AskDefine | Define sousaphone

Dictionary Definition

sousaphone n : the lowest brass wind instrument [syn: bass horn, tuba]

User Contributed Dictionary



Named after John Philip Sousa, the famous march composer and conductor, with the suffix -phone.


  1. A valved brass instrument with the same length as a tuba, but shaped differently so that the bell is above the head, that the valves are situated directly in front of the musician a few inches above the waist, and that most of the weight rests on one shoulder.

Derived terms


brass instrument

Extensive Definition

The sousaphone is a wearable tuba descended from the hélicon, and designed in an ergonomically efficient way such that it fits around the body of the wearer, and so it can be easily played while being worn. Often used in a marching band, it is sometimes referred to as a marching tuba. It is named after John Philip Sousa, a famous march composer and conductor.


The Sousaphone was developed in the 1890s by J.W. Pepper at the request of John Philip Sousa, who was unhappy with the hélicons used at that time by the United States Marine Band. The hélicon is an instrument that somewhat resembles the sousaphone but has a far narrower bore, and a much smaller bell which points between straight up and to the player's left. Sousa wanted a tuba that would send sound upward and over the band with a full warm tone, much like concert tubas, an effect which could not be achieved with the narrower-belled (and thus highly directional) helicons. Contrary to popular belief, it was not initially developed as a marching instrument, as the professional band Sousa started after leaving the Marines (for which he wanted this new instrument) marched only once in its existence. Rather, Sousa wanted a concert instrument which would be easier to hold and play, while retaining a full, rich sound. The tone he sought was achieved by widening the bore and throat of the instrument significantly, as well as pointing it straight upward in a similar manner to concert instruments, a feature which led to the instruments being dubbed "raincatchers". This remained the standard for several decades, and a version with a forward-facing bell did not debut until the mid-1920s. Early sousaphones had 22" diameter bells, with 24" bells popular in the 1920s. From the mid-1930s on, sousaphone bells have become standardized at 26" diameter.


Today, the sousaphone is a valved brass instrument with the same tube length as other tubas, but shaped differently so that the bell is above the head, the valves are situated directly in front of the musician a few inches above the waist, and most of the weight rests on one shoulder. Thus, the sousaphone can be carried far more easily than a traditional concert tuba, while still retaining the tuba sound. The bell is normally detachable from the instrument body to facilitate transportation and storage. Modern sousaphones almost definitively use three non-compensating piston valves in their construction, in direct contrast to their concert counterparts' large variation in number, type, and orientation. It should be noted that the tuba is a conical brass instrument and the sousaphone is a cylindrical brass instrument. This does affect the timbre of the instruments much as in a cornet and trumpet or a euphonium and a trombone.


Most of the sousaphones are manufactured from sheet brass, usually yellow or silver, with silver, lacquer, and gold plating options, much like many brass instruments. However, the sousaphone (uniquely) is also commonly seen manufactured from fiberglass, due to its lower cost, greater durability, and significantly lighter weight.


Most sousaphones are tuned to B flat and have parts written in the bass clef, although some sousaphones are tuned to E flat or (especially in Western Europe) have parts written in the treble clef.


While most major instrument manufacturers have made, and many continue to make, sousaphones, Conn and King instruments are generally agreed among players to be the standards against which other sousaphones are judged for tone quality and playability. Perhaps the most highly-regarded sousaphone ever built is the .734" bore Conn model 20K, introduced in the mid-1930s and still in production. Some players, especially those who find the 20K excessively heavy for marching, prefer the slightly smaller .687" bore King model 1250, first made in the late 1920s and also still in production as the model 2350. Historically, Holton, York and Martin sousaphones have sometimes been considered fine horns. Unlike with other brass instruments generally, and tubas in particular, players generally dislike the sousaphones made by non-American manufacturers.
Very large bore sousaphones, with oversized bells as large as 30" in diameter, were made by Conn ("Jumbo") and King ("Giant") in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and by Martin, but they disappeared from the catalogs during the Depression or at the onset of World War II. Because of their weight and cost, few were made and even fewer survive.


