Physic behind Brass Instruments and Fanfare for the Common Man

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~Brenna Giazzon

In Copland’s Fanfare for the Common man, physics and art are combined creating a musical
masterpiece that has inspired many, and provided a challenge for many instrumentalists.

History and Social Impact

It was written in response to the US entry into WWII and inspired by Henry A. Wallace’s 1942 speech. Fanfare for the Common Man honors the common man, and all their achievements. Copland late wrote, “The challenge was to compose a traditional fanfare, direct and powerful, yet with a contemporary sound.” The fanfare was previewed on March 12, 1943, as income taxes were to be paid on March 15. It was the perfect opportunity to honor the common man.

The Fanfare calls for four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, one tuba, a timpani, tam-tam, and bass drum. But we’ll just focus on the brass.

Basic Concept Behind Brass Instruments

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When a brass player begins to play, they basically just buzz their lips into the mouthpiece. The player provides air at a pressure above that of
the atmosphere. This is the source of power input to the instrument, but it is a source of continuous power. This sound is produced by an oscillating motion or air flow.

Once the air in theinstrument is vibrating, some of the energy is radiated as sound out of the bell. A much greater amount of energy is lost as a sort of friction with the wall. In a sustained note, this energy is replaced by energy put in by the player.

The column of air in the instrument vibrates much more easily at some frequencies than at others (it resonates at certain frequencies). These resonances
greatly determine the playing frequency and thus the pitch, and the player in effect changes the length of the instrument by suitable combinations of inserting extra pieces of pipe using the valves, or by changing the length of the slide in the trombones case.

Putting Music and Physics Together

Besides the physics behind brass instruments, the piece also contains many physics qualities. In the beginning of the piece only the percussionists play, with ominous crashes of all three percussion instruments. After a couple bars, the trumpets come in with the opening theme. This is one of the most critical moments of the piece, because without the proper beginning the piece won’t have the effect it’s supposed to. Each trumpet player needs to be in tune, playing at the right frequency, and making sure their note length matches the others. If all of this is achieved the frequencies match and what the audience receives is a beautiful, pure trumpet sound.

After the trumpets enter, Copland adds the horns. This not only adds intensity but also a different timbre. With the horns playing the sound is projected further. In this section though, Copland added a very distinct syncopation, changing meter, as well as shortening a repeated rhythm. This sort of musical embellishment keeps the audience on their toes; they expect to hear the same rhythmic dictation but Copland doesn’t give them that. After adding the horns, Copland repeats the theme again but with a different embellishment.

So far, most people in the audience would think that the instrumentalists have reached their full power. But the trombones and tuba have not entered yet. When they come in, it’s an explosion of low brass, blowing away any doubt that the brass players could not play louder. The horns and trumpets join in, and the sound created reaches its true potential as an epic fanfare. The frequencies connect and the pure brass sound fills the room with its intensity.
The final melodic embellishment that occurs is decending scales, dramatically descending in a fashion that is impressive and full of vigor and intesity. The sound eminating from the instruments is at its full power. To end the piece Copland put in a final trombone arpeggio, and powerful chords held until the director desires to cut them off.

Works Cited

"Brass Instrument (lip Reed) Acoustics: An Introduction." Brass Instrument (lip Reed) Acoustics: An Introduction. Web. 18 May 2012. <>.

"Connexions." Connexions. Web. 18 May 2012. <>.

"Fanfare for the Common Man." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 15 May 2012. Web. 18 May 2012. <>.

"Instrumental Physics: Brass Instruments." ThinkQuest. Oracle Foundation. Web. 18 May 2012. <>.

"Physics of Sound and Music-- PHYS 152-- Lecture 12." Physics of Sound and Music-- PHYS 152-- Lecture 12. Web. 18 May 2012. <>.