Trumpet

Courtesy of Vincent Bach
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Pitch range

Trumpet pitch range, courtesy of Hannah Whale

The trumpet is a bold, bright, confident instrument. It speaks plainly, clearly and often loudly!

You might hear it playing high, soaring proudly over the top of the orchestra like a striking bird of prey and attracting attention to itself. It stands out from the crowd and makes sure that you’re listening to it.

Inside the orchestra 

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

Plan of the orchestra showing the trumpets

The trumpet often has sudden, loud statements. It comes blasting in with lots of exciting notes and then disappears, leaving you wondering where it’s gone. It’s good at fanfares – and so it should be, since those are all it ever used to play!

Trumpet players have a lot of rests. In some 18th-century music – including pieces by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert – they spend more time waiting to play than actually playing.

But at the end of the 19th century, composers started going crazy. They wanted more and more brass, so instead of two trumpets you could find five or six in one piece. Think about how loud one trumpet is… then imagine how loud six would be!

Today you will often find three trumpets in the brass section. 

Outside the orchestra

Chamber music: Not found here very often – it’s a bit too dominant to blend easily with other instruments.

Solo pieces: Several after the 18th century, but not that many in total.

Jazz: The trumpet loves jazz! It can be soulful as well as energetic – and it can even growl.

Part of Parker’s Mood by Charlie Parker (1920–1955), who was a jazz saxophonist and song-writer

Charlie Parker: Parker’s Mood (extract)

James Zollar, leader & trumpet; Bill Cunliffe, piano; John Clayton, bass; Paul Kreibich, drums Naxos 86008-2

Concertos: Many in the late Baroque and Classical periods. Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto (1796) is very famous.

Part of Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto

Haydn: Trumpet Concerto. III. Allegro (extract)

Niklas Eklund, trumpet; Swedish Chamber Orchestra; Roy Goodman. Naxos 8.554806

 

The young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

The young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

When Mozart was little, he was terrified of the trumpet!

The valves of the trumpet, courtesy of Yamaha & Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins

The valves of the trumpet

Construction of the trumpet

The trumpet is a cylindrical tube of brass, looped round. It widens to a bell at one end and has a cup-shaped mouthpiece at the other end.

It has three piston valves. The player presses these for different notes.

For more about how valves work, go to the Brass Family section.

To play it

Images courtesy of Yamaha & Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins1. Put your lips on the mouthpiece… 2. The air that you blow travels through the tube… 3. You press the valves for different notes… 4. The sound comes blasting out of the bell.

The lips aren’t rammed hard onto the mouthpiece, but they have to be fairly firm. As with all wind instruments, you get more used to this the more you do it, and your ‘embouchure’, as it is called (the way the mouth is applied to the instrument), gets better.

Trumpeter in playing position, courtesy of Tony Morrell

Trumpeter in playing position

You need plenty of energy to play the trumpet, especially for long notes.

Trumpeters use three things to play different notes:

  1. Lips
  2. Diaphragm
  3. Valves

The quality of playing is actually affected by the spaces in a player’s head, throat and chest. When the player blows, these spaces act as ‘resonators’ and affect the sound.

Special effects

Trumpeters can do all the special effects listed in the Brass Instruments section on the trumpet (double-tonguing, flutter-tonguing, vibrato, glissando).

With the correct mute in the bell, the trumpet can even make a comical ‘waa-waa’ sound too!

Other trumpets

There are several kinds of trumpet. It used to come in even more sizes, but these are now the most common:

Trumpet in B flat (the usual one)

Trumpet in C

Trumpet in D / E flat

J.S. Bach wrote some really high trumpet parts, which were played on a special, smaller trumpet. In fact, people talk about the ‘Bach trumpet’, but nobody is sure exactly what this instrument was. Today, these high parts are usually played on the piccolo trumpet.

Piccolo trumpet

Piccolo trumpet, courtesy of Vincent Bach

Piccolo trumpet

Piccolo trumpet pitch range, courtesy of Hannah Whale

Piccolo trumpet pitch range

The piccolo trumpet is the very little one. It has four valves and is happiest playing up high. It’s used for a lot of Bach’s high trumpet parts today.

The piccolo trumpet sounding high, bright and brilliant!

J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 (extract)

Cologne Chamber Orchestra; Helmut Müller-Brühl. Naxos 8.554607

 

Cornet

Cornet, courtesy of Vincent Bach

Cornet

The cornet looks like a fat trumpet. But its shape gives it a sweeter, less piercing sound. It’s found most often in brass bands.

 

The cornet in military style, sounding like a trumpet

Stravinsky: The Soldier’s Tale (extract)

Northern Chamber Orchestra; Nicholas Ward. Naxos 8.553662

Find out more about the development of the Trumpet in .

A Little History of the Trumpet

The trumpet is very old. And it had quite a journey to become the instrument it is today…

B.C.

