‘Brass’ instruments that can play the 5th harmonic


The la-pa in China also known as the tongjiao has a range of harmonics 2 to 5 (Sachs 1964: 238). It is made of telescoped metal sections, like the Tibetan dung-chen yet is shorter. The same instrument in Taiwan is used in shadow play accompaniments. Harmonics 3 and 4 are most played, occasionally the 5th harmonic is added.1


Many labrosones are made of wood yet those previously discussed are played producing only one or two harmonics. Carved and fashioned from a manuka tree in New Zealand, the pūkāea can be as long as 2.5 metres with 5 or 6 harmonics available, the player “readily sliding between these to create a spine- chilling sound” (said Flintoff). This sliding technique seems to be unique, as far as this author knows.2


Field or military trumpets can be viewed as part of an evolutionary process in the use of brass instruments in Europe. Up to the eleventh century players went no higher than the 3rd harmonic. Between then and the thirteenth century players introduced the 4th harmonic. As higher harmonics continued to be introduced players began to specialise in particular registers. In trumpet ensemble music for five or ten players of the late 1500’s, the alto e basso part contained only the 3rd, 4th and 4th harmonics. Below this the players of the basso part provided the 2nd harmonic and the vulgano part the 3rd harmonic. Above these three the sonata part (quinta or principale) provided the main melody on harmonics 4 to 8 and the clarion part (soprano) was improvised using harmonics 8 to 13. The players of field or military trumpets in the 1500s used a combined range of the lower three parts of the ensembles just referred to, producing calls with harmonics from the 2nd to the 5th.3


An interesting example of the use of modern instruments being played like Field trumpets is in Ben Neill’s work Antiphony. Four trumpet parts each have notes equivalent to harmonics 3, 4 and 5. The lowest trumpet part is in the key of B-flat, the next in C, then D, then F. Antiphony can be viewed as a polytonal work or as a combination of tones all in the same key. The 4th harmonic from each trumpet part makes up a ratio of pitches that form harmonics 8, 9, 10 and 12 of the B-flat series.4


  1. I gathered this information from authors Thrasher, Sachs, Baines.My thesis (2011, University of Wollongong) is available online and has all the sources cited appropriately.
  2. Author Filntoff for info in this paragraph.
  3. Author Tarr is the source for info in this paragraph.
  4. Author Gann is the source here.

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