Serpent (musical instrument)

H. Cockcroft1825/1850

Leeds Museums & Galleries

Leeds Museums & Galleries
United Kingdom

Serpent music instrument, wood and brass. In two halves, bound with cloth or leather and painted with five silvered keys on metal saddles. Metal stays across the coils and ferrules at two ends; bone mouthpiece; wide end turned slightly outwards. Ivory or bone liners in all tone holes marked H. Cockroft, Haslingden.

A serpent is a bass wind instrument, descended from the cornett, and a distant ancestor of the tuba, with a mouthpiece like a brass instrument but side holes like a woodwind. It is usually a long cone bent into a snakelike shape, hence the name. The serpent is closely related to the cornett, although it is not part of the cornett family, due to the absence of a thumb hole. It is generally made out of wood, with walnut being a particularly popular choice. The outside is covered with dark brown or black leather. Despite wooden construction and the fact that it has fingerholes rather than valves, it is usually classed as a brass, with the Hornbostel-Sachs scheme of musical instrument classification placing it alongside trumpets.

The serpent's range varies according to the instrument and the player, but typically covers one from two octaves below middle C to at least half an octave above middle C.

The instrument was invented by Canon Edmé Guillaume in 1590 in Auxerre, France, and was first used to strengthen the sound of choirs in plainchant. Around the middle of the 18th century, it began to be used in military bands and orchestras, but was replaced in the 19th century by a fully keyed brass instrument, the ophicleide, and later on by valved bass brass instruments such as the euphonium and tuba. After that the Serpent dropped off in popularity for a period of time.

From its beginning as an instrument held vertically between one's knees with both palms facing down, Hermenge (in his serpent method - Paris, 1817) suggested a horizontal playing position that resulted in the right hand palm faced upward. This position was adopted by English military serpents and the instrument was made of a more robust construction (owing to marching or riding on horseback) with thicker walls of the wood and metal stays between the "S" bends of the serpent.


  • Title: Serpent (musical instrument)
  • Creator: H. Cockcroft
  • Date Created: 1825/1850
  • Physical Dimensions: object: 914mm
  • Subject Keywords: Social history
  • Type: Musical instrument
  • Medium: Wood, metal, bone

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