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A totally real conversation that happens every day and not some hypothetical scenario created by the writer in lieu of an actual introduction to this article:
Person 1: Hey, I’ve made a very important decision that is worth announcing like this! I’m going to start playing the trumpet!
Person 2 (who happens to play trumpet): Wow, that’s great! I’m so happy for you! Which one?
Person 1: the…the trumpet?
Person 2: Yea, no, totally, but, like, which one?
Person 1 (confusion growing): the, uh…you know *makes trumpet noises with their mouth*
Person 2: Totally. Awesome. But which trumpet specifically?
Person 1: I dunno, like, jazz? Or ska? The brass instrument with the *folds hands and mimes an indeterminable action*
Person 2: Yea, cool! So, what, B♭ trumpet? C trumpet? Piccolo trumpet?…
As Person 2 lists each new type of trumpet, Person 1’s face forms into a deeper and deeper expression of abject horror. The color begins to fade from their world. Darkness creeps in from the corners of their field of view. Person 2’s voice echoes more and more until consonants and vowels blend together into a sheer wall of sound. Behind them, the four horsemen arrive-
We apologize for the fault in the article’s introduction. Those responsible have been sacked.
Trumpet-like horns date as far back as ancient Egypt, at least. Among the treasures discovered in the infamous tomb of King Tut were a pair of trumpets, one silver and one bronze. “Trumpets” from the Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex (aka the Oxus River civilization) are estimated to be as old as 4-5,000 years!
The earliest trumpets were not engineered to change pitch thru a momentary ‘change the length’ of the instrument’s tubing (ie. valve). Any change in pitch had to come solely from the musician’s embouchure (the general shape of the musician’s lips/mouth).
The trumpet, as we recognize and classify it today, began its evolution in the 14th century. The technological and artistic leaps of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance extended to musical instruments, both their form and function. These innovations expanded the trumpet’s repertoire beyond the battlefield and pulled it into the music halls of its days.
The seven centuries since have expanded the trumpet family a great deal. In ~1814, the first valve on the trumpet was introduced: the Stölzel valve, named for Heinrich Stölzel. This was the first iteration of the piston valve. A few years later, Stölzel collaborated with Friedrich Blühmel to create the first rotary valve.
Before then, trumpets were capable of playing in only two registers: the “Principale” (lower register) could not play a full scale as it was limited to the harmonic series and the “Clarino” (upper register) could play full scales and chromatic pitches, but was much more difficult to reach those pitches with consistency.
Today’s trumpets are engineered with three or four valves to change their pitch. Most trumpets have piston valves, but rotary-valved trumpets are not unheard of. They are more commonly found among an orchestra as the rotary valves allow for smoother transitions between notes, more necessary for playing classical music’s lyrical passages.
Types of Trumpets
Depending on how you wish to categorize the various types of trumpets (would you consider a B♭/F natural soprano fanfare trumpet a different trumpet than a B natural bass fanfare trumpet?), there are over 20 types of trumpets accessible today to varying degrees of frequency and even more throughout the past 6-7 centuries.
Hold up, why do we have so many trumpets in the first place?
Most of these trumpets we’ll explore are transposing instruments. This means that the same note (as written on the music staff) played between all of these trumpets will each produce a different pitch.
ie) same fingering = different pitch.
These pitches will also differ from non-transposing instruments such as the piano or violin. (The C-trumpet being the exceptional non-transposing trumpet)
For instance, on the B♭ trumpet, a C-natural played will actually be a B♭ in the concert tone (ie by other non-transposing instruments such as the piano and violin). To play a “concert C,” a B♭ trumpet will actually need to play a D-natural.
Wait, what? Why don’t they just call the ‘D-natural’ ‘C-natural?’
