What’s in a Name? - Houghton Horns

What’s in a Name?

A while back, we wrote an article about how we should call the horn ‘the horn’, rather than ‘the French horn’, as per the 1971 clarification of the topic issued by the International Horn Society. That got us to thinking – what about the rest of the brass family? Take a look at this list of modern brass instruments and the history of their names.  

The Trumpet 

Shires 502 C Trumpet

Trumpet, as an English word, was first used in the 15th century, having been taken from the Old French trompette – the diminutive (smaller) version of trompe, the Old French word for a “long, tube-like wind instrument”.  

The Cornet

Bach Cornet

While they are not trumpets themselves, two other instruments often associated with the trumpet family are the cornet and the flugelhorn. The cornet has a conical bore and mellower tone quality than the trumpet; its name comes from the Old French corne (little horn) itself from the Latin cornu (horn, either from an animal or as an instrument). It should be noted that the cornett is an entirely different instrument with a wooden body and finger holes, completely unrelated to the cornet despite the similarity of the name.  

The Flugelhorn

Holton Flugelhorn

The flugelhorn is a brass instrument resembling the trumpet or cornet with an even more dramatically conical bore than the cornet. Technically a type of valved bugle, the flugelhorn’s name comes from the German Flugel, meaning flank or wing. The flugelhorn was played by the Flugelmeister, who directed wings of mounted hunters in 18th century Germany.  

The Horn 

There are a number of types of horn, all of which are named for the original instrument in the family which was literally that – an animal horn played  by blowing into an aperture, sometimes with finger holes and sometimes not. There are many variations from around the world of this ancient instrument, most notably the Hebrew shofar, Scandinavian bukkehorn, Estonian sokusarv, and Bongo mangval. The modern horn, sometimes called the French Horn (incorrectly) is the most commonly found offshoot of these instruments, but there are others.  

Yamaha YHR-671D Horn

Horn (German Horn) – The standard orchestral horn should more properly be considered a German horn, as the rotary valve which defines the instrument was developed by the German Joseph Reidl in 1832 and gained popularity by its association with the German style of symphonic writing exemplified by Wagner and his contemporaries.  

French horn. “Selmer double horn,” by Dr. Jon Ericson.

French Horn – There actually is a French horn, but it’s not what most people mean when they reference the instrument. The proper French horn is a narrow bore instrument with three piston valves. This instrument is almost exclusively played in France itself and is only rarely found outside of that country.  

The Mellophone

Yamaha Mellophone. “Yamaha Mellophone, model YMP-204MS. In F, silver-plated gold brass, three pistons” by Yamaha Corporation, from Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Mellophone – The mellophone was first marketed in the 1920’s, where its name came from the words mellow and phone (used to describe an instrument for making sound).  

The Wagner Tuba

Wagner Tuba. “Wagnertuba-111 01.png” by EnricRllorens, from Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Wagner Tuba – Named for the composer Richard Wagner, who commissioned their design for the Ring Cycle. The name is a misnomer, as the instrument is in fact a type of horn rather than a tuba. 

The Euphonium

Besson Compensating Euphonium

The Euphonium derives its name from the Greek term euphōnos, which means “sweet-voiced” or “well-sounding”. The four-valve compensating instrument that is most commonly recognized today as the modern euphonium was developed in the late 1800’s by David Blaikely of Boosey & Co.

The Trombone 

S.E. Shires Chicago Tenor Trombone

The word trombone is taken directly from Italian, where it literally means “large trumpet”. This is a fascinating conundrum to the modern understanding of the trumpet and trombone as instruments but is in fact completely rational from an organological standpoint as both instruments have cylindrical bores and so are more closely related than they might at first appear. The trombone does have two other names as well, one still used in Germany and the other out of fashion since the 18th century: posaune and sackbut.  

The Cimbasso

F Cimbasso. “Thein Cimbasso in F,” by Thein Brass.

There is also the cimbasso, a valved relative of the contrabass trombone associated with Verdi and Puccini, whose name comes from the Italian corno basso (bass horn).  

The Tuba 

Eastman EBC-836S 6/4-sized CC Tuba

The word tuba comes from the same word in Latin, where it literally means “tube” and was used to describe a number of different brass instruments.  


Here are a few extra fun names for brass instruments no longer found in the modern orchestra!  

The Sackbut

Meinl & Lauber Custom Bb Sackbut.

Sackbut – An ancestor of the trombone, the French term sackbut was used for the trombone in England until the 18th century. In modern English, its meaning is somewhat ambiguous, having been applied to everything from recreations of Renaissance instruments to small bore instruments from 19th century Germany. The name sackbut is thought to have come from the Middle French bouter and sacquer (push and pull) or the Spanish sacar (pull)  combined with bucha (meaning a tube or pipe).  

The Helicon

Helicon manufactured in Graz, Styria, Austria. “Helikon-Stowasser-Graz” by Matthias Bramboeck, December 18, 2006, from Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

Helicon – The ancestor of the modern sousaphone. Its name comes from the combination of helix (for the shape of the instrument, which curls about the player and itself) and the ending -on, taken from the French bombardon which is used for the tuba.  

The Serpent

Serpent in C. “Serpent in C” from The Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments, 1889, Metropolitan Museum of the Arts, from Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0).

Serpent – a type of cornett (the wooden one, not the conical bored trumpet) that curves to allow for a longer overall length and subsequently lower pitch than could be practically accommodated by a straight-bodied instrument. Called a serpent because it curls around itself like a snake.  

The Ophicleide

Ophicleide. “Ophicleide-05.547,” Musée de l’Armée, from Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 FR.

Ophicleide – an all-metal keyed serpent, this unique instrument was quickly replaced by the tuba but still played an important role in French music during the 18th to 20th centuries. The name is derived from the Greek ophis (serpent) and kleis (keys) as it is a keyed serpent. 


Brass instruments have a fascinating history, and understanding the root of the instrument’s name is a great way to get to know them better. What other brass instruments did we leave out? Did this article inspire you to further investigate some of the stranger members of the brass family? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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