Brass musical instruments in history and the relationship of research to performance

Submitting Institution

Open University

Unit of Assessment

Music, Drama, Dance and Performing Arts

Summary Impact Type


Research Subject Area(s)

Studies In Creative Arts and Writing: Performing Arts and Creative Writing
Language, Communication and Culture: Cultural Studies
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies

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Summary of the impact

Research on the history, repertoires and performance cultures of brass instruments has reconfigured the international music community's understanding of how brass instruments have been played in the past and has unveiled new repertoires. The results are new understandings of performance techniques and instrumentation that continue to influence creative practice among leading professional performers. The findings from the research are recognised as major points of reference for professional and amateur performers, and have also contributed to work in the heritage industry and to that of print and broadcast media professionals. The research has also been translated for wider consumption in pivotal publications such as Grove Music Online, which features new entries on bands and individual brass instruments. The research also inspired Music in Words, the seminal textbook for teachers and students of music performance outside the higher education sector.

Underpinning research

Research on brass instruments carried out by Professor Herbert is regarded as pivotal. It is built on scholarly investigation and on his experience of performance with most major UK orchestras, opera companies, chamber ensembles and period instrument groups. The research is unique because it has been directed at key questions concerning the way brass instruments have been understood and used over a wide chronological period. Through a series of projects since 2003 the research has sought to enhance the music community's understanding of repertoires that include brass instruments even where the notated music does not indicate their use, how performance techniques and conventions have changed, and how historic brass instruments designs have impacted on the sound balance of ensembles more generally.

The research has ranged from sixteenth-century court music to Victorian amateur brass bands, early New Orleans jazz and the avant-garde. A sustained theme of the work has been an exploration of the way the musical practices of the lower social orders have informed more elite musical repertoires and performance styles. The work has a particular distinctiveness because the point of departure has usually been a minute examination of the experiences of performers rather than the more usual starting point of examining written repertoires. In The British Brass Band: A Musical and Social History [3.3] Herbert explained for the first time how such bands originated, how and what they played, and how the new virtuosity of amateurs influenced the writing of modernist composers.

In other publications, but especially in his book The Trombone [3.4], Herbert (Professor in Music) explained the origin of the trombone in the fifteenth century, how and in what circumstances it was used by trombone players in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (a period when players of the instrument were ubiquitous but it was almost invisible in musical sources), and what the repertoire was. The book then explained the role of the valve trombone in orchestral music and jazz in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, giving new insights into the circumstances in which these instruments should be properly deployed. Ideas about the accurate deployment of instruments and performance techniques are the source of the most significant impact of the research.

Perhaps the most vivid example is the Cyfarthfa project [3.1], in which Professor Herbert discovered, reconstructed and recorded the repertoire of a mid-nineteenth century brass band, using period instruments and the handwritten scores from which the original performers played. The project was the subject of a much-repeated BBC TV documentary (Mr Crawshay's Private Band).

More recently, under the auspices of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), Herbert has applied similar research questions to military music in the long nineteenth century (c.1770-1911), revealing key relationships between military music and musical practices more generally in Britain and the Empire.

Each of these projects has implicitly and explicitly exemplified links between scholarly research and musical performance in the modern world. It was precisely because of this that the world's largest music performance examination organisation (the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM)) commissioned Herbert to write Music in Words: A Guide to Researching and Writing About Music [3.6], which is now widely used by performing musicians and teachers throughout the world.

References to the research

1. The Origin of the Species: The Cyfarthfa Repertory on Period Instruments, The Wallace Collection, Nimbus Records, NI 5470 (1996), supplemented by a BBC film (Mr Crawshay's Private Band) and several print publications.

2. Herbert, T. and Wallace, J. (eds) (1997) The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press (4200 copies sold to March 2013; also translated into Japanese).

3. Herbert, T. (ed.) (2000) The British Brass Band: A Musical and Social History, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

4. Herbert, T. (2006) The Trombone, Yale University Press (2527 copies sold to March 2013).

5. Herbert, T. and Barlow, H. (2013) The Military and Music in Britain in the Long Nineteenth Century, Oxford, Oxford University Press.


