Of all musical instruments, none has inspired more awe than the trumpet.

Its sound has been celebrated for centuries. Trumpets heralded the arrival of kings and emperors and have urged armies on to victory since the time of Tutankhamen. According to the Bible, Joshua used trumpet blasts to bring down the walls of Jericho, while the Book of Revelation promises the angel Gabriel will announce the end of time with a trumpet solo guaranteed to raise the dead.

There's something brash and reckless -- macho, even -- about the instrument. Although its sound can be sweet and soothing, it's capable of piercing brilliance and screeching dramatics. Moreover, its tone is almost infinitely malleable, to the point that some players can virtually make the instrument talk (it was just such a trumpeter who gave voice to the unseen adults in the animated "Peanuts" shows on TV).

Still, it took centuries before the trumpet was able to reach its current state of sophistication. Some of that evolution is owed to the work of great virtuosos, but an even greater share of the credit belongs with the engineering genius of instrument makers.

Early trumpets

The earliest trumpets were nothing like the shiny brass or silver-plated horns we associate with the likes of Wynton Marsalis or "Doc" Severinsen. Primitive trumpets were often little more than a ram's horn or conch shell, with an opening carved in the small end for the player to blow through. By the time of the ancient Egyptians, people were making trumpets out of metal -- trumpets made of bronze and silver were found in King Tut's tomb -- that stretched like long pipes from the players' mouths.

Roman legions went to war with a trumpet-like instrument they called the tuba (though it was little like today's tuba), but after the fall of the Roman Empire, the instrument fell out of use in Europe. It was the Crusades that brought the trumpet back -- quite literally. Saracen trumpets, taken as trophies of war, prompted Europeans to make their own instruments, and eventually the sound of the trumpet was heard across the continent, played by both tower watchmen and wandering musicians.

These early instruments were simply a long piece of cylindrical tubing that flared into a bell shape at the end, much like the instruments used to herald the arrival of royalty in the old "Robin Hood" movies. By the early 1400s, instrument-makers had learned to bend the instrument's tubing into an "S" shape; later, it was doubled back into a loop, making the instrument much more compact.

Baroque and classical

Because of its piercing tone and military associations, the medieval trumpet was generally considered an outdoor instrument, most often used with timpani to accompany equestrian tournaments. But as the cadre of trumpet players grew, distinctions began to arise between martial trumpeting (Feldstuck or "field style") and chamber playing (Clarinblasen or "clarion blowing").

Trumpets began to be included in high culture ensembles by the early 1600s, and by the following century there were trumpet virtuosos of sufficient ability to inspire the likes of J.S. Bach (who showcased the trumpet in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2) and G.F. Handel (as in the air "The Trumpet Shall Sound" from "The Messiah").

Even so, the trumpet used by Baroque virtuosos was an extremely limited instrument. Unlike the oboe, flute, violin or harpsichord, all of which could play chromatically (that is, using all the sharps and flats of scale) across their entire range, only a handful of notes were available to the trumpeter.

To start, the trumpeter creates a vibrating column of air within the instrument by buzzing his or her lips into the mouthpiece. This generates a trumpet note. Changing that note is a matter of lip muscle tension, or "embouchure." Tighten the pressure of the muscles (think of a forced smile), and the tone gets higher; decrease the tension, and the notes get lower. However, those notes don't move up and down in even increments; the gap between notes gets smaller as the notes get higher. That's why the trumpet part in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 doesn't get truly melodic until the player climbs into the upper reaches of the instrument's range.

Unfortunately, the higher the notes are, the more strain they put on the lips and cardiovascular system. As a result, some Baroque trumpeters actually suffered aneurysms and keeled over in mid-performance.

Getting the trumpet to play more notes more easily became a challenge for trumpet players and makers alike. Some trumpeters found that "hand stopping" -- sticking a hand into the bell of the instrument -- could lower the pitch by one or two chromatics. In 1770, a keyed trumpet with holes and keys like a clarinet or flute was developed; this was the instrument for which Haydn and Hummel wrote their concertos, perhaps the best-known works in the classical trumpet repertory. Unfortunately, the woodwind-like tone of the keyed trumpet was considered too mellow, and the instrument fell out of favor.

