My first encounter with pedal tones was in college, as warm-up exercises. I was taught that, in order to properly play the high register, I also had to learn to play super low. Though the connection between the two is still not so clear to me, I still enjoy practicing pedal tones. The loose embouchure you use to play them, and the resonant tones that are produced make them feel so good to play! It’s like yoga for the lips. More practically, pedals also extend the trumpet’s range far lower than otherwise possible and give composers a different sound color to work with.
So what are pedal tones?
Pedal tones are notes that are below the normal range of the trumpet. Because of the acoustic properties of the trumpet, its normal playable range actually begins with the second harmonic instead of the fundamental.
I like to organize the pedal range in terms of ease of production. Note that the c and b an octave below middle c are actually kind of tricky – much like the break in a vocalist’s range between the chest voice and head voice, trumpeters have a break in the pedal range around this c.
As you can hear in the above example, pedal tones sound much different than notes in the trumpet‘s normal range. They are less centered and are usually somewhat unstable. With practice, a player can produce accurate and resonant pedal tones, though they will always sound different to normal pitches. The normal low register as well as the pedal register are quite flexible and can be used for (relatively) smooth, low glissandi.
- Most professional players of contemporary music are able to play pedal tones, though not everyone can reach into the extreme pedal register.
- A quick adjustment of the embouchure is usually required to prepare for playing in the pedal register, or moving back from pedal to normal registers.
- Pedal tones require lots of air, which drastically limits note length.
- Pitch accuracy is very difficult, as the notes don’t “click-in” as with notes in the normal range, meaning the player must rely on their ears alone.
- Pedal tones (and their desired pitches) can be unstable.
- Articulation on pedal tones is very limited.
Trumpeter Marco Blaauw has taught me a lot about pedal tones and he is certainly way better at them than I. Check out his short demontration of pedal tones in his video on trumpet range:
What is actually happening (acoustically) when we play pedal tones?
If pedal tones are outside of the trumpets actual low range, how is it that they can be produced at all? Fair warning – none of what follows is actually important for a composer to know, but I still think its fascinating enough to include in this post!
As it turns out, notes outside of the trumpet’s low range can’t actually be produced at all. I was floored when I learned that the perceived pitch of pedal tones is actually an illusion. What actually happens is that all possible overtones sound at once. The resulting wave envelope is what gives us the illusion of hearing the fundamental.
Credit for this information goes to my former teacher for acoustics at San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Betsy Marvit. Betsy is not only a national karate champion, but is extremely knowledgeable about acoustics, as well as a fantastic teacher:
“When there is more than one tone happening at a time, they create a composite wave. The envelope of that composite wave can, itself, be heard as a sound if the frequency is within our range of hearing. In the case of a brass instrument, the overtones are harmonics of a (not actually sounding) fundamental. The envelope of those combined overtones has a frequency that is the same as that fundamental. If one vibrates ones lips at the frequency of that fundamental — even if it isn’t itself a resonating frequency of the instrument played — it will still trigger a sympathetic resonance of integer multiples of that frequency (the frequency’s harmonics), which are resonant frequencies of the instrument, and their envelope will (somewhat weakly) sound the frequency of that fundamental.”
This week’s gold star goes to Christopher Collings and Pablo Andoni Olabarría. Olabarría makes great use of the extreme pedal register in his trumpet solo piece “Ur”. Christopher Collings plays the piece like a boss and sounds way better on these pedals than I imagined possible! Check out Christopher’s performance of the piece at his presentation for the Research Concert Cycle in 2019 below: