Trombone

Courtesy of Vincent Bach
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Pitch range

Trombone pitch range, courtesy of Hannah Whale

You can spot a trombone by its long slide. Instead of keys or valves, the trombone has this enormous U-bend that gives the player’s right arm a real workout.

It’s a powerful instrument!

It can actually have quite a dark sort of sound – as if something bad is about to happen. Mozart obviously thought so: in his opera Don Giovanni, that’s exactly when he uses trombones.

Inside the orchestra

Plan of the orchestra showing the trombones, courtesy of Hannah Whale

Plan of the orchestra showing the trombones

Today, you often find three trombones in an orchestra: two ‘tenor’ trombones and a ‘bass’ trombone.

You don’t hear one trombone on its own very often. The best trombone effect is when they all play together: they’re strong and magnificent. To see their gleaming slides all being pushed and pulled at exactly the same time adds to the excitement of the music.

The trombone is a latecomer to the symphony orchestra. Beethoven was the first to use trombones in a symphony. He used them in his Fifth (1804). 

Outside the orchestra

Concertos: A few, from very early to the present day.

Chamber music: The modern trombone is not used often here.

A composer called Jan Sandström wrote a piece called ‘Motorbike Concerto’ for the famous trombonist Christian Lindberg. The soloist is the hero, who travels the world on a Harley Davidson motorbike. Lindberg wore a leather jacket on stage when he first performed the concerto!

Solo pieces: There are some, but players could do with more!

Brass bands: The trombone has a lot of fun with the family.

Jazz: In the 1930s and 1940s, jazz bands – called ‘big bands’ – often had four trombones. The instrument is still used in jazz.

The trombone with some relaxed jazz

Vernon Duke & Ira Gershwin: I Can’t Get Started (extract)

Clifford Adams, trombone; Kenny Baron, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Lewis Nash, drums, Neil Clark, percussion. Naxos 86015-2

Construction of the trombone

The trombone is a long brass tube. It widens to a bell at one end and has a cup-shaped mouthpiece at the other end.

Trombone slide, courtesy of Yamaha & Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins

Trombone slide

Part of the tube slides in and out, so that the length varies and different pitches can be sounded.

This slide was a very clever idea – it meant that the trombone was able to play a full range of notes long before any other brass instrument.

If you stretched out the tubing of a tenor trombone, it would be over 2.5 metres (about 9 feet) long: further than the floor to the ceiling!

Holding the slide of the trombone, courtesy of Yamaha & Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins

Holding the slide of the trombone

To play it

Hold the trombone almost horizontally out in front of you.

  1. Press your lips to the mouthpiece.
  2. Take a deep breath, and blow.
  3. Move the slide in and out for different notes.

 

As with all other brass instruments, you need good support from your diaphragm muscle to control your breath. And it might sound strange but the big challenge is co-ordinating the slide and your tongue! Playing an instrument often challenges more bits of the body than it seems.

Trombonist in playing position, courtesy of Tony Morrell

Trombonist in playing position

The slide takes skill and practice to use. It can extend almost a metre, but it has to be within half a centimetre to hit each note accurately. And that has to happen as quickly as a trumpet player can press a valve!

The early trombone was called a ‘sackbut’. The name came from the French word ‘saqueboute’, meaning ‘push-pull’. That’s what you do with the slide!

A sackbut, courtesy of Adrian France

A sackbut

Both the English composers Gustav Holst and Edward Elgar played the trombone, but Elgar was apparently so bad at it that a friend was forced to leave the room when he heard the noise!

Special effects

The best effect on the trombone is glissando. This is like a swoop up or down. It’s particularly good on the trombone because the slide enables one note to merge – slide! – into the next.

Having fun with glissando!

Stravinsky: Pulcinella. No. 17: Vivo (extract)

Philharmonia Orchestra; Robert Craft. Naxos 8.557503

Other trombones

Numbers have shrunk a bit since the trombone’s early days. There used to be different-sized versions that played together as a group. Now, there’s the normal one – called the ‘tenor’ trombone – plus:

Bass trombone

(used to be called ‘tenor-bass’ trombone)

Bass trombone, courtesy of Vincent Bach

Bass trombone

Bass trombone pitch range, courtesy of Hannah Whale

Bass trombone pitch range

This sounds even lower than the tenor trombone, with more tubing.

 

Alto trombone
Alto trombone, courtesy of Vincent Bach

Alto trombone

Alto trombone pitch range, courtesy of Hannah Whale

Alto trombone pitch range

This one is smaller than the tenor trombone, but you don’t see it very often!

 

There used to be a contrabass trombone. But apparently one trombonist called it a ‘tank’, so it’s not hard to imagine why it’s unemployed these days.

Find out more about the development of the Trombone in .

A Little History of the Trombone

The history of the trombone is simple. Compared to the trumpet, hardly anything happened to it at all.

It began around 1500 when it was called a ‘sackbut’. The sackbut had a long slide, just like the modern trombone. But it had a softer sound. It often used to accompany vocal music.

