The Trombone

The The trombone is a unique instrument of the brass family like the trumpet and French horn, and is not popular as the trumpet. It plays notes that are lower than the French horn, though not as low as the Tuba. It is one of the most unusual instruments commonly found in orchestras and marching bands, but also one of the most beautiful. The sonorous tones of a trombone played well can make a piece of music come alive.

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What make trombone unique in the family is the slide. While other brass instrument change pitches by pressing valves to change the length of the air flow, the trombone player simply moves the slide in and out to change the length of the instrument. The trombone uses this in and out movement of the slide to alter pitches of its sound, rather than a valve. By pushing the slide out the tube is lengthened (making the note lower), and pulling it back in the tube is shortened (making the note higher).  It is the only instrument in the brass family that use slide.

But trombone produces its sound like all other brass instruments by causing the air column inside the instrument to vibrate through lip vibration (embouchure) against a cup mouthpiece. Its mouthpiece is larger, however, suited to its deeper musical register, and is parabolic in cross section, like a cornet. Softly blown, it has a rich and mellow sound, which becomes harsh and blatant when the tones are forced; used with discretion, its effect is often solemn and majestic.

trombone produces its sound like all other brass instruments by causing the air column inside the instrument to vibrate through lip vibration (embouchure) against a cup mouthpiece.


In chromatic settings, the trombone was a fully chromatic instrument from its earliest development. It is the only member of the family of wind instruments whose scale, both diatonic and chromatic, is complete without the aid of keys or pistons, and which can slide from note to note as smoothly as the human voice or a violin.

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It was theoretically possible for every note in semitone steps between the highest and the lowest points of a wide melodic compass to be played. By adjusting the slide and the embouchure, a skillful player could amend the overall pitch of the instrument or adjust the intonation of particular notes. The slide provided a remarkable facility in this regard: as is the case with competent singers, adept and musically gifted trombone players need only to think in tune to be able to play in tune. Though from the 19th century, some trombones have been made with valves, but their use was never universal.

History of Trombone

One of the oldest classical orchestral instruments that are still being used today is trombone. The trombone evolved from what was known as Renaissance slide trumpet in the early 15th century and has changed little since then. The earliest trombone, called the sackbut and similar names in England, seems to have emerged from Belgium circa 1450. The exact etymology and meaning of the term “sackbut” and it variations is not certain, but is thought to be a derivation of the Old French term, sacquer, “to draw out.” Sackbut has thicker walls than the modern trombone, imparting a softer tone, and its bell is narrower. During that time, it was used in outdoor events, in concert, and in liturgical settings.

Sackbut
The sackbut answered the need for a lower-pitched trumpet that composers of the time sought. Its telescoping slide mechanism is retained in the modern trombone. When exactly the name trombone became more in fashion to replace sackbut is not known. But the influence of Italian music during the period affected the name of the instrument and it became known as the "trombone". The word trombone derives from Italian tromba (trumpet) and -one (a suffix meaning large), so a trombone is quite literally a "large trumpet" in Italian and the German name for the trombone is sackbut, meaning 'pull and push'.

Over time, instrument makers began building the instrument with a larger bore and a wider bell, allowing performers to achieve a louder and richer sound than earlier sackbuts. Some makers began building models which changed pitch using valves like a trumpet's (instruments called valve trombones) and models with bigger bores and longer slides, which would come to be referred to as bass trombones. Numerous changes in construction have occurred during the 20th century, including the use of different materials, increases in mouthpiece, bore and bell dimensions, new valve types and different mute types.


Despite the universal switch to a larger sized horn though, many European trombone makers still tend to prefer a slightly smaller bore than their American counterparts. One of the most significant changes to the trombone is the increased popularity of the F-Attachment trigger. All the way through the mid-20th century it was common to see orchestral trombone players using instruments that did not include the trigger mostly because of a lack of a need for one. However, as 20th century composers such as Mahler became more popular, tenor trombone parts began to extend down into lower ranges that necessitated the use of a trigger. While some trombonists still prefer "straight" trombone models that do not have triggers, most have adopted the new standard for its convenience and general versatility.

The oldest trombone that exists today is on display at the Germanisches National museum in Nuremberg, Germany. It was made by Erasmus Schnitzer in Nuremberg in 1551.