The band era

The trumpet as we know it didn't really come into existence until the 1820s, when valves were introduced. Unlike keys, which shortened the column of air within the instrument, thus raising the pitch, valves diverted the airflow, lengthening the column of air and lowering the pitch. With three valves, it became possible for a trumpeter to play with the same melodic freedom as woodwind or string players.

Ironically, just as the trumpet was becoming more playable, classical composers lost interest in the instrument. After the Hummel concerto, there were no major works written for the trumpet until the mid-20th century.

Instead, it was the cornet that came to the fore in the 19th century -- and it did so not in the orchestral realm, but in the arena of band music. Where the trumpet had a bright, piercing tone, the cornet had a milder, mellower tone, one that blended well with the instruments of the military band.

Although military bands had been around for centuries, these ensembles came into full flower in the mid-1800s. Some of that was thanks to two new families of instruments introduced by Adolphe Sax, the saxhorns (a six-member family of brass instruments) and the saxophones. Combined with clarinets, oboes, tubas and trombones, they gave the military band a palette almost as broad as a symphony orchestra.

Just as the violin was the king of orchestral instruments, so did the cornet dominate the band repertory. Numerous works were composed to exploit the virtuosity of cornetists, perhaps the best being Arban's famously demanding "Variations sur 'Le carnaval de Venise.' " Meanwhile, late-19th-century soloists such as Patrick Gilmore, Alessandro Liberati, Herbert L. Clarke and Jules Levy became stars almost as famous as the bandleaders who employed them. (Gilmore and Liberati's names live on today, invoked by Professor Harold Hill in "76 Trombones," from "The Music Man").

After World War I, however, military bands had given way in many parts of the United States to smaller, more localized brass bands. These ensembles offered more individual freedom for the players, something which became significant with the rise of jazz.

Jazz and the modern era

It is probably not a coincidence that the first great soloist in jazz was a trumpeter. It was expected that the cornet or trumpet would take the melody role in small bands in the early 20th century; Louis Armstrong merely upped the ante by adding an additional degree of personal expression to the trumpet's vocabulary.

Before the jazz era, cornet soloists had pushed trumpet technique to extraordinary levels. Jazz soloists took it a step further, until it seemed almost anything was possible on the instrument. Moreover, jazzmen tended to prefer the trumpet over its mellower cousin, in part because they enjoyed the added power and authority it lent, but also because, in the hands of such soloists Harry James or Roy Eldridge, the trumpet's tone could be every bit as sweet and affecting as the cornet's.

It became an amazingly expressive instrument. Armstrong's use of slurring and vibrato lent an almost vocal quality to the trumpet's sound. Bubber Miley, playing with Duke Ellington's band, got his trumpet to "growl" by singing as he played, and manipulated a rubber plunger over the instrument's bell to articulate the sound. Other soloists, such as Lester Bowie, would push the valves down only part-way to bend notes almost as a blues guitarist would.

By the 1970s, Miles Davis put a pickup on his trumpet and began to use a wah-wah pedal like Jimi Hendrix, while Don Ellis developed a trumpet with a fourth valve that could play quarter-tones.

Nor are jazz musicians the only ones breaking the rules. Swedish trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger uses numerous unorthodox techniques in classical avant-garde pieces. Pianist Lief Ove Andsnes recalled seeing Hardenberger play one such piece recently. "He was singing at the same time as playing and all these things," said Andsnes. "And the audience immediately loved that."

Then again, audiences seem to expect to be amazed by trumpet players, because that's what the instrument does best.


This is the second in an occasional series of stories focusing on the most important instruments of symphonic and popular music. The first set of stories, about the cello, can be viewed online at The Sun's Web site at www.sunspot.net/features/as.


When you watch someone play the trumpet, you see the fingers moving the valves, but in fact the trumpeter's lips are doing most of the work.

