DDV Music - Music Information and Education


A lip-reed aerophone with a predominantly cylindrical bore, the trombone is a musical instrument in the brass family. The trombone is usually characterised by a telescopic slide with which the player varies the length of the tube. A person who plays the trombone is referred to as a trombonist.

The word trombone derives from Italian tromba (trumpet) - and -one (a suffix meaning large). Thus, quite literally, a trombone is a "large trumpet". The trombone is often referred to by its name in other languages, e.g. Posaune, trombon, Pasuuna, Puzon, Basun. The most frequently encountered trombones are the tenor and bass counterparts of the trumpet.


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 crucial 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 cup-shaped mouthpiece, closely related to that of the trumpet, is inserted into the mouthpiece receiver in the slide section, which consists of a leadpipe, inner and outer slide tubes, and bracing, known as inner and outer slide stays. While the stays are soldered nowadays, sackbuts were made with loose, unsoldered stays, which remained the pattern for German trombones until the mid-20th century. The leadpipe contains the venturi, which are a small constriction of the air column, adding a certain amount of resistance and to a great extent dictating the tone of the instrument; leadpipes may be soldered in permanently or interchangeable, depending on the maker.

The telescopic 'slide', the defining feature of the trombone (c.f. valve trombone below) allows the player to extend the length of the air column, lowering the pitch. In order to prevent friction from slowing the action of the slide, additional sleeves were developed during the Renaissance and these stockings were soldered onto the ends of the inner slide tubes. Nowadays, the stockings are incorporated into the manufacturing process of the inner slide tubes and represent a fractional widening of the tube to accommodate the necessary method of alleviating friction. This part of the slide is of necessity lubricated on a frequent basis. Additional tubing connects the slide to the bell of the instrument through a neckpipe, and bell or back bow (U-bend). The joint connecting the slide and bell sections is furnished with a ferrule to secure the connection of the two parts of the instrument, though older models from the early 20th century and before were usually equipped with friction joints and no ancillary mechanism to tighten the joint.

The adjustment of intonation is most often accomplished with a tuning slide that is a short slide between the neckpipe and the bell incorporating the bell bow (U-bend); this device was designed by the French maker Francois Riedlocker during the early nineteenth century and applied to French and British designs and later in the century to German and American models, though German trombones were built without tuning slides well into the 20th century.

As with the trumpet, the trombone is considered a cylindrical bore instrument since it has sections of tubing, principally in the slide section, that are of continuous diameter. This is in contrast to conical bore instruments like the cornet, euphonium, and tuba, whose only cylindrical tubing is in the valve section. Tenor trombones typically have a bore of 0.450" (small bore) to 0.547" (large or orchestral bore) after the leadpipe and through the slide. The bore expands through the neck pipe and backbore to the bell which is typically between 7" and 8 1/2". A number of common variations on trombone construction are noted below.


Until the early 18th century, the trombone was called the sackbut in English, a word with various different spellings ranging from sackbut to shagbolt and derived from the Spanish sacabuche or French sacqueboute. 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, viz. Italian trombone and German Posaune. The sackbut was built in slightly smaller dimensions 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. Sackbuts were (and still are) made in every size from alto to contrabass, though then as now the contrabass is very rare.

Renaissance & Baroque periods

The trombone was used frequently in 16th century Venice in canzonas, sonatas, and ecclesiastical works by Andrea Gabrieli and his nephew Giovanni Gabrieli, and also later by Heinrich Schutz in Germany. While the trombone was used continuously in Church music and in some other settings (i.e., as an addition to the opera house orchestra or to represent the supernatural or the funerary) from the time of Claudio Monteverdi onwards, it remained rather rare in the concert hall until the 19th century. During the Baroque period, Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel used the trombone on few occasions; Bach used it in combination with the cornett to evoke the stile antico in some of his many cantatas and Handel used it in the Dead March from Saul, Samson, and Israel in Egypt, all of which were examples of a new oratorio style popular during the early 18th century.

Classical period

The repertoire of trombone solo and chamber literature has its beginnings in Austria in the Classical Era where composers such as Leopold Mozart, Georg Christoph Wagenseil, Johann Albrechtsberger, Johann Ernst Eberlin and Sodio Mandersio (in late 18th century Spain) were featuring the instrument, often in partnership with a voice. Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart used the trombones in a number of their sacred works, including two extended duets with voice from Mozart, the best known being in the Tuba Mirum of his Requiem. The inspiration for many of these works was no doubt the virtuosic playing of Thomas Gschladt who worked in the court orchestra at Salzburg, although when his playing faded, so did the general composing output for the instrument. The trombone retained its traditional associations with the opera house and the Church during the 18th century and was usually employed in the usual alto/tenor/bass trio to support the lower voices of the chorus, though Viennese court orchestra Kapellmeister Johann Joseph Fux rejected an application from a bass trombonist in 1726 and restricted the use of trombones to alto and tenor only, which remained the case almost until the turn of the 19th century in Vienna, after which time a second tenor trombone was added when necessary. The construction of the trombone changed relatively little between the Baroque period and Classical period with the most obvious feature being the slightly more flared bell than was previously the custom.

