A Brief History Of The Trumpet: The Origins And Evolution

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Today, if you close your eyes and picture a trumpet, you most likely see shiny silver or gold, intricately coiled into a sleek horn. It may therefore surprise you to learn that the first trumpets were not man made at all. These horns have a rich history dating back longer than many nations and cultures and have been used throughout history for a number of different purposes.

In this post, we’re going to take a look at the history of the trumpet and some of the key figures and important developments that led to how we know it today.

The Origins of the Trumpet: The First Horns

The Shofar

Perhaps we call trumpets horns to this day because the first recorded trumpet-like instruments were actually animal horns.

Hollowed out and open at either end, the Shofar was a ram’s horn that is played with a technique much like that of a modern trumpeter.

Originally they would have been used in Jewish religious ceremonies such as Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur.

They were played like a type of trumpet without valves where the player changes the pitch of the note by changing their embouchure.

As well as the shofar, other early trumpet ancestors included the Lur and the cow horn.

These horns are depicted in ancient Egyptian, Chinese, South American, and Scandinavian drawings dating back as far as 1500 BC.

The First Trumpets

When people first started crafting trumpets, they were not far off in appearance from their animal horn ancestors.

They had none of the valves or fancy tubing we think of today but consisted of a long cylindrical body in between a small circular mouthpiece and a wider sloping horn.

While they also lacked the range of notes that these aspects provided more modern trumpets, the mouthpieces were designed so that the players could manipulate their embouchure to produce a limited scale of notes known as the harmonic series.

These instruments were made of wood, bamboo, bark, clay, human bone, and ultimately, the metal we are most familiar with today.

They were used primarily in warfare settings as a signaling device and to intimidate the enemy.

The Natural Trumpet

The Natural Trumpet

We refer to these valveless trumpets as Natural trumpets, which are instruments from the renaissance period.

That first came on the scene during the 15th century but were used way into the renaissance period and were often used to represent heavenly majesty or royalty.

As they had no valves, musicians had to change the pitch of the notes by adjusting their embouchure and lip positioning.

This meant they could only play notes from the harmonic series and as a result, they often came in lots of sizes so that they could play in different keys although they were usually in the key of D.

The Slide Trumpet

The Slide Trumpet

Another predecessor to the modern trumpet was the Slide Trumpet, another fellow renaissance instrument from the 15th century.

The slide trumpet allowed musicians to use their embouchure along with a slide to extend the tubing and play a lot larger range of pitches.

As you can probably guess, although referred to as a trumpet, the slide trumpet led to the development of what we now know as the trombone.

Early Trumpet Use in Music

While the trumpet has served many purposes throughout time, people think of it primarily as a musical instrument.

The natural and slide trumpets made their musical debuts during the 15th and 16th century Renaissance music era and persisted through the Baroque music era of the 17th century.

The F and G trumpets, then increasingly the C, D, Eb and Bb, played significant roles in the Classical music era between 1750 and 1820.

One of the most famous examples from this period is the debut of the D trumpet in Handel’s Messiah.

Handel’s Messiah

Throughout the 19th century, the Romantic music era was a period of particular popularity for the trumpet.

As you can imagine from its name alone, the Romantic era was known for its drama, energy, and emotional quality.

This was the original age of the opera, and songs were written as musical representations of popular literature, art, and theater. Composers were attempting to capture human emotions and experiences.

The recent evolution of the trumpet to create a brighter sound and a more dynamic range made it the ideal instrument to capture the drama so characteristic of Romantic music.

Developing Valves

The dawn of the 19th century also brought the first trumpets with valves and tubing similar to what we’re used to today.

From this point on throughout history, trumpets have typically had either 3 or 4 valves.

Combined with embouchure, valves allowed the trumpeter to play full chromatic scales and as a result, they could create a wide variety of notes in a particular key signature.

Heinrich Stölzel and the Stölzel and Rotary Valves

It wasn’t until 1815 that Heinrich Stölzel invented the first of what we call piston valves which work by rerouting air through the various tubes of the trumpets.

He came up with The Stölzel Valve which allowed musicians to change the pitch by pushing down and activating a valve.

This was revolutionary for the trumpet and moreover brass instruments like the french horn and tuba.

Then four years after the Stölzel valve, Heinrich worked with another instrument maker Friedrich Blühmel to invent the first Rotary Valve which became very popular too.

Rotary valves open on a 90-degree rotation to allow airflow into and out of the trumpet.

Rotary valves are easier to manipulate more quickly and create a mellower tone but offer a smaller range of notes.

Piston Valves and the Evolution of Tubing

But it wasn’t until the late 1930s that François Périnet invented the version of the piston valve seen in most modern trumpets today.

With the addition of valves also came the evolution of the tubing.

Referred to as crooks and shanks, various lengths of tubing bent to different degrees were added to the body of the trumpet.

The length of shape of the tubes determines the quality and range of sounds produced by the air moving through them.

The F and G trumpets are the earliest examples of valve trumpets.

While they were larger and more cumbersome than the modern trumpets they transformed into, they were revolutionary at the time of their 19th-century creation.

They allowed trumpeters to play a wider range of notes and songs in various key signatures.

Due to their large size, and a desire for greater range, the smaller and more brightly toned cornet and C, D, Eb and Bb trumpets followed shortly after.

The cornet and Bb trumpets are the most commonly played trumpets today and the first choices for beginning trumpeters.

The Modern Trumpet and Use Today

The Modern Trumpet

The Romantic era drew to a close in the early 1900s and made way for the highly diverse 20th-century music era that we are still in the midst of today.

The trumpet followed suit with the Bb trumpet and cornet taking center stage, and some new and quirky renditions were developed. 

Trumpets in Modern Music

The trumpet is perhaps best known for its roles in jazz, Latin, and big band music such as swing and bebop.

Its brassy sound, the ease with which trumpeters can race through complex passages, and its broad range help it shine in the improvisation of jazz, the flare of Latin, the energy of big band, and the complex and quick time signatures of all three of these Modern music genres. 

Some early pioneers of jazz trumpet include Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis amongst countless others.

Louis Armstrong

Trumpets also play pivotal roles in pop music, and they have for decades.

The Beatles were famous for infusing their tunes with trumpet solos.

Most notable is the use of the small trumpet cousin, the piccolo trumpet, in their hit number Penny Lane.

The Beatles – Penny Lane

Common Modern Trumpet Types

As mentioned previously, the Bb trumpet and cornet are the most popular models in Modern music and for ease of initial learning.

Trumpeters lean on other modern models for specific purposes.

The piccolo trumpet used in Penny Lane produces a particularly bright sound due to its small size.

The Piccolo Trumpet

The pocket Bb trumpet sounds almost identical to the regular Bb but is convenient for traveling musicians and settings where the trumpeter has to move around, such as in a marching band.

The D, Eb, and C trumpets are still played when a quick key change is needed.  

Summing up the Trumpet’s History

From indigenous tribal warfare through sold-out arenas featuring modern pop icons, the trumpet has played a vital role in society for thousands of years.

The trumpet has evolved from the simple use of an animal horn into a large and diverse family of intricately crafted instruments.

The trumpet has made and will continue to make, valuable contributions to the music that enhances every aspect of our lives.

Photo of author

Peter Yarde Martin is a freelance composer, musician and educator based in London. He studied music at Cambridge University and now works with many top professional ensembles and soloists in the UK and abroad.