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Sousaphone vs Tuba – What are the Similarities and Differences?

In some respects, the tuba and the sousaphone can be classed as the same. By that, I mean that they have things in common. But, there are also significant differences. We are going to take a look at both and perform a comparative analysis of the Sousaphone vs Tuba.

Sousaphone vs Tuba

What Do They Have In Common?

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  • Deep base tone to the music.
  • Similar length of tubing.
  • Both are played by the buzzing of lips together in a metal mouthpiece.
  • They can both play the same notes, to an extent.
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However, in playing terms, there is one major difference. I said, “to an extent.” The sousaphone is restricted at the lower end of the register compared with the tuba. This is because the Tuba has four, or sometimes more, valves.

Putting that aside, there is another major difference between the tuba and the sousaphone. The tuba is made to be played seated. The sousaphone is designed to be played while standing. 

It is not possible to play the tuba standing, nor is it easy to play the sousaphone seated. They are designed for different environments.

The Tuba Family

There are several instruments in the tuba family. But the four most known are:

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  • Tuba.
  • Sousaphone.
  • Euphonium.
  • Baritone tuba.
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They are all played using the same techniques. Vibrating the lips on a metal mouthpiece combined with the use of valves to get the required pitch. 

The tuba has four valves, or sometimes more. On the other hand, the sousaphone, baritone tuba, and euphonium have only three valves. This gives the tuba a wider range. 

There is what might be called an extended tuba family that includes the subcontrabass tuba. That type of tuba needs to be played by up to three people at a time. Only one exists today, so it is not something you will come across for sale on Amazon or elsewhere.

Contribution to the Overall Sound

All of the instruments mentioned are there to provide the music with a deep resonance. An undertone of bass, if you will, which is essential to the depth of the overall sound.

Sousaphone vs Tuba – A Brief History

The history of these two instruments is inextricably linked, as you might well imagine. They evolved as the needs of musicians changed.

Tuba First

This came first with Johann Mortiz filing for a patent in 1835 in Germany. The newly-created instrument valve technology allowed Mortiz and fellow German Wilhelm Wieprecht to invent the instrument.

The name Tuba comes from the ‘tubes’ that are incorporated in the design. In its original form, it was known as the “Bass Tuba” owing to the depth of the notes produced.

Sousaphone Next

The “Rain Catcher,” as it is sometimes jokingly known. This is because of its upward-facing bell over the head of the musician. The sousaphone came 50 years after the tuba.

There is some confusion over who invented the sousaphone. Some say it was John Phillips Sousa, a composer of marches. Others said it was instrument designer and builder J.W. Pepper. It appears that the idea was Sousa, who commissioned Pepper to design and build it in about 1893.

The idea was to build an instrument that could, firstly, project its sound. Thus sending the sound over the other members of the band into an audience. Secondly, he wanted something easier to carry for a marching musician than the awkward tuba.

So, while they are similar, there are differences… 

That said, we are going to look at these two instruments in greater detail and see just where they differ. Let’s start with a look at the sousaphone.

The Sousaphone

The Sousaphone

As stated, the differences are mainly practical and linked to how it is played. The originals, as we have said, had an upward-facing bell. The modern versions today can have a bell that is positioned to project the sound straight in front of them, rather than up. 

This creates a different look to the instrument. The design also provides a more comfortable playing position when playing standing. The edge of the bell is now resting on the shoulder.

In newer sousaphone designs, the bell is also detachable, which makes it easier to carry it around. This is also an important point because the sousaphone bell is wider than the tuba.

Distinguishing Feature

The sousaphone has a very distinct design with its very round shape that fits around the player. Additionally, it has a similar amount of brass in its construction as the tuba, which can make it quite heavy for standing and playing.

However, the introduction of resin materials has reduced the weight considerably by about nine kilos. The sousaphone is built to play in the key of Bb. Here are some examples of the instrument:

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The Tuba

Whilst the sousaphone has been designed to be played standing, or on the move, the tuba is very much a seated instrument. It has traditionally been used in an orchestral setting or in bands that are seated.

The tuba bell is designed to project the sound up to give the ensemble its prominent lower end. It is played in a similar way to the Sousaphone using mouthpiece positions from the lips and the use of valves. The valves can either be rotary or have a piston design.

Playing the tuba…

The vibration from the lips and the finger positions on the valves create the pitch. Tubas, as I have said, have a slightly greater lower range as they have an extra fourth valve. Sousaphones only have three.

The tuba can be found to play in E, C, and F. But the vast majority are in Bb, just like the sousaphone. Here are some examples of the modern tuba:

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Also, a carrying case can be very handy, such as this CURTIS Insulation Tuba Gig Bag U1.

Differences Between the Tuba And the Sousaphone

Differences

Build Materials

Tubas tend to be made from metal, especially brass. Although, you can also find silver and plated gold. These materials are quite heavy, but that is less of an issue if you are sitting down to play.

Sousaphones are built with weight very much in mind. The lighter, the better if you are marching up and down. They are quite often made from fiberglass or other similar synthetic materials, which drastically reduces their weight.

Design

As we have seen, the sousaphone is designed to be played standing or walking. As a result, we have that distinctive “around-the-body” tubing design. This design makes it virtually impossible to sit comfortably and play.

Since the tuba is heavier, it is designed to be played while seated. Not an instrument that you could march up and down playing for any length of time.

Furthermore, the sousaphone has about sixteen feet of tubing, while the tuba has slightly more.

Pitch

The tuba has, as I have mentioned, four valves, and the sousaphone has three. Therefore, the tuba has a wider pitch range. Furthermore, the lower pitch of the tuba also requires more tubing, which means more weight.

Are They Similar In Any Way?

One of the main similarities between tubas and sousaphones is that both play the same musical parts. Usually, sheet music written for a tuba can be read and played by a sousaphone, taking into account the limited range of the latter.

Tuning

They both are tuned to concert pitch.

Other Points

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  • The mouthpieces on both instruments are large. This allows for a full embouchure.
  • Good strong lungs are required to play both.
  • Pieces written for the tuba can also be played on the sousaphone. Again allowing for the restricted range.
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Interested in Learning About Instruments?

If so, have a look at our detailed articles on What’s the Difference Between a Cornet and TrumpetThe Difference Between Brass and Woodwind InstrumentsBrass Instruments List, and Who Leads a Marching Band for more information.

Also, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Trumpet, the Best Pocket Trumpets, the Best Student Trumpets, and the Best Trumpet Brands you can buy in 2023.

And don’t miss our comprehensive Yamaha YTR-2335 Bb Trumpet Review, our Mendini by Cecilio MTT-L Trumpet Review, our Paul USA TR-330 Standard Student Trumpet Review, and our Yamaha YTR-2330 Standard Bb Trumpet Review for more great items currently on the market.

Sousaphone vs Tuba – Summary

The main difference that distinguishes the two instruments is what they are best suited for. The tuba is orchestral and played seated. The sousaphone is a variant of the tuba with a different design to be played standing or walking.

Another difference is the bell. On the tuba, it faces upwards, designed to fill the auditorium or theater with the depth of its sound. This is one of the visual differences. The other is the tubing of the sousaphone, which wraps around the musician.

They are similar, but they do have significant differences. Yes, they do pretty much the same job but in different environments, and that is what sets them apart from each other. So, choosing the right instrument is very important. And that will depend on the environment in which it is played.

Until next time, let the music play.

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