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.

Valve Slides

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.

Natural Overtones

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.

NB: It is not necessary to include fingerings in your notation.

Quarter Tone Trigger

My quarter tone trigger, built by Martin Schmidt.

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.

Chromatic quarter tone scale over one octave

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.

Bending down and up in a comfortable register.

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.

Multiple Solutions

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:

A player has four different options for this pitch.

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.

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Pedal Tones

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.

Overtone series with no valves depressed.

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.

This is, of course, my subjective opinion. Some players are able to go even lower than the extreme pedals I show here.
Chromatic descending scale starting with middle c in the low range. Again, some players may be able to go lower (and sound better!) in the extreme pedal range.

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.

Pedals are slippery, but allow for some easy glisandi.

Practical Considerations

  • 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.”
-Betsy Marvit

Gold Star

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:

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Mutes (Part Three) – More Mutes!

In this third and final (for now!) part in my mini-series on mutes I will introduce several more types of mutes. There are certainly a few more than I list here, but these are the most common ones after the standard three. I also mention a few fun and unusual possibilities at the end!

Muting with the hand

Putting the left hand in front of or inside the bell can create a muted effect. The effect is small but noticeable. Putting the hand inside the bell also results in a change of pitch of up to a semi-tone. The dynamic level is only minimally affected.

For comparison I first play open, then with the hand.
Putting the hand into the bell affects the intonation.


“Official plunger” (left), hardware store plunger (right)

The plunger mute, made popular by jazz players, is generally used for its wah-wah effect. Some mute manufacturers sell plunger mutes made especially for trumpets, though many players will use a normal plunger head from a hardware store. The mute is held in the left hand and placed in front of the bell. The sound color changes depending on how close the mute is to the bell – or rather, how much of the bell is covered.

Plunger partially overing the bell (what I would call the standard position)
Plunger “wah wah” effect

Special considerations:

  • As the left hand is needed to hold the mute in place, this hinders certain other techniques such as microtonal playing and slide glissandi, which also require use of the left hand.
  • This is perhaps one of the least favorite mutes of contemporary players because it can strongly effect intonation. Covering the bell will cause a “jump” in the intonation, sometimes as large as a minor second, especially in the upper register.
Covering the bell completely with the plunger drastically affects the intonation. In this clip I’m holding one note!

Whispa Mute / Practice Mute / Hotel Mute

Various practice mutes

The “Whispa” mute, orginally made by Shastock in 1941, is widely considered to be the first commercial practice mute and was known for its very soft sound. Unfortunately production was discontinued which makes this mute quite rare – very few players own a genuine Whispa. Fortunately there are many modern equivalents to choose from. While originally designed to allow trumpeters to practice without disturbing their neighbors, they are frequently called for in contemporary music. Using a practice mute drastically reduces the dynamic range possible on the instrument and dramatically alters the sound color.

For comparison I first play open, then with a practice mute.


The Melo-Wah creates a warm sound similar to the cup mute. The opening at the end of the mute can be covered with the hand to further dampen the sound or to create a wah-wah effect. The Melo-Wah has a tendency to create intonation problems throughout the trumpet’s range. Not all players have a Melo-Wah, though they are easily obtainable.

Melo-Wah including “wah-wah” effect

Bucket and Velvet Mutes

When it comes to mute taxonomy, nothing is more confusing to me than the difference between velvet and bucket mutes. Bucket mutes come in a few variations: a rounded or cylindrical concave shaped object that is padded on the inside and clips to the bell; an insertable mute which is open on the sides but ends in a bucket shape with padding inside; and a kind of giant straight mute with padding on the inside.

Three very different bucket mutes
My three bucket mutes, played in the order shown above.

Velvet mutes are confusingly shaped like buckets and, like some bucket mutes, are clipped onto the bell. The inside of the mute can be filled with wood chips or synthetic fibers.

A very old velvet mute
Velvet mute

The idea of both mutes is pretty much the same – allow the trumpet to play freely, but subtly dampen the “bright edge” of the sound with some padded material just outside of the bell to absorb higher overtones. The sound color is changed without reducing much of the dynamic level.

I would go as far as to say that bucket and velvet mutes are two names for the same mute, despite the variations. The difference in sound between my three bucket mutes is far more pronounced than the difference between my velvet mute and any of the buckets. Confused? Me too! As usual, always check with your players to see what mutes they have and be as specific as you can in your performance notes.