Types of Trombones

Trombones come in many shapes and sizes and there are many different types of trombones that are used in a band but the tenor trombone is most common.  

Trombones come in many shapes and sizes and there are many different types of trombone.
Soprano Trombone:
The soprano trombone is a much smaller instrument then others. It is Pitched an octave higher than other trombones, and is sometimes called a ‘slide trumpet’.  This instrument is rarely seen in bands and its small dimensions also make it very hard to play in tune.

Alto Trombone:
The alto trombone is the smallest of the common trombones. It is pitched a fourth higher than the tenor, in E flat. Its sound is brighter and clearer, which can be very effective in a recording studio. 

It first made its appearance during the 16th-18th century as the highest voice in the trombone section but much of its range can be covered by the tenor instrument. It is growing in popularity because it is shorter and lighter than normal trombones, so children can learn how to play it easily. Today, the alto trombone is found primarily in primarily in specific orchestral settings and is often used for soloing.

Tenor Trombone
The tenor is the most commonly used trombone and is the most preferred by players. They are pitched in Bb and can be found in almost every single genre of music. The straight tenor trombone is the simplest, with no tubing inside the main section. The F-rotor trombone has extra tubing within the main loop. It is a straight trombone until this tubing is activated with a trigger. This effectively makes the horn longer, changing its tuning from Bb to F.
The tenor is the most commonly used trombone and is the most preferred by players.
Tenor Trombone
Bass Trombone
The bass trombone has the largest bell of the common family and the same length as the tenor trombone. It is pitched in B flat as the tenor, but usually has a wider bore to give a fuller, richer sound.

It also has the largest bore of version of the F-rotor trombone that adds a second rotor to extend its low end even further, in order to give the instrument a seamless range from the ‘pedal tones’ upward (notes not normally accessible on a tenor trombone). These valves effectively lower the bass trombone’s pitch to F, E flat and sometimes G.

Valve Trombones
These trombones are much rarer than slide trombones. Instead of a moving slide, the trombonist plays notes quite similarly to a trumpet, with three valves. This allows for quicker playing, but it loses all the intricacies of the trombone.
These trombones are much rarer than slide trombones.
Valve Trombones

Trombone in Music

The addition of trombones to the orchestra began in the 18th century, though their most popular role was as vocal support for the sacred music of the church, a tradition which continued until at least the mid-19th century. Beethoven was the first to use the trombone in a symphony (no. 5 from 1808). Before that, composers as Mozart and others had used the trombone in masses and requiems. An excellent example of this type of scoring can be found in such music as Fanny Mendelsson-Hensel’s Oratorio based upon scenes from the Bible. Gluck, Gossec and Mozart wrote passages for the trombone intended to be spiritual or supernatural; Gluck commonly used three members of the trombone family- altos, tenors and basses.

The role of the trombone in band and classical music was pretty much set, by the end of the 19th century the trombone found itself in the hands of early jazz musicians.
The Silver and Brass Trombone Quartet 

The role of the trombone in band and classical music was pretty much set, by the end of the 19th century the trombone found itself in the hands of early jazz musicians. Symphonic and sacred composers gave the trombone wide and varied use over the centuries all the way to what they thought were the limits of the instrument's abilities. But jazz players extended this playing knowledge even further with innovative use of mutes, methods for extending the useful range, slide technique and the discovery of a vibrato method that is now in wide use.

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In early jazz the trombone played a more or less functional role, and was usually present as a single instrument. Early jazz bands consisted of a wide variety of instruments, but by the 1930's became more or less standardised, consisting most often of four trombones, four saxophones, four trumpets, and the rhythm section which was made up of bass or tuba, drums, piano, and guitar or banjo.

The Columbus State University Trombone Ensemble in performance
The Columbus State University Trombone Ensemble


Because the slide on a trombone is adjustable, the performer can slowly move between two different notes, hitting all the pitches in between. This effect is called a glissando, and its unusual 'sliding' sound is one of the trombone's most recognizable techniques. Also, by covering the bell with an object such as a hat or plunger, the trombonist can muffle the instrument's sound, and then move the object to create a 'wah' effect. 

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