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The mellophone is a three-valved brass instrument in the key of F or B-Flat used in marching bands and drum and bugle corps in place of French horns. These instruments are used instead because their bells face forward instead of to the back (or to the side), as dissipation of the sound becomes a concern in the open-air environment of marching. Also, tuning is done solely by adjusting the piping, instead of adjusting both piping and hand position as on the French Horn. Fingering for the mellophone is the same as fingering for a trumpet. Mellophones are difficult to keep in tune and are very loud, which is why they are used almost exclusively in outdoor settings. Mellophones are considered to be "middle" brass, not high brass like trumpets or low brass like tubas.
Owing to its use primarily outside of concert music, there is not much solo literature for the mellophone, other than that used within drum and bugle corps.
The present-day mellophone has three valves, operated with the right hand. Mellophone fingering is the same as the trumpet and flugelhorn, and is typically pitched a fourth lower than these, in the key of F. The overtone series is an octave above that of the F horn, so horn players doubling on mellophone need to adjust by playing horn fingerings from an octave lower. The direction of the bell, as well as the much-reduced amount of tubing (as compared to a concert horn) makes the mellophone look like a large trumpet. In fact, many mellophone players who double on trumpet use a trumpet-style parabolic ("cup") mouthpieces on the instrument, resulting in a brighter, more trumpet-like sound. Drum Corps mellophones in G typically use V-cup cornet-style mouthpieces, which give a warmer, fuller tone. Horn players doubling on mellophone often use the smaller, lighter, conical ("funnel") mouthpieces used on concert ("French") horns, with an adapter to allow it to fit in the larger-bore lead pipe of the mellophone. This gives the instrument a velvety, warm sound most similar to the horn.
Two instruments carry the name mellophone:
- Traditional mellophones with a rear or sideways facing bell.
- The marching mellophone, with a forward facing bell.
The traditional instrument is visually modeled on the French horn, with a round shape and a rear facing bell. Unlike French horns, it is played with the right hand on piston valves, and the bell points to the rear left of the player. It was used as an alto voice both outdoors and indoors by community and school bands in place of the French horn. The manufacture of these instruments declined significantly in the mid twentieth century, and they are rarely in use today.
Mellophone bugles keyed in G were manufactured for American drum and bugle corps from approximately the 1950s until around 2000 when Drum Corps International changed the rules to allow brass instruments in any key. Because of rule changes over the years, bugles have undergone a lot of change. In the seventies, bugles had one horizontal piston valve (1 step) and one (half-step) rotary valve operated by the thumbs. When the rules prohibiting vertical pistons were lifted, bugles received two vertical piston valves. In 1989, rules passed to include a third vertical piston to make corps horns fully chromatic for the first time.
Modern marching mellophones are more directly related to bugle-horns such as the flugelhorn, euphonium, and tuba. Their design is more radically conical than horns, producing a sound generally considered more suitable for martial music; a mellophone tends to be easier to articulate sharply as is required by martial music.
Difference from the horn
The marching mellophone is used in place of the horn for marching because it is a bell-front instrument allowing projection of the sound in the direction that the player is facing. This is especially important in drum corps and marching bands because the audience is typically on only one side of the band. There are also marching B♭ horns with a bell-front configuration; mellophones also are usually constructed with a smaller bore for louder volume than marching horns. Marching B♭ horns do use a horn mouthpiece and have a much more horn-like sound, but are much more difficult to play on the field.
Another factor in the greater use of mellophones is its ease of use as compared to the difficulty of playing a concert horn consistently well. In a horn, the length of tubing (and the bore size) make the partials much closer together than other brass instruments in their normal range and therefore harder to play accurately. The F mellophone has tubing half the length of a horn which gives it an overtone series more similar to a trumpet or most other brass instruments. This compromises much of the range and tone that horns are famous for, but eliminates the accuracy problems encountered while marching.
In summary, the mellophone is an instrument designed specifically to bring the approximate sound of a French horn in a package which is conducive to playing while marching. It makes substantial sacrifices in tone compared to traditional single or double horns in order to do this, owing to the different tubing configuration and grip. Outside of a marching setting, the traditional horn configuration is ubiquitous and the mellophone configuration almost unknown.
Stan Kenton's instrument
C.G. Conn developed the 16E "Mellophonium" and first marketed it in 1957. Contrary to popular legend, Kenton himself was not involved in the design of the mellophonium, though he provided an endorsement for Conn's advertising, upon adopting the instrument, in 1961. The new instrument was used by Kenton to "bridge the gap" in tonalities between his trumpet and trombone sections. Kenton used a four-man mellophonium section September 1960 through November 1963 on 11 albums; two of those LPs received Grammy Awards (Kenton's West Side Story and Adventures In Jazz).
The Vincent Bach Corporation also produced a mellophonium, with the coils of piping more reminiscent of the cornet.
- Archived discussion about mellophones from hornplayer.net
- Mellophone fingering chart
- The Middle Horn Leader
- Al's Mellophone Page
- MelloCast, a Podcast dedicated to the Mellophone
- Reviews of modern marching mellophones and related equipment
- The Mello Zone - Blog by John Ericson, associate professor of horn at ASU
- A Review of the Conn 16E Mellophonium
- Photographs of pre-1960 instruments manufactured by Conn, shown at the Conn Loyalist website