Brass band (British style)

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A British-style brass band is a musical ensemble comprising a standardised range of brass and percussion instruments. The modern form of the brass band in the United Kingdom dates back to the 19th century, with a vibrant tradition of competition based around local industry and communities. The Stalybridge Old Band (still in existence) was formed in 1809 and was perhaps the first civilian brass band in the world. Bands using the British instrumentation are the most common form of brass band in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, and are also widespread in continental Europe, Japan and North America. The tradition for brass bands in the UK is continuing, and local communities and schools have brass bands, such as The Ouston and Pelton Community brass band, which draws their new members from more than seven local schools.[1] A selection of brass bands can be experienced at the annual Durham Miners' Gala.

Silver band[edit]

The term 'silver band' is synonymous with 'brass band' in this sense; the vast majority of bands termed either 'brass' or 'silver' incorporate musicians playing both lacquered and silver-plated instruments. In the days when 'brass' instruments were not as costly as silver plated ones, the term 'silver band' implied a band that could afford the latter and thus were a more successful band. Now, however, the costs are similar and the distinction between brass and silver bands is generally not made.


British Brass Bands are limited to specific instruments, which does not include, for instance trumpets or french horns, which are found in orchestras and concert bands.

The standard instrumentation is as follows:[2]

The above totals 27–29 players, although in practice a band often has fewer than this. Spare seats may be filled for concerts and contests by players brought in from other bands, commonly known as deputising players or deps.

With the exception of percussion, bass trombone and some tenor trombone music, all parts are transposing and written in the treble clef. This means that for every instrument, from the big basses right up to the soprano cornet, the fingering is similar and players can switch more easily between instruments. This system, which is unique to UK-style brass bands, ensures most parts can be covered when there is less than a full complement of players.

Bass Trombone music is written in Bass Clef, and Tenor Trombone music is in Tenor Clef on older scores.

United Kingdom[edit]

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Most of the instruments used in British brass bands had been in use for some time in village, church and military bands, and in the 1840s and 1850s the brass band emerged from these as a popular pastime. Brass bands were a response to industrialisation, which produced a large working class population, technological advances in instrument design, and the mass production to manufacture and distribute the instruments. A major improvement to the old designs was the development of efficient piston valves, which were easier to play and produced a more accurate, consistent sound.[3] Arguably brass bands were an expression of the local solidarity and aspirations of newly formed or rapidly growing communities. This was seen, for instance, in the creation of brass band competitions by the late 1850s.[3] In 1853 John Jennison, the owner of Belle Vue Zoological Gardens in Manchester, agreed to stage the first British open brass band championships. The event was attended by a crowd of over 16,000, and continued annually until 1981.[4] Brass bands probably reached their peak in the early twentieth century, when it has been estimated there were over 20,000 players in the country.[5]

Many UK bands were originally either works bands, or sponsored by various industrial concerns. This was particularly evident in coal mining areas, such as the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, in Yorkshire and Tredegar Town Band in the South Wales Valleys. Bands sponsored by factories include The Black Dyke Mills Band (a wool mill); the Yorkshire Imperial Band, originally the Yorkshire Copperworks Band; the Hammonds Saltaire Band,[6] sponsored by the Hammond Sauce Works (and latterly by the Yorkshire Building Society, changing its name to the YBS Band); Foden's by the truck manufacturer, Fairey by the aircraft manufacturer, and Leyland Band by the vehicle manufacturer. One of the reasons for this was to keep the workers from organizing in radical groups.[7] With the decline of these industries several bands have dissolved and others now draw their membership from other industries and other parts of the community. The Brighouse and Rastrick Band is unique in having operated continually at the highest level without sponsorship, drawing its income from regular concerts, public donations and sales of recordings and merchandise.

The leading bands in Wales are the Cory Band, Tredegar,[8] Tongwynlais Temperance Band[9] The leading bands in Scotland are the Scottish Co-op Band (formally CWS Glasgow), Whitburn Band, and the Kirkintilloch Band.[10] All these bands compete at the highest level in the banding movement.

File:Silver band.jpg
Brass banding across the generations

There is also a depth of non-contesting "community" brass bands in the UK providing entertainment for audiences and enjoyment for musicians of all ages. A typical community brass band is West Chiltington Silver Band in Sussex, near the south coast of England.

Contesting in the United Kingdom[edit]

British banding is highly competitive, with bands organized into five sections much like a football league – Championship section, 1st section, 2nd section, 3rd section and 4th section. Competitions are held throughout the year at local, regional, and national levels, and at the end of each year there are promotions and relegations.

At a national level the main contest is the Besson National Brass Band Championship,[11] and this determines a band's section. For this, the UK is split into 8 regions: London and Southern Counties, Midlands, North, North West, Scotland, Wales, West of England, and Yorkshire. Each year in Spring the bands compete in a regional contest for their section, and the top two or three in each section go on to the "National Finals" in Autumn. Recently (2011), the finals for Sections 1 to 4 have been held in Cheltenham, and the finals for the Championship Section at the Royal Albert Hall in London (as featured in the film Brassed Off).

