The Evolution of Trumpet — Trumpet Magazine

The natural trumpet (15th to 19th Century)

The so-called “natural trumpet” came to be during the Renaissance (15th and 16th Centuries), being the first time that composers wrote specifically for the trumpet.

The natural or baroque trumpet had its peak during the Baroque (17th and 18th Centuries) when the art of the clarino playing — consisted of playing in the high register — was developed, the instrument acquiring a soloist role and being considered an equal to the violin and the flute.

The most significant composers of the period, such as Bach, wrote abundant literature for the trumpet. In the Trumpet Magazine School, you can learn to play the natural trumpet from your home.

One of the most respected natural trumpet specialists today is Jean-François Madeuf, whom you can see in the video below playing the third movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2:

Parts of the natural trumpet

The natural trumpet consists of two lengths of tubing — known as yards, the bell section, and two bows — which are the bends between these segments. These parts aren’t soldered; instead, they are fit one inside of the other and held together with resin or beeswax.

The instrument also has no valves or holes along the tube (natural trumpets that are built with holes to help with tuning are a modern invention, as Edward Tarr explains in his article The Unnatural Trumpet: The Adoption of Vent Holes in the 1960s and ’70s).

In a natural trumpet, the first yard is separated from the bell section by a block of wood covered with a wool rope wound to reinforce it.

The instrument also had five ferrules used to strengthen the joints of its segments.

The bell section is the same length as the other two yards and ended in a flared crown, supported at the open end with a decorative garland due to the thinness of the hammered metal — it was usually here that the maker would engrave his name and sometimes the name of the player was also included along with the city and year of construction.

A ball, also known as a pommel or knob, can be found in the middle of the bell section — its function was purely ornamental.

The crown and the bow closest to it are held together by a small wire.

Finally, there are two soldered rings, one on each bow, to suspend a lanyard, and from the lanyard a banderole that the performer would throw over their shoulder.

The harmonic series on the natural trumpet

Through minor adjustments of the tension in the lips, a trumpet player can play a series of set notes on the natural trumpet called the harmonic series.

Serie armónica

The lowest note of the harmonic series (the fundamental) is produced by using the least amount of tension of the lips — this is a C. The next sound (harmonic) is an octave higher — it’s also a C. These two notes are the only ones produced in the first octave of the harmonic series.

Within the second octave of the harmonic series, the third harmonic is produced — G.

This is the fundamental principle of the harmonic series: each new octave contains the same notes as the previous but with additional new notes.

If we apply this principle to the next octave of the harmonic series, first, let’s transpose the notes from the second octave (C, G and C), and then let’s add the new ones — E and B-flat. The latter is represented by a black note accompanied by an arrow pointing down, indicating that, in its natural state, it is out of tune. In other words, it is an impure harmonic — specifically, its tuning is flat.

As we ascend in this manner, we can see that the intervals between the harmonics are getting smaller.

Baroque trumpet players corrected the imperfections of the impure harmonics with their lips — tensing or relaxing them depending on the situation. The musician and treatise writer of the time Michael Praetorius wrote in 1619:

The trumpet is a magnificent instrument when it is played by a fine master that can control it and exercise artistic control over it.

The harmonic series can continue until infinity. However, there are very few examples of the extreme high harmonics due to the difficulty in playing them. The 24th harmonic only appears in two trumpet concertos by Michael Haydn and Georg von Reutter, which were probably written around 1750 or 1760 for the Austrian virtuoso of his time, J.B. Resenberger — “a magnificent trumpet player that was quite famous, particularly in the high register” according to Leopold Mozart and Johann Heinisch.
The trumpet parts by Johan Sebastian Bach, though not the most difficult, often required the 16th and 18th harmonics. Only once, in the final chorus of Cantata 31 Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret, is the needed 20th harmonic.

Trumpets are named after the fundamental of their harmonic series. As previously indicated, a natural trumpet in C plays the C harmonic series. A natural trumpet in D — shorter length — plays the same series, but one tone higher. This continues successively upwards.

The keyed trumpet (19th Century)

During Classicism (end of the 18th Century), the clarino style became unfashionable, so the trumpet — which in the low and middle register could not sound enough notes to play melodies — was relegated to a secondary role in the orchestra as mere harmonic support along with the timpani.

