This is part of a larger guide to brass instruments:
- Brass Instrument Materials
- What Makes a Brass Instrument a Brass Instrument?
- Brass Instrument Family: Trumpets, Cornets, Flugels
- Brass Instrument Family: French Horns, Trombones, Low Brass
The trumpet is perhaps the rock star of the brass instrument family. It also has a rather interesting history.
In 1922, a British archaeologist named Howard Carter was excavating the tomb of Tutankhamun (King Tut) and found two trumpets in the burial chamber – one silver and one bronze. The instruments had not seen daylight in over 3000 years, making them the oldest known trumpets in existence. A British army trumpeter tried to play the silver trumpet live on radio in 1939.
He broke it.
A few months later, after it the trumpet was fixed, another British trumpeter tried again and succeeded. The world tuned in to their radios to listen to the haunting sound.
The cursed sound of King Tut’s trumpets
That is when things started getting strange: a few months later, Britain entered WWII. The trumpet was blown again in 1967 and was immediately followed by the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War. The trumpet was played again in 1990 and was followed by the outbreak of the Gulf War. It was last sounded in 2011 and was immediately followed by the Egyptian Revolution.
Whether or not this strange curse has carried through to modern trumpets is certainly a question worth asking. There are a lot of trumpet players out there, so please be careful.
B♭ and C Trumpet
The B♭ is the most popular modern trumpet. The ‘B♭’ part means that the tone is transposed down a tone. If a ‘C’ was written on a score a piano player would play their C and it would sound like C. However, a trumpet player would play their C and it would sound like B♭. You will often notice this ‘transposition’ in the brass world, and there are many good reasons for it ranging from functionality to tradition to practicality. Some interesting reasons can be found here.
Most students will start out on a B♭ horn, and the greatest body of work in a modern setting is written for B♭. It is also used widely in classical, jazz, rock, pop, improvisation, and big bands.
The second-most popular trumpet is the C trumpet. This is widely used in classical and orchestral settings. The most obvious physical difference between the C and the B♭ is that the C has a shorter length of tubing from the leadpipe (the part where the mouthpiece goes) around the main tuning slide. The shorter length means a higher pitch – one tone higher, to be precise. Also, a C trumpet will often have a bigger bore size which results in a more brilliant tone.
Pocket trumpets look teeny and silly and cute, but most of them are still in B♭ (or C) and sound the same as their normal-sized cousins. This is because a pocket trumpet has the same length of tubing – it is just wrapped in a tighter coil.
A lot of websites praise pocket trumpets as being the same as regular trumpets, but then it turns out those websites sell pocket trumpets. We also sell pocket trumpets, but I would argue that pockets are only superior for novelty situations, travelling, or playing in the car. Pocket trumpets do not project as well, and they can be more resistant because of the tightly wound tubing.
If you are buying your first instrument and are considering a pocket versus a regular trumpet, buy the regular. If you ignore me and buy a pocket, please understand that there are many terrible, poorly built pocket trumpets out there for very cheap. Avoid these! In saying that, the CarolBrass pockets we sell are actually very good for the price.
D / E♭ Trumpet
You may not not see very many D / E♭ trumpets in New Zealand. These are mostly used in classical settings and are pitched higher than B♭ or C trumpets. The higher pitch makes the intonation superior to standard trumpets for higher notes. If you have ever seen those videos where trumpet players blast their horns impressively high but jarringly out of tune, you will know what I am talking about.
There is something very visually appealing about a piccolo trumpet. Perhaps the tiny bell and short tubing length coupled with the large valve block gives it a pleasing, inverted look.
Piccolos generally have four valves and are pitched an octave above a B♭ trumpet. They are commonly used in baroque solo repertoire and have interchangeable leadpipes which allow them to play in either B♭ or A.
Famously, the trumpet solo on the Beatles’ Penny Lane was played on piccolo.
The story of the Penny Lane solo
The lovely, warm, mellow sound of the flugel is commonly used in jazz music. The flugel has the same length of tubing as the B♭ trumpet and is in the same key, but the shape of the bore makes an important difference.
There are two different bore shapes in a brass instrument:
- Cylindrical (parallel like a cylinder) which produces a brighter tone
- Conical (like a cone) which produces a warmer tone
The flugel gets its nice, mellow sound because 2/3 of the tubing is conical. A trumpet, by contrast, is only 1/3 conical. This little third makes a big difference.
The mouthpiece is also a factor. A trumpet mouthpiece is shallower than a flugel one, and the deeper the mouthpiece, the warmer the tone.
A great use of flugelhorns: “Bloom” from Radiohead’s King of Limbs (from 2:55)
B♭ and E♭ Cornet
Cornets are far more modern than trumpets. King Tut’s trumpets were made 3000 years ago, which makes the 1830’s appearance of the cornet seem positively futuristic.
B♭ cornets have the same amount of tubing as a trumpet but are obviously shorter. This is because the tubing on a cornet is coiled in two complete revolutions rather than a trumpet’s single revolution.
The cornet has a conical bore and uses a deep mouthpiece. These characteristics give the cornet a deeper, broader sound than a trumpet, but a flugel is still the winner for mellow tones due to the exaggerated taper of its conical tubing.
E♭ cornets, known as soprano cornets, are pitched a fourth above their B♭ siblings and are mostly used in British-style brass bands. The E♭ has a brighter, thinner sound and is usually only played by one or two members of a brass band.
Most of you will remember the 2010 album ‘Space Trumpet’ by Dagger Brothers:This album, I am sure we can all agree, changed the course of musical history. But did you know that the image on the cover is actually a cornet, not a trumpet?
The more you know.