While both a tuba and sousaphone give a deep base tone to music, they are designed for different uses. They contain the same length of brass tubing and are both played by buzzing lips together inside a metal mouthpiece, but their difference in design comes down to one simple factor.
It is difficult to play a tuba standing up, and difficult to play a sousaphone sitting down.
The tuba is traditionally a concert band or orchestra instrument, meant to be played while sitting on a chair. The bell, pointing straight up into the air. helps to fill the concert hall with music, reverberating off every surface.
Valves, either rotary or piston, are operated by the player to reach specific notes in combination with the mouthpiece. Both tubas and sousaphones are available in multiple different pitches, most commonly BB, EE, CC, and F.
Before the invention of the sousaphone, an instrument called a helicon was formed by wrapping a tuba around the player’s body, making it easier to carry in a marching band.
The sousaphone was thought to be invented by American composer John Philip Sousa, as a more practical marching band instrument. John Philip Sousa was nicknamed the American March King, and his compositions include, “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
This piece of history has been debated, and musical historians sometimes attribute the invention of the sousaphone to instrument maker J. W. Pepper, because it’s unclear how much input Sousa had on the design.
The original sousaphone was jokingly called a rain catcher, with an upward-facing bell positioned above the player’s head, much resembling a helicon. While it falls into the tuba family, the modern sousaphone is designed with a bell pointing straight ahead, creating a strikingly different look.
The bell fits neatly onto the shoulder of a player, making it easier to play while standing, and is also detachable, allowing for easier movement and storage. In addition, the bell of a sousaphone is wider than the tuba.
The body of the instrument is recognizable by its distinctive round shape, to accommodate the player through the middle of the horn. The sousaphone is made with just as much brass tubing as the tuba, which is quite heavy.
Thankfully it can be wrought with resin materials, reducing the weight from over 12 kg to around 3 kg. The majority of sousaphones are in the key of BB.
The Tuba Family
These two instruments, along with the euphonium, sometimes called the tenor tuba, and baritone tuba make up the modern tuba family. The tuba family contributes deep resonance to pieces, giving them a bass undertone that adds a depth of emotion.
They are all played by buzzing the lips inside a metal mouthpiece to get a desired pitch, in combination with pressing valves to get the desired note. The sousaphone, baritone, and euphonium all have three valves while a tuba has four, allowing it a slightly larger range.
The extended tuba family includes many more brass instruments, including the behemoth subcontrabass tuba, which requires two or three people to play. There is only one in operation today, rumoured to be commissioned by John Philip Sousa himself and owned by the Harvard Band.
A sousaphone is designed to be played while standing. The brass tubing is wrapped around the players body in such a way that makes sitting virtually impossible, and the forward-facing bell would easily allow the low sound to get lost among all the higher-pitched instruments.
The sousaphone is designed with three valves to change pitch, as opposed to a tuba’s four, to save weight. This leads to a slightly more restricted range. In addition, building a sousaphone out of lighter materials such as fiberglass is not uncommon.
Tubas, however, tend to be made from brass or even plated gold or silver. Their weight is much less of a concern, and they come in a much wider range of pitches. This is due to the fact that a lower pitch requires more tubing, which adds weight.
The subcontrabass tuba, for example, weighs 40.8 kg. and is only one octave lower than the contrabass tuba, weighing in at 25 kg.
A tuba and a sousaphone play the same part. Generally speaking, sheet music written for a tuba player can be handed to a sousaphone player and read with minimal difficulty, despite the restricted range.
They both tune to concert pitch, and the mouthpieces are the largest and widest of the brass family, allowing for a full-lipped omberchure to reach deep, rich tones. Deep lung capacity is necessary with both. They both contain approximately 16 feet of brass tubes at standard pitch, with specific width and wound into a specific shape to create their sound.
A person trained to play a tuba, euphonium or baritone tuba could master a sousaphone much more quickly than a beginner. However, their differences show that it’s incredibly important to choose the right instrument for the band.
A tuba is designed to be played while sitting, and a sousaphone is designed to be played standing up. Because of this key difference, tubas are sold in a wider range of pitches, including contrabass and the extremely rare subcontrabass, while sousaphones tend to be constricted to the BB pitch.
Sousaphones are designed with a large, detachable forward-facing bell, great for projecting sound forward, while tubas feature an upward-facing bell designed to fill an enclosed space with resonant sound.
While the same player can be proficient on both, they fill very different needs in a band, based on whether it’s a concert, jazz, marching or military band.
While they look and sound very similar, the sousaphone can be easily distinguished by the large, forward-facing bell and round shape, as opposed to the tuba’s oval shape and upward facing bell.