Instruments | Trumpet | Brass

The trumpet is one of the most ancient instruments still played today. Clear depictions of trumpets survive in Egyptian paintings and two trumpets – one of silver, the other of gold and brass – found in the tomb of Tutankhamun date back to at least 1350 BC.

There are many examples of Roman and Greek trumpets which, like the Egyptian instruments, were made from a straight, conical tube flaring to a bell.


At the beginning of the fifteenth century, makers began to experiment with bending the trumpet. By making it into an ‘S’ shape, it became more manageable without losing any sound quality. Surprisingly, the first slide trumpet was invented as early as the 1400s. An elongated mouthpiece section slid inside the main length of tubing so the player was able to alter the length of tubing, and thus the pitch.

All instruments are reliant on the harmonic series for their ability to play in tune. The brass family relies on it more than most, and at this period, the trumpet was a continuous tube without finger holes or keys. The only pitches available to it were those of the harmonic series. The distance between pitches is large at the lower end of the harmonic series and it is only when the eighth partial is reached that movement by step can be achieved. By the mid-sixteenth century, the trumpet was able to play up to the thirteenth partial, so a half scale of c'', d'', e'', f' and g'' was available. This high register became known as the ‘clarion’, after the small, high trumpet of the same name.

Design Development

During the sixteenth century, the trumpet came to be revered above all other instruments. Royal courts often employed up to 20 trumpeters, and in 1548 Emperor Charles V declared that trumpeters were to come under his direct jurisdiction. Not surprisingly, given its royal status, the trumpet’s aesthetics received considerable attention during this period. The mouthpiece section of the ‘S’-shaped design was brought alongside the bell section so the familiar elongated spiral was achieved. The parallel lengths of tube were bound together for strength, and coloured tassels or other ornaments were often added.

From the long mouthpieces of the slide trumpet developed the idea of separate mouthpieces for natural trumpets. The basic design of mouthpiece during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was a cup shape with a flat rim and fairly sharp edge, where the shank left the mouthpiece to join with the trumpet’s main body. By this time different mouthpiece designs were being used for different purposes: a shallower cup for the higher registers and a deeper cup for the lower registers.

By the first half of the seventeenth century, it was common for trumpeters to play up to the twentieth partial, and many were capable of ascending to the twenty-fourth or even higher. This gave composers a diatonic scale of an octave and a half to use – more than adequate...

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


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