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The mellophone is a three-valved brass instrument in the key of F or Eb that is 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. Tuning is done solely by adjusting the piping, instead of adjusting both piping and hand position as on the horn. Fingering for the mellophone is the same as fingering for a non-trigger (single) french horn.
Owing to its use primarily outside of concert music, there is little 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 is typically pitched lower, in the key of F or E♭. The overtone series of the F mellophone is an octave above that of the F horn.
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. 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 more 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.
In general, the mellophone has its origin in the horn design boom of the 19th century. The earliest version was the Koenig horn, based on a design by its eponym Herman Koenig, but manufactured by Antoine Courtois, who may also have played a significant role in its design. Courtois had just won the right to manufacture the saxhorn, in a lawsuit against the inventor of the saxophone, Adolphe Sax. The Koenig horn had three piston valves — the kind used on a modern trumpet, which were a relatively new technology at that time — and was otherwise shaped somewhat like a modern french horn, but smaller. This shape was largely influenced by the post horn.
Kohler & Son originally began using the name "mellophone" for its line of horns based loosely on similar instruments by Distin. These were also post horn-like instruments with valves, but the mouthpieces and bell angle were slowly evolving to allow for more projection and control of sound with the technology of valves.
The traditional instrument is visually modeled on the horn, with a round shape and a rear-facing bell. Unlike 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 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; however, Kanstul and Dynasty still make them in small quantities.
Difference from the horn
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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 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. 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.
F. E. Olds instrument
- The History of the Mellophone
Courtois came out with an instrument that bore the name of a virtuoso cornetist and instrument builder named Herman Koenig, this instrument being called the Koenig horn. Koenig’s role is uncertain- he was a very good instrument builder in his own right, but it is also possible that the instruments were built by Courtois at a suggestion or request by Koenig, or the two men may have worked together on the instrument.
- Lillian Arganian, Stan Kenton: The Man and His Music (East Lansing: Artistry Press, 1989): 141. ISBN 9780962111600; Wayne Corey, "Stan Kenton’s Mellophonium Sound Reborn", Jazz Times (18 September 2012); Scooter Pirtle "The Stan Kenton Mellophoniums", The Middle Horn Leader (May 1993, accessed 28 May 2015); Michael Sparke, Stan Kenton: This Is an Orchestra!, North Texas Lives of Musicians 5 (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2010): 170–80. ISBN 978-1-57441-284-0.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Mellophones.|
- The Middle Horn Leader
- Al's Mellophone Page, including MelloCast podcast
- The Mello Zone - blog by John Ericson, associate professor of horn at ASU
- Photographs of pre-1960 instruments manufactured by Conn, shown at the Conn Loyalist website