BLOG - Horn harmonics, just intonation & other musical interests

'Brass' instruments, fundamentals and 2nd harmonics

Welcome to a blog about 'brass' instruments that use one harmonic

It would be just as accurate to call a trumpet a metal didjeridu as to call a didjeridu a wooden trumpet! Therefore a conch is a shell trumpet and so on. A few blogs entries ago I used the word labrosone to refer to all instruments that require the buzzing of the lips (8th October 2017). The blog also included a chart of a large number of instruments and the harmonics they use, classified by the upper prime numbered harmonic. This blog with explore a few of the labrosones that use the fundamental or the 2nd harmonic.

Conchs and tritons are of interest. Anthony Baines, in his book Brass Instruments: Their History and Development states that it is the fundamental of a conch that is most likely to be sounded, due to its resonance (page 42). Sometimes a second, non-harmonic note is played up to a fourth lower than the main note. This is achieved by allowing the embouchure to vibrate below the optimal resonance of the harmonic. The technique is called playing in falset by Baines and the pitch is referred to as a factitious note (page 36). The same technique is used on standard brass instruments. Another technique of conch players involves placing the hand, or an object, in the bell to change the pitch and tone colour as done in traditional Maori conch playing. You can read more about this in the beautiful book Taonga Puoro: Singing Treasures by Brain Flintoff 2004. Players throughout the world use this technique, some adding wooden or bamboo mouthpieces to provide lower pitches (Baines 1993: 43). Larger conchs may be sixty centimetres long due to the spiral shape inside and therefore have three or four harmonics available (Baines 1993: 42). Examples of such extended use can be heard in Japan and will be explored in a later blog.

Many other instruments are traditionally played sounding one pitch only such as the wooden kul of Papua New Guinea (Sentā & Hakubutsukan 1989) and the mabu of the Solomon Islands, both being used to instil a fighting spirit. I found info about the kul in The JVC/Simthsonian Folkways Video Anthology of World Music and Dance and the mabu in Baines' book.

Players of longer instruments may be able to produce a number of pitches yet be bound by tradition to sound but one. This is the case for players of the titiru trumpets in Wayana, South America. Playing more than one pitch is considered bad taste! This info is in The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, vol.2, an article called ‘The Distribution, Symbolism, and Use of Musical Instruments’.

In some parts of Africa melodies are produced through the combination of a number of instruments, each player producing one pitch. In the Alur region of Uganda agwara can be as long as three metres though only one pitch is played on each. A pentatonic scale is created from the combined pitches, melodies arising in a hocket fashion. An excerpt from the JVC/Smithsonian Folkways Video Anthology shows all this clearly and more info can be found in the article ‘Side-blown Trumpet’, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians Grove.  Similar types of ensembles are present in other parts of Africa. A complete ensemble of waza has ten, sometimes twelve instruments in Sudan. I found this info in the article ‘Music in Sudan’, Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. Bands using the ivory horns in Congo, also present melodies in hocket fashion (Baines 45-6), as do the ensembles in Ghana playing the ntahera (info in ‘The Hocket-Technique in African Music’, Journal of the International Folk Music Council and ‘West Africa: An Introduction’, Garland Encyclopedia of World Music.

A similar technique was used over a period of sixty to seventy years from 1757 in Russia, bands of hunting horns were used to present standard western music in a similar manner to the ensembles mentioned above. The players were instructed to produce only one harmonic. Later each player learnt to provided two harmonics an octave apart. Additionally they inserted the hand in the bell to produce pitches a semitone below each harmonic. Thus each player could provide four pitches. One band had thirty-two players, giving the arranger a pitch range of several octaves (Baines, 1993: 176-7). This tradition has been reinvigorated in recent times by Sergey Peschansky and the group Russian Horn Cappella. Checkout their Facebook page: []. A similar tradition exists in Lithuania with the ensemble members playing the wooden ragai and forming a scale by the pitches of the various sized instruments. Info on this is in the article ‘Ožragis’, The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments and ‘Lithuania’, Garland Encyclopedia of World Music.

There are more instruments in this category to explore, however I like to keep each blog reasonably short so will do a post on Tibetan, Australian and finger hole instruments later.




Leave a comment:

What to find on this site


The Brass Whisperer's main aim is to play with subtle music tunings and coax brass players (and other musicians) into achieving delicious harmonies.


  • information
  • links
  • regular blog
  • sounds


A few whispers
SOCIAL and other INFO
Upcoming events