Music Guide To 3-Valve Vs. 4-Valve Vs. 5-Valve Tuba

3 valve vs 4 valve tubas

When I go into high school concert bands to help and play my professional tuba, the first question I often get is: 

Woah! How many valves do you have?

It’s often followed up with more questions about how tuba valves work. 

I wanted to tackle this issue with my guide on 3-valve vs. 4-valve vs. 5-valve tubas

Look ahead for a comparison chart and more information on how tuba valves (and brass instrument valves in general) work. 

3-Valve Vs. 4-Valve Tuba Fingering Chart

Here’s a quick comparison chart for 3-valve vs. 4-valve differences. 

Note: This is based on a BBb tuba (Bb tuba) as played by most people. 

Concert Pitch3 Valve Fingering4 Valve Fingering
F bottom of bass clef staffOpenOpen
E natural22
Eb11
D1-21-2
Db2-32-3
C1-34
B natural1-2-32-4
BbOpenOpen
22
Ab11
G1-21-2
Gb2-32-3
F1-34
E natural1-2-32-4

How Do Valves On The Tuba Work?

When the tuba has no valves pressed (we call it “open” on the tuba), it hits the fundamental pitch and overtone series. 

If the tuba is a BBb tuba, the fundamental is a Bb and the overtone series includes the F, Bb, D, F, and Bb above that. 

Back before valves were used, these were the only notes brass instruments could play. 

In order to add different notes, they had to change out their main slides to lengthen the whole horn! 

Once valves were invented, brass players only had to push down a valve, which redirects the air to a different, longer tube or slide. 

This lowers the fundamental and gives the tuba access to more notes. 

Each valve adds a different length and therefore a different number of semi-tones. 

Notes: Semi-tones are also called half steps. 

First Valve

The first valve brass instruments aren’t actually the smallest increment. 

First valves add two semi-tones (two half steps or a whole step).

This means the Bb you were playing before is now an Ab. 

Here is a translation of the overtone series after pressing down the first valve. 

Overtone Series With No ValvesOvertone With First Valve
BbAb
FEb
BbAb
DC
FEb

Second Valve

The second valve is the smallest incremental change in pitch. 

It lowers the fundamental by a semitone or half step. 

Overtone Series With No ValvesOvertone With Second Valve
BbA
FE
BbA
DDb
FE

Third Valves

The 3rd valves are a combination of the first and second valves. 

It lowers the pitch by three semitones (three half steps or a minor third). 

On its own, this valve is somewhat out of tune. 

It’s used mainly in the 2-3 valve combination or 1-3 combo on a 3-valve instrument. 

Playing 1-2 valves instead of this is a lot more in tune. 

Overtone Series With No ValvesOvertone With Third Valve*
BbG
FD
BbG
DB
FD

*Notes shouldn’t be played with only the third valve because it’s out of tune. 

Fourth Valve

The fourth valve is the same as the 1-3 combination. 

This means it lowers the pitch of the fundamental by five semitones (five half steps or a perfect fourth). 

This valve makes a huge difference in tuning for tubas and euphoniums. 

It replaces the out-of-tune 1-3 valve combination and allows for lower notes in the lower register too. 

Overtone Series With No ValvesOvertone With Fourth Valve
BbLow F
FC
BbF*
DA*
FC*

*These notes are better played with a different valve, but it does work. 

Fifth Valve

Fifth valve on the tuba isn’t a standard pitch alteration. 

It depends on the design of the horn. 

My wife and I are both tuba players, so we have two CC tubas in our home. 

We both have fifth valves, but they don’t work the same way. 

The two most common fifth valves are: 

  • Lower by 6 semitones
  • Lower by 7 semitones

It takes some experimentation to figure it out, but they allow for more alternate fingerings to help with faster playing and lower range better intonation. 

There are also sixth valves on some professional tubas, but it isn’t as common (and isn’t needed in most cases). 

The extra valve comes in handy, but it’s just that…extra. 

It’s played with the left hand while the main five are played with the right. 

Note: Most tuba players don’t need more than four valves unless they reach the collegiate level and above or if they play in brass bands.

Basically, they are just for the advanced player. 

When Should I Switch From 3-Valve To 4-Valve Tuba?

If 4-valve models are available, I would start any player on it, even younger players. 

Learning the combinations with the 4th valve is easier if you do it right from the get-go. 

If one isn’t available, I would make sure you switch from 3-valve tubas to 4-valve tubas by high school. 

For adult beginners, you should switch to a 4-valve tuba if you can play through a beginner-level book. 

It doesn’t cost much more, but it’ll help you play so much better in tune. 

Can I Use The 3-Valve Combination With A 4-Valve Tuba?

While you certainly can use a 1-3 valve combo on any tuba, it’s always out of tune. 

Even if it’s new to you, take the time during practice sessions to replace the 1-3 combination with the 4th valve and the 1-2-3 valve combination with the 2-4 valve fingering. 

It may feel weird, and your pink finger is likely to be weaker because it’s not used to being used. 

But, it’s important to play better in tune. 

In-tune playing is better-sounding playing. 

Rotary Valve Vs. Piston Valve Tubas

When you look at tubas, especially nicer ones, you’ll often see one of two different kinds of valves (though you sometimes see them combined on professional horns): 

  • Piston valves
  • Rotary valves

Both of these are great valve systems, but one’s not really better than the other.

Beginner tubas won’t usually a rotary system because it raises the price of the tuba. 

Pistons are what most people think of when they imagine valves. 

It looks like a button that you push up and down. 

Pushing the piston down lowers the piston part which has different holes in it to direct the air through different chambers. 

Rotary valves feature a turning motion rather than an up and down, but it works the same way. 

Rotary valves also look more like paddles than buttons. 

French horns use these. 

The main difference between the two is that pistons are faster and rotary valves are more consistent. 

Here’s a quick table directly comparing the two: 

Piston ValvesRotary Valves
Move up and downTurn the chamber
Works fastSlower motion
Requires constant maintenanceWorks consistently with almost no maintenance
Quiet motionCan be clunky
Cheaper to designMore expensive

How Do Valves Work On Different Types Of Tubas?

No matter what type of tuba you have the valves function the exact same way. 

Whether you have a BBb tuba, CC tuba, Eb tuba, F tubas, sousaphone, rotary valve, piston valve, helicon, or whatever, a first valve lowers the pitch by two semitones. 

There are a lot of different types of tubas out there; click the link to see our detailed list. 

Even the smaller instruments of the brass family work the same way. 

Zach VanderGraaff

Zach VanderGraaff is a K-5 music teacher with Bay City Public Schools in Michigan. He's a Past-President of the Michigan Kodaly Educators and Executive Secretary of the Midwest Kodaly Music Educators Association.

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