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Ten facts about the sousaphone

Any American can recognize the opening notes of “Stars and Stripes Forever” and that most essential instrument of the American marching band — the sousaphone. How did this 30 pound beauty come to be? Despite its relative youth, the sousaphone has an extensive (and sometimes controversial) history.

  1. The sousaphone is named after John Philip Sousa (1854-1932), who had early sousaphones made according to his specifications in the late nineteenth century.
  2. Both the J.W. Pepper and C.G. Conn companies took credit for building the first sousaphone; while C.G. Conn claimed to have invented the instrument in 1898, Sousa recalled going to J.W. Pepper to create the first prototype in 1893.
  3. Despite Pepper’s claim to the invention, it was the Conn sousaphone that eventually became the more commercially successful of the two, and even Sousa preferred it.
  4. The sousaphone is similar to the tuba in many respects, but can be differentiated by its wide, flared bell and shape, encircling the player. Early sousaphones were built with bells pointed upright.
  5. Upright sousaphones, called “rain-catchers”, never really gained popularity beyond Sousa’s use. Bell-forward sousaphones have been the college and marching band favorite since at least the 1920s.
  6. Although primarily designed as a marching band instrument, the sousaphone also made a popular entry into jazz music in the 1920s.
  7. Sousaphones are non-transposing brass instruments, most with three valves.
  8. In order to make them lighter, Conn and the Selmer Co. began building sousaphones with fiberglass bodies, fittings and brass valves in the 1960s. In addition to being easier to carry, sousaphones are now harder to dent.
  9. Similarly to upright band tubas, the sousaphone is pitched in E♭ and B♭. Some, however, have a fourth valve which lowers the pitch by a 4th.
  10. The sousaphone was originally created for marching bands, but has recently become a popular instrument for street bands in Asia and Europe.

The above are only ten facts from the extensive entries in Grove Music Online. Did we leave out any fun facts about the sousaphone?

Featured image: “Sousafoon”. Photo by FaceMePLS. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Dave Detwiler

    Dear friends at Oxford Music,

    Thanks so much for giving attention to the Sousaphone! I always enjoy seeing this great instrument portrayed in a positive light.

    If I may, there are a few adjustments I would recommend that you make to the “facts” you present. As one who has been researching the early history of the Sousaphone for the past 4 years, I can tell you that:

    1) J. W. Pepper did indeed make and name the very first Sousaphone. In other words, this “claim,” as you put it in your fact 3, has now been verified. The horn was built in 1895 at the Pepper factory at 8th & Locust in Philadelphia – and it was played in the Sousa Band for at least the cross-country tour in 1896. But you’re right in saying that Conn’s Sousaphone, which appeared in 1898, was the one that Sousa ended up preferring, and was made available commercially. Pepper’s horn, while the first, seems to be the only Sousaphone he ever built.

    2) In your final fact you say that “The Sousaphone was originally created for marching bands,” but this is simply not true. Sousa designed this special instrument for use in his peerless concert band.

    Documentation of these facts can be found in my academic articles in the Spring 2015 and Winter 2016 editions of the ITEA Journal, or you can view on youtube the documentary that Pepper created, based on my research, and titled “The Birth of the Sousaphone.”

    Thanks again for putting this often maligned instrument in the spotlight!

    Warmly,
    Dave Detwiler

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