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Modern brass instruments generally come in one of two families
- Valved brass instruments use a set of valves typically three or four but as many as seven or more in some cases operated by the players fingers that introduce additional tubing into the instrument, changing its overall length. This family includes all of the modern brass instruments except the trombone: the trumpet, horn also called the French horn, euphonium, and tuba, as well as the cornet, flügelhorn, baritone horn, sousaphone, mellophone, and the old saxhorn. As valved instruments are predominant among the brasses today, a more thorough discussion of their workings can be found below. The valves are usually piston valves, but can be rotary valves. Rotary valves are the norm for the horn and are also prevalent on the tuba.
- Slide brass instruments use a slide to change the length of tubing. The main instruments in this category are the trombone family, though valve trombones are occasionally used, especially in jazz. The trombone familys ancestor, the sackbut, and the folk instrument bazooka are also in the slide family.
There are two other families that have, in general, become functionally obsolete for practical purposes. Instruments of both types, however, are sometimes used for period instrument performances of Baroque or Classical era pieces. In more modern compositions, they are occasionally used for their intonation or tone color.
- Natural brass instruments, on which only notes in the instruments harmonic series are available. Such instruments include the bugle and older variants of the trumpet and horn. The trumpet was a natural brass instrument prior to about 1795, and the horn before about 1820. Natural instruments are still played for period performances and some ceremonial functions, and are occasionally found in more modern scores, such as those by Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss.
- Keyed or Fingered brass instruments used holes along the body of the instrument, which were covered by fingers or by finger operated pads keys in a similar way to a woodwind instrument. These included the cornett, serpent, ophicleide and keyed trumpet. They are more difficult to play than valved instruments.
Brass instruments may also be characterised by the geometry of the tubing, the bore. Definition of bore is not clear cut, as with woodwind instruments, due to brass instruments bell.
- Cylindrical bore with approximately constant diameter tubing cylindrical bore instruments have a bright projected tone. The trumpet, alto trombone and tenor trombone are cylindrical bore the slide design of the trombone necessitates this.
- Conical bore with constantly increasing diameter tubing; conical bore instruments have a mellow tone. The British brass band group of instruments fall into this category. This includes the cornet, tenor horn alto horn French horn, euphonium and tuba.
Brass instruments may also be divided into two classes depending on whether or not the fundamental tone or first harmonic is available
- Whole tube instruments are ones in which the fundamental tone can be played.
- Half tube instruments are ones in which the fundamental tone cannot be played. The second harmonic is the lowest open note available on half tube instruments, though this may be lowered in pitch through the use of valves.