How Did the Trombone Evolve?

"Trombone" is an Italian word for “large trumpet;” the original trombone did not use a slide and was, in fact, a larger version of the trumpet. The modern slide trombone developed from an early English instrument called a "sackbut," and the first known European slide trombone dates from the 1420s. Over time, the trombone developed into today's modern instrument and finally became a standard part of the orchestra in the late Classical period.


Due to the Italian influence in Renaissance music, the Italian term for "large trumpet" became the common word for referring to the trombone. The Renaissance period, between about A.D. 1400 to 1600, saw the trombone used in several settings, including secular outdoor gatherings as well as religious settings. Gabrieli, Giovanni, and Andrea, composed extensively for the trombone during this period. In the Renaissance, the trombone usually appeared in combination with other instruments.


The Baroque period, from 1600 to 1750, was a time of experimentation and ornamentation in music. Ornamentation occurs when the instrumentalist or composer “decorates” the melody by adding additional notes to the main melodic line. Handel used the trombone in his dramatic works, and Bach often used it in combination with the Baroque trumpet. The trombone continued to develop during this period, as the bell started to flare more towards the end of the instrument.


The trombone changed very little in the Classical period, between 1750 and 1820. Trombones appeared most prominently in Austria in the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, who set many standards for Classical music and expanded the role and use of the trombone; Beethoven made the trombone a standard part of the orchestra in his Fifth Symphony. From that point on, composers began taking the trombone more seriously and writing extensively for the instrument.


The trombone gained popularity between the Romantic period and the current day. Jazz bands started to develop in the 1920s, and composers were developing extended techniques for the trombone. Many of these novel techniques include multiphonics that requires the player to speak or sing through the instrument while playing, glissandos that make use of the slide to blur or slide through a series of notes between two pitches and the use of microtones or notes smaller than a half-step.


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