10 Interesting Facts About The Trombone You Might Not Know

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

The trombone, a member of the brass family, is one of the most interesting and unique instruments. Its distinct slide mechanism and rich, resonant sound set it apart from other instruments.

If you’ve not played one, you can probably imagine what it’s like to play an instrument with a slide that stretches for 6 feet! But there’s more to this instrument than meets the eye.

That’s why, in this post, we’re going to cover ten interesting facts about the trombone that you might not know.

1. The Trombone Is A Very Old Instrument

The trombone’s rich history dates back to the mid-15th century, although it is unclear who created it. Its name, “trombone,” translates to “large trumpet” in Italian, hinting at its earlier form.

The instrument is one of the most ancient instruments used in the modern symphony orchestra. In modern orchestras, the trombone often plays a supportive role, providing depth and power to the overall sound.

It can be found in various sections of the orchestra, including brass, woodwind, and percussion, depending on the specific composition. However, over the centuries, the trombone has found its way into various genres of music, from classical and jazz to pop and rock.

2. Its Design Is Still (Almost) The Same

The trombone’s design has remained relatively unchanged since its inception. Its original form, which features a long slide mechanism that changes the pitch of the notes produced, has been retained over the centuries.

One of the reasons the trombone’s design hasn’t changed much is due to its inherent versatility and effectiveness. The slide mechanism allows for a wide range of pitches and the ability to perform smooth glissandos.

While the basic design has remained the same, trombones do vary in size, each with its own distinct tonal characteristics. The most commonly used type is the tenor trombone. It is considered the standard size, with a tubing length of about nine feet when fully extended.

There are also larger and smaller versions of the trombone. The bass trombone, for example, is larger than the tenor and has a deeper, more resonant sound. On the smaller end of the spectrum, there’s the alto trombone, which has a brighter, more piercing sound.

3. The Trombone Can Sound Extremely Vocal

Charlie Brown featuring a trombone

Due to the register of the tenor trombone and its ability to play glissando, it can sound extremely vocal. The trombone’s predecessor, the sackbut, was often used with voices, presumably for this reason. 

Some modern composers take advantage of the trombone’s similarity to the voice, as shown in the video above. You can hear a trombone used as a voice in the cartoon Charlie Brown. Here, when the teacher speaks to the class, it’s actually a muted trombone making the noises!

4. The Tenor Trombone Is In The Key Of C Or Bb!

The key of the tenor trombone is somewhat problematic and the source of much confusion for non-trombonists. The difficulty stems from whether you consider the trombone to be a transposing instrument or not.

A transposing instrument, like the clarinet, learns the instrument in a different key to the notes that actually come out of the instrument. For example, when a clarinet in Bb plays what it calls a C, a Bb is actually the pitch that comes out.

The tenor trombone is acoustically in the key of Bb, as this is the pitch produced with the slide in its first position (not extended). Historically, however, the trombone has not been learned as a transposing instrument but as if it were an instrument in C.

This means that a trombonist traditionally reads music that hasn’t been transposed and considers their home, first-position note to be a Bb.

When the English brass band tradition emerged in the 19th century, bandmasters started to consider the tenor trombone as a transposing instrument for simplicity. This meant that the trombonist would read transposed music and would consider their home, first-position note to be a C rather than a Bb. 

Today, this divide still exists and is responsible for much confusion, but generally, brass bands treat the instrument as a transposing instrument, reading a transposed treble clef in the key of Bb.

Orchestras and jazz musicians, however, consider the instrument to be in the key of C and read music that hasn’t been transposed, usually in the bass clef.

5. The Trombone Often Represents Death And The Underworld

Beethoven – ‘Equali

To classical and baroque composers, the trombone was mainly considered a sacred instrument with a strong connection to death and the afterlife. This association manifests itself in lots of classical music, including Mozart’s Requiem and opera Don Giovanni.

Romantic composers continued this tradition — consider the funereal trombone solos in Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 and Rimsky Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture. 

The association of the trombone with death and the divine led to the idiom of equale, which were short, chordal pieces for trombone choir that were played at funerals.

Both Beethoven and Bruckner wrote equale, and four trombonists even led the procession at Beethoven’s funeral!

6. Trombonists Read Lots Of Clefs

Unfortunately for them, trombonists are expected to learn lots of different musical clefs. Depending on the ensemble, they are expected to read the following:

  • Bass clef
  • Tenor clef
  • Alto clef
  • Treble clef
  • Treble clef in Bb (transposed)

Orchestral musicians need to read the bass, tenor, and alto clefs regularly and, very occasionally, the treble clef in C.

Jazz musicians exclusively read the bass clef in the big band and, therefore, must read lots of ledger lines — this is difficult at first! They are also normally expected to be able to read treble clef (in C) so they can play from lead sheets.