6. Herbert, T. (2012) Music in Words: A Guide to Researching and Writing About Music, 2nd edn, ABRSM (1st edn 2001, 5 reprints; US version published by Oxford University Press, 2009; both versions available as ebooks, each have independent supporting websites). and


1998: £4,280 awarded by the British Academy to Professor Herbert for a project entitled `Brass instruments and performance: social context and performance practice between 1820 and 1930'

2002-04: £53,635 awarded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board to Professor Herbert for a project entitled `A musical and cultural history of the trombone' (Graded `Outstanding')

2005-08: £77,514 awarded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to Professor Herbert for a project entitled `Cultures of performance among British brass players 1750-1965' (Graded `Outstanding')

2008: £2,450 awarded by the British Academy to Professor Herbert for a project entitled `The place of brass instruments in the development of jazz idiom' (Satisfactory — the only positive grade used by the British Academy)

2009-12: £256,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to Professor Herbert for a project entitled `Military sponsorship of music in Britain in the nineteenth century and its relationship with the musical mainstream' (Grading not completed at the time of submission)

Details of the impact

Professor Herbert's research has decisively influenced professional and amateur musicians, the heritage industry, and print and broadcast media around the world. It has provided a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the conventions of historical performance of brass instruments than previously existed, and that knowledge continues to inspire new forms of artistic expression in modern performance.

Herbert's long and distinguished career as a performer at the highest level of the music profession has provided him with an intimacy with the practical problems that performers face in interpreting musical texts and a familiarity with many of the world's leading players and ensembles. A great deal of the advice he provides is to individual performers: for example, he has advised members of the Welsh National Opera, the Royal Opera House and Glyndebourne Opera on the instruments that should be used for the performance of nineteenth-century Italian opera — particularly the type of instruments that should be used: valve or slide instruments; wide or narrow bore instruments and the type of instrument that should be properly deployed for the bass parts labelled `cimbasso'. He has also advised museums, including the National Museum of Wales, on the provenance and description of instruments. His advice is seen as important because it is known to be based on a forensic examination of a wide range of primary sources [5.10].

The depth of influence on the international music community of Professor Herbert's portfolio of research and its relevance to musical practice is perhaps best demonstrated in the continued success of Music in Words: A Guide to Researching and Writing About Music. This was commissioned by the ABRSM (the world's largest music performance examining body) and first published in 2001. It is the default text for teachers of music performance and performance students, and is aimed at creating a strong synergy between research method and musical practice.

Published in two editions (2001 and 2012) with associated websites, Music in Words has been reprinted six times with 14,429 copies sold in Europe and Commonwealth countries. In 2010 it was adapted to American style and published in the USA by Oxford University Press (US sales data not available). Music in Words is praised by industry experts as `the standard reference work for all serious writers about music' (The Trombonist), `an accessible and thorough source of guidance' (Ensemble), and `an invaluable reference tool' (The Strad) [5.1, 5.2).

Herbert's research has also contributed significantly to the most widely consulted reference sources in the world, which are commonly used as the initial reference points not just for academics but for the creative industries globally. These include Oxford Bibliographies Online (2011), The Welsh Academy Encyclopaedia of Wales (2008), the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (continuously updated since 2000), American Grove and the New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments (both 2012). Research findings have directly informed these publications, replacing longer established major entries with entirely new explanations of many of the fundamental search terms relating to brass instruments. From 2010 to 2013, annual hits on these brass instrument entries in Grove Music Online exceed 3000.

Beyond the international music community, TV and radio programmes, commercial DVDs and heritage exhibitions have introduced Herbert's research to a wider public audience. These include major roles in radio series such as the American Public Radio Network Programme British Brass Bands: A Working class Tradition (2013) and the documentary DVD History of Brass Bands: The Golden Period (2011).

Permanent exhibitions for which Herbert has provided the explanatory texts and expert advice include the popular music culture exhibit at the National Waterfront Museum of Wales and the permanent exhibition at the Cyfarthfa Castle Museum, which typically attracts 70k-75k visitors each year (72,686 in 2012). This exhibit tells the story of the Cyfarthfa Band through a sequence of explanatory captions relating to instruments, music manuscripts, pictures and ephemera. It has in turn been the focus for several TV and radio programmes, including The People's Museum (BBC2, 2008).

Sources to corroborate the impact

  1. Sales figures and review summaries for Music in Words provided by ABRSM Publishing on 5 April 2013.
  2. Visitor figures for Grove Music Online provided by Oxford University Press (Grove Online) on 15 April 2013.
  3. Testimonial from the President of the Historic Brass Society, 7 April 2013.
  4. Sales figures for The Trombone, Yale University Press, 5 April 2013.
  5. Visitor figures from Merthyr Tydfil Museum Service, 3 April 2013.
  6. Verification of value to broadcast programme, Producer (American Public Radio), 8 April 2013.
  7. Review of The Trombone,
  8. Review of The British Brass Band, The Times Literary Supplement
  9. International Trombone Association journal.
  10. Portfolio of emails from professional players and teachers.