Trombone

The trombone (German: Posaune, Italian, French: trombone) is a musical instrument in the brass family. As with all brass instruments, sound is produced when the player’s vibrating lips cause the air column inside the instrument to vibrate. Nearly all trombones use a telescoping slide mechanism to alter the pitch instead of the valves used by other brass instruments. The valve trombone is an exception, using three valves similar to those on a trumpet, and the superbone has valves and a slide.

The word “trombone” derives from Italian tromba (trumpet) and -one (a suffix meaning “large”), so the name means “large trumpet”. The trombone has a predominantly cylindrical bore like the trumpet, in contrast to the more conical brass instruments like the cornet, the flugelhorn, the baritone, and the euphonium. The most frequently encountered trombones are the tenor trombone and bass trombone. These are treated as non-transposing instruments, reading at concert pitch in bass clef, with higher notes sometimes being notated in tenor clef. They are pitched in B♭, an octave below the B♭ trumpet and an octave above the B♭ bass tuba. The once common E♭ alto trombone became less common as improvements in technique extended the upper range of the tenor, but it is regaining popularity for its lighter sonority. In British brass-band music the tenor trombone is treated as a B♭ transposing instrument, written in treble clef, and the alto trombone is written at concert pitch, usually in alto clef.

A person who plays the trombone is called a trombonist or trombone player.

History
Etymology

“Trombone” comes from the Italian word tromba (trumpet) plus the suffix -one (large), meaning “large trumpet”.

During the Renaissance, the equivalent English term was “sackbut“. The word first appears in court records in 1495 as “shakbusshe” at about the time King Henry VII married a Portuguese princess who brought musicians with her. “Shakbusshe” is similar to “sacabuche”, attested in Spain as early as 1478. The French equivalent “saqueboute” appears in 1466.

The German “Posaune” long predates the invention of the slide and could refer to a natural trumpet as late as the early fifteenth century.

Origin

The sackbut appeared in the 15th century and was used extensively across Europe, declining in most places by the mid to late 17th century. It was used in outdoor events, in concert, and in liturgical settings. Its principal role was as the contratenor part in a dance band. It was also used, along with shawms, in bands sponsored by towns and courts. Trumpeters and trombonists were employed in German city-states to stand watch in the city towers and herald the arrival of important people to the city, an activity that signified wealth and strength in 16th-century German cities. These heralding trombonists were often viewed separately from the more skilled trombonists who played in groups such as the alta capella wind ensembles and the first orchestral ensembles, which performed in religious settings such as St Mark’s Basilica in Venice in the early 17th century. The 17th-century trombone had slightly smaller dimensions than a modern trombone, with a bell that was more conical and less flared. Modern period performers use the term “sackbut” to distinguish this earlier version of the trombone from the modern instrument.

Renaissance era tenor sackbut.

Composers who wrote for trombone during this period include Claudio Monteverdi, Heinrich Schütz, Giovanni Gabrieli and his uncle Andrea Gabrieli. The trombone doubled voice parts in sacred works, but there are also solo pieces written for trombone in the early 17th century.

When the sackbut returned to common use in England in the 18th century, Italian music was so influential that the instrument became known by its Italian name, “trombone”. Its name remained constant in Italy (trombone) and in Germany (Posaune).

During the later Baroque period, Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel used trombones on a few occasions. Bach called for a tromba di tirarsi, which may have been a form of the closely related slide trumpet, to double the cantus firmus in some liturgical cantatas. He also employed a choir of four trombones to double the chorus in three of his cantatas (BWV 2, BWV 21 and BWV 38), and used three trombones and a cornett in the cantata BWV 25. Handel used it in Samson, in Israel in Egypt, and in the Death March from Saul. All were examples of an oratorio style popular during the early 18th century. Score notations are rare because only a few professional “Stadtpfeiffer” or alta cappella musicians were available. Handel, for instance, had to import trombones to England from a Royal court in Hanover, Germany, to perform one of his larger compositions. Because of the relative scarcity of trombones, their solo parts were generally interchangeable with other instruments.

Contemporary use

The trombone can be found in symphony orchestras, concert bands, big bands, marching bands, military bands, brass bands, and brass choirs. In chamber music, it is used in brass quintets, quartets, and trios, and also in trombone trios, quartets, or choirs. The size of a trombone choir can vary from five or six to twenty or more members. Trombones are also common in swing, jazz, merengue, salsa, R&B, ska, and New Orleans brass bands.

