The trombone is unique among wind instruments in that its method of tone production is not through keys or valves, but by means of a slide. This fact is of course obvious to anyone who has ever seen a trombone in action before. In fact, how often have we heard it called a “slide trombone?” Historically, the trombone is an old instrument, and on little changed since the 1400s. In those six centuries the only changes to the instrument we’ve seen are the widening of the bore and bell and the addition of a valve or two to aid technique. Due to its use of a slide, the trombone was the first fully chromatic brass instrument, and it held its position as the only chromatic brass until the early 1800s when the valve was invented (here I discount extinct lineages such as serpents, keyed bugles, and ophicleides, that, while chromatic have no bearing on modern brass writing). However, it is curious that this sole chromatic brass was only reluctantly added to the orchestra. Its primary role was to reinforce choirs. A group of trombones would play along with each of the vocal lines to ensure the pitch of the singers. As such, up until around 1800 the instrument was thought of as only a church instrument. The idea of a trombone being used for sacred music might come as a shock to those of us who only know the instrument in its modern usage: a loud, brash, and sometimes overbearing presence. An interesting thing to keep in mind is that the name trombone in Italian literally means “big trumpet.” The -one ending means big (therefore a Clarone is a Bass Clarinet and a Violone is a big Viola or as we would call it a Double Bass). This connection between trumpet and trombone is important because sound-wise they are identical. They are both cylindrical bore cup-shaped mouthpiece brass instruments (the only ones that fit this description in fact) and therefore form a cohesive family. The trombone family has not changed much over the years. The extreme ends (Soprano and Contrabass) are known to have been in existence for nearly as long of the other members of the family.
Unlike the other instruments, I’ve included range charts that contain every note playable on these instruments. When I use the term standard range, I refer to the non-pedal ranges. With the Alto and Tenor Trombones, I do note include valve notes in the standard range because not every Alto or Tenor Trombone will have a valve. Note, with the addition of valves, the number of positions is reduced by one (so that with both valves depressed a Bass Trombone has only 5 positions and an F Contrabass only has 4 positions).
The Entire Trombone Family