Special considerations:

  • Mutes which need to be clipped to the bell take considerably more time to put on and remove than conventional inserted mutes!

An easy way to get a similar result is to cover the bell with a piece of cloth, or – my secret tip – to use a Crown Royal sack:

Crown Royal Sack

Crown royal sack loosely placed over the bell

The crown royal sack is sold along with crown royal whiskey. It is seldom used as a mute, though it remains one of my personal favorite tricks for ensemble work. If the trumpet is a bit too loud for a particular passage, but no sound-color change is desired, placing the sack over the bell of the trumpet can help. It somewhat reduces the brilliance of the trumpet sound while otherwise barely changing the sound color, helping the trumpet to not stick out of the ensemble sound.

For comparison I first play open, then with the crown royal sack.

Aluminum Foil

Loosely hanging a piece of aluminum foil in front of the bell can add a bit of “sizzle” to the sound, caused by sympathetic vibrations in the foil when playing. This technique can take a bit more time to set up and remove than standard mutes. Taking the foil on and off can also be quite noisy!

Playing with aluminum foil over the bell

CD as Mute

Holding a CD loosely against the bell while playing produces a similar effect as the aluminum foil, but more of a rattle than a sizzle. Using a CD avoids the potentially noisy set-up and break-down of the aluminum foil mute, but also causes major intonation issues. Use this trick at your own risk – that is, if you can find somebody who still owns CDs…

Holding a CD in front of the bell is a nice effect but hopelessly destroys intonation.

Mutes for Piccolo Trumpet

Most of the mutes listed here are available for piccolo trumpet. It’s important to bear in mind that playing a muted piccolo trumpet is much more strenuous than open playing, and that intonation is often a problem.

Mutes for Flugelhorn

Until relatively recently there weren’t many mutes for the flugelhorn. Nowadays it is possible to get the “standard three” mutes for Flugelhorn as well a few others. If using mutes for flugelhorn, it is best to check with your player to see what is available!

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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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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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You can see a quick overview of split-tones in this video demonstration.

My first venture into split-tones was over ten years ago for a performance of the piece “Humans in Motion” by Canadian composer Annesley Black. If I remember correctly, there was one single split-tone in my part – one of the ‘easier’ ones – and I practiced really hard to get that note to sound. In the end my hard work didn’t pay off – the split-tone didn’t sound at all in the performance! After the performance I spent several months working every day on split-tones until, finally, I could reliably produce them. Even so, depending on the context, split-tones are among the most fragile and unreliable sounds we trumpeters can produce.

It’s impossible to talk about split-tones without mentioning Rebecca Saunders. In her 20+ year collaboration with trumpeter Marco Blaauw, she has truly become the queen of split-tones and has used this technique (among others) extensively in her remarkable works for trumpet. This year I was very proud to premiere her new split-tone filled trumpet duo “Either or” at the Musikfest Berlin. (Update: watch a video of that performance!)

What is a split-tone?

By carefully adjusting the embouchure, two adjacent notes from a natural overtone series can sound simultaneously. It’s a bit like tuning your radio between two stations so that both come in at the same time.

Adjacent overtones in open position (no valves depressed)
f# and c# (perfect 5th)

Because this technique relies on overtones, there are a limited number of possibilities that can be produced. Lower adjacent overtones, where the interval to the next overtone is larger, are generally easier to produce than higher split tones where the overtones are closer together.

Possible split-tones and difficulty level.

For reasons that are currently unclear, the interval of the split tone is not always perfect. Most often, the lower note will go sharp causing the interval to shrink. Despite many years of (successfully!) performing split-tones, I still can’t really control the interval.

Practical Considerations:

  • Split tones often sound messy and include other frequencies or “noise” in the interval. In general, the higher the split tone, the noisier they become and the desired interval is less likely to be heard.
  • Split tones are very fragile and work best in relatively soft dynamics.
  • Producing the split tone ‘on demand’, achieving precise intervals and moving from one split tone to the next are a big challenge. These difficulties should certainly be taken into account when composing for this technique.
  • The top note of a split-tone is the most important – if split-tone isn’t speaking properly, its the top note that will probably sound on its own.

Split-tone Melodies

Moving from one split tone to the next is challenging, but possible. Keep in mind that split-tones may take time to speak, meaning shorter note lengths should be avoided. Both slurring and articulating the pitch changes are possible, though I find slurring a bit easier.