As somebody who also plays the Eb Alto Sax, trust me, I could rant about this for days. I have wondered this many, many, many times and, though a simple answer exists as to why, it has never completely satisfied me either. Traditions gonna tradition…
But, you could just stop writing music for the B♭ trumpet or whatever! You could just burn all the music that already exists after transposing it to concert pitch! One trumpet to rule them all! One trumpet to find them! One trumpet to bring them all-
I mean, we could, but here’s where I need to start being (slightly?) pedantic…and not just because I get paid by the word… 😉
These trumpets are (mostly*) capable of playing the same pitch, regardless of what each individual trumpet would call that pitch. However, due to the physics of sound, instrument construction, individual timbres of instruments, etc. there exist slight differences in the tone produced by each of these trumpets. The layperson may not be able to “hear” these differences, but centuries of composers who were heralded as geniuses either in-life or post-mortem could and, thus, wrote for different trumpets.
*Various trumpets have different ranges. Some trumpets are capable of playing certain pitches that others cannot.
The Most Trumpet of the Trumpets
An evolution that started with the invention of the valve in ~1814 reached its pinnacle in 20th-century France when, at long last, orchestras finally found the sound they were looking for. The B♭ trumpet is now the most common of the (most trumpet of the) trumpets. When somebody casually references “the trumpet,” musician or not, they are likely referencing the B♭ trumpet. As demonstrated in the example above, the B♭ trumpet produces a pitch one whole step lower than the written note.
The length of tubing coiled up in a B♭ trumpet is a little less than five feet (meter and a half for you metric-users). Most B♭ trumpets possess three piston valves, especially starter trumpets. The B♭ trumpet has a warm, rich tone with a clear projection which allows it to be used across genres and ensembles, most notably jazz or pop ensembles.
The B♭ trumpet has a broad range. The range, for beginner and intermediate players, extends from F#3 to D6. The most advanced trumpet players can be expected to play even higher notes than that.
The C trumpet is the only non-transposing trumpet. A C is a C is a C. Being tuned a step higher than the B♭ trumpet inherently gives the C trumpet’s tone even more brightness and ability to pierce through an ensemble. This is aided by the size of the C trumpet, which is 8/9 the size of a B♭ trumpet.
C trumpets are more commonly found amongst a symphonic orchestra as that brightness really helps classical music shine (pun intended) and allows them to pierce through a larger assembly of musicians (relative to the size of even the largest jazz ensembles, for example). It demands a more developed embouchure to play (perhaps another reason why it is most commonly found in an orchestral setting).
The C trumpet has a similar range as the B♭ trumpet ranging from F#3 but reaching as high as F6 and beyond for more advanced players. The C trumpet excels in comparison to the B♭ trumpet when it comes to the high registers of the two instruments. In the higher register, the C trumpet has more consistent tone quality and intonation (the ability of an instrument to stay in tune).
The D trumpet is smaller than the C trumpet (you’ll notice a trend that the higher-pitched a trumpet is, the shorter the length of tubing). It also has a brighter, dare I say, even peppy tone. The tone is very distinct and reminiscent of Baroque music*. This trumpet is less commonly used than the B♭ trumpet or C trumpet and is generally utilized to cut through an orchestra to emphasize a section of music.
The range of the D trumpet is a little higher than the B♭ trumpet, extending from G#3 to E6 but where the D trumpet really impresses is with its consistency in the higher register.
*The D trumpet was introduced in 1861, long after the Baroque period is said to have ended, but was nonetheless a favorite of the musical world when playing that music in the late 19th century.
The E♭ trumpet has a warm, rich tone with clear accentuation. It requires a well-developed embouchure to play. It is mostly used for soloing, but Joseph Haydn and Johan Hummel each composed plenty of music specifically for the E♭ trumpet. While this music could be transposed and performed on a B♭ trumpet, the fingerings are more forgiving when performed on the E♭ trumpet.
E trumpet, E♭ Bass trumpet, Contralto F trumpet, Bass F trumpet
I am sure I will receive some stern emails from trumpet aficionados commenting on the audacity to group such distinct trumpets together, but here goes: The E trumpet, E♭ Bass trumpet, Contralto F trumpet, and Bass F trumpet are exceedingly rare instruments, at least compared to other trumpets on this list. It is more likely that any part written for any of these trumpets will simply be transposed and played on a more common trumpet.
