Welcome to part two of my mini-series on mutes! Today I‘ll explain the three most common mutes in a trumpeter’s arsenal. Many players can make it far into their career without needing anything more than these three mutes. They are also likely to have several variations of each. If you‘re new to trumpet mutes, these three are the best ones to start with.
Straight mutes are typically teardrop shaped with a flat bottom. They are most commonly made from aluminum, often in combination with other metals. Plastic, stone lined, and wooden straight mutes are also popular. Most players will have several to choose from. The straight mute dampens the dynamic and gives the sound a nasal character with a metallic edge and less lower overtones. For muted passages where no mute is specified (con sord.), most players will try a straight mute first.
The sound of a straight mute can vary depending on the material. I recorded samples of a few of my straight mutes and was actually surprised how similar they sound in the recording. Despite that, I’m still convinced that they’re quite different. Its certainly worth it to try out different straight mutes with a trumpet player to find the right sound for your piece!
Cup mutes are cone-shaped with extra material around the bottom, sort of like a lampshade. These mutes also come in a variety of materials. The cup mute tends to dampen the higher overtones and creates a softer and warmer sound than the straight mute. Most players these will have a cup mute with an adjustable cup, allowing for a range of sound colors and dynamics. Moving the cup closer to the bell reduces the dynamic level and alters the sound color. It is possible for a player to adjust the cup while playing, allowing for a gradual transition between sound colors.
The sound of a cup mute can also vary depending on the material, but usually the change is less dramatic than with straight mute. Players will usually have a favorite cup mute that they prefer.
Harmon / Wawa
“Harmon”, “Wawa”, “Wow Wow”, “Bubble Mute”, “the mute that sounds like Miles Davis”… The Harmon mute not only has many names, it is also has the widest range of sound colors in the collection. It is most commonly made from metal (either aluminum or copper), but they can also be made from other materials. It is fatter and wider than the straight mute and includes an opening at the far end, which holds an adjustable tube with a cup at one end.
- This mute provides a lot of resistance for the player, making using the mute much more strenuous than open playing, as well as in comparison to most other mutes.
- Playing with this mute in the high register is especially strenuous.
- Many brands of wawa mutes can cause major intonation issues in the low register.
- As the left hand is needed to manipulate the stem opening (to create the wawa effect), this hinders certain other techniques such as microtonal playing and slide glissandi, which also require use of the left hand.
Before we go any further, just a quick note about what to call this mute. “Harmon” was the brand that originally produced this mute, hence the name. The “Wawa” title was given because of the unique effect that can be produced by covering and uncovering the “cup” at the end of the mute. Technically, both names are correct, but a common nomenclature seems to have been established amongst contemporary composers in the western contemporary music scene:
When the mute’s stem is left in, it is referred to as a wawa mute. The wawa effect is achieved by covering and uncovering the stem’s opening. The stem can be extended to varying degrees to create different sound colors.
When the stem is completely removed, the mute is referred to as a Harmon. The sound is very muted and has a sharp metallic edge (especially in louder dynamics). The hand can also be used to cover the opening of the mute, though the effect is much less pronounced than with the wawa.
Still unsure about which name to use? It is perfectly fine to use either of the names plus an indication of whether the stem is in or out (or extended): “Harmon (with stem)” or “Wawa (without stem)”.
+ = covered with hand
o = uncovered
+ → o = gradual transition from covered to uncovered.
The stem can also be gradually moved in and out (or even removed) while playing.
I can’t talk about wawa notation without mentioning Stockhausen. In some of his trumpet parts, Stockhausen breaks down closed “+” and open “o” into 7 distinct sound colors, each represented by vowel sounds from the international phonetic alphabet.
Do I recommend this way of notating the wawa? No! Its super time consuming to learn. Do I still think its pretty cool? Indeed!
Another (though slightly less precise) solution for indicating the in-between zones of open and closed can be found in the trumpet parts of Rebecca Saunders. I find this far more intuitive and can be sight read without much difficulty.
Stay tuned for part three where I will describe many more mutes and their effects!