Welcome to the first article of the series! Through these articles, I hope to provide you with a better insight on not only the trombone, but also general brass technique, musician skills, practising and a whole lot of other topics.
My first article will be about the trombone, since I’m a trombonist myself. The trombone is a brass instrument and can be found in many different kinds of ensembles and genres such as orchestras, wind bands, brass bands, big bands, brass quintets, trombone ensembles, pop, movies, musicals, etc. The earliest confirmed use of the trombone was in the 15th century and it was mainly used in church music as well as festivals in the town squares of Europe, particularly Italy and Germany. At that time, sackbut was the name for the instrument in English. The word ‘trombone’ was actually only used in Italian then. It was probably when Italian music flourished during the 17th century that the word ‘trombone’ became used in most languages, the main exception being German where the word for trombone even till today is ‘Posaune’. During the classical period (18th century), the trombone was found mainly in churches and opera houses, being popularised by composers such as Haydn and Mozart. Although not the first composer to use it in a symphony, Beethoven is largely credited for bringing the trombone to the symphony orchestra with his 5th and 6th symphonies which premiered in the same concert in 1808. From that point, trombones started becoming a common sight in orchestras and indeed, music as we know today.
The trombone is made almost entirely of brass with the exception of a few slides that may be made of nickel (not to be confused with nickel silver which is actually an alloy consisting of copper, zinc and nickel). Brass is an alloy made of copper and zinc and having a different mixture of the two metals does have a profound effect on how an instrument plays. A trombone, like all brass instruments, generate sound that starts from vibrations from the player’s lips. This causes the air column inside the instrument to vibrate as well, hence producing sound. The slide and valves on the instrument are used to change pitch, much like the valves on other brass instruments. Below, you will find a diagram of a trombone labelling its various parts.
Most trombones you see are pitched in B-flat, meaning the fundamental note on 1st position is B-flat, but more on that later. Most trombones nowadays also do have a valve that puts the instrument in F when the trigger is pressed, as shown below.
The trombones you see above are tenor trombones, and they are the most common member in the trombone family. Following closely behind is the bass trombone. Bass trombones have the same length and as a result, are pitched in the same B-flat as tenor trombones. However, the general diameter of the tubes and bell are larger than tenor trombones. Bass trombones also tend to have a second valve that make the instrument fully chromatic (more on that in another article). Pictured below is a double-valve bass trombone.
The tenor and bass trombones are the most common trombones you’ll find everywhere. However, there are other trombones in the trombone family and two of them are getting more popular in orchestras. The first is the alto trombone. It is pitched in E-flat, a perfect fourth above the B-flat of tenor and bass trombones. During the classical and early romantic periods, alto trombones were a common sight in the orchestra. However, with the increasing skill of the players and generally increasing range extending to the lower register demanded by composers, the alto became phased out in favour of tenor trombones on the first part. Today however, alto trombones are seeing a revival as many players and conductors prefer to have the lighter and brighter sound of the alto especially for baroque, classical and early romantic works such as those of Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms. Alto trombones usually have smaller tubes and bells compared to tenor trombones in addition to the shorter length. They also usually do not have valves but there are options for a valve that puts the instrument in B-flat or a trill valve. Pictured below is a valveless alto trombone.
The other is the contrabass trombone. The contrabass trombone is usually pitched in F, a perfect fourth below the B-flat tenor and bass trombones, or sometimes in B-flat, an octave lower than the common trombones. The contrabass trombone was used by Richard Wagner in his Ring cycle as well as other composers such as Verdi, Puccini and Richard Strauss in their operas. However, other than that, the contrabass trombone has got limited repertoire and usually can only be found in film scores and a few trombone ensemble pieces.
There are even rarer trombones such as the soprano and piccolo trombones that use trumpet mouthpieces but these are very rarely used. They are sometimes known as slide trumpets. An example can be found below played by trombone virtuoso, Michel Becquet.
Well, the pictures above don’t really show a comparison of size so here is one (L-R: tenor trombone, bass trombone, bass sackbut and contrabass trombone).
So there you have it, the various members of the trombone family! I hope with this article you have a better knowledge of the history of the trombone, how it works and the many kinds of trombones you can find. Look out for the next article!
This article was written by Jasper Tan, graduate of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts with a Diploma in Music Performance majoring in bass trombone. He can be found playing with the Philharmonic Winds, The Philharmonic Orchestra, Orchestra of the Music Makers and Slide That! trombone ensemble.