The first picture of a trumpet dates from before 2,000 B.C., in Egypt. In the 14th century B.C. people believed that the trumpet was invented by the god Osiris, who represented goodness and sunlight. It used to feature in all kinds of sacred rites and ceremonies at this time.

A silver trumpet was found in Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt in 1922: it had been lying there undiscovered for 3,000 years. In 1939 a recording of its sound was made in Cairo for the BBC – but the strain of being played made it shatter into pieces.

War

Many years ago, the trumpet became linked with war. It was smart, impressive, strong, loud: all the things that a military instrument should be. Its early shape was straight and simple: no holes, valves or keys; no bends or twists – just a plain brass tube.

So in its early years, the trumpet was used for sounding signals and not for playing music. But from around the 14th century, this unwieldy long brass tube was bent into shapes that were easier to hold – firstly into a kind of ‘S’ shape, and then into more like the shape we know today. These ‘natural’ trumpets became proper musical instruments.

Snobs

The trumpet never lost its self-importance. In the 15th century, trumpeters were really snobbish. They decided to set up their own special clubs, called ‘guilds’, just for themselves. They demanded that they and their trumpets would be the only ones to play in all kinds of feasts and processions. And… they got away with it!

Trumpets announced things. They made ceremonies seem even more important and impressive.

King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I of England both employed 12 or more trumpeters to be at their beck and call.

Problem

But the trouble with the trumpet years ago was that it couldn’t play all the notes. The player would use the diaphragm (the little muscle at the bottom of his lungs) and lips to play higher or lower. But there were still some notes that couldn’t be played. So the quest began for a solution to the problem…

Slide trumpet and crooks, courtesy of Robb Stewart

Slide trumpet and crooks

Slides: Around 1400, the trumpet was given a U-shaped slide, a bit like a trombone slide. This helped it to reach other notes. The ‘slide trumpet’ was quite successful, but people still wanted a better instrument.

Crooks: In the 17th and 18th centuries, the trumpet was given ‘crooks’: extra bits of tube. But they had to be constantly changed during a piece and were too clumsy.

Keys: In the 1760s, keys were added (usually five). This meant that a lot more notes could be played more easily. Problem solved? Apparently not! The sound of the keyed trumpet was too feeble for it to join the orchestra…

Haydn wrote his famous Trumpet Concerto for the ‘keyed trumpet’ in 1796, though it is played on a normal trumpet these days.

Valves: In the 1820s, the trumpet finally got its valves!

This set it free. It took a while, but composers realised what a brilliant instrument they had at their fingertips. Wagner was one of the first to realise its true potential. In his opera Tannhäuser, he made the most of its cutting sound and gave it blaring, festive music.

Today

Today, the trumpet hasn’t changed. It’s the high voice of the brass section. And although trumpeters don’t have their guilds anymore, some still reckon they’re better than everyone else!

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Which of these does a trumpet have?

a. Slide
b. Reed
c. Valves

 What is the name of the muscle that has to work hard in trumpeters (and other wind players)?

a. Diaphragm
b. Quadricep
c. Gluteal

 Which of these is a trumpet good at?

a. Fairytales
b. Fanfares
c. Funfairs

 The mouthpiece of the trumpet is what shape?

a. Mug
b. Cup
c. Spoon

 What did the trumpet have before it got its valves?

a. Levers
b. Buttons
c. Keys

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

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

Selected Trumpet and Piccolo Trumpet Extracts

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809)
Trumpet Concerto in E flat major, Hob. VIIe:1: III. Allegro (extract)

The trumpet shines in this bright and cheerful final movement to Haydn’s Concerto.

Performers: Niklas Eklund, trumpet; Swedish Chamber Orchestra; Roy Goodman

Taken from Naxos 8.554806

Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)
Concerto in C for two trumpets, RV 537: I. Allegro (extract)

Two trumpets give double the brightness in this Concerto by Vivaldi.

Performers: Crispian Steele-Perkins, trumpet; Michael Meekes, trumpet; City of London Sinfonia; Nicholas Kraemer

Taken from Naxos 8.553204

Leoš Janáček (1854–1928)
Sinfonietta, JW VI/18: IV. Allegretto (extract)

Trumpets make you sit up and listen!

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Ondrej Lenárd

Taken from Naxos 8.550411

Gustav Mahler (1860–1911)
Symphony No. 5: I. Trauermarsch (‘Funeral March’) (extract)

Here a single trumpeter sitting in a huge orchestra has a brilliant, fanfare-like solo.

Performers: Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Antoni Wit

Taken from Naxos 8.550528

Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971)
The Soldier’s Tale: Part II: III. The Royal March (extract)

The cornet has a military role to play in Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale – and sounds very like a trumpet.