Rebecca Saunders, Either or (2020)
© Copyright 2020 by Henry Litolff’s Verlag.
Nutzung mit freundlicher Genehmigung C.F. Peters Musikverlag, Leipzig.
The excerpt of Either or is played with wawa mute.


It is possible to transition seamlessly between normal tones and split tones. As I wrote above, the top note is the most important; because split-tones are played from the top note downwards, transitioning to and from that note will sound the smoothest.

Transitioning seamlessly to or from notes outside of the split-tone interval is also possible.

Half-Valve Split-Tones

By partially depressing one or more of the valves, a unique sound can be created on the trumpet. I will go into half-valve playing in more detail in an upcoming post. Combining split-tones with half-valve can produce the split-tone effect with intervals otherwise not possible with conventional split-tones. The result is difficult to predict or control, but sounds quite cool!

Some random half-valve positions with split-tones.

Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post where I will cover another way to produce multiple pitches at once using the voice!


As you can already see in the examples above, notating a simple diad with normal note heads should be enough to indicate split-tones, though its always helpful to make a note in the legend or directly in the score that a split-tone is intended. Saunders adds a thin vertical line to the right of the diad for her split-tones, indicating the “dirty cluster” effect this technique sometimes produces.

Gold Star Example

This week’s gold star example is, of course, from Rebecca Saunders. Her trumpet duo “Neither” from 2011 is composed almost entirely of split-tones! The premiere of the piece, played by Marco Blaauw and Markus Schwind, can be heard here:

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Flutter Tongue, Doodle Tongue and Growl

The tongue is a trumpeter’s secret weapon, with which they can coax some fascinating effects from their instrument. In addition to using the tongue for articulation, it can be used to create some interesting sound colors. Here are three of the most common techniques.

Flutter Tongue

Flutter Tongue is achieved by rolling the tip of the tongue (like the Spanish “r”) while playing. This produces an effect much like a drum roll on one pitch. As it requires more air pressure than ordinary playing, the resulting dynamic is typically loud, though with practice softer dynamics can be achieved.

Flutter tongue can be used at the beginning of a note or after the note has already started, as in the following example.

Sebastian Stier, Fluchtlinien II (2009). © Edition Juliane Klein

Flutter tongue is possible in most, if not all, registers of the trumpet. However, it becomes increasingly difficult in the high register and nearly impossible in the extreme high register (see Range), especially in softer dynamics. The extreme pedal register is also a difficult area for flutter tongue. Flutter tongue, in general, is more strenuous than ordinary playing.


A tremolo marking with a “Fl.” above the note is a simple and clear way to notate flutter tongue. “Flutter”, “Flz.” and “Frull.” are also common ways to indicate flutter tongue.

Gubaidulina, Rhim, Saunders, Berio

If using several different techniques in one piece it may be necessary to differentiate between them by coming up with different notation for flutter tongue. I personally like Rebecca Saunders’ solution of a stylized squiggle on the stem for flutter tongue while reserving the more traditional notation for other techniques such as valve tremolos or rapid note repetitions:

Rebecca Saunders, White (2016)
© Copyright 2016 by Henry Litolff’s Verlag. Nutzung mit freundlicher Genehmigung C.F. Peters Musikverlag, Leipzig.

Berio on the other hand uses the same traditional notation for similar techniques while specifying with a short text marking above the notes:

Luciano Berio, Sequenza X (1984)
© Copyright 1984 by Universal Edition S.p.A. Milano

Controlling Flutter Speed

I know a few players who have found a way to control the speed of their flutter tongue. By rolling the back of the tongue against the soft pallet (similar to growling), they use varying air pressure to control the speed of the flutter. I’ve tried to reproduce it myself but just can’t seem to make it work. Maybe it’s genetic, like the ability to roll your tongue into a taco. In any case, here is my friend and colleague Matthew Conley demonstrating flutter tongue in varying speeds:

Doodle Tongue

The first use of this technique, as far as I’m aware, is in Luciano Berio’s “Sequenza X” for trumpet solo, the same piece referenced above. The effect is similar to the drum roll of flutter tongue, but as if with “softer mallets.” The player tongues as if rapidly repeating the word “doodle” (without vocalizing). The effect is much less abrasive than flutter tongue and is easily used in softer dynamics and all registers. Unlike the conventional flutter tongue technique, the speed of the doodle tongue is easily varied. It is notated like flutter tongue, but with the marking “DL” or “doodle” above the note.