A sackbut, courtesy of Adrian France

A sackbut

The early name ‘sackbut’ came from the French word ‘saqueboute’, meaning ‘push-pull’. That’s what you do with the slide!

Valves v. slide

In the early 1800s, valves were invented for the other brass instruments. The trombone was laughing: it didn’t need valves, it already had a slide! Perhaps it blew a raspberry at all the other brass instruments who hadn’t caught up with it and couldn’t play all the notes.

But in 1820, the trombone was given valves too. It wasn’t really necessary and they didn’t do much for it. So they were removed again. The slide won.

The valve trombone was used in Rossini’s opera overtures. The music is more difficult to play on a slide trombone.

Other changes

After that, it had just three little changes:

  1. A bigger mouthpiece.
  2. A wider tube.
  3. Different metal for the slide to make it smoother.

So although the trombone is younger than some of the other brass instruments, it was fully developed much earlier.

Employment

Composers, though, didn’t seem to notice. It wasn’t used much in music of the 18th century. It took Beethoven’s skill and imagination for trombones to be used in symphonies. After that… they were never out of work!

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 What is the trombone good at?

a. Coloratura
b. Pizzicato
c. Glissando

 What is an early version of the trombone called?

a. Sackbut
b. Sickbot
c. Soakbut

 The trombone is found least in...

a. Jazz
b. Chamber music
c. Symphonies

 The trombone we see most often is which?

a. Soprano
b. Alto
c. Tenor

 Which of these does the trombone have?

a. Slide
b. Valves
c. Reed

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Selected Trombone and Bass Trombone Extracts

Richard Wagner (1813–1883)
Tannhäuser: Overture (extract)

Trombones at their most thrilling, thanks to Wagner!

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.550136

Johann Georg Albrechtsberger (1736–1809)
Trombone Concerto in B flat major: I. Allegro moderato (extract)

A single trombone in the limelight.

Performers: Alain Trudel, trombone & director; Northern Sinfonia

Taken from Naxos 8.553831

Gustav Holst (1874–1934)
The Planets, Op. 32: V. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age (extract)

Two tenor trombones and bass trombone with quiet, ominous chords.

Performers: Royal Scottish National Orchestra; David Lloyd-Jones

Taken from Naxos 8.555776

Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971)
Pulcinella: No. 17. Vivo (extract)

Having fun with glissando!

Performers: Philharmonia Orchestra; Robert Craft

Taken from Naxos 8.557503

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Requiem in D minor, K. 626 (completed by Süssmayr): Sequence: II. Tuba mirum (extract)

One of the most famous orchestral solos for the trombone, where it makes a brilliant partner for the bass voice singing ‘Tuba mirum’ (‘Tuba, mirum spargens sonum’ – ‘The trumpet, casting a wondrous sound’).

Performers: Martin Snell, bass; Leipzig Chamber Orchestra; Morten Schuldt-Jensen

Taken from Naxos 8.557728

Hector Berlioz (1803–1869)
Grande Messe des morts (‘Requiem’), Op. 5: Agnus Dei (‘Lamb of God’) (extract)

The bass trombone seems to represent the darkest depths.

Performers: Elora Festival Orchestra; Noel Edison

Taken from Naxos 8.554494–95

Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34 (extracts)

Benjamin Britten wrote The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra for an educational film. He used some music by Henry Purcell for his theme – Purcell was another great English composer, who had died 250 years earlier. The whole orchestra plays the theme at the beginning, and then each of the ‘variations’ – where the theme is disguised in different ways – features a new instrument or section. So here is the original theme and then the variation that features the trombone. In the theme, can you hear the first four notes rise up? They are in a minor key. In the variation, after an opening chord, there are four notes from the trombone that go down instead of up, this time in a major key instead of a minor key. It doesn’t matter if you don’t hear any connection between the theme and the variation though: you can just hear the sound of the trombone, sounding grand (and, at 0.14, the bass tuba right at the bottom)!

Performers: London Symphony Orchestra; Steuart Bedford

Taken from Naxos 8.557200

Trombone as Soloist

Luciano Berio (1925–2003)
Sequenza V

Composers are like painters: all of them are artists, who don’t always draw pretty pictures or write pretty tunes. They create things that make you think – things that sometimes attract you, sometimes shock you, sometimes scare you, and sometimes make you laugh. Art is always changing and fresh. So here are some sounds that you might not expect from the trombone, written by the Italian Luciano Berio. There is just one instrument and one player making these noises. What do you think happens at 0.13? And at 0.25? Did the trombonist blurt something out? Yes! How about 1.00…? At 1.05, you can hear the word ‘why’. The trombonist in this piece has to make vocal noises and speak, as well as play the trombone. See if you can create your own piece like this: curl your thumb round your fingers and press your lips against the fist you’ve made: blow out a sound and then whisper a word, then play another note and laugh… do whatever you like: it’s your piece!

