How Does a Trumpet Function?

The trumpet is the highest-pitched member of the brass family of instruments. Trumpets have a range of about three-and-a-half octaves, from F below the treble clef (F3) staff to C two octaves above the treble clef (C7). Some trumpet players have the ability to play even higher or lower. The trumpet is capable of playing these pitches because of the acoustic principles and mechanical construction.


Vibrations are the basis for the trumpet’s sound. The trumpet player creates vibrations by pressing their lips together to create a buzzing sound. Trumpeters can buzz specific pitches by creating additional pressure with the lips and concentrating the airflow by keeping the cheeks tucked in. By increasing the speed of the vibrations the trumpet becomes capable of playing pitches of varying ranges. Trumpet players use the muscles in the embouchure to control pitch. The embouchure are the muscles of the mouth and lips.


The trumpet uses a concept known as the overtone series. This series allows for the creation of several pitches without having to use valves. The overtone series is a naturally occurring phenomenon in which several pitches can be produced based on an initial fundamental note. The first overtone is an octave, the second is a fifth and the intervals get smaller as the pitch increases. Without the overtone series, you would need several additional valves to play melodies. Each valve redirects the airflow and sends the air through different sized tubes. The size of the valve determines the pitches.


Trumpet mouthpieces come in several varieties. Mouthpieces direct the airflow into a small opening called a bore. The bore can be of varying sizes and the trumpeter will pick a mouthpiece that fits her preferences. Some players respond best to large bores, while others find it easier to play on a small bore. Small bore mouthpieces create additional airflow resistance that actually pushes against the performer. Large bore mouthpieces create less resistance which requires more airflow to maintain the pitch of the trumpet.


The instrument tubing amplifies the sound of the trumpet and changes the timbre depending on the metals used in construction. Brass alloys provide a metallic and penetrating sound, while silver creates a smooth and mellow sound. Most trumpets are a combination of more than one metal. The size and length of the tubing affects the overall pitch of the instrument. Using less tubing would create a higher pitched trumpet, while increasing tubing length would lower the pitch of the trumpet.


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