Romantic Period

During the late Classical and Romantic eras, composers from across Europe and beyond wrote for the instrument. The first example of its use in a symphony was in 1807 in a Symphony in E flat by the Swedish composer Joachim Nikolas Eggert, though the composer usually credited with its introduction into the symphony orchestra was Ludwig van Beethoven in the last movement of his Symphony No. 5 in C minor (1808); he also used the trombones in Symphony No. 6 in F major ("Pastoral") and Symphony No. 9 ("Choral").

Leipzig, in particular, became a centre of trombone pedagogy as for the first time in centuries the trombone began to be taught at the new Musikhochschule founded by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Mendelssohn's bass trombonist, Karl Traugott Queisser, was the first in a long line of distinguished professors of trombone at the academy in Leipzig and several composers penned works for him, including Ferdinand David (Mendelssohn's concertmaster), Ernst Sachse and Friedrich August Belcke, whose solo works all remain popular today in Germany. Queisser almost single-handedly helped to re-establish the reputation of the trombone in Germany and began a tradition in trombone-playing that is still practised there today. He championed and popularised Christian Friedrich Sattler's new tenorbass trombone during the 1840s, leading to its widespread use in orchestras throughout Germany and Austria. Sattler's influence on trombone design is not to be underestimated; he introduced a significant widening of the bore (the most important since the Renaissance), the innovations of Schlangenverzierungen (snake decorations), the bell garland and the wide bell flare, all of which are features that are still to be found on German-made trombones today and were widely copied during the 19th century.

Many composers were directly influenced by Beethoven's use of trombones and the 19th century saw the trombones become fully integrated in the orchestra, particularly by the 1840s, as composers such as Franz Schubert, Franz Berwald, Johannes Brahms, Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Richard Wagner, Hector Berlioz, Gioacchino Rossini, Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini, Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, Anton Bruckner, Gustav Mahler, Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Borodin, Bedrich Smetana, Antonin Dvorak, Charles Gounod, Cesar Franck, Claude Debussy, Camille Saint-Saens and many others included trombones in their operas, symphonies and other orchestral compositions.

The 19th century also saw the erosion of the traditional alto/tenor/bass trombone trio in the orchestra. While the alto/tenor/bass trombone trio had been paired with one or two cornetts during the Renaissance and early Baroque periods, the disappearance of the cornett as a partner and eventual replacement by oboe and clarinet did not fundamentally alter the raison d'etre for the trombones, which was to support the alto, tenor and bass voices of the chorus (typically in an ecclesiastical setting), whose harmonic moving lines were more difficult to pick out than the melodic soprano line. The introduction of the trombones into the orchestra, however, allied them more closely with the trumpet and it did not take long for the alto and bass trombones to be replaced by tenor trombones, though the Germans and Austrians held on to the alto trombone and long F or E flat bass trombone somewhat longer than the French, who came to prefer a section of three tenor trombones until after the Second World War.

By the time the trombone gained a regular footing in the orchestra, players of the instrument were no longer usually employed by a cathedral or court orchestra and were therefore expected to provide their own instrument, though while military musicians were provided with instruments by the army and instruments like the long F or E flat bass trombone remained in use there until approximately the time of the First World War, the orchestral musician understandably took to the instrument with the widest range which could be most easily applied to play any of the three trombone parts usually scored in any given work - the tenor trombone. The appearance of the valve trombone during the mid-19th century did little to alter the make-up of the trombone section in the orchestra and though it remained popular almost entirely to the exclusion of the slide instrument in countries such as Italy and Bohemia, the valve trombone was ousted from orchestras in Germany and France. The valve trombone continued to enjoy an extended period of popularity in Italy and Bohemia and composers such as Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini, Bedrich Smetana and Antonin Dvorak scored for a section of valve trombones.

Especially with the ophicleide or later the tuba subjoined to the trombone trio during the 19th century, parts scored for the bass trombone rarely descended as low as the parts scored before the addition of either of these new low brass instruments and only later in the early 20th century did it regain a degree of independence. Experiments with different constitutions of the trombone section during the 19th and early 20th centuries, including Richard Wagner's addition of a contrabass trombone in Der Ring des Nibelungen and Gustav Mahler's and Richard Strauss' occasional augmentation by adding a second bass trombone to the usual trio of two tenor trombones and one bass trombone, have not had any lasting effect as the vast majority of orchestral works are still scored for the usual mid to late 19th century low brass section of two tenor trombones, one bass trombone and one tuba.

