An integral part of learning an instrument is learning its sound profile, both in practice and in theory. We’ve covered the key signatures of many instruments on our site and today we’ve turned our attention to the tuba.
As one of the more recognizable brass instruments alongside the trumpet and the trombone, the tuba is different in that it’s one of the lowest-pitched brass instruments thanks to its conical bore.
With that in mind, we’ll be going into the standard and possible keys that a tuba can play so that learners can get the information they need to begin learning.
In the same vein, those who have learned other brass instruments can learn more about the different sounds of the brass section through the tuba, since it presents the lowest sound profile you can expect from that area.
Let’s go through the key signatures that you can expect from a tuba, the types of tuba and how this changes the key, and how the size of the tuba will change the pitches that these brass instruments play at.
The Tuba Keys
As is the case with most brass instruments, tubas can come in a variety of pitches from F and Eb to C and Bb. The key signature that a tuba will play in depends on how long that tuba is, the most common of which is the BBb tuba.
Bb and BBb tubas will measure in at 18 feet long, or 5.5 meters, while the C tubas are at 16 feet, or 4.9 meters. For the Eb and F tubas, you can expect 13 and 12 feet, respectively.
These are the key signatures that you can expect your tuba to play at, as long as you’ve acquired one of the right lengths.
The tuba, like its smaller cousin the euphonium, plays at Bb in its most popular pitch but its notations are written in C to maintain concert pitch.
This means that the sheet music for the tuba, like many brass instruments, has been written in the same C key as other orchestral instruments like the piano or the oboe for ease of band playing.
That said, it’s common for those across the Atlantic to teach music a little differently, so it is still possible to come across sheet music that’s written for Bb instruments but in the treble clef to make it easier to finger.
Types of Tuba
So now that we know the different keys a tuba can play in and how that key depends on how long the brass instrument is, we should go into a little more detail on these types and the key differentiation that you can find within each.
The main types are:
- Contrabass Tubas
- Subcontrabass Tubas
- Bass Tubas
- Tenor Tubas
The lowest pitch you should expect from tubas will come from the contrabass tuba, which plays in C/Bb, though with tubas this will be written down as CC and BBb based on outdated notational tradition.
As a general rule, our American readership will be more familiar with the CC contrabass tuba while the European readership should have more experience with BBb tubas, as they’re the more common variant there.
Along with contrabass tubas, there are also subcontrabass tubas, though you likely won’t ever get your hands on one.
Not because of any barriers to entry, however, just that we only know a few of them in existence from history, so the odds of any learning musician having access to one is astronomical.
At any rate, some of them play at BBBb, an octave below the BBb contrabass, while two others play at EEEb and FFF respectively.
The tubas pitched at F or Eb are commonly referred to as bass tubas and, because of their smaller length, they’re smaller than the above types.
In America, the F tuba is used by soloists that would qualify as professional tuba players, while Europe uses the F tuba almost as much as the BBb or CC tuba models, so there’s a wider base of people playing them. For orchestral uses, however, the Eb is the standard tuba for the British.
Above we’ve mentioned the euphonium, but this is sometimes called the tenor tuba.
It plays at Bb, so an octave higher than the BBb contrabass, and gets its name from similar brass instruments that feature rotary valves and play with the same sound profile as the euphonium, sewing confusing between the two.
This has led to the terms euphonium and tenor tubas becoming interchangeable to many.
Pitch vs. Size
An important aspect of key signature that you may have picked up on is the effect of size on the sound pitch. This is true for most brass instruments that use tubing, of course, but the relationship between pitch and size is most obvious with the tuba family.
This is because the different individual sections of tuba tubing change depending on the pitch too. This is done via a quarter system whereby 4/4 means the average fully-sized tuba, with 5/4 and 6/4 corresponding to larger ones and 3/4 tubas referencing smaller tubas.
You should take these designations with a pinch of salt since there’s no industry standardization, but they should give you an idea of the size you’re getting into.
These numbers aren’t related to the bore or bell size of the instrument but, as the tuba gets bigger or smaller, you can reliably expect that those sizes will change too.
You can revisit the tuba types above and track how the smaller tuba types, like the tenor tuba/euphonium, have a higher key signature and then get deeper sound profiles as they get larger and larger.
Once you understand which tuba you’re getting and what key it’ll play at, and the relationship between size and pitch with these instruments, then you should have all of the information you need regarding what key a tuba plays with.
All that’s left now is to continue practicing with your tuba so you can nail whichever key you’ll be playing at.