There were then several attempts to achieve chromaticism in the low and middle register of the trumpet, to return it to its former importance as a solo instrument. One of these attempts was by Anton Weidinger in Vienna, Austria, who built the first “keyed trumpet” around 1793. It was debuted in public in 1798.

Today, the keyed trumpet is not used except as a curiosity. In the following video you can see David Guerrier playing Haydn’s Concerto (the first work for which the keyed trumpet was designed):

Despite its success with Haydn’s Concerto, the invention of Weidinger’s keyed trumpet failed to gain popularity and rapidly fell into disuse. In fact, its repertoire is quite limited:

  1. Concerto per il clarino (Franz Joseph Haydn) was written in 1796, although it wasn’t premiered until 1800 due to its difficulty. Weidinger tried the instrument out before performing Haydn’s Concerto on two pieces by Kozeluch and Weigl.
  2. Sinfonia concertante (Leopold Kozeluch) in 1798.
  3. Opus symphonicum (Joseph Weigl) in 1799.
  4. Unnamed aria for female voice and keyed trumpet (Franz Xaver Sussmayr) in 1800.
  5. Sextet (Ferdinand Kauer) in 1800.
  6. Trio (Johann Nepomuk Hummel) in 1802.
  7. Concerto a tromba principale (Johann Nepomuk Hummel) in 1803, premiered on January 1st, 1804.
  8. Polonaise (Antonio Casimir Cartellieri) around 1807.
  9. Requiem (Sigismund Neukomm) in 1815.

Parts of the keyed trumpet

The keyed trumpet consists of a cylindrical tube that becomes conical in the bell section.

The keys are arranged so that they can be played by the left hand and have leather pads that cover the holes throughout the length of the tubing.

Harmonic principle of the keyed trumpet

The principle of the keyed trumpet is similar to that of the modern flute and saxophone: has several holes drilled in specific points of the tube, inside which the sound waves antinodes are produced when playing; if a key is lifted, uncovering a hole, the air escapes through this hole, cutting the sound wave inside the tube and raising the pitch of the sound. Each hole allows for a specific harmonic series, and the chromatic scale can be produced by combining them.

The modern trumpet (19th Century until today)

The holes were not completely capable of providing a consistent sound through all registers. In addition, for certain notes, it was still necessary to adjust the pitch using the technique of lip correction, which was also frequently used by baroque trumpet players on the natural trumpet.

Thus, in the early 19th Century, Weidinger himself would collaborate with Viennese instrument maker Joseph Riedl in developing the definitive mechanism that remains to this day: the rotary valve, which was finally patented in 1835 by Josef Kail (Czech trumpet player and inventor) and the aforementioned Joseph Riedl.

These trumpets, known as rotary trumpets, are very common in Germany, Austria and other eastern European countries, both for solo performances and in orchestras. Actually, they are also known as “German trumpets”. Trumpeters playing on German trumpets employ a distinctive technique, aiming for a powerful and dark sound.

In the video below you can find Gábor Tarkövi (former principal trumpet of the Berlin Philharmonic) performing Arutiunian’s Concerto on a German trumpet:

Also at the beginning of the 19th century, in 1814, there is news of the invention of the piston valve in Silesia, today’s Polish region bordering Germany, by Heinrich Stölzel (musician of the orchestra of the Duke of Pless). It was later recognized that the invention was in collaboration with Friedrich Blühmel (a member of a mineworkers band), and they were granted a joint patent for ten years.

The piston valve became very popular in Europe, with inventors adding their own improvements, until the well-known French constructor François Perinet patented his piston model in Paris in 1839, this being the basis of today’s piston-valve trumpet mechanism.

The piston trumpet is by far the most widely used trumpet in the world and for all types of music: classical, jazz, pop, mariachi… In the next video, you can watch Allan Dean (Professor Emeritus at the Yale School of Music) performing Amazing Grace on a modern piston trumpet:

Parts of the modern trumpet

The form of the modern trumpet is basically the same as that of the natural trumpet, with two main differences:

  1. First of all there are obviously the valves (or pistons), which convert it into a chromatic instrument.
  2. The length of its tubing is approximately half of that of the natural trumpet, which would make its harmonic series start one octave higher than the natural trumpets.

