As a younger player I thought air sounds were silly and didn’t take them very seriously. I’ve worked so hard to create a beautiful trumpet sound, and now all I’m supposed to do is blow some air through the instrument!? Anyone can do that! It wasn’t until I started playing a lot more contemporary music that I discovered the full spectrum and true potential of air sounds.
There is a whole range of possible sounds that can be created by blowing air in, out, on or around the different parts of the trumpet; here I have defined a few techniques that have become common in contemporary music practice. As always, if you are lucky enough to know a trumpet player well-versed in contemporary music, they will be more than happy to demonstrate the full range of different air sounds they can create, as well as how best to notate them.
Basic Air Sounds
Simply blowing air through the trumpet will create a rushing air sound (a bit like white noise) with a semi-audible pitch. The sounding pitch is about a major 7th lower than the fingered pitch (though to be honest, I perceive it as a semi-tone higher than fingered). Only the lowest overtone for each fingering will sound, giving seven possible pitches. An eighth pitch can be achieved by extending both valve slides, allowing for one extra half step lower (only on instruments with easily movable valve slides).
It is important to bear in mind that these pitches are generally only audible when the trumpet is playing solo or is amplified. When playing as part of a group, or with electronics, the pitch becomes harder to perceive, leaving just the “white noise” of the basic air sound.
A quick aside about pitched air sounds on the piccolo trumpet
Whereas the principle of pitched air sounds remains the same across the trumpets in C, Bb, D and Eb; on the piccolo trumpet, they actually sound a whole tone higher (or minor 7th lower) than fingered. Piccolos with four valves have an added five pitches below the normal range.
Notating Pitched Air Sounds
When notating pitched air sounds it is best to write the pitches as they are fingered on the instrument, as this is most practical for the player to read. For clarification it may be necessary to specify that the fingered note results in a different pitch than notated:
Alternatively, the sounding pitches may be notated with the necessary fingerings, as in the example below.
With or Without the Mouthpiece?
It is not always necessary to specify exactly how air sounds should be performed with the mouthpiece. If you express in your notation what effect you would like to achieve, the player will instinctively interpret the passage using the techniques in their personal repertoire. Specific effects can, however, be notated. Here are the most common possibilities.
Leaving the mouthpiece in is the default position which creates all of the air sounds described in this chapter. It also allows for faster changing between air sounds and normal playing (though a short amount of time is required for the change). Soft dynamics are easy, but louder dynamics can be difficult to achieve without amplification. Alternatively, allowing air to escape through the corners of the embouchure, or keeping a few millimeters space between embouchure and mouthpiece both create a louder air sound.
Removing the mouthpiece and blowing directly into the lead pipe will create a louder dynamic, but the pitch becomes less audible. Without the resistance of the mouthpiece, the player also runs out of air far more quickly. Note that enough time must be given for the player to remove/replace the mouthpiece. As above, louder dynamics can be achieved by keeping a few millimeters space between embouchure and leadpipe.
Turning the mouthpiece around so that the cup is held against the opening of the lead pipe and the player blows through the backbore of the mouthpiece creates louder dynamics than the two previous techniques mentioned. The result is a more focused rushing air noise with higher frequencies.
Much like the difference between normal inhaling and exhaling, inhaling through the instrument creates a slightly different character of air sound. Inhaling can also be used to allow for continuous passages of air sounds. Because of the toxic ingredients contained in the oil and grease that are regularly used on their instruments, players tend to not like inhaling extensively through the instrument, meaning that this technique should be used sparingly, or not at all. A similar inhale/exhale effect can be simulated by changing the position of the tongue, as shown in the example below.
Different Sound Colors
All tonguing techniques, including flutter and doodle tongue, can be used in combination with air sounds. A tremolo effect can be created by rapidly depressing and releasing one or more valves. Adding different vowel or syllable sounds ( ex “a-e-o” or “shh – f – ch – sss – k”) is another good way of changing the color and character of air sounds.
