Marching brass

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Marching brass instruments are brass instruments specially designed to be played while moving. Most instruments do not have a marching version - only the following have marching versions:

The main difference between the concert horns and their marching counterparts is that the bell has been relocated to project sound forward rather than over (or under) the player's shoulder. Because these instruments are used in an activity that is predominantly outdoors they tend to be sturdier and more resistant to wear and tear than their concert counterparts. These instruments are used by all kinds of groups ranging from high school marching bands to drum and bugle corps.


The drum and bugle corps activity has been a driving force of innovation behind the creation of marching brass instruments for many decades. The mellophone and the contrabass bugle are among the creations spawned by instrument manufacturers for use in the marching activity due to the influence of drum and bugle corps hornlines.

The bugles utilized in modern drum corps are distinguished from their marching band counterparts mostly by their key: bugles are keyed in G; band instruments are keyed in B. Bugle voices are grouped and referenced by the equivalent voices in a choir (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass). The naming conventions for these various instruments can be confusing however, due to the evolution of the bugles used in the drum and bugle corps activity.

Soprano voices[edit]

In the drum corps activity, there have been two separate types of instruments that have been classified as soprano voices: the soprano bugle and the piccolo soprano.

Piccolo soprano[edit]

The piccolo soprano entered regular production during the two piston valve bugle era in the late 1970s, and very closely resembles a G soprano trumpet in size. Piccolo sopranos were made in both two and three valve configurations, and are no longer mass-produced, but available as custom orders. The primary difference between a G trumpet and a G piccolo soprano is the throat of the bell and the bore size. G trumpets typically have a bore size of .440"-.450" while the G piccolo soprano was offered in a larger .468" bore. This larger bore often led to intonation issues throughout the range of the piccolo soprano.


The soprano bugle was the first instrument in the drum corps bugle family. A direct descendant of the M1892 US Army field trumpet, this instrument has undergone every design change since the start of the activity. In early corps, the soprano was pitched either in G or F (F being attained by a long tuning slide) to allow a split ensemble to play simple melodies across the group. The first design change was to add an additional loop of tubing to lower the soprano to the key of D via a locking piston valve tucked horizontally under the handhold. This allowed four possible keys: G and F with the valve open, and D and C with the valve closed. In the 1930s, the competitive circuits allowed the valve to be unlocked, which allowed for more complex melodies to be played by each musician, instead of the melodies being split among 3 or 4 parts. The horizontal valve was still tucked under the handhold, operated by the right thumb. Through the 1940s and 1950s, corps experimented with sanding down the tuning slide to be as quick and smooth in operation as a trombone slide, to allow quick changes in tuning to reach notes within overtone series of the keys of F# and F. Combined with the piston valve, this allowed for notes within the overtone series of D and C. Many bugles were modified with a ring to allow the left hand to actuate the slip-slide tuning slide. Eventually this slip-slide setup became so popular that it became a factory option. By the early 1960s, the competitive circuits approved the use of a rotary valve tuning slide in place of the standard tuning slide on the soprano. The rotary valve was actuated by the left hand, and featured a length of tubing that lowered the pitch by either a half-step (F#) or a whole-step (F). Corps featured sopranos with both slides to allow for the greatest choice of available notes, however these instruments were still non-chromatic. Around 1967, the rules congress standardized an F piston valve and an F# rotary valve. This allowed the equivalent of the first and second valves on a typical brass instrument, with the piston equating the first valve, and the rotor equating the second valve. Older equipment was grandfathered in, however most corps chose to sell their older D piston sopranos or purchase a kit which allowed local band instrument repairmen to remove the D tubing and solder on an F tubing section. In the late 1970s, DCI's rules congress allowed for the soprano to be designed similarly to a trumpet, with two vertical piston valves. The European drum corps circuits skipped the two valve rule and allowed three vertical valves at this time. American bugle manufacturers then designed both two and three valve instruments at the same time, often using the same parts for both. By 1990, DCI approved the use of three valve sopranos in the North American circuit, thus ending the era of non-chromatic bugles. Sopranos are still manufactured by two companies, one of which also still produces a two valve custom version for The Commandant's Own United States Marine Drum and Bugle Corps.

Soprano bugles typically have a bore size of .468"-.470" and come in standard an "power bore" configurations. The "power bore" configurations typically feature heavier bracing, a heavier wall leadpipe, and a slightly larger bell.


The Flugelhorn bugle was first designed and utilized during the piston/rotor bugle era in the 1960s and 1970s. These Flugelhorns were designed to resemble a traditional Flugelhorn, however with the limitations of the rules congress. During the two vertical valve era, two competing designs of Flugelhorn were designed. One design was based on the more common style of Flugelhorn, with a tunable lead pipe. The other design was based on the trumpet-style design, with a tuning slide and stationary leadpipe. There have been three valve G Flugelhorns produced, however in limited quantities. The G Flugelhorn has the same range as a soprano, and also featured a .468" bore.

Alto voices[edit]

During the non-chromatic era of drum and bugle corps, the alto voice was unique in that most alto instruments had the same range as soprano voices, therefore alto voice instruments sometimes voice-crossed with sopranos to allow for various tone colors during shows.

Alto bugle[edit]

The alto bugle is a voice that was created during the two piston era in the 1970s. These instruments were loosely based on the alto horns used in marching bands and brass bands in a bell-front marching configuration. Alto bugles are still manufactured today in a three valve configuration. Bore size for the alto bugle typically ranges from .468"-.470" As an alto voice in G, it has the same bottom end of its range as the soprano family.

Mellophone bugle[edit]

The mellophone bugle was first instroduced in the mid 1960s. These instruments were based on the design of the Conn Mellophonium as used by the Stan Kenton Orchestra. Eventually the wrap of the mellophone was compacted more into a soprano shape, with accommodations made for the much larger bell. The mellophone quickly became a popular alto voice due to its tone quality and ease of playing, especially compared to the French horn bugle. Mellophones were often featured in highly talented corps as voices that often soared above soprano parts at large impact points. The mellophone bugle is still manufactured today in a three valve configuration, and by special order in a two valve configuration for The Commandant's Own. Bore size is typically between .468"-.470"

French horn bugle[edit]

The French horn bugle, often called a "Frenchie," was first designed in a G and D single piston configuration in the early 1940s. The Frenchie became popular due to the overtone series allowing many more notes than other bugles could play. The Frenchie followed the design changes of the soprano, including slip-slide configurations, piston/rotor, two piston, and three piston configurations. The Frenchie in a two piston or F/F# piston/rotor configuration was a highly popular instrument as a bridge between baritone and soprano voices due to the near-chromatic nature of the instrument in this range. The French horn bugle is still available in a three valve configuration. The French horn bugle had a typical bore size ranging from .468"-.470"

Tenor bugle[edit]

The tenor bugle was a popular voice in drum corps from the 1920s through the 1950s. These instruments were the same bore size and length as a soprano bugle, however they featured a larger bell and could be played with an alto horn mouthpiece. The tenor bugle was designed to play with a more open tone in the lower register of its range and had a tone color closer to a Flugelhorn than a trumpet. The tenor bugle fell out of favor in the 1950s, but was supplanted by the Flugelhorn and alto horn bugles in more modern ensembles.


Main article: Contrabass bugle
Contrabass bugle

The contrabass bugle, or "contra", is the bugle equivalent of a marching tuba.