Other parts of the trumpet are: The main tuning slide, the individual valve tuning slides, the water key, (invented around 1830), and finger rings used to help the fingers hold the instrument.

The harmonic series of the modern trumpet

First of all, the length of the tubing of the modern trumpet is approximately half of that of the natural trumpet, which places the start of the harmonic series one octave higher than the natural trumpet’s harmonic series.

How do we produce chromatic notes?

The tuning slides that correspond to each valve are extra tubes that when opened by the pressing of the valve cause the air to travel through them.

So, the range of the sounds that come out of the bell are modified, the fact that the air has more length of tubing to travel through lowers the pitch, or in other words, with longer tubing we get a lower sound:

  1. The second valve of a trumpet (the shortest) lowers the pitch a semitone.
  2. The first valve (the second longest) lowers the pitch a whole tone.
  3. The third valve (the longest) lowers the pitch a tone and a half.

All combinations are possible:

  1. Pressing the first and second valve at the same time lowers the pitch a tone and a half.
  2. Pressing the second and third valves lowers it two tones.
  3. Pressing the first and third lowers it two and a half tones.
  4. Pressing all three at the same time lowers it three whole tones.

What we are doing by pressing the valves or pistons is lowering the starting point of the harmonic series. Chromaticism is made possible by using a combination of all of the previous combinations.

Trumpets in other keys

Although the B flat piston trumpet is the one used the most in conservatories, bands and in jazz, the rediscovery of Baroque works and contemporary vanguard music has resulted in the construction and use of other modern trumpets in other keys.

As the length of the tube is made shorter the tuning of the trumpet rises and results in a higher pitched instrument.

C Trumpet

In symphony orchestras the most popular trumpet is the C trumpet, possibly due to its increased sound projection and the security of the attack in the high register.

Eb/D Trumpet

The D trumpet was frequently used for Baroque works, but is now rarely used. It was around 1861 when the Frenchman Hippolyte Duhem ordered the first trumpet of this kind, which spread progressively to Belgium (1870), Germany (1885), and England (1892).

However, today the E flat/D trumpet, used principally for the Haydn and Hummel concertos and also various orchestral excerpts, is used more than just the D trumpet.

F/G Trumpet

The F trumpet was mainly used to play Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 2. The first person to discover that this piece could be played more comfortably with an F trumpet was the Polish trumpet player Adolf Scholz around 1850.

The G trumpet was also frequently used to play Bach’s works. The first one was made in Paris in 1885 for Sylvain Teste, who played Bach’s Magnificat on April 21st of that year.

Nowadays there are trumpets with interchangeable tuning slides, which can modify the key of the instrument between F and G depending on the needs of the player.

Bb/A Piccolo Trumpet

Last but not least we have the A and B flat high trumpet, known as the piccolo trumpet made popular by the German trumpet player Adolf Scherbaum and the French trumpet player Maurice Andre, which is the currently the trumpet used the most for Baroque music and for some contemporary compositions. In the same way that the F/G trumpet’s tuning could be changed by different tuning slides, the same occurs with the Bb/A piccolo.

There are also C piccolo trumpets.

Due to the different construction from that of a normal trumpet, the piccolo trumpet shouldn’t be played using the same technique as that of a normal B flat or C trumpet. In the Trumpetland School there are specific videolessons to help you learn how to play the piccolo trumpet.

Other instruments in the trumpet family


The cornet was invented in 1814 with the invention of pistons. The trumpet took longer to adapt to this new technology. The conical tubing of the cornet produced a warm and velvety sound, in contrast to the penetrating sound of the trumpet.

The combination of these factors resulted in composers writing separate parts for trumpets and cornets: the trumpet was relegated to fanfare passages while the cornet enjoyed the more agile and expressive ones.

Some famous Cornet virtuosos of the time were Jean-Baptiste Arban, Jules Levy and Herbert Lincoln Clarke.


The flugelhorn came from the German bugle, it was similar to a natural trumpet but with a conical section and was used by the infantry. Around 1840, Adolph Sax added keys (keyed bugle).

The current flugelhorn is a bugle with pistons. It is generally used in bands and jazz groups and is tuned in B flat.

Some masters of the flugelhorn are Clark Terry, Chuck Mangione and Paolo Fresu.

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