Researched by “Maz” Marsden (White Hare Cafe, Kirkby Stephen)

Brass instruments can trace their roots way back to horns made of bone or wood in ancient Eygypt.

The Lur, a long horned instrument made of bronze and played with a buzzing type embouchure, was developed in ancient 

The Romans adapted the bronze cast instruments which  were used for military or ceremonial occasions and had no musical value.

The Renaissance saw the next great leap forward with the development of slide trumpets and trombones, known as sackbuts. These revolutionised brass instruments, allowing chromatic scales to be played.  In 1597 Giovanni Gabrielli composed a piece called “Sonate Pian ‘Forte” with incorporated a brass section. Handel added to horns to his “Water Music” in 1717

Brass instruments continued to be played with small ensembles and choirs. In 1700s however, solo trombone pieces composed by Mozart and horn music by Hayden began to show the potential of brass as a musical expression. 

Keyed brass instruments came into existence in the 1770s with major concertos by Hayden in 1796 and Hummel in 1803.

In 1818 German instrument makers Stozel and Bluhmel patented valved instruments, giving birth to modern brass instruments.

In written work by Charlotte Bronte in 1834 we find the first use of the term “brass band.” At this time brass bands had strict definitions with various numbers of players and instruments, often combining with wind, reed or pipes.

This ambiguity has led to difficulty in identifying the “first” brass band in England. Many lay claim, though there is credible evidence to support Stalybridge, New Mills, Besses o’ the Barn and  Coxlodge.

The very prohibitive cost of brass instruments encouraged the development of public, benevolent  or works bands. In 1830 a labourer could expect to be paid 7-10 shillings a week, while a trombone or horn would cost in excess of £3 – £5

Of the nearly 20 000 bands that have existed in the British Isles, at least 2200 have been identified as having direct commercial sponsorship. It is not surprising therefore, that brass bands have become synonymous with heavy- or manufacturing industry. Of these, collieries account for 537, railways 249 and iron and steel 187.   

It has been speculated that due to the tough, manual industry involved, workers found the delicate dexterity of reed and wind instruments particularly difficult. Bulkier valves and buttons allowed easier playing.

By the mid 19th century, the first small scale and informal contests began to develop. In 1853 Belle Vue Zoological Gardens hosted a contest that drew 16 000 visitors and attracted bands with trophies, cups and prize money. Travel agent Thomas Cook laid on cheap transport which set a precedent for future contests.

These contests, local, regional and national became important social and cultural events for bands, their families and their communities. Combined with changing social and economic conditions of the time, these contributed to a huge increase in players. 

Brass bands have always been associated with the Salvation Army. General Booth loved music and encouraged all members to play to develop spiritual understanding. Consett Corps was the first band in 1879. The charity developed instrument manufacturing and exchange. The export of Salvationism and its traditions led to globalisation of British style brass bands, especially in the Empire colonies such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand. In India, brass bands were assimilated into local music traditions. The resulting brass and dohl bands enjoy lasting popularity.

Brass banding peaked in the 189Os with around 7000 bands recognised during that period.

There are still around 1100 bands in existence in Britain today.