Valve attachments

Modern trombones often have a valve attachment, an extra loop of tubing attached to the bell section and engaged by a valve operated by the left hand by means of a lever or trigger. The valve attachment aids in increasing the lower range of the instrument, while also allowing alternate slide positions for difficult music passages. A valve can also make trills easier.

The valve attachment was originally developed by German instrument maker Christian Friedrich Sattler in the late 1830s for the Tenorbaßposaune (lit. ’tenor-bass trombone’), a B♭ tenor trombone built with the wider bore and larger bell of a bass trombone that Sattler had earlier invented in 1821. Sattler’s valve attachment added about 3 feet (0.9 m) of tubing to lower the fundamental pitch from B♭ to F, controlled by a rotary valve, and is essentially unchanged in modern instruments.

Valve attachments are most commonly found on tenor and bass trombones, but they can appear on sizes from soprano to contrabass.

Valve types

The most common type of valve seen for valve attachments is the rotary valve, appearing on most band instruments, as well as most student and intermediate model trombones. Many improvements of the rotary valve, as well as entirely new and radically different valve designs, have been invented since the mid 20th century to give the trombone a more open, free sound than the tight bends in conventional rotary valve designs would allow. Many of these new valve designs have been widely adopted by players, especially in symphony orchestras. The Thayer axial flow valve is offered on professional models from most trombone manufacturers, and the Hagmann valve particularly from European manufacturers.

Trombone valve attachments. Standard rotary valve, left; Thayer axial flow valve, center; Hagmann valve, right.

Types

The most frequently encountered types of trombone today are the tenor and bass, though as with many other instrument families such as the clarinet, the trombone has been built in sizes from piccolo to contrabass. Although trombones are usually constructed with a slide to change the pitch, valve trombones instead use the set of three valves common on other brass instruments.

Slide trombones

Trombones (top to bottom): piccolo in B♭, soprano in B♭, alto in E♭, tenor in B♭, bass in B♭ with F and G♭ valves, contrabass in F with D and B♭ valves.

Contrabass trombone

The contrabass trombone is the lowest trombone, first appearing in BB♭ an octave below the tenor with a double slide. This design was commissioned by Wagner in the 1870s for his Der Ring des Nibelungen opera cycle. Since the late 20th century however, it has largely been supplanted by a less cumbersome single-slide bass-contrabass instrument pitched in 12′ F. With two valve attachments to provide the same full range as its predecessor, this design is effectively a modern bass trombone built down a perfect fourth. Although the contrabass has only appeared occasionally in orchestral repertoire and is not a permanent member of the modern orchestra, it has enjoyed a revival in the 21st century, particularly in film and video game soundtracks.

Bass trombone

Although early instruments were pitched in G, F or E♭ below the tenor trombone, the modern bass trombone is pitched in the same B♭ as the tenor but with a wider bore, a larger bell, and a larger mouthpiece. These features facilitate playing in the lower register of the instrument. Modern bass trombones have valves that allow a fully chromatic range down to the pedal register (B♭1). In Britain, the bass trombone in G was used in orchestras from the mid-19th century and survived into the 1950s, particularly in British brass bands.

Tenor trombone

The tenor trombone has a fundamental note of B♭ and is usually treated as a non-transposing instrument (see below). Tenor trombones with C as their fundamental note were almost equally popular in the mid-19th century in Britain and France. As the trombone in its simplest form has neither crooks, valves nor keys to lower the pitch by a specific interval, trombonists use seven chromatic slide positions. Each position progressively increases the length of the air column, thus lowering the pitch.

Extending the slide from one position to the next lowers the pitch by one semitone. Thus, each note in the harmonic series can be lowered by an interval of up to a tritone. The lowest note of the standard instrument is therefore an E♮ – a tritone below B♭. Most experienced trombonists can play lower “falset” notes and much lower pedal notes (first partials or fundamentals, which have a peculiar metallic rumbling sound). Slide positions are subject to adjustment, compensating for imperfections in the tuning of different harmonics. The fifth partial is rather flat on most trombones and usually requires a minute shortening of the slide position to compensate; other small adjustments are also normally required throughout the range. Trombonists make frequent use of alternate positions to minimize slide movement in rapid passages; for instance, B♭3 may be played in first or fifth position. Alternate positions are also needed to allow a player to produce a glissando to or from a higher note on the same partial.

While the lowest note of the tenor trombone’s range (excluding fundamentals or pedal notes) is E2, the trombone’s upper range is theoretically open-ended. The practical top of the range is sometimes considered to be F5, or more conservatively D5. The range of the C tenor trombone is F♯2 to G5.

