1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Trombone

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TROMBONE (Fr. trombone, Ger. Posaune, Ital. trombono), an important member of the brass wind family of musical instruments formerly known as sackbut. The trombone is characterized by the slide, consisting of two parallel cylindrical tubes, over which two other cylindrical tubes, communicating at their lower extremities by means of a short semicircular pipe, slip without loss of air. The outer tube, therefore, slides upon the inner, and as it is drawn downwards by the right hand opens a greater length of tube proportional to the depth of pitch required. When the slide is closed the instrument is at its highest pitch. To the upper end of one of the inner tubes is fastened the cup-shaped mouthpiece and to the end of the other tube is fixed the bell-joint. This joint, on the proper proportions of which depend in a greater measure the acoustic properties of the trombone, consists of a length of tubing with conical bore widening out into a large bell and doubled back once upon itself in a plane at right angles to that of the slide. The bell-joint is strengthened by two or three stays, and the slide also has two, one between the inner immovable tubes and the other on the outer sliding tubes, by means of which the slide is drawn out and pushed in.


Britannica Trombone Tenor.png

Fig. 1. — Tenor Trombone (Besson & Co.).


Sound is produced on the trombone, as on the horn, by means of the lips stretched like a vibrating reed across the cup mouthpiece from rim to rim; the acoustic principles involved are the same for both instruments. By overblowing, i.e. by the varying tension of the lips and pressure of breath, the harmonic series is obtained, which is effective between the second and the tenth harmonics, the fundamental being but rarely of practical use.

There are seven positions of the slide on the trombone, each giving a theoretical fundamental tone and its upper partials a semitone lower than the last, and corresponding to the seven shifts on the violin and to the seven positions on valve instruments. These seven positions are found by drawing out the slide a little more for each one, the first position being that in which the slide remains closed. The performer on the trombone is just as dependent on an accurate ear for finding the correct positions as a violinist.

The table of harmonics for the seven positions of the tenor trombone in B♭ is appended; they furnish a complete chromatic compass of two octaves and a sixth.

Position I.
(with closed slide).
Britannica Trombone Position I Harmonics.png
II. Britannica Trombone Position II Harmonics.png
III. Britannica Trombone Position III Harmonics.png
IV. Britannica Trombone Position IV Harmonics.png
V. Britannica Trombone Position V Harmonics.png
VI. Britannica Trombone Position VI Harmonics.png
VII. Britannica Trombone Position VII Harmonics.png

These notes represent all the notes in practical use, although it is possible to produce certain of the higher harmonics. The instrument being non-transposing, the notation represents the real sounds.

The four chief trombones used in the orchestra are the following: —

The Alto in E flat or F. Britannica Trombone Alto Range.png
The Tenor-Bass in B flat. Britannica Trombone Tenor-Bass Range.png
The Bass in F or G
(with double slide in E flat).
Britannica Trombone Bass Range.png
The Contra-Bass in B flat.
An octave below the Tenor-Bass.
Britannica Trombone Contra-Bass Range.png

The compass given above is extreme and includes the notes obtained by means of the slide; the notes in brackets are very difficult; the fundamental notes, even when they can be played, are not of much practical use. The contra-bass trombone, although not much in request in the concert hall, is required for the Nibelungen Ring, in which Wagner has scored effectively for it.

The quality of tone varies greatly in the different instruments and registers. The alto trombone has neither power nor richness of tone, but sounds hard and has a timbre between that of a trumpet and a French horn. The tenor and bass have a full rich quality suitable for heroic, majestic music, but the tone depends greatly on the performer's method of playing; the modern tendency to produce a harsh, noisy blare is greatly to be deplored.

Besides the slide trombone, which is most largely used, there are the valve trombones, and the double-slide trombones. The former are made in the same keys as the instruments given above and are constructed in the same manner, except that the slide is replaced by three pistons, which enable the performer to obtain a greater technical execution; as the tone suffers thereby and loses its characteristic timbre, the instruments have never become popular in England.


Britannica Trombone Double Slide.png

Fig. 2.


The double-slide trombone (fig. 2) — patented by Messrs Rudall Carte & Co. but said to have been originally invented by Halary in 1830 — is made in B♭, G bass and E♭ contrabass. In these instruments each of the branches of the slide is made half the usual length. There are four branches instead of two and the two pairs lie one over the other, each pair being connected at the bottom by a semicircular tube and the second pair similarly at the top as well. The usual bar or stay suffices for drawing out both pairs of slides simultaneously, but as the lengthening of the air column is now doubled in proportion to the shift of the slide, the extension of arm for the lower positions is lessened by half, which increases the facility of execution but calls for greater nicety in the adjustment of the slide, more especially in the higher positions.

