it is likely if you can play one, you can play both.