The trumpet is the most iconic of all of the instruments in the brass family. From jazz to pop to classical. From Baroque and Romantic to modern and contemporary. This is an instrument which has withstood the test of time and continues to entertain our ears and emotions today.
But how does a trumpet work?
The basic explanation is that sound is produced at the mouthpiece by buzzing your lips together. That sound is amplified as it travels through the tubing and out the bell. The pitch of this sound is controlled by pressing down the trumpet’s valves, which changes the total length of the tubing, changing the pitch.
The trumpet has existed in hundreds of different forms and models throughout a multiplicity of cultures for millennia, and how it’s worked has varied throughout these different iterations, but we’re going to be looking at the most common modern trumpets and how they function today. Starting with brass instruments as a whole and what similarities in operation make them share a “musical family” together.
When speaking to a non-musician, or a beginner just learning about the different instrument families, I find people often get confused by the way instruments are classified. Percussion makes enough sense. It’s any instrument you beat on like a timpani, gong or a snare drum.
But why is the saxophone considered a woodwind instrument? It’s made out of brass, same as the other instruments in the brass family. And why are organ and piano in different families when the instruments both look so similar?
This is important for understanding the way a trumpet, and by extension all instruments, work. The difference in how these instruments make their sounds is extremely vital for understanding them.
All sound is produced through vibrations. The classification of instruments into different “families” is set by how instruments produce these vibrations.
For string instruments, it’s when a string is plucked, struck or bowed (A piano is a string instrument because the strings inside are struck by hammers when the keys are pressed, creating it’s sound).
For woodwind instruments, it’s the vibration of air against a wooden reed (Hence why a saxophone is considered woodwind. The reed through which the saxophone produces it’s sound is wooden, not the instrument itself). For brass instruments it’s all about vibrating air circulating through a series of valves and tubes.
How Does a Brass Instrument Produce Sound?
With brass instruments the air is pushed out of the mouth in a very specific way, with the lips pushed together and the tongue being used rhythmically to stop and start the flow of air as necessary.
Thus, the process by which a brass instrument gains it’s sound is not simply by just blowing full force into the instrument and expecting more than a panicked-sounding wisp of air to come out the other end.
It’s beginning the vibrations at the lips, with the lungs acting as the catalyst and chamber through which the power and pressure is produced, and letting that circulate through the instrument to produce a tone.
That pitch is changed based on the length of the tubes it runs through. The longer the tube, the deeper the pitch.
This is why larger brass instruments such as the tuba and the trombone are famous for their low-end pitches. Whereas the trumpet, french horn and the almost comically-small cornet are more notable for their abilities to reach high registers.
The valves present on most every modern brass instrument change the series of tubes the vibrations run through before coming out the bell (the wide end that is signature to the look of every brass instrument). Thus, the notes are controlled through the combination of valves pressed down by the instrumentalist throughout the performance.
That’s not the only way the notes are changed, though. The level of air pressure exerted by the lungs and the shape of the lips can also change the vibrations, thus altering the notes played without changing anything on the instrument at all.
Valves were not invented for brass instruments until the 19th century, and before that all of the aforementioned instruments were what’s known today as “natural horns”; horns which were played entirely using varying vibrations from the mouth.
This gave the horns a limited “harmonic range” (The number of notes the instrument could play) that other families of instruments didn’t have, thus natural horns have been made mostly obsolete with the invention of valves giving brass instruments the chromatic range necessary to perform in any key.
Natural horns do still exist, however, and there are certain “horn purists” to this day who prefer the timbre and history of such instruments.
Trumpets are some of the oldest instruments in human history. They’ve been used by nearly every major human civilization from the Egyptians to the Scandinavian vikings to the ancient dynasties of China. They’ve been produced using dozens of different materials from animal bone to gold and silver.
There are many different types of trumpets with the most common being the B♭ and C kinds (Where the root note is the trumpet’s name). The C trumpet is the standard in the modern orchestra, except in the performance of much older pieces where some trumpeters still prefer to use the natural horns which would have been used in the original performance.
If you’re interested in picking up the trumpet and learning to play, it’s popularity results in no shortage of materials and resources on the internet at your disposal.
I bought a trumpet for myself a year ago, having only ever played string instruments in my life prior.
There’s a certain transferable quality to string instruments, meaning once you’ve learned how to play one, it becomes much simpler to pick up others and learn how to play them (with the exception of bowed instruments, like the violin, which are still very challenging if you’ve never played one before).
It’s similar to how learning Portuguese is much easier if you know Spanish. They’re in the same family.
Learning the trumpet as a string player was like trying to learn Mandarin. Completely foreign, frustrating and confusing.
It took me days just to get my lips trained enough to make the vibrations necessary to operate the trumpet consistently. This repeated pattern of making the desired sound on the trumpet, feeling elated, then trying to reproduce it and ending up with some ugly noise that makes my dog give me a questionable look.
