(High) Range

Back in my high school marching band (Go Scotties!), me and my fellow trumpeters were only interested in three things: playing fast, playing loud and playing high. Playing high was never my forte (sorry), but that didn’t stop me from mashing the mouthpiece into my face to try and squeeze a few extra semitones out of the instrument. I later learned that there are better and easier ways to go about extending your range; but, even so, playing in the high register remains a challenge for me and virtually all other brass players.

What is the highest note you can play?”

This is a question I always get asked when working with composers. However, the answer is not always so straightforward. The highest note I can squeeze out of the instrument in a rehearsal is not necessarily the highest note I can reproduce convincingly in a performance.

A trumpeter’s range depends on multiple factors, and is also intimately linked to the issue of endurance. (If you haven’t read my post on endurance, I suggest reading that before you go any further.) Here are the four most important things to take into account when writing those high notes:

  • Instrument:
    Each trumpet has, of course, its own range (scroll down for a handy chart). However, each instrument has its own character and difficulties: just because a piccolo can reach those very top notes, doesn’t mean that playing them gets much easier. In fact, piccolo playing is in general more strenuous than the C or Bb trumpets.
  • Context:
    How easy it is to reach those high notes can depend a lot on the preceding material. If the trumpeter has just struggled through a tricky fortissimo phrase with no chance to catch a breath, then it’s going to be a lot harder to cleanly and convincingly hit the notes at the top of their range.
  • Fitness:
    Don’t underestimate how much a performance can depend on a player’s fitness on the day. Brass players are a lot like professional athletes: they spend a lot of time training and protecting their vital embouchure muscles, but they are just as susceptible to dips in form as any Olympic sprinter or Bundesliga soccer player, meaning they might not be able to hit the high notes they were nailing in practice.
  • Program:
    If there are other pieces on the program, then this will affect how well the player can go to the upper limits of their range. Pieces played earlier in the program will obviously affect a player’s endurance; but perhaps a player might also need to save energy for the chop-buster at the end of the concert.

A basic overview

Here is a chart in which I’ve displayed the various ranges of the most common trumpets. Before you scroll down to see the chart, I’d just like to reinforce the fact that this is the widest possible range; the notes a trumpeter will actually be able to reach in a performance are highly dependent on the player and all the factors I just mentioned.

I’ve also separated each total range into different registers. Not all players will agree with exactly where each register starts and ends, but nevertheless it should give a pretty good idea of the usable range of each instrument.

Pedal tones can extend the register of all instruments about two octaves lower.¹

It is important to note that the higher pitched trumpets don’t really extend the range upwards in comparison to the lower instruments – rather, they make it easier to play in the high register. So, playing a high Eb’’’ will be much easier on the piccolo trumpet than it is on the Bb trumpet, but I still can’t play much higher than that on the piccolo in general.

Although the trumpet can theoretically play up to a f’’’ or g’’’, please keep in mind that these are at the very top of the most extreme register. Even under the best circumstances, the notes in the extreme high register can be quite unreliable and should be handled with the utmost care.

Why is the high register so unreliable?

We’ve all heard split or cracked notes from the trumpet section in an orchestra, especially in the high register. But the reason it happens isn’t necessarily because of a bad or out-of-practice section, but has a lot to do with the mechanics of the instrument and the natural overtone series.

The overtone series is fundamental to the trumpet, as it is to all brass instruments. As well as depressing valves, trumpeters can play a range of notes by using a combination of lip tension, air speed and tongue position to reach different overtones in the series. However, as you ascend the overtone scale, the overtones become closer in pitch to each other.

For a trumpeter, this means that the difference in embouchure position between the respective overtones becomes more and more subtle, making it easier to miss your target pitch. When playing a high C, for example, the chances that I’ll accidentally hit a Bb or a D – the neighboring overtones of the high C – are relatively high. The “cracked” notes we all despise occur when a player accidentally hits one of these neighboring overtones and immediately corrects to the desired pitch.

In addition, higher notes require more embouchure strength for precision. So the more tired my lips are, the more likely I am to crack a high note or land on a lower overtone than intended.

Here are a couple of other minor considerations to take into account when writing in the upper register:

  • Dynamics:
    Range and dynamics are closely related. While trumpet players can play the full dynamic range in the low, middle and most of the high register, as the pitches move through the high and extreme high registers, the dynamic range shrinks.
    Generally speaking, playing extremely loud or soft can be quite challenging in the higher registers, sometimes impossible. But it may also be the case that, depending on the player’s condition (again, see my post on endurance), some higher notes may only be possible on two dynamic levels, sounding (I got it!) and not sounding at all.
  • Mutes:
    In short: playing with a mute is more strenuous than playing without a mute. This is especially true when it comes to the high register. If a trumpeter is using a mute, then the extra strength they need to play against the mute may very likely limit the high notes they are able to reach.

You should now have a fairly good idea of the restraints and complications inherent in range and in exploring the upper reaches of the trumpet. I hope I’ve been able to express that the trumpet’s range is so much more than what you found in a chart (although, please do refer to my chart!), and depends on the individual player as well as a whole host of other factors.

As I already mentioned, a player’s range is also intricately linked to the issue of endurance, so do read my post on that topic where I give plenty of tips and tricks for friendly trumpet writing and some examples from the trumpet literature.

Footnote 1: Whilst I have focused here on the natural range of the trumpet, it is also possible to extend the range two octaves downwards by using pedal tones. Watch out for an upcoming post where I will explain more about the pedal register.

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