(Low) G trumpets are also called soprano bugles, thusly named because of their evolution from the (military) bugle. G trumpets possess a powerfully rich tone with strong articulation. G trumpets are often engineered with a fourth valve to give them a lower extended range.
Piccolo trumpets are also tuned in the key of B♭, but an octave higher than the traditional B♭ trumpet. A piccolo trumpet has a shorter range than the traditional B♭ trumpet by about an octave and a half reaching from D4 – G6. The tubing is one-half the length of a B♭ trumpet (2 feet 5 inches long), also leaving the piccolo trumpet to be much lighter. A fourth valve is often added to a piccolo trumpet to extend its lower range by a fourth.
Less common adaptions of the piccolo trumpet include those engineered in the key of G, F, and C.
An A trumpet is a piccolo trumpet with an extended lead-pipe.*
*I am going to assume that this is the case. While the A Trumpet is mentioned in the Wikipedia article on trumpets, that youtube video is the only other resource I could find that mentioned a trumpet in the “key of A”…which lends credence to the idea that this trumpet is probably not a terribly popular choice amongst trumpet players.
A pocket trumpet is another B♭ trumpet but made smaller by coiling the tubing tighter. Generally considered a novelty item now, the pocket trumpet has been in production since the mid-late 19th century. It is generally more difficult to play and force air through due to the tighter bends. The tonal quality, while not bad, is not as rich or cutting as other trumpets.
A major pro of the pocket trumpet is its price. Needing less metal to produce, the pocket trumpet costs less to make.
The pTrumpet is a trumpet made of plastic because, in the 21st century, of course we have a plastic alternative for everything. (Slight sarcasm aside, pBone is dedicated to leaving a carbon-neutral footprint). The pTrumpet, being made of plastic, costs less, is more durable, and lighter than its brass counterparts. The construction does have the downside of making fast finger passages more difficult.
It is more hypoallergenic than other brass instruments and features a fully-plastic valve system, the first of its kind. While possessing a tone that is not as rich or complex as other brass instruments, it still produces an enjoyable tone, especially for beginner players.
The bass trumpet is the lowest trumpet in the trumpet family. Its tone is one octave below the B♭ trumpet though variations exist that are one sixth and one ninth below the B♭ trumpet as well. While not as popular as its B♭ counterpart, the bass trumpet does come in the key of C as well.
B♭ bass trumpets often have three valves while C bass trumpets often have four to allow the trumpet to reach even lower. The traditional range of a B♭ bass trumpet is E2 – C5
The bass trumpet has the same valves and tubing length as the valve trombone. This, in addition to the embouchure required to play this instrument, often necessitates that the bass trumpet is played by a trombone player.
The bass trumpet has a harder, more metallic tone than non-bass trumpets.
The bugle evolved from the simplest and earliest instruments (horns). The name itself is derived from the word ‘buculus,’ Latin for bullock (castrated bull), likely in recognition of what the earliest horns were made from: (animal) horns. Much like its ancestors, the bugle is one of the simplest brass instruments.
The bugle has no method by which to change pitch besides the player’s embouchure. As such, the bugle is capable of only producing notes within the harmonic series (notes/overtones at specific frequencies above the tonal center). Furthermore, it is limited to five “partials” (pitches) above the tonal center for six pitches total.
There are four tiers of bugles, categorized by the registers they are capable of playing: Contrabass bugle (very low pitch), Baritone bugle (low pitch), Alto bugle (medium pitch), Soprano bugle (high pitch).
The Bugle has, historically, been used exclusively by militaries. Certain cadences were played to signal to other troops/battalions on the battlefield. The bright, piercing sound of the bugle can easily carry and be heard across vast distances. The limits of the bugle in terms of the (in)ability to change pitch made it the perfect blend of simplicity and effectiveness. While modern warfare and communication technology has left the bugle outdated, the bugle still carries an important ceremonial role in the military and other organizations, like the Boy Scouts of America.