The history of the evolution of the trombone from the buccina is given in the article on the Sackbut (q.v.), the name by which the earliest draw or slide trumpets were known in England. The Germans call the trombone Posaune, formerly buzaun, busine, pusin or pusun in the poems and romances of the 12th and 13th century, words all clearly derived from the Latin buccina. The modern designation “large trumpet” comes from the Italian, in which tromba means not only trumpet, but also pump and elephant's trunk. It is difficult to say where or at what epoch the instrument was invented. In a psalter (No. 20) of the 11th century, preserved at Boulogne, there is a drawing of an instrument which bears a great resemblance to a trombone deprived of its bell. Sebastian Virdung, Ottmar Luscinius, and Martin Agricola say little about the trombone, but they give illustrations of it under the name of busaun which show that early in the 16th century it was almost the same as that employed in our day. It would not be correct to assume from this that the trombone was not well known at that date in Germany, and for the following reasons. First, the art of trombone playing was in the 15th century in Germany mostly in the hands of the members of the town bands, whose duties included playing on the watch towers, in churches, at pageants, banquets and festivals, and they, being jealous of their privileges, kept the secrets of their art closely, so that writers, such as the above, although acquainted with the appearance, tone and action of the instrument would have but little opportunity of learning much about the method of producing the sound. Secondly, German and Dutch trombone players are known to have been in request during the 15th century at the courts of Italian princes.[1] Thirdly, Hans Neuschel of Nuremberg, the most celebrated performer and maker of his day, had already won a name at the end of the 15th century for the excellence of his “Posaunen,” and it is recorded that he made great improvements in the construction of the instrument in 1498,[2] a date which probably marks the transition from sackbut to trombone, by enlarging the bore and turning the bell-joint round at right angles to the slide. Finally in early German translations of Vegetius's De re militari (1470) the buccina is described (bk. III., 5) as the trumpet or posaun which is drawn in and out, showing that the instrument was not only well known, but that it had been identified as the descendant of the buccina.

By the 16th century the trombone had come into vogue in England, and from the name it bore at first, not sackbut, but shakbusshe, it is evident that the instrument had been introduced from Spain and not from France (where it bore the name of saquebute), as some have assumed from the more frequent use of the word sackbut. The band of musicians in the service of Henry VIII. included ten sackbut players, and under Elizabeth, in 1587, there were six English instrumentalists then enjoyed a certain reputation and were sought for by foreign courts; thus in 1604 Charles III. of Lorraine sought to recruit his sackbut players from English bands.[3] Praetorius[4] classes the trombones in a complete family, the relative tonalities of which were thus composed: 1 Alt-Posaun, 4 Gemeine rechte Posaunen, 2 Quart-Posaunen, 1 Octav-Posaun — eight in all. The Alt-posaun was in D. With the slide closed, it gave the first of the accompanying harmonics: —

Britannica Trombone Alt-posaun Harmonics.png

The gemeine rechte Posaunen, or ordinary trombones, were Without using the slide they gave the subjoined sounds: —

Britannica Trombone Gemeine rechte Posaunen Harmonics.png

The Quart-Posaun was made either in E, the fourth below the gemeine rechte Posaun, or in D, the lower fifth. In the latter case it was exactly an octave below the Alt-Posaun. The Octav-Posaun was in A. It was, constructed in two different fashions: either it had a length double that of the ordinary trombone, or the slide was shortened, the length of the column of air being still maintained by the adaptation of a crook. The first system, which was invented by Hans Schreiber four years before the work of Praetorius appeared, gave the instrumentalist a slide by which he could procure in the lower octave all the sounds of the ordinary trombone. The second system, which Praetorius had known for years, was distinguished from the first, not only by modifications affecting the form, but also by a larger bore. Mersenne[5] calls the trombone trompette harmonique, or tuba tractilis. He describes carefully the seven positions and gives the diatonic scale for the first octave, but he does not, like Praetorius, mention the pitch of the trombones in use in his day. He established this fact, however, that it was customary in France, as in Germany, to lower the instrument a fourth below the pitch of the ordinary trombone by means of a tortil, a kind of crook with a double turn that was fitted between the bell and the slide, “in order,” he said, “to make the bass to hautbois concerts.” This system, so simple and rational, might have been expected always to serve for the basis of the technique of the instrument; but from the middle of the 18th century the art of playing the trombone became the object of purely empiric teaching. Owing to the decline in the popularity of the trombone during the 18th century in England, France, Germany and Italy, writers of that period are sometimes at a loss to describe the working and effect of the slide, as were the early 16th-century authors. J. J. Eisel, and after him Jacob Lotter, whose work is a réchauffé of Eisel's, mention four principal positions, “the others not being of much importance.” The lowering of the pitch effected by means of these four positions, however, is almost equal to that of the seven positions of the modern trombone. The tenor or ordinary trombone is given as an example. It stood in the first position in A. The second position, equal to the modern third produced the harmonic series of the fundamental G one tone lower than the first position. The third position gave F again a tone lower and corresponding to our sixth position. The fourth position, which extended so far outward “that the arm could hardly reach it,” gave E as fundamental. The intermediate semitones, instead of being considered as positions, are treated as accidentals, lowering or raising any note obtained in one of the positions by drawing out, or pushing in, the slide approximately an extra two-fingers breadth. It would not be correct to state without qualification that four positions only were used on the trombone in the 18th century.