Performers: Northern Chamber Orchestra; Nicholas Ward

Taken from Naxos 8.553662

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F major, BWV 1047: I. [Allegro] (extract)

The piccolo trumpet sounding high, bright and brilliant!

Performers: Cologne Chamber Orchestra; Helmut Müller-Brühl

Taken from Naxos 8.554607

Classical Trumpet

Henry Purcell (1659–1695)
The Indian Queen, Z. 630: Trumpet Tune

This is a famous tune for the trumpet by Henry Purcell. Here, it is accompanied by the organ. It comes from his opera, or masque, called The Indian Queen but is often heard on its own. It’s the kind of music that is used to announce or celebrate something – so it might be used at a wedding. Satisfying to play, it’s confident, bright music!

Performers: György Geiger, trumpet; Bertalan Hock, organ

Taken from Naxos 8.556839

Jeremiah Clarke (c.1674–1707)
Trumpet Voluntary

For a long time, people thought that Henry Purcell wrote this trumpet piece. It was published with Purcell’s name on it, but in fact it was by Jeremiah Clarke, a composer and organist. It is often heard at weddings, and it has the same sort of beautiful glory and grandeur of Purcell’s pieces for trumpet. The trumpet excels at glory and grandeur!

Performers: György Geiger, trumpet; Bertalan Hock, organ

Taken from Naxos 8.550790

Leopold Mozart (1719–1787)
Trumpet Concerto in D major

This is by Mozart, but not Wolfgang Amadeus – it’s Wolfgang’s father, Leopold. He was a composer too. He wrote it in 1762. The trumpet at this time – the ‘baroque trumpet’, or ‘natural trumpet’ – was longer and had no valves. Some trumpeters today are experts in playing this kind of instrument; they use it instead of a modern trumpet. Originally it couldn’t produce all the notes you’d expect, and those it could produce were hard to keep in tune – they’d be flat or sharp. The natural trumpets that are made today (for people to produce the sound of this earlier time) have finger holes, so they’re a little easier – but still tricky! It’s a slightly mellower, rounder, smoother sound than the modern trumpet though. The trumpeter on this recording plays a natural trumpet. Just listen to the brilliant, high cadenza from 4.19 in track 1: this is the showy bit in a concerto where the soloist plays completely alone. Here, the soloist has made up the music himself, to suit the rest of the concerto: this is what always used to happen. So everything is just as it would have been in Leopold Mozart’s day!

Performers: Niklas Eklund, trumpet; Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble; Nils-Erik Sparf

Taken from Naxos 8.553531

Aaron Copland (1900–1990)
Quiet City

A trumpeter’s lonely voice sounds in the night hours of a city. Can you hear it come in first at 0.35? This is trumpet music of a different character – atmospheric, depicting the hours in city streets where just one or two people might be walking along. Maybe a car passes… but otherwise it’s quiet and lit by streetlights. So there is a trumpet (one lone voice) and also a cor anglais (another lone voice) wandering the streets too – we hear the cor anglais first at 0.12. Born in New York City, composer Aaron Copland used to like composing at night and thinking about quiet streets before the city awakes for a new day. Listen to how the lone voices pass close to each other: cor anglais at 7.14, the orchestra disappearing to leave it completely by itself, echoed by the trumpet at 7.24.

Performers: Paula Engerer, cor anglais; Scott Moore, trumpet; Nashville Chamber Orchestra; Paul Gambill

Taken from Naxos 8.559069

Jazz Trumpet

Charlie Parker (1920–1955)
Barbados

The trumpet is a great jazz instrument too. Here, the trumpeter takes a tune by the great jazz saxophonist Charlier Parker as his main ingredient, and creates his own piece with his band. In jazz, the trumpet is sometimes mellow and relaxed, and sometimes squeaky and frantic. Here, beginning at 0.10, it is pretty relaxed. The player is improvising – making his part up as he goes along, listening to the others in his band: he responds to them and they respond to him, so the whole thing is like a series of circles. Can you hear the pizzicato double bass? Its notes are like springs for the music: boing, boing, boing. At 4.05 it even has a solo of its own!

Performers: James Zollar, leader and trumpet; Bill Cunliffe, piano; John Clayton, bass; Paul Kreibich, drums

Taken from Naxos 86008-2

Charlie Parker (1920–1955)
Steeplechase

Here’s a more squeaky, frantic jazz trumpet! The player is using another tune by Charlie Parker, as in the previous piece, above. There’s a clue in the title, ‘Steeplechase’: steeplechase comes from horseracing, so we wouldn’t expect the music to be slow and calm. The best demonstration of the trumpet’s ability to be cool and agile is right at the beginning: supported by drums and bass, it spins and twirls!

Performers: James Zollar, leader and trumpet; Bill Cunliffe, piano; Ron Eschete, guitar; John Clayton, bass; Paul Kreibich, drums

Taken from Naxos 86008-2