Twentieth century

In the 20th Century the trombone maintained its important position in the orchestra with prominent parts in works by Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Maurice Ravel, Darius Milhaud, Olivier Messiaen, Igor Stravinsky, Dmitri Shostakovitch, Sergei Rachmaninov, Sergei Prokofiev, Ottorino Respighi, Edward Elgar, Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, William Walton, Jean Sibelius, Carl Nielsen, Leos Janacek, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and Bela Bartok.

In the second half of the century, new composers began giving back to the trombone a level of importance in solo and chamber music. Pieces such as Edgar Varese's Octandre, Paul Hindemith's Sonata and Luciano Berio's Sequenza V led the way for lesser-known composers to build a wider repertoire. Popular choices for recital music today include Stjepan Sulek's Vox Gabrieli, Jacques Casterede's Sonatine and Jean Michel Defaye's Deux Danses. The best known trombone concertos from this period include works by Derek Bourgeois, Lars-Erik Larsson, Launy Grondahl, Jan Sandstrom and Gordon Jacob.

Numerous changes in construction have occurred during the 20th century, including the use of different materials, increases in mouthpiece, bore and bell dimensions, new valve types and the innovation of different mute types.

Today, the trombone can usually be found in 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 twenty or more members). Trombones are also common in swing, jazz, salsa, and ska music, though it is in jazz and swing music that it has arguably made the greatest advances since the turn of the 20th century with famous artists such as Kid Ory, Jack Teagarden, Trummy Young, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Ted Heath, Kai Winding, J. J. Johnson, Bill Watrous, Urbie Green, Frank Rosolino, Carl Fontana, Stan Kenton, Wycliffe Gordon and Don Lusher.

Types of trombones

The most frequently encountered trombones today are the tenor and bass, though as with other Renaissance instruments such as the recorder, the trombone has been built in every size from piccolo to contrabass. These several instruments are described below.

Tenor trombone

Tenor trombone in B flat
Tenor trombone in B flat

The tenor trombone has a fundamental note of B flat (though tenor trombones with C as their fundamental note were almost equally popular during the mid-19th century in Britain and France) and is usually treated as a non-transposing instrument (see below). As the trombone in its simplest form has neither crooks, valves nor keys to lower the pitch by a specific interval, trombonists use seven chromatic slide positions, each of which progressively increases the length of the air column, thus lowering the pitch.

The slide is in "first position" when it is retracted all the way and in "seventh position" when it is fully extended. Note that in practice first position is played with the slide extended a slight amount to prevent injury to the musician through repeatedly impacting the lips with a hard metal object and to allow vibrato. 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 first position note, making the lowest note of the standard instrument an E natural. However, most professional trombonists can play lower "falset" notes and much lower pedal notes (first partials or fundamentals, which have a peculiar metallic rumbling sound) on the instrument. Table 1 below illustrates the seven positions of the trombone slide and the harmonic series associated with each. It may be noted that these positions are subject to adjustment, compensating for imperfections in the tuning of different harmonics. The fifth partial is rather flat on most trombones and usually requires a minute shortening of the slide position to compensate; other small adjustments are also normally required throughout the range. Note that trombonists also make frequent use of alternative positions (shown to the right of the dividing line in the diagram below); for instance, Bb4 may be played in first or fifth positions. This allows a skilled player opportunity to produce a perfect legato - the basic positions often putting him in danger of unwanted glissandi (portamento between adjacent notes).

Trombone slide positions

The range of the B flat tenor trombone (excluding fundamentals or pedal notes) is therefore E2 to F5, though is typically not written higher than D5, though jazz players are often able to produce notes as high as B flat6.

A distinctive form of tenor trombone was popularized in France in the early 19th century. Called the buccin, it featured a tenor trombone slide and a bell that ended in a zoomorphic (serpent or dragon) head. Hector Berlioz wrote for the buccin in his Messe solennelle of 1824.

