The trombone is one of the most interesting and unique 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! Not only is it unique in how it’s played but it also has a lot of very special techniques.
In this post, we’re going to cover 10 interesting facts about the trombone that you might not know. Let’s jump in with some Charlie Brown.
1. The Trombone Can Sound Extremely Vocal
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 where 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!
2. 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 this is the pitch produced with the slide in its first position (not extended).
Historically however, the trombone has not been learnt 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.
3. The Trombone Often Represents Death and the Underworld
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.
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!
4. 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:
- 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!
Jazz musicians 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)!
5. You can Make the Trombone Explode (Sort of)
Experimental composers have required trombonists to do a lot of crazy things with their instrument, 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 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 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.
6. There are More Than Seven Positions on the Trombone Slide
When we learn the trombone, we are told that 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 due to the partials of the harmonic series not aligning 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 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 capture these just intervals.
7. 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 fourth position, the Bb in fifth position, and the Ab in 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 that 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.
8. 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.
Whilst 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 with the tongue (so-called ‘legato tongue’), the throat or the airflow directly.
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 utilising 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 Trombone Facts
That about wraps up our post on the different trombone facts, we hope you found it helpful.
There are so many cool things about the trombone that we’ve missed so if you have any other ones to suggest let us know and we’ll add it on.