Instruments | Trombone | Brass

A trombone is a brass instrument sounded by buzzing the lips into a mouthpiece. It is peculiar amongst brass instruments in using a double ‘U’-shaped slide to alter its pitch. The early history of the trombone is confused, mostly due to a lack of clarity in naming instruments.

It is generally accepted that the immediate precursor to the trombone was the sackbut. This term was used from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries to refer to any brass instrument using a slide – it could equally be applied to a trumpet with a single slide as an instrument with a double slide. The issue is further complicated by the terms ‘trombone’ and ‘posaune’: both these words were regularly used to refer to large trumpets without a slide.


The earliest surviving depictions of the trombone as we know it today date from the final decades of the fifteenth century. The earliest extant instrument is dated 1551 and is almost identical to those in use today. In fact, early trombones were more like contemporary trumpets than modern trombones. Their bores were narrow, the bells flared only gently and the sound they produced was brassy but not powerful. Played quietly, however, it could be a serene and elegant instrument. Early trombonists were virtuosic performers, often embellishing music with an agility that belied the difficulty of the instrument.

Although it never gained the social distinction of the trumpet, the trombone became a vital part of both sacred and courtly music. During the seventeenth century – perhaps due to its burnished and melancholy timbre – the trombone developed an association with death and the underworld, a link that Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) put to good use in L’Orfeo (1607). Interest in the instrument declined, however, and by the eighteenth century it had almost disappeared.

The Eighteenth Century

It was in the Classical era that the trombone recovered lost ground. Retaining its darker associations, Mozart famously used it in the ‘Tuba mirum’ of his Requiem as well as in his opera Don Giovanni (1787). Military bands also began to employ the trombone as a means of strengthening the bass line.

Up to 1750, the trombone had been used as a diatonic instrument. The tenor instrument was in A and had four slide positions. Trombones came in many sizes but it was normal to use three – alto, tenor and bass – in ensemble. By the late- eighteenth century, a new design was accepted as normal: a trombone in Bb with seven slide positions, allowing access to the full chromatic range. The bass instruments, which previously had been in Eb or D, were now made in F or G, also with seven slide positions.

The Nineteenth Century

In the early-nineteenth century, the bore was enlarged by as much as 20 or 30 per cent and the bell was widened. These changes are often credited to the needs of Wagner and combined to significantly increase the trombone’s power. Even before this, though, the...

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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