The natural trumpet has about 8 feet of tubing. Much like the bugle, the natural trumpet is a valveless brass instrument capable of only playing the notes of the harmonic series. The natural trumpet has historically been used by militaries, but unlike the bugle found a place amongst the music world, with music dating back to the 16th century.
Virtuostic natural trumpet players in the Baroque period discovered little ‘cheats’ to produce a wider array of notes than the bugle’s six, for instance. However, due to changing tastes and a lack of sufficient talent to play the natural trumpet (likely driven by the aforementioned taste-changing), the natural trumpet began to lose its prominence in music during the Romantic Era (19th century). While still played today in performances of music from the Baroque and Classical Era, the natural trumpet does not generally enjoy any further splendor.
Fanfare Trumpet (a.k.a. Herald Trumpet)
While it’s doubtful that the fanfare trumpet was invented simply to have an instrument capable of being so easily adorned, it is nonetheless the most glamorous of the trumpets.* At ~2.5 feet in length, the fanfare trumpet began as a ceremonial instrument in the Middle Ages before being drafted into military use (pun intended) in the 15th century. As such, it has always been designed to carry a bright, clear, piercing tone.
There are over 30 kinds of fanfare trumpets, of all different keys and tunings, that are categorized into natural trumpets (fixed length of tubing) or valved trumpets. They generally have a distinctly bright and piercing sound.
*I petition to rename this trumpet the Glam Trumpet
The Flumpet is one of the most recent additions to the brass/trumpet family, having been introduced to the world just over 30 years ago. It was engineered specifically for trumpet virtuoso Art Farmer by engineering/music virtuoso David Monette. It is tuned in the key of B♭ (same tubing length as B♭ trumpet) and perhaps best described as
the love-child of a cross between a trumpet’s bright, piercing sound and a flugelhorn’s dark, mellower, richer sound to create an overall thick, rich tone with the capability of a bright attack.
The Flumpet requires a Monette mouthpiece to play the instrument. It’s not compatible with traditional Bach or Schilke brass mouthpiece.
Close But No Cigar
The cornet is not technically a trumpet, but it’s about as close as you can possibly get. What distinguishes these two instruments is the general shape of the bore (the ‘meat’ of the instrument itself, the tubing from the mouthpiece all the way to the bell’s flaring out): a trumpet’s bore is more cylindrical (generally consistent tubing diameter from mouthpiece to bell) and a cornet’s bore is more conical (steadily increasing diameter from mouthpiece to bell).
This difference in bore shape combined with the number of bends in a cornet (more) vs a trumpet sets their sound apart. A trumpet produces brighter, more piercing tones whereas a cornet’s tones are mellower and deeper. However, a cornet has the same length of tubing as a B♭ trumpet so the written music for the two is interchangeable.
The cornet is an adaption of the posthorn. It (cornet) was created in the 1820s by adding rotary valves to the posthorn. Variations of the cornet include the soprano cornet in E♭, the A cornet, and the C cornet.
- The Slide Trumpet
Slide Trumpets were created during the Renaissance. They were clunky instruments as they did not possess the sleek, efficient, sliding appendage such as those on trombones. The trumpeter held the mouthpiece stationary and, basically, moved the entirety of the instrument back and forth. The slide trumpet is an antiquated instrument.
- H3 Saxhorn
Similarly, while they are valved brass instruments, saxhorns cannot be considered trumpets either due to their conical bores. Saxhorns are brass instruments developed by Adolphe Sax, most famous as the inventor of the saxophone.
- The Flugelhorn
The Flugelhorn is the most trumpet-like member of the saxhorn family. It was created in the early 1800s. The most common Flugelhorn is tuned in B♭. Flugelhorns, like the trumpet, have a wide range, even wider with a fourth valve. It has an impressively rich higher and lower register.
Flugelhorns are most commonly found in jazz, more often used for ballads and lower-tempo songs.
Pros and Cons of the B♭ Trumpet
As the B♭ Trumpet is the most common trumpet, let’s take a moment to weigh the good and bad of the instrument.
