Stop huffing and puffing and clean up your tongue!

Getting a clean start to the note is an important part of brass playing and as usual there are no hard and fast rules as to how to do this.  Also, this is written as a general guide to all brass instruments when playing within their normal registers.  It may be possible to slightly change things for example when playing in the low register on a tuba or the higher register on the French Horn.  Before we start, there is a list of some important vocabulary with definitions at the end of this article.

Single Tonguing

Producing a tongued note on any brass instrument will require careful listening and considered practice.  Remember that the tongue is used to provide a clean start to the note and should not be used to act as a block to any flow of air.

The most usual sounds to think of when tonguing a note are Tah, Tu, Tee, Dah,

By Badseed. This vector image was created with Inkscape. (Own work, data: see description)

Du, Dee, Gee, Gah or Gu.  These will give a variety of sounds and enable you to produce different types of tonguing.  I will focus on using Tah and Tu for the rest of this article, but all of the exercises and suggestions can easily be applied with the different sounds listed above.

To create the correct sound, say the sound Tah slowly and notice where your tongue starts and how it moves.  You should notice that to produce the T sound, the tip of your tongue will raise so that it touches the top of the back of your top front teeth.  After this the tongue should then fall so that it is flat inside the mouth.  This is of course very important as if your tongue stays raised, it will obstruct airflow and have a negative impact on your sound.

To make this tonguing technique work effectively it will need to be tied into your breathing and fingers.  Think of breathing in a circular fashion with no beginning or end.  Do not hold your breath before breathing out as this will cause you to have a lot less control over how the sound is produced and may cause a rather explosive start to the note.  The trick is to get your tongue to produce the T sound at the moment you start to breathe out.  This will stop any blocking of airflow and will provide a good, clean start to the note.

Practice this slowly at first and listen very carefully to how the beginning of the note sounds and try to notice how it feels when it goes well.  If it helps you could record this to provide a better reference to how it sounds.  Always try to remember how it feels as later on when this starts to become more automatic, knowing how it feels will give you instant results and allow you the freedom to concentrate on making music!

Play lots of long notes and focus on achieving the best possible sound quality for the beginning, middle and end of the note.  Very often the end of the note is forgotten about and emphasis is given just to the beginning and the middle.

When stopping a note it is best to avoid using the tongue as this can produce a very clipped sound that may suffer with intonation issues.  The best way to stop any note (except when playing some forms of jazz music where certain effects are required) is to stop the airflow.  This may initially take some practice and it is important to ensure that the end of the note doesn’t fall in pitch or trail off.

When playing different articulations, the tongue will need to be used in slightly different ways.  For soft tonguing it is possible to use a Du or Dah sound and this will prflugelhorn-8447_640oduce a start that sounds a lot softer than the T sound.  When you say the different sounds Tah and Dah notice where your tongue goes.  You should notice that with the Dah sound your tongue moves back from the top of your teeth ever so slightly.  This consonant may also be used for producing tenuto notes that need to be leaned on rather than accented.

When aiming to achieve an accented note, Tah is usually very effective especially when combined with faster (diaphragmatic) airflow.  This can obviously vary with the different types of accents that are available.

Some helpful pointers:

  • Always remember that air is important to the quality of the sound that you produce and the tongue should not be used to block air flow
  • Think of breathing in as a circular pattern with no beginning or end
  • The tongue provides a clean start to the note and then should lay flat inside the mouth
  • The tongue should not be used to stop the note (under normal circumstances!)
  • The tongue should not move between the teeth or the lips as this will produce a poor quality sound
  • If the music doesn’t have slurs written you should assume that you are required to tongue the notes
  • The way in which you use your tongue may well change in different registers.  Try to notice how these differences feel.


Vocabulary Definition
Articulation This refers to how successive notes are played, for example if they are short, detached, long or smooth
Staccato Notes should be played in a detached style – please do not think that all the notes must be short!
Legato Notes should be played smoothly
Marcato Notes should be played heavily or in a marked fashion
Tenuto Notes should be played to their fullest length
Slur Successive notes should be played legato – not tongued
Accent Notes should be emphasised (this will depend on the type of accent mark used)


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