Monday, June 8, 2015

What Kind of Instrument Is the Trombone?

The trombone was one of the first orchestra instruments capable of playing all 12 chromatic pitches within an octave. Trombones exist in several ensembles including jazz, big band, orchestra, ska and even rock bands. An early ancestor of the trombone is an instrument called a sacbut. It first appeared in early Renaissance music and came in four versions in order from highest to lowest -- alto, tenor, bass and great bass.

Instrument Family

The trombone is an instrument from the brass family. Since the trombone plays in the bass clef and in the lower part of the brass family range, it is considered a low-brass instrument. Brass instruments are named for both the materials that are used in construction and the various types of metal mouthpieces that produce the sound. Mouthpiece materials include silver, brass, gold, titanium, steel and even plastic. Plastic mouthpieces provide inferior sound but are useful on cold winter days when there is risk of a mouthpiece sticking to your face.

Pitch Type

In music, there are pitched and non-pitched kinds of instruments. This is another kind of instrument that is secondary to the instrument family. Non-pitched instruments do not have a definable pitch. With non-pitched instruments, it is sometimes possible to identify high, medium and low sounds, but these pitches can't be attached to specific notes. Pitched instruments have specific pitches notated in a musical score. The trombone and all of its relatives, including the alto and bass, fall into the category of pitched instruments.

Monophonic or Polyphonic

A third way of determining the kind of instrument is whether the instrument is monophonic or polyphonic. Monophonic instruments are only capable of sounding one pitch at a time. Polyphonic instruments are capable of sounding several pitches at once, such as the piano. While a player may sing through the trombone, thereby making it appear to be a polyphonic instrument, it is actually a monophonic instrument capable of playing one pitch at a time since it can only produce one note without using the voice.

Valves or Slide

The trombone is the only type of instrument that uses a slide to create chromatic pitches. Most brass instruments will use a system of valves that perform the same function as a trombone slide. The advantage to having a slide trombone is that it becomes possible to smear notes by playing glissandos. There are some types of trombones that make use of valves, but this construction is counter-intuitive since the slide makes the trombone a type of instrument in its own category. The category of slide instruments include the soprano, alto, tenor, bass and contrabass trombone.


Iowa State University: The Sacbut []
"The Study of Orchestration"; Samuel Alder; 2002