Prussian Patent No. 19 was granted to Wilhelm Wieprecht and Carl Moritz on September 12, 1835 for a "basstuba" in F1. The original Wieprecht and Moritz instrument used five valves of the Berlinerpumpen type that were the forerunners of the modern piston valve.
The addition of valves made it possible to play low in the harmonic series of the instrument and still have a complete selection of notes. Prior to the invention of valves, brass instruments were limited to notes in the harmonic series, and were thus generally played very high with respect to their fundamental pitch. Harmonics starting three octaves above the fundamental pitch are about a whole step apart, making a useful variety of notes possible.
The ophicleide used a cup-shaped brass instrument mouthpiece but employed keys and tone holes similar to those of a modern saxophone. Another forerunner to the tuba was the serpent, a bass brass instrument that was shaped in a wavy form to make the tone holes accessible to the player. Tone holes changed the pitch by providing an intentional leak in the bugle of the instrument. While this changed the pitch, it also had a pronounced effect on the timbre. By using valves to adjust the length of the bugle the tuba produced a smoother tone that eventually led to its popularity.
Adolphe Sax, like Wieprecht, was interested in marketing systems of instruments from soprano to bass, and developed a series of brass instruments known as saxhorns. The instruments developed by Sax were generally pitched in E-flat and B-flat, while the Wieprecht "basstuba" and the subsequent Cerveny contrabass tuba were pitched in F and C (see below on pitch systems). Sax's instruments gained dominance in France, and later in Britain and America, as a result of the popularity and movements of instrument makers such as Gustave Auguste Besson (who moved from France to Britain) and Henry Distin (who found his way eventually to America).
Well known and influential parts for the tuba, include:
Concertos have been written for the tuba by many notable composers, including Ralph Vaughan Williams, Edward Gregson, John Williams, Alexander Arutiunian, Eric Ewazen, James Barnes, Martin Ellerby, Philip Sparke, James Woodward and Bruce Broughton. Tubas are also used in concert bands, marching bands, and in drum and bugle (and drum and brass) corps. In British style brass bands, both E-flat and B-flat tubas are used and are normally referred to as basses.
A tuba with its tubing wrapped for placing the instrument on the player's lap is usually called a concert tuba or simply a tuba. Tubas with the bell pointing forward instead of upward are often called recording tubas because of their popularity in the early days of recorded music, as their sound could more easily be directed at the recording instrument. When wrapped to surround the body for marching, it is traditionally known as a hélicon. The modern sousaphone is a hélicon with a bell pointed up, and then curved to point forward. Some ancestors of the tuba, such as the military bombardon, were wrapped so that the bell extended far backwards over the player's shoulder. These instruments were commonly used in military bands during the American Civil War, and are known as "over-the-shoulder saxhorns".
Most music for tuba is written in bass clef in concert pitch, so tuba players must know the correct fingerings for their specific instrument. Traditional British-style brass band parts for the tuba are usually written in treble clef, with the B-flat tuba sounding two octaves and one step below and the E-flat tuba sounding one octave and a major sixth below the written pitch. This allows musicians to change instruments without learning new fingerings for the same written music. Consequently, when its music is written in treble clef, the tuba is a transposing instrument, but not when the music is in bass clef.
The lowest pitched tubas are the contrabass tubas, pitched in C or B-flat; (referred to as CC and BB-flat tubas respectively, based on a traditional distortion of a now-obsolete octave naming convention). The fundamental pitch of a CC tuba is 32 Hz, and for a BB-flat tuba, 29 Hz. In the British Brass Band tradition, the BB-flat is almost exclusively used in brass bands because the other instruments are usually based on B-flat and the tradition has roots in the Sax instrument systems of the 19th Century. The CC tuba is used as an orchestral instrument in the U.S., but BB-flat tubas are the contrabass tuba of choice in German, Austrian, and Russian orchestras. In the United States, many younger players start out with an E-flat tuba, but the BB-flat tuba is the most common tuning in public schools (largely due to the use of sousaphones, which are virtually always BBb, in high school marching bands) and thus also for adult amateurs. Most professionals in the U.S. play CC tubas, with BBb also common, and many train in the use of all four pitches of tubas.
The next smaller tubas are the bass tubas, pitched in F or E-flat (a fourth above the contrabass tubas). The E-flat tuba often plays an octave above the contrabass tubas in brass bands, and the F tuba is commonly used by professional players as a solo instrument and, in America, to play higher parts in the classical repertoire (or parts that were originally written for the F tuba, as is the case with Berlioz). In most of Europe, the F tuba is the standard orchestral instrument, supplemented by the CC or BB-flat only when the extra weight is desired. Wagner, for example, specifically notates the low tuba parts for "Kontrabasstuba" which are played on CC or BB-flat tubas in most regions. In the United Kingdom, the E-flat is the standard orchestral tuba.
The euphonium is sometimes referred to as a tenor tuba (or mistakenly, as a baritone horn), and is pitched in B-flat, one octave higher than the BB-flat contrabass tuba. The term "tenor tuba" is often used more specifically to refer to B-flat rotary-valved tubas pitched in the same octave as euphoniums. The "Small French Tuba in C" is a tenor tuba pitched in C, and provided with 6 valves to make the lower notes in the orchestral repertoire possible. The French C tuba was the standard instrument in French orchestras until overtaken by F and C contrabass tubas since the Second World War. One popular example of the use of the French C tuba is the Bydło movement in Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, though the rest of the work is scored for this instrument as well.
