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50 Facts About the Trombone
I've been playing trombone for seven years. I wanted to create a book that contains easily digestible information about the trombone for beginning players or those who are just curious.
The word “trombone” is Italian, and translates to “large trumpet.”
The trombone is a descendant of a similar instrument—called the sackbut—that originated in the 15th century. “Sackbut” is English term that is likely derived from the word “sacquer,” which means to draw out. The sackbut had a much smaller bell than the present-day trombone, which caused it to produce a less brilliant sound.
The German term for trombone is posaune.
The trombone reads music from the bass clef, which is the lower of the two major musical clefs (treble being the other).
The trombone is available in a variety of sizes, ranging from contrabass to piccolo. The intermediate sizes are, from lowest to highest: bass, tenor, alto, soprano. By far the most common trombone is the tenor, but the bass trombone is also relatively prevalent.
The F attachment, featured on base trombones and some tenor trombones, gives the trombonist access an extra length of tubing, which allows lower notes to be reached.
The straight trombone refers to a tenor trombone that lacks an F attachment and has a smaller bore (diameter of tubing). These trombones are used in jazz, due to their greater dexterity, higher range, and brighter sound. On the other hand, trombones with the F attachment have a slightly larger bore, which leads to a lower range and a more mellow sound. As a result, this type of trombone is more fit for the orchestra.
Most other brass instruments utilize valves to change pitch, but the trombone relies on a slide to do so. The farther out the slide extends, the lower the note that is produced.
To produce higher notes in the same slide position, the trombonist tightens his or her lips. To produce lower notes, the trombonist loosens his or her lips.
Like all other woodwind instruments, the trombone requires tonguing to produce distinct notes. Tonguing is the process of placing one’s tongue on the roof of the mouth to stop airflow, and thus giving the note a definite end point.
There are seven distinct positions on the trombone.
The set of notes that can be produced by a slide position are known as that position’s harmonic series. For instance, the harmonic series for first position is B♭1, B♭2, F3, B♭3, D4, F4, B♭4, C5. Higher notes than C5 can be played in first position only by highly skilled trombonists.
In baroque times, the trombone was considered a sacred instrument, only appropriate for the church setting.
Beethoven was the first composer to write for the trombone outside of a religious setting. He did so in 1808, with his Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 76.
The trombone began to rise to greater prominence in jazz during the 1920s, when trombonists such as JJ Johnson popularized it as a solo instrument.
The trombone is not very commonly utilized as a solo instrument in classical music. However, there have been a few notable trombone virtuosos within the last century, such as Arthur Pryor, Christian Lindberg, Joseph Alessi, Jörgen van Rijen, and Ian Bousfield.
Today, the trombone is most common in jazz bands, military bands, marching bands, and orchestras. However, they are used for a wide variety of other genres, such as pop, R&B, and salsa.
The most viewed YouTube video pertaining to the trombone is titled “When Mom Isn’t Home,” and consists of a dad playing a riff on the trombone while his son repeatedly bangs an oven door. The video has garnered over sixteen million views.
With all of its tubing stretched out in a straight line, the trombone is nine feet long.
It would take 207,595,571 trombones, with their slides fully extended, to circle the earth at its widest point.
The tenor trombone is pitched in B flat, an octave lower than the trumpet. The B flat is thus known as the trombone’s fundamental pitch.
Trombone music is written in concert pitch, and as such, is termed a non-transposing instrument. This means that when a trombone plays a C, a true C is produced. This is in contrast to many other instruments, such as the trumpet, clarinet, alto saxophone, french horn, and tenor saxophone. These instruments are in keys other than C, which causes them to produce a different note when they play their version of a C. For example, when an alto saxophone plays its C, it is actually playing an E flat, because it’s an E flat instrument. This means that if an alto sax player wants to play music written in concert pitch, he or she has to adjust for the key the instrument is in. This process is known as transposing. The advantage of playing a non-transposing instrument, like the trombone, is that this process of adjusting one’s playing isn’t required.
During the 1800s, when the alto trombone was more common, orchestras consisted of an alto, a tenor, and a bass trombone. Accordingly, trombone parts were written out in alto clef, tenor clef, and bass clef. This convention has persisted up to the present day. However, due to the decreased popularity of the alto trombone, modern orchestras now contain two tenor trombones and a bass trombone. This means that tenor trombonists must be able to read alto and tenor clef when playing in an orchestra.
The range of notes a trombone can play depends greatly on the experience of the trombonist. A typical range of an intermediate player would be from B flat 1 to B flat 4. However, expert players are usually expected to be able to play as low as a G1 and as high as an F5.
Knowing where the slide positions are located is one of the most difficult aspects of playing trombone. As such, trombonists have developed certain tricks to help locate some of these positions more easily. First position is the simplest; the slide is completely drawn in. Third position occurs when the trombonist is holding the slide and puts his or her fingers up against the bell. When the edge of the slide is aligned with the end of the bell, the trombone is in fourth position. Seventh position is at the very end of the slide and is usually as far as most people can reach. As for second, fifth, and sixth positions, trombonists have to memorize exactly where these positions are on the slide.