Doodle tongue with variable speed.

Here is an example of flutter and doodle tongue together from the Berio Sequenza:

Luciano Berio, Sequenza X (1984)
© Copyright 1984 by Universal Edition S.p.A. Milano

Berio even takes doodle tongue a step further and uses it as a form of articulation. It’s difficult to be very precise with the timing of the doodle tongue, but I still find the effect quite nice:

Luciano Berio, Sequenza X (1984)
© Copyright 1984 by Universal Edition S.p.A. Milano

Liza Lim notates the effect “shimmer tonguing” in her trumpet solo. This could be interpreted as double/triple tonguing, but she seemed to like doodle tongue when I offered that effect during rehearsal for the first performance of the piece:

Liza Lim, Wild Winged-one (2007)
Copyright © 2007 by G. Ricordi & Co. Buehnen- und Musikverlag GmbH
All Rights Reserved. International Copyright Secured
Reproduced by kind permission of Hal Leonard Europe Srl obo G. Ricordi & Co. Buehnen- und Musikverlag GmbH


A different kind of flutter tongue is also possible by rolling the back of the tongue. For most players, this produces a much rougher sound than fluttering with the tip of the tongue and is commonly referred to as a “growl”. I rarely see this technique used in contemporary parts.

Growl can be notated like flutter tongue. Just be sure to specify the technique you want to hear in your notation. This technique is so rare that I was hard pressed to find an example from the literature!

Growl is most successful when combined with loud dynamics in the low to mid register. Please also keep in mind that it can be physically painful for the throat of the player if overused!

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Air Sounds

Watch a short demonstration on my YouTube channel and read more below!

As a younger player I thought air sounds were silly and didn’t take them very seriously. I’ve worked so hard to create a beautiful trumpet sound, and now all I’m supposed to do is blow some air through the instrument!? Anyone can do that! It wasn’t until I started playing a lot more contemporary music that I discovered the full spectrum and true potential of air sounds.

There is a whole range of possible sounds that can be created by blowing air in, out, on or around the different parts of the trumpet; here I have defined a few techniques that have become common in contemporary music practice. As always, if you are lucky enough to know a trumpet player well-versed in contemporary music, they will be more than happy to demonstrate the full range of different air sounds they can create, as well as how best to notate them.

Basic Air Sounds

Simply blowing air through the trumpet will create a rushing air sound (a bit like white noise) with a semi-audible pitch. The sounding pitch is about a major 7th lower than the fingered pitch (though to be honest, I perceive it as a semi-tone higher than fingered). Only the lowest overtone for each fingering will sound, giving seven possible pitches. An eighth pitch can be achieved by extending both valve slides, allowing for one extra half step lower (only on instruments with easily movable valve slides).

For trumpet in Bb, the possible sounding pitches are one whole step lower. Microtonal pitched air sounds are also theoretically possible, though impractical. Look out for my upcoming blog post on microtones, where I’ll be exploring this further.
Pitched air sounds on the C trumpet

It is important to bear in mind that these pitches are generally only audible when the trumpet is playing solo or is amplified. When playing as part of a group, or with electronics, the pitch becomes harder to perceive, leaving just the “white noise” of the basic air sound.

A quick aside about pitched air sounds on the piccolo trumpet

Whereas the principle of pitched air sounds remains the same across the trumpets in C, Bb, D and Eb; on the piccolo trumpet, they actually sound a whole tone higher (or minor 7th lower) than fingered. Piccolos with four valves have an added five pitches below the normal range.

For piccolo trumpet in A, the possible sounding pitches are one half step lower.
Pitched air sounds on Bb Piccolo

Notating Pitched Air Sounds

When notating pitched air sounds it is best to write the pitches as they are fingered on the instrument, as this is most practical for the player to read. For clarification it may be necessary to specify that the fingered note results in a different pitch than notated:

Alternatively, the sounding pitches may be notated with the necessary fingerings, as in the example below.

With or Without the Mouthpiece?

It is not always necessary to specify exactly how air sounds should be performed with the mouthpiece. If you express in your notation what effect you would like to achieve, the player will instinctively interpret the passage using the techniques in their personal repertoire. Specific effects can, however, be notated. Here are the most common possibilities.

Leaving the mouthpiece in is the default position which creates all of the air sounds described in this chapter. It also allows for faster changing between air sounds and normal playing (though a short amount of time is required for the change). Soft dynamics are easy, but louder dynamics can be difficult to achieve without amplification. Alternatively, allowing air to escape through the corners of the embouchure, or keeping a few millimeters space between embouchure and mouthpiece both create a louder air sound.