Samuel Wesley, who has left notes on the scales of various instruments, in his own hand (Add MS. 35011 fol. 166 Brit. Mus.), has added under the scales of the trombones — bass, tenor and alto — the remark “sacbut or double trumpet, the scale of which is wanting.”


Britannica Trombone Contrabass.png

Fig. 3. — Contrabass Trombone (Boosey & Co.).


Of all wind instruments the trombone has perhaps been least modified in form; changes have occasionally been attempted, but for the most part with only trifling success. The innovation which has had the most vogue dates from the end of the 18th century; it consisted in bending the tube of the bell in a half circle above the head of the executant, which produced a very bizarre effect. It also gave rise to very serious inconveniences: by destroying the regularity of the proportions of the bell it prejudicially affected the quality of tone and intonation of the instrument. For a long time the curved bell with its serpent's mask known as the Bucin — a term borrowed from the French in this instance — was maintained in military music, and it is not so very long since it was completely given up. By giving a half turn more to the bell tube its opening was directed to the back of the executant; but this form, in fashion for a little while about 1830, was not long adhered to, and the trombone reassumed its primitive form, which is still maintained. As appears from a patent deposited by Stölzel and Blümel at Berlin on the 12th of April 1818 the application of ventils or pistons was then made for the first time.[6] The ventils, at first two in number, effected a definite lengthening of the instrument. The first augmented the length of the tube by a tone, lowering by as much the natural harmonics. The second produced a similar effect for a semitone, and the simultaneous employment of the two pistons resulted in the depression of a tone and a half. The principle, therefore, of the employment of ventils or pistons is the same as that which governs the use of slides (see Valves). Notwithstanding the increased facility obtained by the use of pistons, they are very far from having gained the suffrage of all players: many prefer the slide, believing that it gives a facility of emission that they cannot obtain with a piston trombone. The flat tonalities having been preferred for military music since the beginning of the 19th century the pitch of each variety of trombones has been raised a semitone. At present six trombones are more or less in use, viz. the alto trombone in F, the alto in E♭ (formerly in D), the tenor in B♭ (formerly in A), the bass in G, the bass in F (formerly in E), the bass in E♭ (formerly in D), and the contrabass in B♭. This transposition has no reference to the number of vibrations that may be officially or tacitly adopted as the standard pitch of any country or locality. A trombone an octave lower than the tenor has recently been reintroduced into the orchestra, principally by Wagner. The different varieties just cited are constructed with pistons or slides, as the case may be.

Further information on the trombone will be found in the monographs by the Rev. F. W. Galpin, “The Sackbut: its Evolution and History,” Proc. Mus. Assoc. (1906-1907); by Victor Mahillon, Le Trombone, son histoire, sa théorie, sa construction (Brussels, London, 1907). Before his recent death Professor George Case had in preparation an important work on the trombone. (V. M.; K. S.)


  1. E. Van der Straeten, Les Musiciens néerlandais p. 26.
  2. See G. von Retberg “Zur Gesch. d. Musik-instrumente” in Anzeiger für Kunde der deutschen Vorzeit p. 241. (Nuremberg, 1860). See also letters from Jorg Neuschell 1540-1545 in Monatshefte f. Musikwissenschaft, ix. p. 149 seq.
  3. See A. Jacquot, La Musique en Lorraine, p. 6l.
  4. Organographia (Wolfenbüttel, 1619).
  5. Harmonie universelle (Paris, 1636).
  6. This was mentioned in the Leipzig Allg. musik. Ztg. (1815), the merit of the invention being assigned to Heinrich Stölzel of Pless in Silesia.