Contrabass Trumpets

Contrabass Trumpets

I only include these rare, and sometimes unique, trumpets for the sake of completeness.  There have been several instruments called a Contrabass Trumpet over the years.  Some of these are pitched in F below the regular Bass Trumpet, while others are a full octave lower than the Bass Trumpet.  The instrument in F is the equivalent of an Bass Tuba, while the one in C or B-flat is the same pitch as the Contrabass Tuba. Continue reading “Contrabass Trumpets”

Trumpets Part 2 – Trumpets in the Band

Trumpets in the Band

I’ve held off on writing the second part of the trumpet chapter for various reasons.  The main reason I’ve waited is so that I don’t malign either the instrument or the players.

So much for good intentions.

Let’s start with a bit of history.  In the beginning, there were trumpets.  Long, valveless trumpets usually pitched in D.  These instruments were used very much akin to how the timpani are used: to accent the tonic and dominant and occasionally to call out a simple melody.  That is to say, their use was very limited.

Then came the cornet, and the trumpet was bypassed.  The cornet could do things that the still valveless trumpet simply couldn’t – play chromatically.  The cornet was the new king.  Much ink was wasted over the merits and virtues of both instruments.  Eventually, the trumpet had valves added and it slowly started to take over the cornet’s role.  The old large trumpet (in D or F) shrank to the tiny B-flat Trumpet.  Note, this is not the modern Piccolo Trumpet, but our normal everyday B-flat instrument.  The difference between the two instruments shrank, and the need for there being separate parts diminished.

Throughout much of the 20th Century, the standard was 3 B-flat Cornet parts and 2 B-flat Trumpet parts in the band.  The Trumpets were the supplemental instruments and the Cornets were the leaders.  Then came Lincolnshire Posy.  Grainger’s masterpiece is the first major modern work that does not use Cornets.  The Cornet’s death was imminent.

I still maintain that the Cornet has its uses, but please see my posts on that instrument for those thoughts.

Today we have a wall of trumpets on the back row of our bands.  Blech.  It’s too many.  Trumpet is one of those instruments that is best left to one on a part.  There is absolutely no reason to have 2 to 3 players on a single trumpet part.  In educational bands, we see it has making sure that all of our players have something to do, but this is done to the detriment of the music and the integrity of the composition.

We also have a situation whereby the trumpets play well more than half of the time.  I am going to use Wagner’s Das Rheingold as an example of effective trumpet use.  Wagner’s Ring is well-known for its use of heavy brass.  Let’s see how Wager treats the trumpet.  For my analysis, I will just be focused on the 1st trumpet part.  The trumpets first make their entrance in mm. 112 and play for only 24 measures then they are silent.  These 24 bars are in full orchestral tutti.  Then the trumpets are silent for a total of 397 measures.  In over 500 measures of large orchestral scoring, Wagner uses the trumpet in only 24 measures – or 4.5% of the time.  Compare this to the Horns, which never stop playing for more than a dozen measures at any time, or even the trombones and tuba which play far more frequently than do the trumpets.  The second and third trumpets, in fact, do not reappear in Wagner’s score until the beginning of the Second Act (84 pages in to the full orchestral score).  That’s 24 measures of playing in 24 minutes of music.

Scene 1 from Das Rheingold

What I’m trying to say, is that the trumpet is a magical instrument, and Wagner knew it better than anyone.  He reserved its strident and noble tones for only moments of great clarity and force.  As bandestrators, we should never forget this.  Ever.

“I must admit that I have a violent aversion against the manner of using the trumpet as a melody-carrying instrument (that is, the trumpet alone with just a simple accompaniment).”  That quote is from Richard Strauss (another composer who wrote extremely well for the trumpet with many major trumpet passages).  It still holds true.

All this said about how to score for the trumpet, I have said nothing about what should or could constitute a trumpet section in a band.  What is clear is that a single instrument must – I repeat MUST – be on the part.  Doubling the part is an abhorrence that should be ended without delay!

Even in the largest band, 4 trumpet parts is more than plenty.  Each of these players can double on Piccolo, E-flat/D, and C/B-flat instruments so your palate is wider than most would consider.  If we add to this four an Alto and Bass Trumpet, we can have a larger and more well-balanced section.  The Alto Trumpet can also double on any of the above trumpets, whereas the Bass Trumpet cannot (being more often than not played by a trombonist or a euphoniumist).  IF we want to extend this range even further, I think it would be exciting to add a Cimbasso at the very bottom of the trumpet ensemble for sheer power and weight.

