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Trombone

From Academic Kids

Slide trombone, with slide extended.This model has a B♭ to F attachment.
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Slide trombone, with slide extended.
This model has a B♭ to F attachment.

The trombone is a musical instrument in the brass family. It is pitched lower than the trumpet, and higher than the tuba. A person who plays the trombone is called a trombonist.

The word trombone derives from Italian tromba — "trumpet" — and -one — a suffix for "large". Thus, quite literally, a trombone is a "big trumpet." In symphonic literature, the trombone is referred to by its name in other languages, e.g. posaune, basun, tromba spezzata.

Contents

Trombone construction

The trombone consists of a cylindrical tube bent into an elongated "S" shape in a complex series of tapers, the smallest being at the mouthpiece receiver, and the largest being at the throat of the bell, before the flare for the bell begins. (Careful design of these tapers is critical to the intonation of the instrument.) As with other Brass instruments, sound is produced by blowing air through closed lips producing a vibration that creates a standing wave in the instrument. The detachable mouthpiece is inserted into the slide section which consists of a lead-pipe, inner and outer slide tubes, and bracing. The hand slide or slide allows the player to extend the length of the instrument, lowering the pitch. Additional tubing connects the slide to the bell of the instrument through a neckpipe, and back bow. Tuning adjustment is most often accomplished with a tuning slide that is a short slide between the neckpipe and the bell. Like the trumpet, the trombone is considered a cylindrical bore instrument since it has sections of tubing that are of continuous diameter. This is in contrast to conical bore instruments like the cornet, euphonium, and tuba. Tenor trombones typically have an interior bore of between .470" (small bore) and .547" (large or orchestral bore) after the lead pipe and through the hand slide. The bore expands through the neck pipe and backbore to the bell which is typically between 7" and 8?". A number of common variations on trombone construction are noted below.

History

Until around the 18th century, the trombone was called the Sackbut in English. This was not a distinct instrument from the trombone, but rather a different name used for an earlier form (other countries used the same name throughout the instrument's history). The sackbut was slightly smaller than modern trombones, and had a bell that was more conical and less flared. Today, sackbut is generally used to refer to the earlier form of the instrument, commonly used in early music ensembles.

The classical trombone can usually be found in such modern ensembles as wind ensembles / concert bands, symphony orchestras, marching bands, Military bands, brass bands, brass choirs, etc. It can be part of smaller groups as well, such as brass quintets, quartets, or trios, or trombone trios, quartets, or choirs (though the size of a trombone choir can vary greatly from five or six to 20 or more members).

Trombones are also common in swing, jazz, salsa, and ska music.

The repertoire of trombone solo and ensemble literature has grown steadily since its beginnings in the Romantic era, and the modern soloist has a wide variety of genres from which to choose. Pre-Romantic (esp. Baroque) literature is often borrowed from other instruments, usually cello or bassoon.

Types of trombones

Tenor trombone

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Tenor trombone

The standard tenor trombone has a fundamental note of B♭ and is usually treated as a nontransposing instrument (see below). Since trombones have no valves or keys to change the pitch by a definite amount, trombonists learn seven slide positions. The slide is in "first position" when it is retracted all the way and in "seventh position" when it is almost completely extended. Extending the slide from one position to the next lowers the pitch by one semitone. Thus, for each note in the harmonic series a downwards interval of up to a tritone may be added to the 1st position note, making the lowest note of the standard instrument an E natural. However, most professional trombonists can play lower "false tones" and much lower "pedal tones" on the instrument.

Modern tenor trombones often include an extra attachment of tubing which can be activated by a trigger or valve. Normally a rotary valve is used, but many modern trombones use other types of valves such as the Thayer Valve. Although these trombones use valves they are not called valve trombones. Depressing this trigger (called colloquially in Britain and the Commonwealth a plug) effectively changes the key of the instrument, facilitating, among many things, the playing of faster passages and legato sections, as well as extending the low range of the trombone. The distance between each position is longer in the new key. There are only six positions available to the player instead of the standard seven as the slide is too short for what is effectively a trombone in F; the distance between positions is 4/3 as long as for a B♭ instrument. It should be noted that on this variation of the instrument, the low B (two leger lines below the bass clef staff is impossible to play, unless the F attachment is tuned to E.

