Microtones are available throughout the trumpet’s range. In this post I will focus on the production of quarter tones, as these have become firmly established in contemporary music, but other microtones can be produced using the techniques I describe below. The only limitations are the player’s technical ability and pitch-hearing skills.
Here I will present five ways of achieving microtones on the trumpet: valve slides, the natural overtone series, the quarter tone valve, pitch-bending and de-tuning the entire instrument.
Here, the first and third valve slides can be manipulated to adjust intonation and produce quarter tones. This is the most common method players will use for producing quarter tones. In many cases the use of an alternate fingering is required and often multiple solutions are available. I won’t go into a detailed list of fingerings here – the player should be able to find them on their own. There are only two pitches that cannot be altered through use of the valve slides.
Practical consideration: Manipulating the slides requires the use of the left hand, which can limit the use of mutes. Mutes that need to be held in the hand (like plunger mute) or manipulated (as with the wah-wah effect on the wah-wah mute) prevent the player from adjusting slides.
The 7th natural overtone is often used to create quarter tones as it is naturally about a quarter tone flat. They require little to no slide manipulation, which makes them quite easy to produce.
Quarter Tone Trigger
In recent years, some players have decided to add a quarter tone trigger to their tuning slide. This is a simple mechanism which allows the player to add enough tubing to lower any given pitch about a quarter tone. This extra valve can enable faster and cleaner quarter tone playing. Although this is a practical tool, there are a few drawbacks which need to be considered. First, the quarter tone valve is not totally accurate. Depending on the register and valve position, the valve might lower the pitch a bit too much or not enough. Using any type of quarter tone valve also limits the players ability to manipulate the slides, which further compromises the accuracy of the pitch. As with using valve slides, the quarter tone trigger is manipulated with the left hand, making simultaneous mute manipulation impossible.
Having said all of that, I had a quarter tone trigger built onto my double bell trumpet just recently. I’ve had the chance to use it in context and it has certainly made my life a lot easier! Not every player will have this modification on their instrument, so keep that in mind when writing complicated microtonal passages.
It is also possible to adjust the intonation with the embouchure, called ‘bending’.This is a technique players normally use to stay in tune, but it can also be used to create microtones. The drawback to pitch bending is that the further you bend, the more sound quality you will lose. Even by bending the pitch as little as a quarter tone, you can compromise the sound quality.
Pitch bending is easiest in the lower register and becomes gradually more difficult the higher you play. In general, a player can bend down at least a semitone from almost any note in the low and mid registers. For quarter tones, the slide technique is generally much easier and recommended.
Detuning the Instrument
This technique is much less common, though may be used by players for extended sections of microtonal playing. If you detune the instrument by a quarter tone using the main tuning slide and valve slides, you can easily play long passages that consist of quarter tones without using any special techniques.
As I mention above, it is generally not necessary to include fingerings in your microtonal trumpet notation. There may be several solutions for producing a particular microtone and it is best left up to the player to decide which one is appropriate for a given passage. For example, f” 3/4 sharp has a few fingering possibilities:
Microtones and Piccolo Trumpet
Microtonal playing on the piccolo trumpet is possible, though for several reasons it is quite impractical:
- The vast majority of piccolo trumpets do not have valve slides that can be easily manipulated while playing.
- The 7th natural overtone is so high that, in practice, only the lowest two or three can be used.
- To the best of my knowledge, it is not possible to build a quarter tone trigger on the piccolo trumpet as the tube length would need to be prohibitively small.
There are, however, a few methods of producing microtones on the piccolo:
- Alternative fingerings can provide some approximate microtones (e.g. a little bit sharp or flat).
- Detuning the fourth valve slide and using alternative fingerings will provide a larger selection of microtones. One disadvantage of this method is that it will cause the lower range of the instrument (anything involving the fourth valve) to be out of tune.
- Detuning the entire instrument microtonally. This requires a bit of time to setup, and again a bit of time to readjust when returning to standard tuning.
If you want to be sure that the microtones will work for the piccolo trumpet its best to try them out in person with a player.
Microtones and the Flugelhorn
Typically, the valve slides of a flugelhorn point downwards, as opposed to horizontally outwards from the instrument. This prevents them from being manipulated in the same way as the valve slides on a trumpets. Usually the 3rd valve slide on a flugelhorn can be moved while playing, but not quite as far as on the trumpet. This can greatly limit the possible microtones of the instrument. However, it is possible to build a quarter tone flugelhorn, either with a fourth valve (like the van Laar model) or an extra, carefully placed trigger. Most players will not have a quarter tone flugelhorn, so always check with your player before exploring microtonal flugelhorn writing!
Watch Stephen Altoft demonstrate his custom built quarter tone flugelhorn here:
Stephen Altoft’s 19-div Trumpet
This week’s gold star goes to English trumpeter Stephen Altoft, who has taken microtonal trumpet playing to a whole different level with the trumpet he developed together with instrument builders Johannes Radeke and Siegmar Fischer. His unique instrument divides the octave into 19 equal steps. You can read more about his trumpet at his webpage.