Tenorbass trombone

Modern tenor trombones often include an extra attachment of tubing which can be activated by a trigger or valve. This device was invented by German instrument maker Christian Friedrich Sattler during the late 1830s and patented in 1839. It took its rise at a time when the old German E flat and F bass trombones had fallen out of favour with orchestral players and were replaced by a B flat tenor trombone with a larger bore and bell. This instrument, known as the tenorbass trombone (German Tenorbabposaune) by virtue of the fact that it was a tenor trombone in B flat built with the bore and bell dimensions of the bass trombone and used to play either tenor or bass trombone parts, was adapted by Sattler to include the rotary valve attachment in order to provide a method of bridging the gap between the first partial (fundamental) B flat in closed position and second partial E with the slide fully extended in seventh position. The valve attachment allowed players access to low E flat, D, D flat, C and B, thus making the full range of the old bass trombone in 12' F available once more and extending the chromatic range of the tenor trombone through the fundamentals to E1. Sattler's intention was not to create a trombone that would replace the older F and E flat bass trombones, but rather to provide an instrument with the ability to cover the range of the bass and tenor trombones seamlessly. In the event, however, his invention did come to be used as a replacement for the older bass trombones and modern bass trombones are B flat/F trombones that are now used universally to play parts originally conceived for the bass trombone in G, F or E flat.

Although the tenorbass or B flat/F trombone is equipped with a valve, it is not called a valve trombone. Engaging the valve attachment tubing by depressing a metal lever or trigger (known colloquially in Britain and the Commonwealth as the plug) adds approximately 3'/1m of tubing to the total length of the instrument and lowers the pitch from 9' B flat to 12' F. This facilitates, among many things, the playing of fast passages and legato sections, as well as extending the low range of the tenor trombone into that of the bass trombone. The distance between each position is longer with the valve attachment engaged; there are only six positions available to the player instead of the standard seven as the slide is too short for what is effectively now an instrument equivalent to a bass trombone in 12' F; the distance between positions is 4/3 as long as for a B flat instrument. It should be noted that on this variation of the instrument, the low B (two leger lines below the bass staff) is impossible to play, unless the F attachment is tuned to E by extending the tuning slide in the attachment tubing.

The range of the tenorbass trombone is therefore E1 to B flat2, then C2 to D5.

Bass trombone

Bass trombone in B flatF/D
Bass trombone in B flatF/D

The modern bass trombone is pitched in B flat. It is identical in length to the 9' B flat tenor trombone and was developed from the 19th century tenorbass trombone, but has a wider bore to aid in the production of a fuller, weightier tone in the low register and one or two valves which, when engaged, lower the key of the instrument to 12' F (and if a second valve is fitted, to G, G flat E, E flat or D. depending on the design), allowing the player to bridge the gap between the first partial (fundamental) with the slide in first or closed position and the second partial with the slide fully extended in seventh position. 19th and early 20th century examples of the modern bass trombone were sometimes made with a valve attachment in E rather than F, or with an alternative tuning slide for the attachment tubing enabling the pitch to be lowered to E flat. Bore sizes of the bass trombone are generally slightly larger than those of the largest tenor trombones. Typical specifications include a bore size of 0.562" in the slide and 0.580" through the valve attachment tubing, with a bell from 9" to 10.5" in diameter.

The configuration of the valves falls into one of three categories on the modern bass trombone: a simple B flat/F instrument (of larger dimensions than the B flat/F tenor trombone) equipped with one valve; a B flat/F instrument equipped with a second dependent valve, which relies on the first to be engaged before the ancillary tubing is deployed; a B flat/F instrument equipped with a second independent or in-line valve, which acts independently from the first and may be used to lower the pitch to G or G flat individually, or to E flat or D when used in combination with the first valve.

The range of the modern bass trombone is fully chromatic from the lowest fundamental with the valve attachment tubing deployed, potentially as low as C1 or B flat1, up to C5 or higher, depending on the player. It is usually scored in the range B flat2 to B flat5.

There is usually one bass trombone in a standard symphony orchestra (some works call for two) and it is also seen in brass bands, swing bands, wind ensembles, and a variety of brass groups; the bass trombone is usually played by the third or fourth trombonist in a trombone section, the first two or three parts usually being for tenor (and possibly alto) trombones.

Bass trombones in G, F, E flat, etc.

Bass trombone in E flat
Bass trombone in E flat

Older, now obsolete versions of the bass trombone were of smaller bore than the modern bass trombones described above. They were pitched in G, F, E, E flat, D or C and had a longer slide and a handle attached to the outer slide stay to allow for full extension of the slide. These older types of bass trombone were used in Europe and the British Empire.

The oldest of these instruments were the E, D and C bass trombones, which were used in Europe during the Renaissance and early Baroque periods; by the 18th century the F and E flat bass trombones were used in Germany, Austria and Sweden and the E flat bass trombone in France, though these fell out of favour in the early nineteenth century and began to be replaced by the tenor trombone, later (after 1840) the tenorbass trombone with F rotary valve attachment.

The bass trombone in G (the orchestral version was in G equipped with a rotary valve attachment actuating D or C, extending the range to A2 or A flat1) enjoyed a period of extended popularity in France during the second half of the nineteenth century, and in Great Britain and the British Empire from approximately 1850 to the 1950s, though it lingered on in some parts of Britain until the 1970s and 1980s and is still occasionally to be seen there in brass bands and period instrument orchestras.