Bass trombone

Bass Trombone
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Bass Trombone

The modern bass trombone is also pitched in a nontransposing B♭. It is similar in length to the tenor trombone but has a larger bore size and two valves that change the key of the instrument — generally to F (or G♭) and D (sometimes E♭) — making it easier to play lower notes. This also allows the player to bridge the entire gap between the first harmonic and the fundamental. The notes on the bass trombone are played in the same position on the slide as the tenor trombone. There is usually one bass trombone player in a standard symphony orchestra, and they are also often seen in swing bands, wind ensembles, and a variety of brass groups.

Bore sizes of this instrument are generally just larger than those of the largest tenor trombones. Typical specifications would include a bore size of .562" in the slide and .580" through the attachment(s), with a bell from 8.5" to 10.5".

Earlier versions of the bass trombone were of smaller bore than modern bass trombones described above. These were pitched in G or F, had a longer slide and a handle attached to the slide to allow for full extension to seventh position.

Other trombones

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Contrabass Trombone

The contrabass trombone is probably the rarest extant, pitched an octave (or a perfect fourth) lower than tenor or bass trombones. Bore sizes for this instrument are typically in the .620" to .635" range, which is comparable to the bore of a tuba. There are various ways and means of producing a double-length trombone, but a relatively common (and space-saving) device is a double-coiled slide. Wagner's Ring Cycle calls for a contrabass trombone. More about contrabass trombones. (http://www.contrabass.com/pages/cbtbn.html)


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Alto Trombone

The alto trombone is pitched in E♭ or F, sometimes with a B♭ attachment, and is smaller than the tenor trombone. Because of its shorter length, the slide positions are different than on the tenor and bass trombones. The tone of the alto is more brilliant than that of the tenor or bass trombone. The bore of an orchestral alto trombone is similar to that of a small tenor trombone — usually a dual-bore around .452"–.500", with a 6.5" or 7" bell. The alto trombone is primarily used in symphonic settings, although it has enjoyed a history as a solo instrument. Modern composers have rediscovered the instrument and the alto trombone has begun making more appearances in modern compositions. Modern professional tenor trombonists in the classical music realm are increasingly expected to also have fluency on alto trombone.

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Soprano Trombone

Pitched in B♭ with a bore size of between .450" and .470" and a trumpet-sized bell, the soprano trombone is an even shorter instrument, and offers a brighter, more trumpet-like sound than any other trombone. Essentially a "slide-trumpet" (its mouthpiece is generally a trumpet mouthpiece), scores for the soprano trombone are found in trombone choir and other brass ensembles, though few classical pieces call for the instrument. Indeed, the history of the soprano trombone is questionable, and it may be that the instrument is not a classical instrument at all, but a more modern derivation of the trombone.

Piccolo Trombone
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Piccolo Trombone

The sopranino trombone and piccolo trombone are even smaller and higher instruments than the soprano. They are also extremely rare. Sopraninos and piccolos are pitched in E♭ and B♭ respectively. They are called for in some trombone choir literature. Bore sizes are usually around .430" and .400" respectively, with 4" bells.

Valve trombone

Valve Trombone
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Valve Trombone

Valve trombones, although potentially in any pitch, almost always have the same tonal range as a tenor trombone, though a somewhat different attack, as they are shaped more like very large trumpets. Some musicians consider them difficult to play in tune, although a small minority (often former trumpeters whose embouchures are more suitable to lower-ranged instruments but prefer not to learn slide technique) prefer them to the more common slide trombone.

The valve trombone enjoyed its greatest popularity in the 19th century when the technology of rotary valve and piston valve instruments was developing rapidly. With the mass producition of better quality reliable slide trombones starting at the end of the 19th century, the slide trombone again became the most popular variety just after the start of the 20th century.