Here is a theoretical ensemble:

  • Player 1 – Piccolo and C/B-flat Trumpet
  • Player 2 – Piccolo, E-flat/D, and C/B-flat Trumpet
  • Player 3 – C/B-flat Trumpet
  • Player 4 – C/B-flat Trumpet
  • Player 5 – Alto and C/B-flat Trumpet
  • Player 6 – Bass Trumpet
  • Player 7 – Cimbasso

This gives us a section with 6 different timbral colors, numerous doubling, and countless possibilities.

Remember with trumpets, less is more.

Janacek’s Sinfonietta.  Note the use of an all trumpet ensemble to begin this work.  These trumpets only play in the beginning and at the very end of the work.


In two places I’ve referred to Cimbassi (plus of Cimbasso).  I’ve included it in both the sections on the trumpets and the trombones.  I can find equal reasoning to include this instrument in both families.  As the only significant difference between a trombone and a trumpet is the valves versus the slide, I tend to see Cimbassi as large mega-trumpets.

The historical term Cimbasso has caused much confusion and consternation.  Bellini and Verdi used it in their early works, but the exact instrument they wanted is unknown.  It is possible that the instrument in mind was an Ophicleide or a Russian Bassoon.

Original Cimbasso

However, as Verdi grew older, it is clear that the instrument he had in mind changed.  He envisioned a narrow bore valved brass instrument that was definitively not a tuba.  The instrument we know today as a Cimbasso was only definitively used in Verdi’s last 3 works.  All other works used either the instrument mentioned previously or a Bass Trombone.

Verdi on Cimbasso

Historical notes aside, the modern Cimbasso is experiencing a sort of renaissance.  Hollywood composers have fallen in love with its brash, blatty sound.  There is a fearful presence in the new Cimbasso sound.  Listen to any modern movie with a fully orchestrated music score, and more than likely there will be a Cimbasso.  I’ve seen several behind the scenes documentaries on DVD extras that show Cimbassi in use.

In general, the Cimbasso is played by tuba players.  In Hollywood orchestras, they are a doubling instrument.  Sometimes the player will use a Cimbasso, sometimes they will use a Tuba.  It seems that both the tuba and the Cimbasso are used together rarely

There are two versions on the Cimbasso: the instrument in F and the instrument in B-flat.  These correspond roughly to the Bass and Contrabass Trombones.  Usually composers only specify one and don’t make any distinction between the two instruments.

I can see the Cimbasso (or Cimbassi) as the bottom members of the trumpet ensemble.  They are powerful instruments that should only be used rarely at moments of a huge climax.

I see no reason not to specify the use of F or B-flat Cimbasso.  The F will obviously have a slightly higher tessiture than the B-flat.  Adding one or both to a score can add a lot of weight to the bottom of the brass ensemble.

Trombones – Introduction



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.  

Range Notes

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


Soprano Trombone

Alto Trombone

Tenor Trombone

G Bass Trombone

Bass Trombone

Contrabass Trombone

Trumpets – Introduction



Imagine a band without trumpets.  Can’t do it?  Not surprised.  Our modern thoughts on band are so trumpet-centered that it is difficult to imagine the group without them.  Yet, we need to think in these terms sometimes.

We all know the trumpet in its many forms.  By definition it is a brass instrument, typically in the soprano range that has a nearly completely cylindrical bore.  The normal formula given is 2/3 cylindrical and 1/3 conical.  The final conical section accounts only for the flare of the bell.  These numbers do not represent reality as roughly 2/3 of the bore is actually conical, though most of flare is very gradual.

Trumpets have been part of wind bands since their inception.  We need only look at Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks to see early band trumpet parts.  With the rise of the cornets, which were fully chromatic long before trumpets ever were, the role of trumpets in the band declined.  Throughout most of the Twentieth Century, cornets, not trumpets, were the main soprano brass instruments.  There were typically three or four cornet parts and only two trumpet parts.  Today, the cornet has been all but abandoned (wrongly in my opinion), and we have nothing but B-flat Trumpets for the high brass.  I have been in bands where the largest section of instruments was the trumpets.

To trumpet something means to proclaim it, to shout it out, to declare it, and this is the role of the trumpet.  Think of long fanfare instruments on the ramparts of a castle sounding a call across the king’s country.

We need to seriously rethink the role of the trumpet in the band.  We also need to open our tonal palates up to the various members of the trumpet family.  We can no longer be as bland as B-flat.


Piccolo Trumpets (B-flat and A)

Sopranino Trumpets (G, F, E, E-flat, and D)

Soprano Trumpets (C and B-flat)

G Trumpet

Alto Trumpet

Bass Trumpet

Contrabass Trumpets