How Do Trombones Work?

Figuring out just how trombones work can be a surprisingly enlightening journey. There is a lot more to the instrument than making extremely loud noises. So, how do trombones work?

Trombones work by adjusting the slide to change the pitch. Using air pushed through a mouthpiece; the tubing transforms your air into noise. The trombone shifts from the first to the seventh position to adjust the pitch.

By figuring out the nuances behind the trombone, you’ll better understand how to play it. It takes great precision and awareness to master.

Taking this all into account gives a great insight into the inner workings of this brass behemoth. So, let’s dig into this member of the brass family.

History of the Trombone

Like many brass instruments, the trombone is hardly new and has existed in various incarnations for centuries. The history of the instrument dates back to Medieval Europe.

Most of the original forms of the instrument were found across European royal courts throughout the 14th century. During this time, horns were one of the premier musical devices used to enhance royal decrees and were involved in prestigious events.

Within the ensembles from the era, there was a horn with a long slide known for producing long notes. During the 1400s and 1500s, the instrument took on many names. This included “sackbut” in England & France, “posaune” in Germany, and “trombone” in Italy.

The older instruments were much more drawn out than their modern-day counterparts. The slide was shaped like an “S” with a much smaller bell to produce the sound. However, the brass instrument still maintained the core practice of what modern instruments do today- generate noise through vibrating air.

Trombones were used more widely in orchestras from the 1600s to 1800s. During this time, the modern form of the instrument took its shape and identity.

Many of these changes were developed in Germany throughout the 1800s. It was primarily the work of instrument maker Christian Fredrich Sattler in the 1820s. The Leipzig-based inventor pioneered the looped slide to set it in a lower pitch and produce a much larger bell for greater sound amplification.

Once performers and orchestras used the first designs throughout Germany, the new form of the trombone took hold across most of Europe. They were quickly adopted in major cities such as London and Paris and became the instrument we know today.

A Deep Dive into How Trombones Work

The trombone is a brass instrument that makes sounds like a trumpet or French horn. This means air is blown through a mouthpiece, vibrating directly against the metal as it travels through.

Below, you’ll learn how the different quirks of the instrument adjust how it works.

Slide Control

The control and positioning of the slide define many of the sounds generated by the trombone. As the slide is essentially two metal tubes over one another, the sounds vary depending on where the slide is positioned.

The slide is assigned to seven key positions – designed to represent hitting each of the seven keynotes. As the extra tubing of the slide is extended out, the pitch goes lower and hits lower notes. Therefore, the notes can be reflected according to position:

  • 1st position with the slide fully up (F)
  • 2nd position with slightly down (G)
  • 3rd position with slide 2/5 down (E)
  • 4th position with slide halfway down (D)
  • 5th position with slide 2/3 down (C)
  • 6th position with slide 4/5 down (B)
  • 7th position with slide fully extended (A)

These positions are based on what a modern tenor trombone would use. You can hear the notes changing as the slide moves to each position. This comes down to how the vibration frequency is reduced as the space between the slide tubes is extended.

Adjusting Air Flow

Another way to understand how a trombone works is by learning how airflow is regulated. As the only source to generate noise, managing how much air goes into the instrument dictates the type of octaves you will reach.

All of this can be controlled by the connection your mouth creates around the mouthpiece. If you blow loosely into the mouthpiece, you will generally hit a lower scale of notes. This conforms to the standard notations of F and works the way down the scale.

However, if you form a tighter seal with your lips around the mouthpiece, you can hit much higher octaves and produce a different set of notes. For example, an open slide in the 1st position switches from F to A#.

Understanding these mechanics means trombone players must use their ears carefully to ensure they hit the right notes. This also corresponds with a sharp eye on the slide to ensure you are in the right spot to hit your target note.

Three Types of Trombone

When you see people mentioning a trombone, this usually refers to a tenor slide trombone. This makes it set to perform for all types of music genres and hit all common notes and scales. However, this is not the only trombone type out there. There are several different types of trombones which include:

1. Bass Trombones

Compared to standard trombones, bass trombones can hit much lower notes than their tenor counterparts. This comes through two different design variations:

  • A larger bell to allow notes to pitch lower
  • Two valves to correct pitch and tones

The most notable feature is the inclusion of two valve pipes within the instrument’s body. The vibrations are confined to a much smaller space as the air reaches these two looped valves. With the vibrations diverted into much smaller spaces, the air levels are reduced, further lowering the pitch as sounds are made.

The lowest version of the bass trombone is the contrabass trombone. These trombones are typically only found in orchestral music and operas.

2. Valve Trombones

Featuring designs reminiscent of a trumpet and other brass instruments, valve trombones have a set of valves installed at the top of the slide. Much like a trumpet or cornet, these trombone variants often have three valves included to alternate pitch variations.

With the valves built into the trombone, these are much different to play and hear than a standard slide trombone. Having the valves allows for vibrations to be manipulated in a host of different ways.

This includes producing much faster or rapid notes – like a trumpet – that can be played in quick succession. On top of that, the increased rate of air fluctuation generally means notes are tuned to a slightly higher scale than normal trombones. It makes it a particularly popular option within ska or reggae bands.

3. Superbone

While both slide and valve trombones have been common since the 19th century, a hybrid version of both instruments is only a contemporary take on the trombone. Dubbed superbones, the joint slide/valve combination was a design that took off in the 1970s by American jazz bands.

Sporting a valve section much like a trumpet but also utilizing a long slide, superbones produce a wealth of different sounds. When it is being played, the slide can be used with several valve combinations to reach higher notes and manipulate the note being played.

It does see the traditional slide positions shifted slightly, so players have to factor that in when they are using the valves as they play.

Wrap Up

As you can see, there are a wealth of neat little quirks for mastering the trombone in its purest form. Of course, much of the mechanics comes down to the instrument’s design. Modern trombones have compacted mechanical designs and enlarged bells, having evolved from earlier forms of the instrument.

When it comes to playing modern forms of the trombone, it all comes down to manipulating the slide and the airflow inside of the instrument. Extending the slide position or adjusting the seal around the mouthpiece controls the air vibrations going into the instrument. Other variations on the instrument, such as the addition of valves, give the ability to change the pitch and tone of a trombone.

Seeing how trombones work shows that the trombone is not just an instrument all about making loud noises. It’s why understanding how trombones work showcases the instrument in a new light.

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