Other instruments with similar range and tone quality are the baritone horn and euphonium. Wagner also wrote a part for a bass trumpet in his Ring Cycle, and Berlioz for his Grande Messe des Morts; these parts are normally played by trombonists. A handful of other works in the classical repertoire also use this instrument. Certain passages of music are significantly easier to play on a valve trombone, while others are easier on a slide. A contrabass version of the valve trombone is the cimbasso.

An unusual variation has both a slide and valves. These were first manufactured in the early 20th century, have sometimes been known as a valide trombone, but is now best known as a superbone.

Playing the trombone

As with all brass instruments, progressive tightening of the lips and increased air pressure allow the player to move to a different partial, up the harmonic series. In the lower range, significant movement of the slide is required, but for higher notes the player need only use four or fewer positions of the slide, since the partials are closer together, allowing higher notes to be played in alternate positions; for example, F natural (at the bottom of the treble clef) may be played in both first, fourth and sixth positions. The note E1 [or the lowest E on a standard 88-key piano] is the lowest attainable note on a straight tenor trombone (i.e. without a trigger), requiring a full 2.24 m of tubing, but the repertoire seldom demands anything below G1.

Musician on left with slide trombone; on right with valve trombone.
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Musician on left with slide trombone; on right with valve trombone.

The trombone (unlike most brass instruments) is not normally a transposing instrument and reads the bass clef (especially bass trombones), although it is common for trombone music to be written also in tenor clef, or alto clef. The use of alto clef is usually confined to older orchestral first trombone parts, with the second trombone part written in tenor clef and the third part in bass clef. As alto trombones are no longer in very widespread use, this is rather a declining tradition, akin to writing Double Bass parts up a twelfth. Exceptions to this occur often in Soviet and older Eastern European orchestral music, where many pieces have both first and second (tenor) trombones notated in alto clef.

In brass band music, however, the trombone is treated like all the other members [excepting the bass trombone] as a transposing instrument in B♭ and reads the treble clef. By happy coincidence, this puts the notes in exactly the same stave position as they would be if the music were written in a (non-transposing) tenor clef, though the key signature must be adjusted. A similar conversion can be used to read E♭ baritone saxophone parts on occasion; one simply reads treble clef as bass and adds three flats to the key signature. An accomplished performer would be expected to be proficient in reading material in bass clef, tenor clef, alto clef, and (more rarely) treble clef in C, with the british brass band performer expected to handle treble clef in B♭ as well.

A variety of mutes can be used with the trombone to alter its timbre, including the cup mute, straight mute, harmon mute, bucket mute, solotone mute and wah-wah mute. In addition to mutes which are fitted inside the bell of the horn, other effects are used (especially in jazz playing) with objects held in the hand in front of the bell or moved in and out of the bell. These include a wah-wah effect with a metal cup which looks like a bowler hat, and the plunger, which looks like (and often is) the rubber suction cup from a toilet plunger. On occasion actual hats have been used, as have soap dishes, saucepans and even stranger objects.

Variations on construction

Some trombones have valves instead of a slide: see valve trombone, above. Some trombones are tuned through a mechanism in the hand slide rather than on a separate tuning slide. Common and popular bore sizes are .500", .508", .525" and .547" for Tenor trombones, .565" for modern Bass trombones. The instrument may also be dual-bore, where the bore in the top half of the slide is smaller than the bore in the bottom half of the slide. The most common dual-bore combinations are ≤.500"–.508", .508"–.525", .525"–.547", .525"–.547". More often than not, tenor trombones with an F attachment have a larger bore through the attachment than through the straight section (the portion of the trombone through which the air flows when the attachment's trigger is not depressed). Typically, for orchestral instruments, the slide bore is .547" and the attachment's bore is .562". Smaller varieties exist both for less experienced players and for players looking to use an attachment in jazz settings. Bell sizes are sometimes 9" or even 10" for Bass trombones. A wide variety of valve attachments and combinations are available.


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