- As the B♭ Trumpet is the most common trumpet, there exists an embarrassment of riches in terms of resources to learn how to play the trumpet as well as music to play and explore.
- Likewise, the variety of music brands that produce the B♭ Trumpet is pretty close to uncountable so you’ll be certain to find a specific trumpet out there that you like
- The B♭ Trumpet has a longer length of tubing than most trumpets. More tube length = more control.
- The mere act of playing the B♭ Trumpet will open doors for you and make it easier to transition towards a different type of trumpet.
- Competition. If you’re looking to become one of the best trumpet players, the amount of competition you’ll face is staggering considering the ubiquity of this particular trumpet. (Which is not to say that success will come as easy as purchasing a Flugelhorn, for example)
- Only playing the B♭ Trumpet may very well close doors if a music ensemble needs the unique sound of a different trumpet.
My Top Recommendations
Not to beat a dead horse, but the B♭ trumpet is, by far, the most popular trumpet in the world today, especially amongst beginning trumpet players.
- Beginners might consider purchasing a Mendini by Cecilio B♭ trumpet. At just north of $100, the trumpet comes with everything that a beginner needs to start playing. While not the best B♭ trumpet, it is an accessible instrument that will do everything a beginner needs their trumpet to do.
- Professional trumpet players will need to invest significantly more in their trumpet ($3-4k). Members of the Bach Stradivarius Series top many lists of “Best Trumpet” to purchase.
The C trumpet is the second-most popular trumpet. It is a favorite amongst orchestras for its ability for a small group of trumpets to stand out amidst the rest of the orchestra.
- Beginners might consider the Stagg WS-TR255 Series C Trumpet available online at several popular retailers
- Professional trumpet players might consider a B&S Challenger II C trumpet
- The joy of playing an instrument, beyond creating music, is the journey of discovering how you are going to make a mark on the music world. It’s finding your preferred tone/timbre and how you can wield that to push boundaries. Or maybe it’s picking up a new trumpet because you are infatuated with a specific composer’s music. I, as the writer of this article, cannot tell you what you are searching for. I would implore you that if you’re looking to venture out from the classic B♭ or C trumpet, head to a music store and ask if you can test out a Flugelhorn or a pTrumpet or whatever! Adventure awaits!
Answer: The Yamaha YTR 2330 is a great beginner trumpet. It was designed with the lowest weight possible to accommodate beginning players. Yamaha designed this trumpet without a brace on the main tuning slide allowing for easier play/less resistance for beginners (certain levels of resistance are a necessary thing. While a lack of resistance can be beneficial for a beginner, the lack of it may hinder the ability to play more advanced pieces)
As recommended above, the Mendini by Cecilio B♭ trumpet is an accessible trumpet for beginners to play on.
Answer: Every instrument is hard to learn in its own right. Learning any instrument will take hours upon hours upon hours of practice and frustration. There is no avoiding that fact.
That being said, trumpets are particularly difficult to learn. Some instruments (so long as they are tuned to start with) will produce an in-tune pitch or a certain pitch with a certain fingering every time. You can strike a piano key as hard or soft as you like, but the pitch for that key will always remain the same. For the trumpet, the pitch can change based upon the player’s mouth shape, lip tension, lip vibration, airspeed, and more. Moreso than learning what combination of valves will produce a certain pitch, you’re learning how to physically work with your instrument to a) produce the correct pitches and b) produce them well.
Answer: Simply put? Preference. Trumpets have been around forever (practically). When the B♭ trumpet was invented, the music world just liked its specific timbre the most and no subsequent trumpet invented since produces a timbre that a majority of the world resonates with more (pun intended). As for trumpet players, the B♭ trumpet is, generally, the easiest to play.
All these trumpets are brass instruments with a higher range and more piercing tone than the rest of the brass family. Despite the ~20 trumpets listed here, they have more in common with each other than any other instrument. There is no particularly ‘best’ trumpet. The B♭ and C trumpet are the most common trumpets out there while the rest of the trumpets generally fill a specific but important niche in the music world.
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