Larger BBB-flat subcontrabass tubas exist, but are extremely rare (there are at least four known examples). The first two were built by the Gustav Besson in BBBb, one octave below the BBb Contrabass tuba, on the suggestion of American Bandmaster John Philip Sousa. The monster instruments were not completed until just after Sousa's death (photo). Later, in the 1950s, British musician Gerard Hoffnung commissioned the London firm of Paxman to create a subcontrabass tuba in EEEb for use in his comedic music festivals (photo). Also, a tuba pitched in FFF was made in Kraslice by Bohland & Fuchs probably during 1910 or 1911 and was destined for the World Exhibition in New York in 1913. Two players are needed; one to operate the valves and one to blow into the mouthpiece (photo).
Piston valves require more maintenance than rotary valves — they require daily oiling to keep them freely operating, while rotary valves are sealed and seldom require oiling. Piston valves are easy to disassemble and re-assemble, while rotary valve disassembly and re-assembly is much more difficult and is generally left to qualified instrument repair persons.
Tubas generally have from three to six valves, though some rare exceptions exist. Three-valve tubas are generally the least expensive and are almost exclusively used by beginners and amateurs, and the sousaphone (a marching version of a BB-flat tuba) almost always has three valves. The three valves of the tuba are meant to be played with the players pointer finger, their middle finger, and their ring finger (also known as the first second and third finger). When more valves are involved, then the player uses their pinky to compensate. Among advanced players, four and five valve tubas are by far the most common choices, with six-valve tubas being relatively rare except among F tubas, which mostly have five or six valves.
The valves add tubing to the main tube of the instrument, thus lowering its fundamental pitch. The first valve lowers the pitch by a whole step (two semitones), the second valve by a semitone, and the third valve by three semitones. Used in combination, the valves are too short and the resulting pitch tends to be sharp. For example, a BB-flat tuba becomes (in effect) an A-flat tuba when the first valve is depressed. The third valve is long enough to lower the pitch of a BB-flat tuba by three semitones, but it is not long enough to lower the pitch of an A-flat tuba by three semitones. Thus, the first and third valves used in combination lower the pitch by something just short of five semitones, and the first three valves used in combination are nearly a quarter tone sharp.
The fourth valve is used in place of combinations of the first and third valves, and the second and fourth used in combination are used in place of the first three valves in combination. The fourth valve can be tuned to lower the pitch of the main tube accurately by five semitones, and thus its use corrects the main problem of combinations being too sharp. By using the fourth valve by itself to replace the first and third combination, or the fourth and second valves in place of the first, second and third valve combinations, the notes requiring these fingerings are more in tune.
The fifth and sixth valves are used to provide alternative fingering possibilities to improve intonation, and are also used to reach into the low register of the instrument where all the valves will be used in combination to fill the first octave between the fundamental pitch and the next available note on the open tube. The fifth and sixth valves also give the musician the ability to trill more smoothly or to use alternative fingerings for ease of playing.
The bass tuba in F is pitched a fifth above the BB-flat tuba and a fourth above the CC tuba, so it needs additional tubing length beyond that provided by four valves to play securely down to a low F as required in much tuba music. The fifth valve is commonly tuned to a flat whole step, so that when used with the fourth valve, it gives an in-tune low B-flat. The sixth valve is commonly tuned as a flat half step, allowing the F tuba to play low G as 1-4-5-6 and low G-flat as 1-2-4-5-6. In CC tubas with five valves, the fifth valve may be tuned as a flat whole step or as a minor third depending on the instrument.
Some tubas have a compensating system to allow accurate tuning when using several valves in combination, simplifying fingering and removing the need to constantly adjust slide positions. The most popular of the automatic compensation systems was invented by Blaikley (Bevan, 1978) and was patented by Boosey (later, Boosey and Hawkes, which also, later still, produced Besson instruments). The patent on the system limited its application outside of Britain, and to this day tubas with compensating valves are primarily popular in the United Kingdom and countries of the former British Empire. The Blaikley design plumbs the instrument so that if the fourth valve is used, the air is sent back through a second set of branches in the first three valves to compensate for the combination of valves. This does have the disadvantage of making the instrument significantly more 'stuffy' or resistant to air flow when compared to a non-compensating tuba. This is due to the need for the air to flow through the valves twice. It also makes the instrument heavier. But many prefer this approach to additional valves or to manipulation of tuning slides while playing to achieve improved intonation within an ensemble. Most modern professional-grade euphoniums now feature Blaikley-style compensating valves.
Tubas have been used in jazz since the genre's beginning. In the earliest years, bands often used a tuba for outdoor playing and a double bass for indoor jobs. In this context, the tuba was sometimes called "brass bass", as opposed to the double bass, which was called "string bass"; it was not uncommon for players to double on both instruments.
In modern jazz, the role of the two bass instruments remains similar. Tubas are usually featured in a supporting role, although it is not uncommon for them to take solos. Many jazz bands actually use a sousaphone. New Orleans style Brass Bands like Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Rebirth Brass Band, and Nightcrawlers Brass Band feature a sousaphone as a jazz bass. Miles Davis made use of a tuba, played by Bill Barber, in his album Birth of the Cool, released in June, 1950. One of the most prominent tubists specializing in jazz is the New York City-based Marcus Rojas, who has performed frequently with bandleader Henry Threadgill. Another notable group is the Modern Jazz Tuba Project - founded by R. Winston Morris, which consists entirely of tubas and euphoniums with rhythm section.