Brass-band trombonists learn the treble clef in Bb, apart from the bass trombonist, who reads the bass clef (in C)!

7. You Can Make The Trombone Explode (Sort Of)

Experimental composers have required trombonists to do a lot of crazy things with their instruments, including hitting it like percussion, singing and speaking through the mouthpiece, and taking the instrument apart.

One technique is particularly dramatic and involves creating a pressure “pop” by quickly removing either the main slide or the tuning slide.

This is not the sort of thing you want to do all the time (for the sake of your instrument), but the technique is required in some repertoire, such as Ernst Krenek’s Five Pieces for Trombone and Piano.

To “explode” the trombone, you need to seal a section of tubing. The F-attachment is naturally sealed until you press the trigger, but the main slide needs to be removed from the bell section and sealed with the palm of your hand.

Once the tubing is sealed and the air inside is trapped, you then extend the relevant slide to create a negative pressure. If you do this quickly and completely (pulling the outer slide off the inner slide), there will be a loud “bang” as the slide comes off due to the sudden release of pressure. 

8. There Are More Than Seven Positions On The Trombone Slide

When we learn the trombone, we are told there are seven positions on the slide. However, if you want to be pedantic, there are many more than this; in fact, almost every note needs to be in a slightly different place!

There are a few reasons why a trombonist may need to adjust a slide position, and we will consider three of these reasons below.

One reason is that the partials of the harmonic series do not align with the equally tempered scale.

Without getting too technical, if a trombonist tightens their lips to play a higher note, some of these higher notes are not perfectly in tune. This means that the main slide needs to be moved slightly, and these adjustments become increasingly common in the higher register.

The most important example of this adjustment is the seventh harmonic, which requires significant sharpening (this is the high Ab in first position, and all the notes moving the slide downwards from here).

Another reason why we adjust the seven slide positions is due to the inharmonicity of the trombone, which is its tendency to not produce exact harmonic partials. This phenomenon depends on the specific instrument and its design, so always use your ears when considering this!

One example of inharmonicity is the sixth harmonic, which often requires flattening on many modern trombones. This is the reason why trombonists often play a high F in a slightly extended first position. 

The final reason why trombonists might adjust their slide positions is so they can play just in intervals. Just intervals are defined by an integer ratio (e.g., a major third is 5:4) and are more harmonious and pure than the intervals of equal temperament.

To play a just interval, the trombonist must either raise or lower the pitch of the note depending on its position in the harmony. The most common example is the major third, which needs to be flattened slightly. When playing harmonic passages such as chorales, trombonists frequently adjust their notes to try to capture these just intervals.

9. Some Notes Can Be Played In More Than One Position

Many notes on the trombone can be played in multiple positions, and this becomes more common the higher the note is. These alternative positions are very useful to the trombonist, who can use them to play quickly and efficiently and to aid legato (smooth playing).

Common alternative positions include the D in the fourth position, the Bb in the fifth position, and the Ab in the third position. Alternate positions reduce arm movement at the expense of a slightly different timbre, which is usually a little brighter.

Sometimes, this change of timbre is desirable, although more often, the preferred sound is in the home position (the shortest slide position).

The alternate positions have a different timbre because they are on a higher harmonic, with the slide extended further to compensate. Alternate positions are essential to a trombonist who wants to play a trill.

Whereas a normal instrument would use a key for this, trombonists must find two notes either in the same position or very close together on the slide. From here, they alternate rapidly between the notes using their lip, a technique called a lip trill.

10. Playing Legato On The Trombone Takes A Lot Of Practice!

Legato, the technique of moving smoothly from one note to the next, is notoriously difficult on the trombone. While most instruments can simply press a key to make a note smoothly change pitch, trombonists need to move their arm a relatively large distance, and there is nothing to stop the pitch sliding in a glissando.

There are two ways of approaching legato on the trombone; one technique is for notes on a single harmonic, and the other for notes that cross a harmonic.

The first technique involves interrupting the airflow between notes, giving each note a precise start and end. This can be done directly with the tongue (so-called legato tongue), the throat, or the airflow.

You want to move the slide as quickly as possible (without disturbing your embouchure), often using alternate positions to help.

The second type of legato involves utilizing the different harmonics of the trombone and is sometimes referred to as natural slurring. Here, you find two notes in the same position (or very close) and “lip” the note up to the harmonic above or below.

The note will “flick” up or down as you do this, giving you a quick, legato transition. You still need to manage your airflow, though — too much air over the transition, and you will get a noticeable bump!

Summing Up Our List Of Trombone Facts

We’ve reached the end of our blog about trombone facts. We hope you enjoyed it and learned a lot. The trombone, with its special design and long history, is truly an amazing instrument.

There’s still so much more to discover about the trombone that we didn’t cover in this post. So, if you love the trombone or know some cool facts about it, we want to hear from you.

Photo of author

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.