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Brass: One of the Biggest Misnomers in History

Aug 17, 2007
Aside from home ornaments and jewelries, you have probably heard the term brass on brass bands. Do you know why a brass band is called a "brass band"?

Some people may actually believe that brass bands are called as such because the instruments the musicians use are made of brass.

By definition, a brass band is a group of musicians who plays brass instruments along with percussion instruments. Brass instruments are technically defined as instruments whose tones are produced by vibrating the lips through a resonator. Examples of such brass instruments are the trumpet and the horn.

According to music scholars, the term "brass instruments" is a misnomer. Not all brass instruments are made of brass. Some brass instruments are actually made of wood like the cornett. Some other woodwind instruments, on the other hand, are made of brass but are not exactly categorized under the brass instrument family. An example of this brass woodwind instrument is the saxophone.

Therefore, brass bands are not called "brass bands" because the instruments the musicians use are made of brass. The word "brass" in the term brass band actually refers to the type of sound an instrument makes.

But what exactly is "brass"?

Brass is an alloy or a combination of copper and zinc. Usually, brass contains more than fifty percent of copper but it is generally harder compared to copper. It is a malleable and ductile alloy that can be hammered into leaves or strips and designed according to one's desire. These characteristics make brass a prevalent option for decorating wares.

Brass has a yellowish color which makes it look so much like gold. Because of this, brass has been used as a cheap substitute for gold and the term "brassy" used to refer to denote one being tasteless and showy.

There are different categories of brass depending on its zinc and copper ratio. Alpha brasses contain less than thirty-five percent zinc and are best utilized when they are cold.

Alpha-beta brass is 35%-45% zinc and is commonly used while it is hot.

Beta brasses have 45%-50% zinc content. It can only be used while hot and is preferred by metalworkers to use for casting. Beta brasses are also harder and stronger compared to other types of brass.

Brass that contains more than 50% percent zinc is called white brass and is usually too brittle to use.

Calamine brass is a combination of calamine (a zinc ore) and copper. It is a specialized type of brass because it uses a different type of zinc (calamine) instead of the usual metallic zinc used to create brass.

Another particular type of alpha brass is a brass that contains 75% zinc and 25% copper. It is called Prince's metal or Prince Rupert's metal named after Prince Rupert of the Rhine who was a commander of the Royalist cavalry during the English civil war.

Brass has been used all through out history in different fields - may it be in art, or in trade and commerce. In ancient times, Romans used brass to make coins, decorate their jewelry and to adorn their armor.

After the middle ages, the use of brass increased as craftsmen incorporated it in making clocks, plates, chandeliers and other household items. A particular town called Dinant (currently called Belgium) was the most profuse creators of brassware during those times. They created large brass dishes and exported these wares into the Netherlands.

The Islamic East was also known for creating brass wares and braziers. Evidences of their craftsmanship can be found in Venice where 15th century well-wrought bowls, dishes, and candlesticks were shipped there by Eastern merchants.

Brass was also particularly popular in 18th century colonial homes in North America. Brass chandeliers made in England and the Netherlands in the 17th century are quite prevalent adornments in these colonial houses. In addition to this, brass drawers incorporated into furniture were considered to be well-liked during that era.

Although brass has survived the time and enjoyed its popularity during those ages, brass is considered as a modern alloy. It was only utilized up until the 16th century. In ancient times, people use the word "brass" as a term to refer to any alloy mixed with copper. The brass that ancient people used to refer to was probably bronze, an alloy of copper and tin. Nowadays, people already have a clear distinction between brass and bronze.

Aside from being a popular material all through out history, brass has also undergone different "misrepresentations" when it comes to its name. But even if it is less regarded than gold, brass has stood the test of time and has proven to be a material of high class.
About the Author
James Monahan is the owner and senior editor of BrassLinks.com
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