Air sound with mouthpiece in, then again with a bit of distance between embouchure and mouthpiece.

Removing the mouthpiece and blowing directly into the lead pipe will create a louder dynamic, but the pitch becomes less audible. Without the resistance of the mouthpiece, the player also runs out of air far more quickly. Note that enough time must be given for the player to remove/replace the mouthpiece. As above, louder dynamics can be achieved by keeping a few millimeters space between embouchure and leadpipe.

Air sound directly into leadpipe. First with mouth closed around leadpipe, then with a bit of distance between embouchure and mouthpiece.

Turning the mouthpiece around so that the cup is held against the opening of the lead pipe and the player blows through the backbore of the mouthpiece creates louder dynamics than the two previous techniques mentioned. The result is a more focused rushing air noise with higher frequencies.

Air sound with inverted mouthpiece. First with mouth closed around back of mouthpiece, then with distance.


Much like the difference between normal inhaling and exhaling, inhaling through the instrument creates a slightly different character of air sound. Inhaling can also be used to allow for continuous passages of air sounds. Because of the toxic ingredients contained in the oil and grease that are regularly used on their instruments, players tend to not like inhaling extensively through the instrument, meaning that this technique should be used sparingly, or not at all. A similar inhale/exhale effect can be simulated by changing the position of the tongue, as shown in the example below.

First a realy inhale/exhale, then a simulated one.

Different Sound Colors

All tonguing techniques, including flutter and doodle tongue, can be used in combination with air sounds. A tremolo effect can be created by rapidly depressing and releasing one or more valves. Adding different vowel or syllable sounds ( ex “a-e-o” or “shh – f – ch – sss – k”) is another good way of changing the color and character of air sounds.

First vowels, then consonants

I like to think of the range of air sounds as a spectrum from bright to dark. Simply changing the position of the tongue, like when pronouncing the vowel „e“ or „o“, can change the air sound from bright to dark without changing fingering. The same effect is clear with consonant sounds; for example, the sounds “sss” and “shh” are bright and dark respectively. These techniques can be amplified with fingerings, by using higher fingerings for bright sounds and lower fingerings for dark ones. When notating non-pitched air sounds, feel free to use the whole staff to mirror the transition between bright and dark.

Half Valve

Air sounds can be modulated by partially depressing one or more valves, to a half-valve position. Slowly moving the valves in a random manner creates a lovely effect, especially when including consonants to intensify the sound.

In this example I use random half-valve fluctuations, then I repeat, adding “sss—shh—ch” consonants to the sound.


I will be writing about combining the voice with the instrument in an upcoming post, but I still thought it would be good to include a small section here on whispering as it is very closely related to air sounds.

Whispering into the instrument can give color to the sound and allows text to be presented with varying degrees of clarity. In general, the closer the lips are to the mouthpiece (up to the point of allowing no air or sound to escape through the corners of the mouth), the less understandable the text becomes. However, the player can manipulate pronunciation to make the text more or less clear in any position. The sound created typically has no audible pitch.

Abel Paúl, “El pliegue de las cosas” for trumpet solo
First only the whispered text, then again with the valve action.

Air Sounds and Mutes

Using any kind of mute in combination with air sounds will drastically reduce the dynamic of the resulting sound as well as the audibility of pitches. In most cases air sounds shouldn’t be combined with mutes. If you are dead-set on using a mute with air sounds – for example, if you want to achieve a very specific sound color – make sure the resulting sound is actually audible in the context of the piece.

Some Notes on Notation

As with any extended technique, it is essential to define your note heads and symbols either in a separate legend or directly in the score. Using different note heads for different air sound techniques will make reading the part a whole lot easier for the player. In this example from Liza Lim’s “Wild Winged-one”, notice how Liza clearly differentiates air sounds from whispered text in the notation.

Liza Lim, “Wild Winged-One” for trumpet solo
Copyright © 2007 by G. Ricordi & Co. Buehnen- und Musikverlag GmbH
All Rights Reserved. International Copyright Secured
Reproduced by kind permission of Hal Leonard Europe Srl obo G. Ricordi & Co. Buehnen- und Musikverlag GmbH
This excerpt is performed with the mouthpiece removed.

