Mutes (Part Two) – The Standard Three

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 Mute

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.

Standard aluminum straight mute.

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!

Several of my straight mutes. The one on the right is actually just a cup mute with the cup part removed.
Straight mutes made from aluminum; alum. with brass bottom; alum. with copper bottom; wooden; plastic

Cup Mute

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.

Cup mute
Cup mute in standard position; with half-closed cup; with
My cup mute collection

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.

Special Considerations

  • 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.

Wawa mute
Wawa effect, covering and uncovering the “cup” opening with the hand
Wawa with partially extended stem
Wawa with tube in; with tube partially extended; with tube fully extended


Harmon mute next to the removed stem

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.

Harmon mute
Harmon mute with loud dynamic (sharp metallic “buzz”)
“wawa” effect on harmon mute (without stem)

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)”.

Wawa Notation

+ = 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.

Transition from wawa to harmon (extending and removing the stem 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.

Stockhausen’s wawa mute indications.

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.

Saunders-style wawa indications

Stay tuned for part three where I will describe many more mutes and their effects!

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