The bands are awarded points for their result (1st gets 1 point, 9th gets 9 points), and this is added to the previous two years to give a three-year total. Two or three bands with the best total are promoted, and two or three bands are relegated.

Salvation Army brass bands[edit]

Mainly based in the UK, Salvation Army brass bands have run parallel to the main brass band movement since the 1870s. Salvation Army Bands range from small church bands to staff bands composed of the best Salvation Army bandsmen in the area. The finest of them are of comparable standard to the Championship and 1st section bands. Their instrumentation is almost identical except for a minor difference in the cornet section whereby the repiano is dropped and the remainder of the row is made up of parts designated 1st and 2nd (two players each) rather than 2nd and 3rd; and that some major pieces have a split first trombone part, the lower part usually cued elsewhere in the band.


The Australian derivation of a brass band is the same as the UK brass band (i.e. standard instrumentation with no woodwind). Contesting bands in Australia are graded from A Grade to D Grade National Contests[12] are held each year at Easter, with the location moving from state to state. The current champions are Gunnedah Shire Brass for both the open and junior categories. Each state also conducts their own championships. National and state contests are generally of the same format: a set test piece for each grade, a hymn, an own choice, a stage march (march or concert march performed on the stage without marching) and a light entertainment concert program. Smaller regional contests often replace the major works with an own choice concert program.

Among the country's most famous brass band identities have been conductor and composer Percy Code; and David King and Frank Wright who made their mark in Britain. In later years, leading composers have included Brenton Broadstock (Winds of Change, Rutherford Variations, Valiant Take All My Sins Away and many more), Barrie Gott (Mumbo Jumbo, Gospel Train, Glasshouse Sketches) and Joe Cook (Taskforce, Keighley Moor) which have been published by Muso's Media, an Australian company founded and managed by Chris Earl.

Earl published Australia's Band World magazine for 15 years between 1993 and 2008. The magazine's 16 year run was the second-longest duration of any Australian band journal in the previous 150 years. Muso's Media has been recording the National championships on CD since 1998.



In Belgium, there are about 30 brass bands. The best known is the Willbroek band,[13] who were crowned European Brass Band Champions in 1993, 2006 and 2007. The average banding level is still rising, as the brass movement was only introduced in Belgium some 30 years ago.

The national brass band Championships are held annually at the Royal Music Conservatory in Brussels. The winner represents Belgium at the European Championships.

Participants are divided into four categories going from Championship section to third section. Currently there are seven bands competing in Championship section. These are: Brass Band Willebroek[14] Brass Band Buizingen,[15] Metropole Brass Band,[16] Festival Brass Band,[17] Kortrijk Brass Band,[18] Brass Band Heist,[19] and De Noord-Limburgse Brassband,[20]

Other Belgian bands include: Brass Band Leieland,[21] Brass Band Zele,[22] Brass Band De Kempengalm and many more.

Some of the brass bands in Belgium are primarily based around recreational music, do not conform to British brass band instrumentation, and therefore do not compete.


Brass bands in Germany are not as widespread as in other European countries like Switzerland or the Netherlands. There are just a few bands (about five) playing in authentic British instrumentation. This is primarily due to the popularity of wind bands, particularly in Southern Germany.

The first National Brass Band "competition" took place as part of the German Festival of Wind Music in Würzburg, from 18–20 May 2007.


Brass bands in Ireland can primarily trace their origins to the past influence of British Army bands during the period between 1801 and 1922. As well as military bands however, community led groups were also in existence around this time.[23] While concert bands are more prevalent today, possibly due to the association of brass bands with British rule, brass bands are still popular, especially on the east coast. Dungarvan, Arklow and Drogheda are all examples of towns with brass bands of note. In the north of the country, the Brass Band League (NI) currently has 26 members.[24]

Brass competitions take place annually, both regionally and nationally.


In the years 1870-1900 the Salvation Army spread out their missionary activities in the Netherlands, at first the main port city Amsterdam, and then to the then still important northern seaport of Harlingen, Fryslân around the 1900.

Brass Band contesting began in Fryslân after World War II. The Frisian conductor Sierd de Boer made a great effort to develop the British Brass Band standardisation, and the Frisians nowadays continue to set the standard of Brass Bands in the Netherlands. Brass Bands in Fryslân include 'de Wâldsang',Bûtenpost 'Pro Rege' Heerenveen 'Soli Brass Leeuwarden 'It Heidebloempje' Harkema 'Crescendo' Surhuizum 'Crescendo' Workum 'De bazuin' Oenkerk 'Hosannah' Leeuwarden 'Friese jeugdbrassband' and 20 more bands


The Norwegian Band Federation is the largest voluntary music organisation in Norway. Through their membership, the 1712 member bands with their 70,318 players (official figures as of 9/1/04) are offered good conditions for their hobby. A network rich in tradition also gives them a strong and influential position in the cultural life of Norway. Many primary schools have their own bands.