And, finally, a pet peeve of many musicians: when using special note heads, make sure you are careful when notating half notes, and that they are easily distinguishable from quarter notes…


As I mentioned, most contemporary trumpet players will have a whole repertoire of air noises, so if you are writing for a specific player, don’t hesitate to ask them to show you what they can do.

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Endurance is an issue that virtually all brass players have struggled with since they first picked up their instrument, and one that continues to challenge them in their professional careers. One of the most common complaints from trumpeters about contemporary music is an apparent lack of consideration for their physical limitations. In my experience, this usually stems from a misunderstanding of what is possible and realistic for trumpeters. Central to this is the issue of endurance. Despite my own experience as a performer playing a whole lot of great new music for the trumpet, I still find endurance to be one of the more difficult concepts to explain to composers in a useful way. There are, however, a few basic guidelines which make the job of the trumpeter a lot easier.

The embouchure required for trumpet playing requires a set of delicate muscles in the face, lips and tongue. Trumpet players have to train these muscles daily to stay at the top of their game. However, composers should bear in mind that even professional players tire easily, and that their piece might not be the only piece on the program.

  • Firstly, as a general rule, writing shorter phrases with frequent rests gives the performer the physical and mental preparation time they need.
  • Any virtuosic or strenuous material, as well as passages where the trumpet is “featured”, should be preceded and followed by rests.
  • The extreme high register, from c’’’, should be used very sparingly.

Of course, these guidelines are just that – a guide to trumpet writing that keeps within the physical limits of the performer and their instrument, and helps avoid writing that completely exhausts your player. But in no way should these guidelines stifle creativity: new music can and should push boundaries. If there is a compelling reason for pushing these limits, then by all means go for it – and if you have the luxury of knowing a trumpet player who could help test some tricky passages, then all the better!

Levels of “strenuousness”

As a trumpet player, I often categorize repertoire and different kinds of playing in terms of their “strenuousness”. Of course, this is highly subjective, and each player has his or her own limits of endurance. But I find this a useful way of categorizing trumpet techniques and different kinds of playing into how tiring they are for the player.

  • Lower register, from f# – c”
  • Mid-range dynamics, mp – mf
  • Shorter phrases separated with frequent short breaks, as well as occasional longer breaks
  • Extended techniques that do not engage the embouchure, such as tongue slaps and air sounds
  • Pedal tones
  • Mid-register, from c” – g”
  • Louder dynamics, mf – f
  • Quieter dynamics (ppp – p) in the upper register
  • Longer passages with infrequent breaks
  • Extensive use of air sounds (physically tiring, although not for the embouchure)
  • High register, g” and above
  • Extreme dynamics, especially loud dynamics
  • Fast and frequent register changes and large interval jumps
  • Long passages with little or no breaks
  • Extended techniques such as flutter/doodle tongue, double/triple tongue, and split tones
  • Playing with mutes
  • Extreme high register, c”’ and above
  • Very long passages with no break
  • Extreme use of high register and loud dynamics
  • Use of mutes in the high register and with loud dynamics

To help better explain these levels of strenuousness, and their effect on a player’s endurance, I often use examples from existing trumpet literature. Although there are many masterpieces for the trumpet which are extremely strenuous and give the player a real workout, generally speaking the works which have stood the test of time are usually those that are playable for the majority of professional players.

Joseph Haydn, Trumpet Concerto, 1st Movement

This is probably the most iconic trumpet solo work in the repertoire. All classical trumpet students have to learn to master this piece, as it is a standard requirement for virtually all professional auditions. The first movement is manageable (in terms of endurance) by most university-level players. The entire concerto is great example of a work that challenges the trumpeter without killing their chops.

Strenuousness Rating:
Relaxed to Challenging
  • Lower register, from f# – c”
  • Mid-range dynamics, mp – mf
  • Shorter phrases separated with frequent short breaks, as well as occasional longer breaks
  • Extended techniques that do not engage the embouchure, such as tongue slaps and air sounds
  • Pedal tones

Igor Stravinsky, “L’histoire du soldat”, Marche Royale and Petit Concert

Though originally written for the cornet, “L’histoire du soldat” features writing that can be equally easily played on the trumpet. The two movements Marche Royale and Petit Concert are more strenuous than the movements either side, but are nevertheless very trumpet-friendly. Indeed, all of Stravinsky’s orchestral trumpet parts are excellent examples of challenging but playable material.