The range of the E flat bass trombone is A2 to B flat5, that of the F bass trombone is B2 to C5 and that of the G bass trombone is D flat2, or A2 or A flat1 with a D or C valve attachment (the C attachment being used expressly for playing parts written for the contrabass trombone), to D5.

Contrabass trombone

Contrabass trombone in F
Contrabass trombone in F
Contrabass trombone in B flat/F
Contrabass trombone in B flat/F

The contrabass trombone is usually pitched in 12' F a perfect fourth lower than the modern tenor or bass trombone and has been through a number of changes in its history. Its first incarnation during the Renaissance was in 24' F, one octave below the modern pitch of 12' F, or 18' B flat. During this period it was built as an oversized bass trombone with a long slide and extension handle to reach the lower positions. The innovation of the double slide, in which the slide is wound back on itself to produce four tubes, each of which moves in tandem with its partner and halves the usual length of the slide shifts, took place towards the end of this period and was applied to the bass and contrabass trombones. During the nineteenth century, the contrabass trombone enjoyed a revival and it was constructed according to the double slide principle.

Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen (1876, though the individual operas were performed separately before the entire cycle saw its premiere in 1876) employed the contrabass trombone for the first time in the opera house and was followed by Strauss' Elektra in 1908, Schoenberg's mammoth cantata Gurrelieder (scored for a section of seven trombones including alto and contrabass) in 1913. Verdi's operas Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893), as well as Puccini's last opera Turandot (1924) also employed the contrabass trombone, albeit that they were scored for the Italian valved contrabass instrument, and although generally the contrabass trombone has not proven to be a permanent addition to the opera or concert orchestra and is only required in a small number of mainly 20th century works, it has become increasingly used in film scores in recent years.

In 1921 Ernst Dehmel, a German inspector of orchestras and bass trombonist from Berlin, patented a new design of contrabass trombone utilising the old German military band bass trombone in F equipped with two independent rotary valves to replace the handle required on the long slide and to fill in the missing notes between the first partial (fundamental) in closed position and the second partial with the slide fully extended. This bass-contrabass instrument is the precursor of the modern contrabass trombone, which is still largely constructed according to the same principles and to all intents and purposes completely replaced the older double slide variety, which is very rarely seen today. Bore sizes for the slide of the contrabass trombone are typically in the 0.567" to 0.635" range; the most common sizes on contrabass trombones in F are between 0.567" and 0.580" as the larger sizes are usually reserved for the contrabass trombone in low B flat. The bell diameter is typically 10"-11".

The range of the contrabass trombone (excluding fundamentals or pedal notes) demanded by Wagner is from E1 to E4, though composers since then have required even lower notes - even as low as B flat0. Given that the older B flat contrabass is less common nowadays in professional ensembles, the F contrabass trombonist produces notes below G flat1 as fundamentals, allowing full access to the range of the older B flat contrabass trombone and extending the range even lower.

The use of a contrabass trombone almost always requires the addition of a fourth player to the trombone section and while in the past parts for the instrument were sometimes played on a tuba or, more recently, a bass trombone, it is nowadays considered unacceptable to use anything but a contrabass trombone to play these parts, at least in professional settings. Most opera house orchestras and some symphony orchestras require the bass trombonist to double on the contrabass trombone.

Alto trombone

E flat alto trombone by Arno Windisch
E flat alto trombone by Arno Windisch

The alto trombone is pitched in E flat (occasionally with a D or B flat rotary valve attachment) or F, a perfect fourth or fifth higher than the tenor trombone and was commonly used from the 16th to the 18th centuries as the highest voice in the brass choir, though it declined in popularity from the early 19th century, when the trumpet acquired valves and trombones became an established section in the symphony orchestra, and it was replaced by a tenor trombone as the range of the parts can usually be covered by the tenor instrument. While some first trombonists have used the alto trombone as indicated, it was unfashionable from the mid-19th century to the late 20th and has only recently enjoyed something of a revival.

As the slide is shorter, the positions are different from the tenor and bass trombones and as most players are familiar with the slide positions of the B flat trombone, it is easy to appreciate why the instrument fell out of favour, especially with the increase in upper range and flexibility cultivated by and demanded of first trombonists in the 19th and 20th centuries. The tone of the alto is more brilliant than that of the tenor or bass trombone. The bore of an alto trombone is similar to that of a small tenor trombone - usually around 0.450"-0.500", with a 6.5" or 7" bell.

The range of the E flat alto trombone (excluding fundamentals or valve attachments) is A3 to B flat6, though it is typically not scored any higher than F5, this being already quite an exalted region for this instrument.