Sound is produced by buzzing one's lips into the mouthpiece. This isn't a Bronx cheer kind of buzz, but a dry "bzzzzz," using only the lips. Increase the muscle tension of the lips, and the pitch gets higher; decrease it, and the pitch lowers.

By buzzing the lips and merely pushing the valves down, the trumpet is played in a "legato" style, with the notes flowing together. To separate the notes and play in an articulated or "staccato" style, tonguing is required. As J.B. Arban wrote in his "Conservatory Method for Trumpet," tonguing is used to control the flow of air from the lungs and the tongue is "placed against the teeth of the upper jaw in such a way that the mouth is hermetically sealed."

Playing the trumpet well is hard work. Wynton Marsalis -- acclaimed both as a jazz and classical trumpeter -- said in 1994 that playing trumpet is an ongoing challenge. "I was just playing my horn this morning, thinking, 'Man, I've been playing all these years, and I still can't play squat.' There's always something else [to learn]," he said.

In particular, high notes require an extreme amount of muscle tone, power and precision. It's far more difficult to hit a high note "cold" than it is to work up to the note, and even well-trained professionals sometimes miss when trying to nail a high note in a sudden, staccato passage. There are some players, such as jazz musician Maynard Ferguson, who specialize in high note playing, and make a show of playing high notes with force. In truth, it's far more difficult to play in the extreme upper register with subtlety and finesse -- but that seldom excites an audience as much as loud, showy playing.


The trumpet is played right-handed, with the index, middle and ring fingers on the finger buttons. The thumb and little finger hold the instrument, with the thumb against the first valve while the little finger sits in the finger hook. The left hand braces the trumpet. Because some notes played with the third valve sound sharp, the left little finger sits in the finger ring and operates the third valve's tuning slide, extending the slide to lower the pitch slightly.


Depressing this valve lowers the pitch three chromatics, from G to E.


This valve is not depressed, and thus does not change the pitch.


Depressing this valve lowers the pitch an additional two chromatics, from E to D.


Unlike the keys on a flute or clarinet, which raise the pitch by shortening the column of air within the instrument, trumpet valves lower the pitch by lengthening the column of air. For instance, to play a D as shown here, the player sets his lips to blow a G, then lowers the pitch to D by depressing the first and third valves.


"Famous Classical Trumpet Concertos" -- Hakan Hardenberger, trumpet, with various conductors and orchestras (Philips 289 464 028). Most of the major classical showpieces, from Corelli's Sonata in D to the Haydn and Hummel concertos. Hardenberger's tone is sweet and clear, and his technique is peerless.

"Carnaval" -- Wynton Marsalis, trumpet, with the Eastman Wind Ensemble, Donald Hunsberger, conductor (Sony Classical 42137). An evocation of the era of cornet virtuosos, this album not only re-creates the sound of the great 19th-century bands, but also gives Marsalis plenty of room to show off. His version of Arban's "Variations sur 'Le carnaval de Venise' " surpasses even Gerard Schwartz's celebrated recording from the '70s.

"The Legendary Trumpet Virtuosity of Rafael Mendez" -- Rafael Mendez, trumpet (Summit 177). Although Mendez never attained the name recognition of other trumpet virtuosos, his tone and technique influenced players from Harry James to "Doc" Severinsen. Here he plays a variety of showpieces, including a version of the Mendelssohn violin concerto.

"Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines" -- Louis Armstrong, trumpet (Columbia 45142). Classic small-ensemble recordings from the late '20s, offering ample evidence of Armstrong's technique and melodic insight.

"The Quintet: Jazz at Massey Hall" -- Dizzy Gillespie, trumpet (Debut 1567). A live recording that paired Gillespie with fellow bebop pioneer Charlie Parker, this album showcases Gillespie's quicksilver invention and pyrotechnic high notes.

"Live Evil" -- Miles Davis, trumpet (Columbia Legacy 65135). Perhaps not Davis' best album, but an excellent example of the way he used electronics to put the trumpet on par with electric guitar.

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