Strenuousness Rating: Challenging
  • Strenuous material in each movement preceded and followed by less strenuous movements
  • Long passages, yet all in mid-register
  • Passages broken up with frequent short rests
  • Passages where the trumpet is “featured” and plays the theme are almost always preceded and followed by rests or less strenuous playing.

Paul Hindemith, “Sonata for Trumpet”, 1st Movement

This work is frequently played by trumpet students and is certainly considered standard repertoire, though few young players are able to perform the entire movement without great difficulty. Even for professional players, it is a challenging test of stamina!

Strenuousness Rating: Strenuous
  • Long phrases with few rests
  • Frequent use of louder dynamics
  • Frequent use of the upper register
  • Strenuous passages not preceded by rests, but with less strenuous playing (e.g.: the climax point of the movement [bar 67], while strenuous on its own, is made even more difficult by having virtually no rest beforehand. However, the long rest following this section gives the player a chance to recover before continuing.)

Here are a few more examples, this time from the contemporary repertoire:

Stanley Friedman – “SOLUS” for trumpet solo
Strenuousness rating: Challenging

This piece was written for the trumpet by a professional trumpet player and is very trumpet-friendly. It is definitely a test of a player’s endurance but well within the range of possibility and playable by most advanced university-level trumpeters.

Liza Lim – “Wild Winged One” for trumpet solo
Strenuousness rating: Challenging

This is a great example of a virtuosic piece that is still very playable. Most of the piece is written for the mid-range of the trumpet, while the upper register is reserved for musical climaxes. Lim’s transitions between normal playing and extended technique are excellent and the rests are well placed.

Enno Poppe
ZUG” for brass septet;
Brot“ trp, hrn, tbn, pno, perc
Strenuousness rating: Strenuous

Poppe’s trumpet writing is truly exemplary. The parts are strenuous but well paced, technically difficult but never impossible. Any composer interested in writing well for the trumpet should study how Poppe writes for the trumpet.

Luciano Berio – Sequenza X for trumpet and piano resonance
Strenuousness rating: Extreme

For years this famous solo work was considered unplayable. The complete lack of rests makes this piece a challenge for most professional players. The fact that Berio writes predominantly for the trumpet’s mid-range somewhat balances out the fact that the player has absolutely no opportunity to stop and recover.

And finally, an example of some next-level strenuous trumpet writing:

Iannis Xenakis – Eonta
Strenuousness rating: Extreme / Impossible

Xenakis’ brass parts are notorious for being total chop killers and “Eonta” is no exception. Even for professional players in top condition, this work is a huge challenge. When I performed this piece I could only manage it by “cheating” – in other words, leaving out material. If you write your brass parts like Xenakis, you better have a convincing musical reason or face the wrath of the brass section.

  • Very long passages with little to no break
  • Extensive use of extreme dynamics
  • Extensive use of double tongue and flutter tongue
  • Extensive use of the high register
  • Did I mention the brutally long passages with little to no break?

Postscript: Endurance and the Piccolo Trumpet

The techniques and repertoire I referenced in this post are explicitly related to the Bb or C trumpets, but it’s worth quickly mentioning the piccolo trumpet. In principle, most of the principles in this post are equally valid for the piccolo trumpet. However, piccolo playing tends to be even more strenuous for the embouchure than the Bb or C trumpets. So, although the piccolo trumpet facilitates playing in a higher register, it is still better to treat the extreme high register with caution.

Some references for good writing for the piccolo trumpet can be found in the Baroque repertoire. Many players use the piccolo trumpet for Baroque trumpet literature, especially in modern orchestras – although it has become increasingly popular to use the natural trumpet. In particular, the cantatas and orchestral works by Bach and Handel are (mostly) good references for friendly piccolo trumpet writing.

Here are a few diverse examples of piccolo trumpet repertoire that tests the performer’s endurance in different ways:

Stockhausen – Oberlippentanz
Strenuoussness rating: Strenuous

Stockhausen’s trumpet writing is difficult yet is always well handled and playable, and Oberlippentanz is no exception. Longer passages contain many smaller rests and the extreme high register is treated with great care. The most difficult and tiring section, the cadenza (bar 153), begins with a long section of pitched air sounds, which allows the player plenty of rest to prepare for the strenuous material which follows.

Wolfgang Rihm – Sine Nomine for brass quintet
Strenuousness rating: Strenuous

The piccolo trumpet part in this piece is quite a challenge but not at all impossible. Rihm doesn’t shy away from the extreme high register but is very generous with small rests. The longer passages are also punctuated with frequent rests.