I like to think of the range of air sounds as a spectrum from bright to dark. Simply changing the position of the tongue, like when pronouncing the vowel „e“ or „o“, can change the air sound from bright to dark without changing fingering. The same effect is clear with consonant sounds; for example, the sounds “sss” and “shh” are bright and dark respectively. These techniques can be amplified with fingerings, by using higher fingerings for bright sounds and lower fingerings for dark ones. When notating non-pitched air sounds, feel free to use the whole staff to mirror the transition between bright and dark.
Air sounds can be modulated by partially depressing one or more valves, to a half-valve position. Slowly moving the valves in a random manner creates a lovely effect, especially when including consonants to intensify the sound.
In this example I use random half-valve fluctuations, then I repeat, adding “sss—shh—ch” consonants to the sound.
I will be writing about combining the voice with the instrument in an upcoming post, but I still thought it would be good to include a small section here on whispering as it is very closely related to air sounds.
Whispering into the instrument can give color to the sound and allows text to be presented with varying degrees of clarity. In general, the closer the lips are to the mouthpiece (up to the point of allowing no air or sound to escape through the corners of the mouth), the less understandable the text becomes. However, the player can manipulate pronunciation to make the text more or less clear in any position. The sound created typically has no audible pitch.
Air Sounds and Mutes
Using any kind of mute in combination with air sounds will drastically reduce the dynamic of the resulting sound as well as the audibility of pitches. In most cases air sounds shouldn’t be combined with mutes. If you are dead-set on using a mute with air sounds – for example, if you want to achieve a very specific sound color – make sure the resulting sound is actually audible in the context of the piece.
Some Notes on Notation
As with any extended technique, it is essential to define your note heads and symbols either in a separate legend or directly in the score. Using different note heads for different air sound techniques will make reading the part a whole lot easier for the player. In this example from Liza Lim’s “Wild Winged-one”, notice how Liza clearly differentiates air sounds from whispered text in the notation.
And, finally, a pet peeve of many musicians: when using special note heads, make sure you are careful when notating half notes, and that they are easily distinguishable from quarter notes…
As I mentioned, most contemporary trumpet players will have a whole repertoire of air noises, so if you are writing for a specific player, don’t hesitate to ask them to show you what they can do.
Hi Nathan, very nice blog!
I have a question. When writing a long passage for pitched air sounds I always find rhythmically confusing if all the heads are white (empty diamond shapes) instead of black and white (white diamond shape for half, and filled diamond shapes for quarters, eights, etc). Same problem for harmonic notation in string instruments. Any idea on how to solve that?
And thanks for the info about the inhaling technique, and the toxic ingredients in the trumpet. It is new info for me.
Thanks Cecilia! I also find that note heads for air sounds can be confusing. You’re absolutely right – much better to differentiate the note heads as you suggest, filled and unfilled diamond heads. I also gave the example in this post of “x” heads and circled “x” heads for rhythmic clarity. In the Stockhausen example he just puts a diagonal slash through normal note heads for air sounds. I suppose you could even just add a marking to the stems to indicate air sounds. There are many possibilities! Just always make sure to define your special note heads and stems in a legend or the score 😉
Hi Nathan! Thanks for all the information!
How would you notate inhalte/exhalte?
Hi Camilo, you’re very welcome!
I would use arrows to indicate inhale exhale, either on top of the staff above the note head or even horizontally through the stem if there is room. I would use a forward arrow (–>) for exhale, backwards (<--) for inhale. I've also seen it notated as up arrow for inhale, down arrow for exhale. Both options are fine, just make sure to define them in a legend or directly in the part. Feel free to email me your notation if you're not sure!
Hello Nathan, thank you very much for these wonderful explanations, audio, and videos. They are amazing and I hope you will continue these videos! It’s well appreciated for sure!
I just watched your video on youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qamhKT50aI) and I would like to ask you something. So at 4:35 of this video, you are showing something about mixing the air techniques and creating your own sound. Could you maybe show me how could you notate that kind of mixture passages? Could you maybe notate the passage that you played on your video? (at 4:35)
And I would like to thank you once more for this incredible blog! 🙂
Lieber Nathan, das ist toll, frische Luft bringst Du in die Welt der instrumentalen Spieltechnik: klar und kurz und klangvoll!
Dear Nathan, that’s great, you bring fresh air into the world of instrumental playing technique: clear and short and sonorous!
Thank you Helmut!