The United States currently has numerous genres of instrumental music, but perhaps the least recognized of these is the brass band. Through better understanding its origin, how it was received in American society, and what other band genres existed and emerged during its development, we can begin to understand the brass band’s lack of recognition in the States. After providing background on the genre of the brass band, its function in society, past and present societal beliefs on music, and the development of other band genres, research will show how these factors impacted the popularity of the brass band. Research will propose that changes in the function of brass bands, societal beliefs, and the emergence of other band genres in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries led to a decline in the popularity of brass bands in the United States.
A brass band consists of only brass instruments and percussion. The terms “military band” and “New Orleans band” are often used interchangeably with brass band, but there is a distinct difference between these mediums: military and New Orleans bands use woodwind instruments in addition to brass and percussion; brass bands only use brass and percussion. As a result, the brass band has a unique sound unlike that of orchestras, military or New Orleans bands, and wind bands. J. H. Elliot describes the brass band sound as “somber” yet still as “dignified and impressive” as other instrumental genres. He also praises the brass bands’ capability of shifting from a “brilliant and incisive to the veiled and smooth” sound. Others find the brass band sound unrefined and offensive, as implied by H.C. Moule: “They [the average British audience] would rather hear a brass band playing fortissimo than hear the most refined and beautiful quality of tone.”
Instrumentation of the early brass bands consisted of one soprano cornet in Eb, solo cornet, first, second, third, and fourth cornets, three tenor saxhorns, two baritone saxhorns, one euphonium in Bb, basses in Eb and BBb, three trombones, and drums when marching. However, with the development of new brass instruments came changes in the brass band instrumentation. A modern brass band includes one soprano cornet, eight to ten Bb cornets, one flugelhorn, three Eb horns, two baritones, two tenor trombones, one bass trombone, two euphoniums, four tubas, and two or three percussionists. Percussion instruments—depending on the individual work—can include timpani, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, glockenspiel, and a drum kit. In total, a brass band consists of between twenty and thirty members and a conductor.
Many claims have been made about the first brass band. According to Enderby Jackson, the first brass band was formed in 1832 near Blaina, Monmouthshire at the Brown Brothers’ Iron Mill in the village of Ponybederyn. However, Trevor Herbert states that he has “failed to establish . . . a morsel of evidence to support Jackson’s claim,” and he suggests that...