Discover Copper Online

Spring 2003

It Takes a Lot of Brass to Make Good Music

Famed musician Chuck Mangione Famed musician Chuck Mangione playing the flugelhorn, one of many instruments made of copper alloys from Steinway Musical Instruments.

Copper alloys have been wrought into the oldest of musical instruments—bronze cymbals date back over three millennia to Assyria. Then the Chinese created copper-alloy trumpets and bronze chimes 2,200 years ago. The first trumpets made of copper alloys in the West, created by the Greeks and Romans, are about 2,000 years old. However, the oldest trumpets, perhaps made of animal horns and tusks, were created in Egypt nearly 4,000 years ago.

The leading manufacturer of cymbals, Avedis Zildjian, traces its origin back to Istanbul in 1623 (it is now in Norwood, Massachusetts). Tiny, high-pitched cymbals known as "crotales" are worn by dancers on their fingers. Crotales' popular name, "zils", comes from the manufacturer. The ingredients for Zildjian's bronze cymbals are mostly copper, plus some tin and silver, but the exact amounts are a centuries-old family secret. Full-size cymbals are part of the percussion sections of the world's leading orchestras.

Avedis Zildjian cymbalsTrumpets remained simple "natural" instruments until valves were added early in the 19th century. The many descendants of those ancient metal trumpets include French horns, saxophones, trombones, piccolos, flutes, cornets and tubas. Four ancient Chinese trumpets, one six feet long, largely made of copper, are on display at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art along with hundreds of other musical instruments, many made entirely of or with parts of brass or bronze.

Trumpet bells made of yellow brass provide "the greatest range of musical colors," according to Bob Malone, who has been making classical trumpets for nearly 25 years. Brasses have long been favored by instrument makers because they are "so easy to work with, malleable and take a lot of stress during fabrication," added Malone. His trumpets, which are used by leading soloists, such as Hakan Hardenberger, cost as much as $3,000 each and more. Malone now works for Yamaha's band instrument division in Michigan.

Another little-known use of copper is in classical guitars. According to David Starobin, head of the classical guitar department at the Manhattan School of Music, the bass strings are wrapped in silverplated copper.

Audiences have enjoyed the New York Philharmonic and its brass section for 161 yearsAudiences have enjoyed the New York Philharmonic and its brass section for 161 years

Many Copper Alloys Used

There are many manufacturers of instruments made of brass and other corrosionresistant, easy-to-fabricate copper alloys. The largest in the USA is publicly held Steinway Musical Instruments, headquartered in Waltham, Massachusetts. It makes such famous brands as Bach, Conn and Selmer. According to John Tunks, the manufacturer's engineering database supervisor, a variety of alloys are used including:

  • C26000 for the bells for trumpets, cornets, trombones and saxophones. Many other parts are also made of this alloy.
  • C23000 for optional bells for trumpets, cornets, and trombones.
  • C35300 for stampings for saxophone key components and a variety of small parts used on other instruments.
  • C36000 for mouthpieces, brace rods, valve caps and finger buttons.
  • C33000 for slide tubing for all brass instruments, except for saxophones, and valve casings for trumpets and cornets.
  • C75200 for slide tubing for some brass instruments.

In addition to instruments made largely of copper alloys, there are copper-alloy valve parts essential to other instruments such as the bassoon, clarinet and oboe. Suppliers of copper alloys to Steinway include Chase Brass & Copper Company, Montpelier, Ohio; Copper & Brass Sales, Inc., Detroit; and Drawn Metal Tube Company, Thomaston, Connecticut.

Chase Brass: 800-537-4291

Copper & Brass Sales: 800-926-2600

Drawn Metal Tube: 888-372-9687

Steinway: 781-894-9770

Yamaha: 888-892-6242

Zildjian: 781-871-7700

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