Alto trombone

The alto trombone is smaller than the tenor trombone and almost always pitched in E♭ a fourth higher than the tenor, although examples pitched in F are occasionally found. Modern instruments are sometimes fitted with a valve to lower the pitch, either by a semitone to D (known as a “trill” valve), or by a fourth into B♭. The alto trombone was commonly used in the 16th to the 18th centuries in church music to strengthen the alto voice, particularly in the Mass. Early 19th century composers such as Beethoven, Brahms, and Schumann began writing for alto trombone in their symphonies, but the subsequent use and popularity of tenor trombones in the orchestra largely eclipsed their use until a modern revival that began in the late 20th century.

Soprano trombone

The soprano trombone is usually pitched in B♭ an octave above the tenor, and has seldom been used since its first known appearance in 1677 outside of trombone choirs in Moravian Church music. Built with mouthpiece, bore and bell dimensions similar to the B♭ trumpet, it tends to be played by trumpet players. During the 20th century some soprano trombones—dubbed slide cornets—were made as novelties or for use by jazz players including Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. A small number of contemporary proponents of the instrument include jazz artists Wycliffe Gordon and Christian Scott, and classical trumpeter Torbjörn Hultmark, who advocates for its use as an instrument for young children to learn music.

Sopranino and piccolo trombones

The sopranino and piccolo trombones appeared in the 1950s as novelty instruments, and are even smaller and higher than the soprano. They are pitched in high E♭ and B♭ respectively, one octave above the alto and soprano trombones. Owing to being essentially a slide variant of the piccolo trumpet, they are played primarily by trumpet players.

Trombones with valves
Valve trombone

Valve (tenor) trombone in B♭

In the 19th century as soon as brass instrument valves were invented, trombones with valves instead of slides were adopted widely in orchestras, and remain popular in some parts of Europe and in military bands.

Cimbasso

The cimbasso covers the same range as a tuba or a contrabass trombone. The term cimbasso first appeared in early 19th century Italian opera scores, and originally referred to an upright serpent or an ophicleide. The modern cimbasso first appeared as the trombone basso Verdi in the 1880s and has three to six piston or rotary valves and a predominantly cylindrical bore. They are most often pitched in 12′ F, although models are available in E♭ and occasionally 16′ C and 18′ B♭. The cimbasso is most commonly used in performances of late Romantic Italian operas by Verdi and Puccini, but has also experienced a 21st century revival in film, television and video game soundtracks.

A modern cimbasso in F

Superbone

Schematic of a Holton superbone

A hybrid, “duplex” or “double” trombone is a design of trombone that has both a slide and a set of three valves for altering the pitch. It has been reinvented several times since first appearing in the 19th century by Besson, and later Conn. Jazz trombonist and machinist Brad Gowans invented his “valide trombone” in the 1940s with a short four-position slide. In the 1970s Maynard Ferguson and Holton produced the “Superbone”, very similar to the earlier Conn. In 2013 Schagerl in collaboration with James Morrison announced a larger bore variant with rotary valves.

Flugabone

The “flugabone” (or sometimes “flugelbone”), portmanteau of “flugelhorn” and “trombone”, also known as the “marching trombone”, is a marching brass instrument, essentially a valve trombone wrapped into a compact flugelhorn shape. It retains the cylindrical bore of the trombone, rather than the conical bore of either the flugelhorn or bugle, and thus is similar in playing characteristics to a valve trombone. A similar marching trombone is the “trombonium” first produced by King Musical Instruments, wrapped and held vertically like a euphonium.

Flugabone in B♭ by Olds

Buccin

A distinctive form of tenor trombone was popularized in France in the early 19th century. Called the buccin, it featured a tenor trombone slide and a bell that ended in a zoomorphic (serpent or dragon) head. It sounds like a cross between a trombone and a French horn, with a very wide dynamic range but a limited and variable range of pitch. Hector Berlioz wrote for the buccin in his Messe solennelle of 1824.

Bell of a buccin

Tromboon

A portmanteau of “trombone” and “bassoon”, the “tromboon” was created by musical parodist Peter Schickele by replacing a trombone’s mouthpiece with the reed and bocal of a bassoon. It appears in several humorous works of Schickele’s fictional composer, P. D. Q. Bach.

Students who play trombone

Paige Bruso

Junior

Austin Friedrich

Junior

Max Gonzalez

Junior

Lael Hoover

Junior

Zac Shepherd

Junior Section Leader

Riley Lindsay

Sophomore

Honorary trombone players

Dawson Wiggins

Senior euphonium

Zachary Helton

Junior tuba