Luckily for me (and you, aspiring trumpeter), there are so many online lessons with in-depth demonstrations to gain a deeper understanding of the instrument without needing to pay some instructor for formal classes. You can find everything you need on how the trumpet works and how to best play it right on your personal device.
How Sound Is Produced In A Trumpet
The standard trumpet is fairly simple in design, with just three valves for controlling which tubes the vibrations move through before pushing out of the bell. There are also slides for the purpose of fine tuning the pitch of the trumpet before performance.
There are variations throughout different trumpets, however, like extra valves, slides and sizes. As well as the aforementioned natural horn which foregoes valves entirely but is limited to a set harmonic scale.
Tension in the lips and pressure from the lungs are integral to reaching the full extent of the trumpet’s scale, and it’s often the hardest thing for new trumpet players to master.
It takes hours and hours of practice to develop the muscle memory and technical ability necessary to understand exactly how close your lips need to be pursed together and how much pressure to apply from the resonance chamber that is your lungs in order to produce the desired notes.
And not just produce it, but do so in the manner you as the player desires. Whether that be soft and smooth or rough and overpowering.
Once you manage to produce a good sound with your lips, there are two ways to change the pitch of that sound.
The first is by pressing down the valves.
The trumpet has a default tubing length (when no valves are pressed down) that creates a certain pitch. When you press down a valve, air is allowed to pass through new tubes which increases the total length of the tubing and lowers the pitch coming out of your trumpet.
This is the basic mechanism for all brass instruments (there’s even a valve on some trombones). Press down a valve, allow air to pass through additional tubing and change the pitch.
You can also adjust the pitch by changing the pitch produced at your lips. You can jump up an octave by producing a higher pitch at your lips.
And likewise jump down an octave by producing a lower pitch at your lips.
The combination of the pitch coming from your lips and the length of tubing produced by the valves allows trumpeters access to several octaves of notes.
Different Types of Trumpets
There are a few lesser known trumpets out there as well.
Rotary valve trumpet
Rotary valves are the valves of choice for brass instruments such as the french horn. As opposed to being pressed straight down into a spring in the trumpet like the regular valves, rotary valves rotate 90 degrees.
They’re very common in European orchestras (An alternate name for them oft employed is the “German trumpet”) and are known for producing a much smoother, more mellow tone.
The piccolo trumpet is smallest version of the trumpet (exactly half the length of the standard B♭ trumpet), this version is meant to play the high octaves and is oft called the “high B♭ trumpet”.
While it does make playing these high notes easier, it’s still known as one of the more difficult trumpets to play, since hitting those octaves still requires a lot of technical skill and breath control.
This one is often mistaken as a large trumpet to the untrained eye, and they are similar in many ways, but the flugelhorn is entirely it’s own instrument. While it is larger than the standard trumpet, the standard flugelhorn is also tuned to B♭.
It’s sound is often described as richer, deeper and softer than it’s brass contemporaries.
It only makes the occasional rare appearance as a solo instrument in orchestra or in a brass quintet, but I always greatly enjoy it’s presence when it shows up. My personal favorite use of the flugelhorn in contemporary music is it’s harrowing solo on Radiohead’s Bloom.
Alternate key trumpets
I mentioned the two most common types of trumpets being the B♭ and C trumpets earlier in the article, but a trumpet can be made and pitched to any key. Walk into the brass section of any run of the mill instrument shop and you could very likely find trumpets in A, D, E, E♭, F or G.
This is important to note because if you’re an aspiring trumpet player you’ll most likely want to have something more standard for your first trumpet, so don’t go accidentally buying the E♭ trumpet.
The trumpet has been with humanity for nearly as long as we’ve been creating our beautiful music, and more than likely it will stick with us for the rest of the ride.
It’s perfectly crafted to manipulate vibrations through it’s series of valves, slides and tubes into sounds that can evoke the upbeat and rhythmically dense feelings of fast jazz, to the beautifully regal feelings brought in by Vivaldi’s Concerto for 2 Trumpets, to the alarmingly fast and cynical contemporary ska-punk of a band like Streetlight Manifesto.
It’s considered one of the easiest brass instruments to learn, just behind the trombone, and it’s signature style is always welcomed and needed in the contemporary music sphere. So grab a trumpet if one’s caught your eye and jump right in.
In the beginning, learning the trumpet will be difficult, and it can be uncomfortable as well. It will be a challenge to not play too loud and too off-key, which can be embarrassing and awkward if you are practicing in the same space you share with friends or family.
Keep at it, though. Push through the awkward phase and with enough commitment (and a lot of very helpful Youtube videos) soon your family and friends will be asking you to play something on the trumpet for them. You’ll be able to explain exactly how the instrument produces sound after having read this, as well!