What is a Serpent?

The Serpent is an ancient musical wind instrument, related to the modern Tuba, Euphonium, and Baritone (see Pictures). It is blown with a cup shaped mouthpiece which is very similar to that of a trombone or Euphonium/Baritone. Played softly, it has a firm yet mellow tone color, or timbre. At medium volume, it produces a robust sound which seems to be a cross between the tuba, the bassoon, and the French horn. When played loudly it can produce unpleasant noises reminiscent of large animals in distress. It has a musical range from C below the bass clef to at least a half octave above middle C.

When the Serpent was invented, there were only three ways to play brass instruments; with the lips alone, with the lips plus a slide, or lips plus finger holes. A brass instrument which does not have finger holes or slides relies on the players lips to determine the musical pitch, and it is almost impossible to play all the notes of the scale. Brass instruments such as the modern trombone, which uses a slide, can produce the entire scale but must have the same diameter tubing throughout (a cylindrical bore); this results in a bright tone color. The Serpent plays all the notes of the scale, and it has the mellow tone color resulting from a conical or tapered bore; these design decisions make the use of finger holes necessary, since slides are not practical with a conical bore.

The Serpent gets its name from its unusual shape, which can be described as a double 'S' curve; picture one 'S' connected to the bottom of another 'S' (see Pictures). The shape results from the need to bring the finger holes within reach of the player, on what is actually a rather large instrument. In addition to the basic shape, there is a curved metal crook or bocal which fits between the mouthpiece and the main body of the instrument.

The Serpent was historically made from wood, although other materials such as brass were used. In the 20th century, some Serpents have been made from fiberglass, plastic, synthetic foam resins, and even paper maché. Most wooden Serpents are covered in an airtight sheath to strengthen the instrument and prevent leaks. The sheath material is either leather or varnished cloth. The crook is made from brass and the mouthpiece is either wood, ivory, or a plastic resin.

Many observers are confused in their efforts to classify the Serpent. The use of wooden construction with finger holes does not mean that the Serpent is a woodwind instrument! Because the sound originates with the vibration of the player's lips in a cup mouthpiece, the Serpent is classified as a brass instrument.

The Serpent Website: Return to Index

Copyright Paul Schmidt 1997
revised August 2013