Mutes (Part One) – General Guidelines and Notation

Brass players are often made fun of for their obsession with – and vast collections of – mouthpieces. While those jokes are most certainly justified, when it comes to hoarding, no one talks about the real problem – mutes. Not only are there around a dozen different types of trumpet mutes, each type has a seemingly endless number of variations. At the time of writing I have about 35 mutes in my collection, each one different from the others.

The topic of mutes is so vast that I’ve decided to tackle it over several posts. This post will focus on some general guidelines for composing and notating for mutes.

Time for Mute Changes

As a general rule, a player needs about 3-4 seconds to comfortably insert or remove a mute and continue playing. By supporting the trumpet with the right hand and holding the mute in the left, faster mute insertion or removal is possible. With this technique it’s even possible to insert or remove the mute while still playing. This usually requires some good planning on the part of the player, something I like to call “mute choreography”.

To change from one mute to another mute requires a bit more choreography, though with practice it’s possible to do this pretty quickly. Again, as a general rule, I would give the player at least 5 seconds to comfortably switch from one mute to another.

You can also help the player by setting the mute indication a few bars before the muted passage, giving the player the time they need to insert or switch mutes.

(The double-bell trumpet, which I will do a deep dive on in another post, allows for easy and instantaneous changes between two different mutes, or between one mute and open.)

One last tip on this subject – the faster the mute change, the higher the risk of the mute being dropped or falling out of the bell. For delicate passages it may be worth giving the player those few seconds of extra time to safely deal with the mute!

This soldier has seen lots of action!

Only One Left Hand

If there is one thing I would like composers to understand about mutes, it’s this: We trumpeters, like most people, only have one single left hand to work with. The right hand is responsible for the valves and the left hand is responsible for pretty much everything else. Inserting or removing a mute while playing is almost always done with the left hand. Mute manipulation (like the wah-wah effect of the wah-wah mute), or mutes that must be held (like the plunger) all require the left hand. This can hinder other extended techniques that use the left hand like slide glissandi and some microtones!

Sound simple? I know! But you would be surprised how often this issue pops up.

This “gold star” example comes from Rebecca Saunders’ ensemble piece “Nether”. At first glance she seems to be breaking the rules by double booking the left hand, but she actually manages to cleverly get both the wah-wah effect and slide glissando on one note.

The player sets up the note with the alternate fingering (23) needed for the slide glissando. The wah-wah mute manipulation (closed to open) happens with the left hand first, and is then free to move the slide to perform the glissando. Once the goal pitch has been reached, the left hand is once again free to close the mute. Expert level mute choreography!

Rebecca Saunders, Nether (2019)
© Copyright 2019 by Henry Litolff’s Verlag.
Nutzung mit freundlicher Genehmigung C.F. Peters Musikverlag, Leipzig.

Mutes are Strenuous

Playing with a mute can cause varying degrees of resistance to a player, meaning we have to work a bit harder to blow against a mute. Playing with a mute can be quite taxing, especially in the higher registers. Be sure to read my post on endurance to understand more about avoiding over-strenuous trumpet writing.

Mutes as Color-Changers not Balance-Fixers

This may fall into the category of “rant”, but I get really peeved when mutes are used to fix balance issues within an ensemble. I get it, the trumpet is loud! But while most mutes indeed reduce the dynamic level of the instrument (after all, they are called mutes), more importantly, they change the color and character of the instrument’s sound. To me, that color change should be specifically desired and not (ab)used as way to fix the balance. A good player should have a dynamic range wide enough to fix the issue. If that isn’t enough, mutes certainly can help. If all else fails, my secret tip is the “crown royal sack”, which I will introduce in Part 3 of the mute series. It dampens the “brightness” of the trumpet without drastically changing the sound color.

Mutes and Intonation

Almost all mutes will alter the instrument’s intonation. Usually the mute makes everything go sharp, though I do have a couple that actually make everything go a bit flat. The change can also be inconsistent over different parts of the range. For extended muted passages a player might need to adjust the main tuning slide (and back again after removing the mute) to keep the intonation in check. Players are aware of this and adjust naturally, so there’s no need to address this in notation, unless composers want to incorporate this effect into their score.

Mute Notation

As the selection of available mutes has grown, the standard indications “con sord.” and “senza sord.” have gone out of favor. “Which mute do you want?” would be my first question if I saw “con sord.” all on its own in a contemporary piece.

My recommendation – simply write the name of the desired mute at the start of the muted passage and “open” when the mute is no longer desired. English, Italian, French or German indications are likely to be understood by most players.

My “gold star” example for mute notation is from the great Karlheinz Stockhausen. He simplified the indications into compact symbols that a player can easily recognize. I like this method so much that I actually re-mark my parts with Stockhausen-style indications.

Gradual mute transitions

Some mutes have effects that can be performed with a gradual transition. Even inserting or removing a mute can be performed as a gradual change of sound color. For transitioning between different states of muting I recommend using arrows. In the same example from above, Saunders uses arrows to indicate the transition from closed (+) to open (o) wawa mute.

Rebecca Saunders, Nether (2019)
© Copyright 2019 by Henry Litolff’s Verlag.
Nutzung mit freundlicher Genehmigung C.F. Peters Musikverlag, Leipzig.

Stay tuned for part two of my mute series where I will write about the three most commonly used mutes!

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