Performers: Alain Trudel, trombone

Taken from Naxos 8.557661-63

Johann Georg Albrechtsberger (1736–1809)
Trombone Concerto in B flat major

This concerto was written for alto trombone instead of tenor trombone: before the 19th century, the alto trombone was used more than it is today. It is a bit smaller and higher in pitch than the tenor. Albrechtsberger was an Austrian composer and also a teacher – he even taught Beethoven. He wrote in a Classical style, in which things are balanced and clear: you can hear from the introduction from the orchestra at the beginning of this music that it is not designed to shock you, or present new sounds. The composer follows some of the established rules in building his musical work, and gives the trombone and the orchestra a pleasing piece to play. The trombone has a slide, so for fast notes this has to be moved really quickly: at 1.06 and 1.08 you can hear little trills (alternating notes quickly), produced by almost shaking the slide.

Performers: Alain Trudel, trombone & director; Northern Sinfonia

Taken from Naxos 8.553831

Gustav Holst (1874–1934)
Duet for trombone and organ

The English composer Holst is most famous for composing The Planets. He actually started out as a trombone player, which he began learning at the age of 12. Apparently, he thought that playing a brass instrument might help his asthma! He wrote this piece when he was quite young: it was first performed in 1895 by another trombonist, with Holst’s father playing the organ. The two instruments go well together: the organ can sound a bit like a trombone when you pull out the right stops.

Performers: Alain Trudel, trombone; Patrick Wedd, organ

Taken from Naxos 8.553716

Trombone in Groups

Astor Piazzolla (1921–1992)
Michelangelo 70 (arranged by Achilles Liarmakopoulos)

Sometimes the best thing to do, when there isn’t a lot of solo or chamber music for your instrument to play, is to arrange your own! This means taking pieces written for other instruments and making them fit yours. The trombonist on this recording has taken music by Astor Piazzolla, a famous tango performer and composer from Argentina. Piazzolla played the bandoneon, which is a kind of concertina: you pull apart the sides and push them back together, and the air squeezed out makes a sound. His music often has quite strong and exciting rhythms, which you can hear in this piece – which was originally written for bandoneón, violin, piano, electric guitar and bass. The trombone comes through clearly with the main tune at 1.06.

Performers: Achilles Liarmakopoulos, trombone; Héctor Del Curto, bandoneon; Octavio Brunetti, piano; Pedro Guiraudo, double bass

Taken from Naxos 8.572596

Astor Piazzolla (1921–1992)
Serie del Angel (arranged by Gabriel Senanes)

Full of romantic melodies and fun rhythms, this work was originally for bassoon, two violins, viola, cello and double bass; the trombone now takes the bassoon part. Listen to track 3 for an example of the most beautiful trombone playing, first of all alongside the other string instruments in a dreamlike sound and then, after a more fun and feisty section, completely on its own at 3.14–4.46.

Performers: Achilles Liarmakopoulos, trombone; Edson Scheid, violin; Jiyan Han, violin; Raul Garcia, viola; Arnold Choi, cello; Samuel Adams, double bass

Taken from Naxos 8.572596

Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)
Sonata for horn, trumpet and trombone

Poulenc, who liked experimenting with different combinations of instruments. Can you tell which one is the trumpet, which one the horn and which one the trombone? In general: the trumpet is the high one, the horn is the middle one, and the trombone plays at the bottom. In track 3, at 0.37, it does something that it specialises in: glissando! That’s a kind of slide in the music – and because the trombone has a slide instead of keys or valves, it does a good one. Can you hear it go ‘woooop’ three times?

Performers: Guy Touvron, trumpet; Hervé Joulain, horn; Jacques Mauger, trombone

Taken from Naxos 8.553613

Trombone in Jazz

Richard Carpenter (b.1946)
Walkin’

The trombone is really well suited to jazz. It can sound relaxed, sliding a little around its notes – and being relaxed is what jazz is all about! Richard Carpenter was friends with the great trumpeter Miles Davis, who made Walkin’ famous. Here, trombonist Clifford Adams leads his band in a new version of it. In jazz, there’s often a solo spot for each instrument: a time when all the focus is on it, and the other players just listen and support whatever they hear. The music is improvised – the players make it up as they go along, basing it on the original music. So you can hear the trombone have its time at 0.47; at 1.41 it’s taken over by the saxophone.

Performers: Clifford Adams, trombone; Antonio Hart, saxophone; Kenny Barron, piano; Ray Drummond; bass; Lewis Nash, drums

Taken from Naxos 86015-2

Clifford Adams (1952–2015)
Renatyah

The trombonist playing on this recording is also the composer of the music – jazz music is often made up by the performers. Sometimes it’s a new version of music already written, and other times it’s a completely new piece. Renatyah is new, and shows how the trombone can slip and slide with a big, warm sound: it’s like a relaxed party guest, casually wandering about, smiling to different people, taking a drink, and letting time drift by. Try walking around as you listen, and see what sort of walk suits the music best… Are you marching? Or are you moving your legs slowly, perhaps swaying a bit with each step?

Performers: Clifford Adams, trombone; Kenny Barron, piano; Ray Drummond; bass; Lewis Nash, drums

Taken from Naxos 86015-2