King Harald V is the patron of the Norwegian Band Federation. The Federation is granted an annual audience with the King in order to report to him and receive advice for the future. The King has awarded a royal trophy to the championships for adult bands.

North and South America[edit]


Brass bands in the British tradition, sometimes sponsored by employers, existed in Canada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The geography of Canada (e.g. large distances between communities, making regular contests and migration of players difficult) was a key factor among many challenges that led to the demise of most such bands.

Today, excepting the Salvation Army bands (such as the[25] Canadian Staff Band and the North York Temple Band)[26] there are few British-style brass bands (perhaps fewer than two dozen) in Canada, most of which are in Ontario. Most operate as recreational, amateur, "community" bands such as the Oshawa Civic Band, and the Whitby Brass Band, who will celebrate their 150th anniversary in 2013. There are some semi-professional groups, like the Intrada Brass[27] of Oakville, Ontario. One of the most successful brass bands in Canada is the Hannaford Street Silver Band.[28]

There are hopes for growth in the education field of brass bands in Canada, and in particular southern Ontario. In 1999, the professional Hannaford Street Silver Band launched the Hannaford Street Youth Band, which is internationally recognized for its success. In 2005, another youth band was created for beginning brass players known as the Hannaford Junior Band. Beginning in September 2006, the Hannaford organization plans to launch a third, intermediate, band known as the Hannaford Community Youth Band. These three ensembles target a wide range of youth from ages 11 to people well into their twenties.

Latin America[edit]

Brass bands long enjoyed popularity in many parts of Latin America as well. In 19th century Mexico very large bands were formed, such as that of composer Juventino Rosas. In parts of Mexico brass band concerts remain a popular entertainment.

United States[edit]

Brass bands in the British tradition are becoming more popular through the efforts of the North American Brass Band Association, which organizes an annual brass band convention and contest.

Brass bands were very popular throughout the United States in the late 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century. Well known bands of virtuoso musicians toured widely, and most towns had their own bands that put on weekend music concerts. Other groups, ranging from benevolent societies to large factories, would often have a band. The brass band movement has undergone a resurgence in the late twentieth century, led by the North American Brass Band Association. The United States boasts a number of professional brass bands, including the [Brass Band of Battle Creek], the River City Brass Band, and the Chesapeake Silver Cornet Brass Band; community brass bands such as the Allegheny Brass Band and the Triangle Brass Band; several collegiate brass bands, including the James Madison University Brass Band and the Slippery Rock University Brass Ensemble; and various youth brass bands, including the Triangle Youth Brass Band also exist.


Brass Band repertoire is as wide and as varied as one's imagination. For example, a typical brass band could play items from Bach's Air on a G String, to The Bangles' "Eternal Flame", to brand new compositions commissioned for the National Finals held at the Royal Albert Hall. In recent years these have included commissions by Michael Ball – "...All The Flowers of the Mountain..." – and John Pickard – "Eden", which incorporates "irrational" time signatures, a first for band writing.

There are several notable composers in the brass band world. The current favourite is possibly Philip Sparke, who has written many pieces, including Music of the Spheres. A noted Welsh Composer was T. J. (Tom) Powell, born in Tredegar in 1897, also known as "The Welsh Sousa"[citation needed]. Powell composed over 500 pieces for brass bands, including marches (such as "The Castle Marches"), tone poems and suites.

Other composers include:

Several classical composers have written music specifically for brass band. These include:

Outdoor banding[edit]

Jedforest Instrumental Bandstand, built in 2006, stands in the shadow of Jedburgh Abbey Scottish Borders

One of the main advantages of the brass band is that it is portable and capable of playing at any time and anywhere, even on the march. Marching and outdoor functions have been the preserve of the brass band for well over a century. Many UK brass bands are closely woven into the local community, performing outdoor civic duties throughout the year.

The bandstand became popular in the Victorian era, typically associated with the British brass band or military band. It is a simple construction which not only creates an ornamental focal point, but also serves acoustic requirements whilst providing shelter from the changeable British weather.

Band associations[edit]

Famous bands[edit]


Continental Europe

Great Britain

Northern England and Scotland
Southern England and Wales

North America[edit]


See also[edit]

  • LDBBA (Licentiate Diploma in Brass Band Adjudication)


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^, Writing for Brass Bands
  3. ^ a b T. Herbert, The British Brass Band: a Musical and Social History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 4–5.
  4. ^ British Open Brass Band Championships, British Open Brass Band Championships, retrieved 21 July 2010 {{citation}}: Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  5. ^ T. Herbert, The British Brass Band: a Musical and Social History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 138.
  6. ^ "Hammonds Saltaire Band",, retrieved, 24/06/09.
  7. ^ "The History of Brass Bands",
  8. ^,
  9. ^ and The BTM
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External links[edit]

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