The alto trombone is primarily used in choral, orchestral and operatic settings, although it has enjoyed a history as a solo instrument, primarily in 18th century Vienna. Modern composers have rediscovered the instrument and the alto trombone has begun making more appearances in modern compositions. Nowadays professional orchestral tenor trombonists are expected to play the alto trombone and famous works scored for this instrument include several Mozart masses including the Great Mass in C minor, Requiem, Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflote, Haydn's Die Schopfung and Die Jahreszeiten, Beethoven's Symphonies Nos. 5, 6 & 9 and Missa Solemnis, Schubert's Symphonies Nos. 7, 8 & 9, Mass No. 5 in A flat and Mass No. 6 in E flat, Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique, Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 2 "Lobgesang", Symphony No. 5 "Die Reformation", Elijah, incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream and Ruy Blas, Schumann's Symphonies 1, 2, 3 & 4, Brahms' Symphonies 1, 2, 3 & 4, Akademische Festouverture, Tragische Ouverture, and Ein deutsches Requiem, as well as a handful of 20th century works including Schoenberg's mammoth cantata Gurrelieder (scored for a section of seven trombones including alto and contrabass) and Britten's The Burning Fiery Furnace.

Soprano trombone

Soprano Trombone
Soprano Trombone

The soprano trombone is usually pitched in B flat an octave above the tenor and built with a bore size of between 0.450" and 0.470" and a trumpet-sized bell. It appears to have been created in the late 17th century, from which the earliest surviving examples date. It was used in German-speaking lands to play the treble part in chorales, and this tradition survives in the Moravian trombone choir at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. During the 20th century some manufacturers made soprano trombones as doubling instruments for jazz cornet players, dubbing them slide cornets, or as a novelty, but the instrument has never been widely used or enjoyed much popularity. It rather lacks its own character and historically had little validity as it was easily replaced by the cornett or woodwind instruments and the short shifts make it difficult to play in tune. Soprano trombone slides being so short, there are often only six positions on the slide rather than seven. The soprano trombone is usually played by a trumpeter owing to the high pitch of the instrument.

The range of the B flat soprano trombone is E3 to C6, though it is not usually written higher than B flat6.

Sopranino and piccolo trombones

The sopranino and piccolo trombones are even smaller and higher instruments than the soprano; they are also extremely rare. Sopranino and piccolo are pitched in high E flat and B flat respectively, one octave above the alto and soprano trombones. They are called for in some trombone choir literature, the sopranino, for example, being used in the Moravian trombone choirs in the USA. Bore sizes vary between 0.430" and 0.400" respectively, with bells approximately 4" in diameter. Owing to the very high pitch of these instruments, they are played exclusively by trumpeters.

The range of the E flat sopranino trombone is A4 to E flat6; that of the B flat piccolo trombone is E4 to F7.

Valve trombone

Valve trombones always have the same tonal range as their slide trombone equivalents, though a somewhat different attack, as they are shaped more like very large trumpets. They are built in either short or long form. Some musicians consider them difficult to play in tune, although a small minority prefer them to the more common slide trombone. The valve trombone has been built in every size from alto to contrabass, though it is the tenor valve trombone which has seen the most widespread use.

The valve trombone enjoyed its greatest popularity in the 19th century when the technology of rotary valve and piston valve instruments was developing rapidly. By the end of the 19th century, mass production of reliable, higher quality slide trombones led to a return of its popularity. Despite the continuing popularity of the slide trombone, valve trombones have remained popular in, for example, Austria, Italy, Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, Spain, Portugal, South America and India, almost to the exclusion of the slide trombone. Sharp-eyed fans of Western films may spot one in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

A bass or contrabass version of the valve trombone is the cimbasso and is used mainly in operatic works by Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini.

Some passages, particularly fast musical figures, are easier to execute on a valve trombone than on a slide trombone. Many players consider the tone of a valve trombone to be stuffier and less open, and it is not common in orchestral settings, though Giuseppe Verdi in particular made extensive use of the ability of the valve trombone to negotiate its way through fast passages in his works. As the B flat tenor valve trombone uses the same fingering as the B flat trumpet, it is also a natural doubling instrument for some jazz trumpeters. Notable jazz musicians who play the B flat tenor valve trombone include Bob Brookmeyer, Juan Tizol of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and Bob Enevoldsen.

A valve trombone made by Adolphe Sax has a different system from that which is normally used. Instead of three valves in the style of the trumpet, it has one for each position on the trombone slide.

An unusual variation has both a slide and valves. This was first manufactured in the early 20th century, has sometimes been known as a valide trombone, but is now best known as a superbone, thanks to the influence of jazz musician Maynard Ferguson, who used it in his band.