Bass trombones have a second trigger that allows them to reach even lower notes than the tenor trombone.
To play extremely fast passages, trombonists have to utilize double tonguing. Double tonguing involves alternating the part of the tongue that touches the roof of the mouth from the tip to the back.
The trombone is the loudest instrument in the orchestra, capable of producing up to 115 decibels. However, the trumpet is often considered the easiest to hear, since it produces much higher pitches at almost as great of a volume as the trombone.
A story was circulated in 1998 that reported the death of a man by trombone slide. The culprit was reported to have gotten “carried away” with the music to the point that he was thrashing about as he played, and accidentally struck the person sitting in front of him. The story originated from a satirical news source that had been misinterpreted by the public as legitimate. The fake story was later debunked by Mythbusters.
The trombone’s slide allows it to easily perform a glissando, which is an effect that involves capturing all the pitches between notes. The trombone is one of the only instruments capable of playing a true glissando, the others being the human voice, slide whistles, and some string instruments.
Since higher notes are progressively closer together in frequency, higher notes on the trombone have to be played in adjusted positions (They don’t fall exactly on the traditional seven positions). For instance, a high F sharp has to be played slightly above third position.
Slurring, or playing notes with no separation between them, is often impossible to truly accomplish on the trombone. Since the slide captures tones between each note, the only notes that trombonists can truly slur between are those that are played in the same position. For notes that can’t be played in the same position, trombonists must use legato tonguing—a smooth form of articulation—in the place of a true slur.
Although the trombone’s slide is advantageous for performing a glissando, the slide makes it difficult to perform a trill. When trilling on a valved instrument, one simply has to quickly oscillate between keys. When performing a trill on a string instrument, one simply has to quickly change finger positions. However, on the trombone, performing a trill between two notes that are not in the same slide position is very cumbersome. When the notes are in the same position, a lip trill is used, since the trombonist can adjust his or her lips to rapidly alternate between the two partials.
A helpful technique for trombonists is the use of alternate positions. Alternate positions allow the same note to be played in two or more positions. For instance a B flat 3 can be played in both first and fifth positions. This helps trombonists slur and trill more easily, and also allows fast passages to be played with greater ease.
The largest recorded trombone ensemble played in the Washington Nationals’ baseball stadium on June 1, 2012. There were 368 trombonists involved.
Like most other instruments, trombones utilize various types of mutes to give a different color to its sound. Mutes are inserted into the trombone’s bell. The most common mutes used on a trombone are cup and straight mutes.
In addition to mutes, an add-on that’s more specific to the trombone is the plunger. By placing the end of the plunger in front of the bell and drawing it back and forth, the trombonist can produce a “wah-wah” sound effect that’s often incorporated in jazz.
The voice of the teacher in Charlie Brown is actually a trombone being played with a plunger.
Some of the major brands that produce trombones are Medini, Yamaha, Bach, and Conn.
Although, like other brass instruments, the trombone is typically made out of brass, plastic trombones have also been made. This plastic version has been termed the “pBone.”
The cost of a trombone depends, first and foremost, on the type. While straight trombones can be purchased for under $500, F attachment trombones typically cost between $1000 and $3000. As such, straight trombones are the preferred option for student rentals.
Popular characters that play the trombone include Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin.
The trombone has a water key at the end of its slide that can be opened to release moisture that has accumulated within the slide. The water key is colloquially known as the “spit valve.”
Several wacky variations of the trombone exist or have existed. The valve trombone appears much like the standard tenor trombone, but replaces the slide with trumpet-like valves as the means of changing pitch. The superbone has valves in conjunction with a functioning slide. The cimbasso is a variation of the valve trombone in which the slide meets the rest of the instrument at a ninety-degree angle. The buccin was a trombone, popular in 19th century France, that replaced the traditional bell with an animal-inspired opening, usually a dragon’s head.
Composer Richard Strauss famously cautioned against looking at the trombone section when conducting, as doing so “only encourages them” to play louder.
Trombonists have to take several steps to ensure that their instrument stays clean and functioning properly. Slide oil needs to be applied frequently to keep the slide smooth and easy to use. A polishing gauze wrapped around a thin metal rod is used to clean the insides of the inner and outer slides. Also, for F attachment trombones, rotor oil needs to be applied to the valve.
The mouthpiece that a trombonist uses has significant bearing on the overall sound of the trombone. Deeper mouthpieces produce a more mellow sound and help the trombonist reach lower notes. Shallower mouthpieces produce a brighter sound and aid in reaching high notes. As such, shallow mouthpieces are used for jazz, while moderate to deep mouthpieces are used in the orchestral setting. The bore of the mouthpiece must also match the bore of the trombone.
The slide of the trombone cannot be interchangeably configured on both sides of the bell; the slide on the right of the bell is the only possible layout. As a result, lefties have to adapt to using their right hand to move the slide.
Not everyone is a fan of the trombone; Mark Twain described it as producing “wretched music” and “discordant sounds.”
Joseph Alessi is widely considered to be the best current classical trombonist. His rendition of Blue Bells of Scotland (an extremely challenging trombone piece) is nothing short of legendary!