In recent years, sousaphones have been available made of fiberglass instead of brass. Today, the fiberglass versions are mainly used as practice horns, and are rarely used in performances. However, in the 1970s they were common in high school bands due to their resistance to dents and lower cost. Depending on the model, the fiberglass version normally does not have as dark and warm a tone as the brass (King fiberglass sousaphones tended to have smooth fiberglass and a tone somewhat more like a brass sousaphone; Conn fiberglass sousaphones often had rough fiberglass exteriors and a thinner sound; the Conn was also lighter). Regardless, fiberglass sousaphones are lighter than their brass counterparts and provide well for smaller players who could not otherwise play the heavy brass instruments in a marching band. Although the tone of fiberglass models tend to be thinner and less "warm" (earning them the nickname "White Trash" among players in some ensembles), it is considered acceptable by the high schools in which the instrument is most common due to the tradeoff in durability, cost, and weight. However, despite the disdain of sousaphones held by most serious tuba players, a quality modern sousaphone is often a better choice for the high school to semi-pro player due to more stable intonation and less breath effort needed to generate tone.

Additional valves

In the 1920s and 1930s, four-valved sousaphones were often used by professional players, especially E flat sousaphones; today, however, four-valved BB flat sousaphones are uncommon and are prized by collectors, especially those made by Conn, King (H.N. White), and Holton.

Non-American Sousaphones

Asian sousaphones made in China and India are now gaining popularity in the street band market. In central Europe, "Guggenmusig" bands often use these instruments that provide great display and passable intonation. Most are tuned in Eb. Brands like Zweiss with older British designs make affordable sousaphones that have broken the EUR 500 barrier. These are mostly in the medium bell size of 23 inches. Chinese brands are mostly reverse engineering models and quite passable.

Additional Information

In large marching bands, the bell is often covered with a tight fitting cloth, called a sock, which enables the sousaphone section to spell out the school's name, initials, or mascot and reduces the possibility of a spectator throwing objects into the large, inviting target. The Yale Precision Marching Band has made a tradition of setting fire to the tops of the bells of their sousaphones, including in the fall of 1992 when sousaphones served as the "candles" of a "wedding cake" formed by the band when two band alumni were married during a halftime show. They also utilize what they refer to as the "Ubersiouxsa", a sousaphone that was disassembled from its coiled format and welded back together on a twelve-foot frame to extend straight up from the player's shoulders.
The sousaphone is an important fixture of the New Orleans brass band tradition, and is still used in groups such as the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
A famous marching band tradition involving a sousaphone player is dotting the "i" in Script Ohio, as performed by The Ohio State University Marching Band.
commons Sousaphone

See also

  • Contrabass bugle which are primarily used as a tuba in drum corps.
  • Zeusaphone, a variety of solid-state tesla coil which produces music.
sousaphone in German: Sousaphon
sousaphone in Spanish: Sousafón
sousaphone in French: Sousaphone
sousaphone in Galician: Sousafón
sousaphone in Italian: Sousafono
sousaphone in Hebrew: סוזאפון
sousaphone in Luxembourgish: Sousaphon
sousaphone in Hungarian: Szouszafon
sousaphone in Dutch: Sousafoon
sousaphone in Japanese: スーザフォン
sousaphone in Norwegian: Sousafon
sousaphone in Polish: Suzafon
sousaphone in Portuguese: Sousafone
sousaphone in Swedish: Sousafon

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

alpenhorn, alphorn, althorn, alto horn, ballad horn, baritone, bass horn, brass choir, brass wind, brass-wind instrument, brasses, bugle, bugle horn, clarion, cornet, cornet-a-pistons, corno di caccia, cornopean, double-bell euphonium, euphonium, helicon, horn, hunting horn, key trumpet, lituus, lur, mellophone, ophicleide, orchestral horn, pocket trumpet, post horn, sackbut, saxhorn, saxtuba, serpent, slide trombone, sliphorn, tenor tuba, tromba, trombone, trumpet, tuba, valve trombone, valve trumpet
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