As with all brass instruments, progressive tightening of the lips and increased air pressure allow the player to move to a different partial in the harmonic series. In the first or closed position on a B flat trombone, the notes in the harmonic series begin with the pedal or fundamental B flat1, followed by B flat2 (one octave higher), F3 (a perfect fifth higher), B flat3 (a perfect fourth higher), D4 (a major third higher), F4 (a minor third higher), A flat4 (a minor third higher - this note is always flat and is not usually played in this position, though it has been the practice in Germany and Austria to do so), B flat4 (a major second higher), C5 (a major second higher), D5 (a major second higher), E flat (a minor second higher, but very sharp), F5 (a major second higher). Theoretically a very skilled player could go higher than this, to G5, A flat5, A5 and B flat5, but this is by no means easy and only a few trombonists have been heard to venture as high as this.

In the lower range, significant movement of the slide is required between positions, which becomes more exaggerated on lower pitched trombones, but for higher notes the player need only use the first four positions of the slide since the partials are closer together, allowing higher notes to be played in alternate positions. As an example, F4 (at the bottom of the treble clef) may be played in both first, fourth and sixth positions on a B flat trombone. The note E1 (or the lowest E on a standard 88-key piano keyboard) is the lowest attainable note on a 9' B flat tenor trombone, requiring a full 2.24 metres of tubing, but the repertoire seldom demands anything below G1. On trombones without an F attachment, there is a gap between B flat1 (the fundamental in first position) and E2 (the first harmonic in seventh position). Skilled players can produce so-called "falset" notes between these, but the sound is relatively weak and not usually used in performance.

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


Unlike most other brasses, the trombone is not usually a transposing instrument. Prior to the invention of valve systems, most brasses were limited to playing one overtone series at a time; altering the pitch of the instrument required manually replacing a section of tubing (called a "crook") or picking up an instrument of different length. Their parts were transposed according to which crook or length-of-instrument they used at any given time, so that a particular note on the staff always corresponded to the a particular partial on the instrument. Trombones, on the other hand, have used slides since their inception. As such, they have always been fully chromatic, so no such tradition took hold, and trombone parts have always been notated at concert pitch (with one exception, discussed below).

Trombone parts are typically notated in bass clef; it is also common for trombone music to be written in tenor clef or alto clef. The use of alto clef is usually confined to orchestral first trombone parts intended for the alto trombone, with the second (tenor) trombone part written in tenor clef and the third (bass) part in bass clef. As the alto trombone declined in popularity during the 19th century, this practice was gradually abandoned and first trombone parts came to be annotated in the tenor or bass clefs. Taking their cue from Robert Schumann, the first composer to practise writing for the alto and tenor trombones on one staff annotated in the alto clef, some composers of Russian and Eastern European orchestral music have both first and second trombones annotated in the alto clef, which is all the more confusing given that the instruments scored for are two tenor trombones. Examples of this practice are evident in scores by Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovitch. Trombone parts can often contain both bass and tenor clef or bass and alto clef sections, sometimes changing clef for the sake of a single note and then back again. Some music publishers (especially Dutch) often include trombone parts in transposing bass clef in B flat, perhaps for the only reason that the trombone section in a band will refer to transposed note names and key signatures along with the rest of the brass section.

Brass bands

In brass band music, however, the trombone is treated like all the other members (except the bass trombone) as a transposing instrument in B flat and reads the treble clef. 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. This is no mere coincidence, for brass bands used to employ a section of alto, tenor and bass trombones in the early to mid-19th century, later replacing the alto with a tenor trombone, all the while annotated in the corresponding clefs. Eventually a decision was taken in the early 20th century to replace the tenor clef with the transposing B flat treble clef in order to aid new starters to integrate more quickly and effectively into the brass band, though the bass trombone, then in G, remained (and is still) annotated in concert pitch bass clef. An accomplished performer today is expected to be proficient in reading parts annotated 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 flat as well.


A variety of mutes can be used with the trombone to alter its timbre. Many are held in place with the use of cork grips, including the straight, cup, harmon and pixie mutes. Some fit over the bell, like the bucket mute. In addition to this, mutes can be held in front of the bell and moved to cover more or less area for a wah-wah effect - such as the "hat" (a metal mute shaped like a bowler), and plunger, which looks like (and often is) the rubber suction cup from a sink or toilet plunger. On occasion real hats have been used, as have soap dishes, saucepans, water glasses and even stranger objects, though the most commonly used are straight and cup.

Variations in construction


Trombone bells (and sometimes slides) may be constructed of different brass mixtures to achieve slightly different timbres. The most common material is yellow brass, comprising 70% copper and 30% zinc, though other materials used include gold brass (85% copper, 15% zinc) and red brass (also called rose brass) (90% copper, 10% zinc). These different materials affect the tone quality of the instrument and change the timbre quite considerably. Some manufacturers now offer interchangeable bells so that the player can select which bell he prefers according to the artistic requirements. Tenor trombone bells are usually between 7" and 9" in diameter, the most common being sizes from 7 1/2" to 8 1/2". The smallest sizes are found in small jazz trombones and older narrow bore instruments, while the larger sizes are common in orchestral models. Bass trombone bells can be as large as 10" or more. The bell may be constructed out of two separate brass sheets or out of one single piece of metal and hammered on a mandrel until the part is shaped correctly. The edge of the bell may be finished with or without a piece of bell wire to secure it, which also affects the tone quality; most bells are built with bell wire.

Valve attachments


Some trombones have valves instead of a slide: see valve trombone above. Slide trombone valve attachments may be fitted with rotary valves or sometimes with piston or disc valves, which are modern variations on types of valve invented during the 1820s, but discarded at the time in favour of the rotary valve and the Perinet or piston valve.


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 0.547" and the attachment tubing bore is 0.562". A wide variety of valve attachments and combinations are available. Valve attachment tubing usually incorporates a small tuning slide so that the attachment tubing is able to be tuned separately from the rest of the instrument. Most B flat/F tenor and bass trombones include a tuning slide, which is long enough to lower the pitch to E with the valve tubing engaged, enabling the production of low B.


Some trombones (principally bass trombones) are tuned through a mechanism in the slide section (Tuning-in-the-Slide or "TIS") rather than via a separate tuning slide in the bell section. This method preserves as long and smooth as possible an expansion from the start of the bell section to the bell flare. The tuning slide in the bell section requires two portions of cylindrical tubing in an otherwise conical part of the instrument, which of necessity affects the tone quality. For the sake of convenience and ease of production, most trombones feature this device, which in instruments with no valve attachment is often completed by the addition of a counterbalance weight to offset the weight of the slide.


Common and popular bore sizes for trombone slides are 0.500", 0.508", 0.525" and 0.547" for tenor trombones, and 0.562" for bass trombones. The slide may also be built with a dual bore configuration, in which the bore of the second leg of the slide is slightly larger than the bore of the first leg, producing a step-wise conical effect. The most common dual bore combinations are 0.500"-0.508", 0.508"-0.525", and 0.525"-0.547", 0.547"-0.562" for tenor trombones, and 0.562"-0.578" for bass trombones.

Regional variations

Germany & Austria

German trombones have been built in a wide variety of bore and bell sizes and differ substantially from American designs in many aspects. From the mouthpiece to the bell, there is a great deal of difference in how the traditional German Konzertposaune is constructed. The mouthpiece is typically rather small and is placed into a slide section that uses very long leadpipes of at least 12"-24". The whole instrument is often constructed of gold brass and this naturally characterises the sound, which is usually rather dull compared with British, French or American designs. While bore sizes were considered large in the 19th century, German trombones have altered very little over the last 150 years and are now typically somewhat smaller than their American counterparts. Bell sizes remain very large in all sizes of German trombone and in bass trombones may exceed 10" in diameter. Valve attachments in tenor and bass trombones were traditionally constructed to be engaged via a thumb-operated rotary valve equipped with a leather thong rather than a metal lever. Older models are still to be found with this feature, though modern variants use the metal lever. As with other German and Austrian brass instruments, rotary valves are used to the exclusion of almost all other types of valve, even in valve trombones. Other features often found on German trombones include long waterkeys and snake decorations on the slide and bell U-bows.


French trombones were built in the very smallest bore sizes up to the end of the Second World War and whilst other sizes were made there, the French usually preferred the tenor trombone to any other size. French music, therefore, usually employed a section of three tenor trombones up to the mid-20th century. Tenor trombones produced in France during the 19th and early 20th centuries featured bore sizes of around 0.450", small bells of not more than 6" in diameter, as well as a funnel-shaped mouthpiece slightly larger than that of the cornet or horn. French tenor trombones were built in both C and B flat, altos in D flat, sopranos in F, piccolos in high B flat, basses in G and E flat, contrabasses in B flat.


In recent years, several makers have begun to market compact B flat/C trombones that are especially well suited for young children learning to play the trombone who cannot reach the outer slide positions. Their fundamental note is C, but they have a short valve attachment that puts them in B flat and is open when the trigger is not depressed. While they have no seventh slide position, C and B natural may be comfortably accessed on the first and second positions by using the trigger. A similar design ("Preacher model") was marketed by C.G. Conn in the 1920s, also under the Wurlitzer label. Currently, B flat/C trombones are available from German makers Gunter Frost, Thein and Helmut Voigt as well as the Japanese Yamaha Corporation.


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