Bach – Brandenburg Concerto No. 2
Strenuousness rating: Extreme

Even after a few centuries of trumpet development, this remains one of the most extreme pieces of the repertoire. This is mostly due to the extreme register of the piece, which is mostly in the second and third octaves, from f’’ to f’’’. In addition, the passages are quite long with very few rests. Only a few professional players can manage this baroque masterpiece.

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(High) Range

Back in my high school marching band (Go Scotties!), me and my fellow trumpeters were only interested in three things: playing fast, playing loud and playing high. Playing high was never my forte (sorry), but that didn’t stop me from mashing the mouthpiece into my face to try and squeeze a few extra semitones out of the instrument. I later learned that there are better and easier ways to go about extending your range; but, even so, playing in the high register remains a challenge for me and virtually all other brass players.

What is the highest note you can play?”

This is a question I always get asked when working with composers. However, the answer is not always so straightforward. The highest note I can squeeze out of the instrument in a rehearsal is not necessarily the highest note I can reproduce convincingly in a performance.

A trumpeter’s range depends on multiple factors, and is also intimately linked to the issue of endurance. (If you haven’t read my post on endurance, I suggest reading that before you go any further.) Here are the four most important things to take into account when writing those high notes:

  • Instrument:
    Each trumpet has, of course, its own range (scroll down for a handy chart). However, each instrument has its own character and difficulties: just because a piccolo can reach those very top notes, doesn’t mean that playing them gets much easier. In fact, piccolo playing is in general more strenuous than the C or Bb trumpets.
  • Context:
    How easy it is to reach those high notes can depend a lot on the preceding material. If the trumpeter has just struggled through a tricky fortissimo phrase with no chance to catch a breath, then it’s going to be a lot harder to cleanly and convincingly hit the notes at the top of their range.
  • Fitness:
    Don’t underestimate how much a performance can depend on a player’s fitness on the day. Brass players are a lot like professional athletes: they spend a lot of time training and protecting their vital embouchure muscles, but they are just as susceptible to dips in form as any Olympic sprinter or Bundesliga soccer player, meaning they might not be able to hit the high notes they were nailing in practice.
  • Program:
    If there are other pieces on the program, then this will affect how well the player can go to the upper limits of their range. Pieces played earlier in the program will obviously affect a player’s endurance; but perhaps a player might also need to save energy for the chop-buster at the end of the concert.

A basic overview

Here is a chart in which I’ve displayed the various ranges of the most common trumpets. Before you scroll down to see the chart, I’d just like to reinforce the fact that this is the widest possible range; the notes a trumpeter will actually be able to reach in a performance are highly dependent on the player and all the factors I just mentioned.

I’ve also separated each total range into different registers. Not all players will agree with exactly where each register starts and ends, but nevertheless it should give a pretty good idea of the usable range of each instrument.

Pedal tones can extend the register of all instruments about two octaves lower.¹

It is important to note that the higher pitched trumpets don’t really extend the range upwards in comparison to the lower instruments – rather, they make it easier to play in the high register. So, playing a high Eb’’’ will be much easier on the piccolo trumpet than it is on the Bb trumpet, but I still can’t play much higher than that on the piccolo in general.

Although the trumpet can theoretically play up to a f’’’ or g’’’, please keep in mind that these are at the very top of the most extreme register. Even under the best circumstances, the notes in the extreme high register can be quite unreliable and should be handled with the utmost care.

Why is the high register so unreliable?

We’ve all heard split or cracked notes from the trumpet section in an orchestra, especially in the high register. But the reason it happens isn’t necessarily because of a bad or out-of-practice section, but has a lot to do with the mechanics of the instrument and the natural overtone series.

The overtone series is fundamental to the trumpet, as it is to all brass instruments. As well as depressing valves, trumpeters can play a range of notes by using a combination of lip tension, air speed and tongue position to reach different overtones in the series. However, as you ascend the overtone scale, the overtones become closer in pitch to each other.

For a trumpeter, this means that the difference in embouchure position between the respective overtones becomes more and more subtle, making it easier to miss your target pitch. When playing a high C, for example, the chances that I’ll accidentally hit a Bb or a D – the neighboring overtones of the high C – are relatively high. The “cracked” notes we all despise occur when a player accidentally hits one of these neighboring overtones and immediately corrects to the desired pitch.

In addition, higher notes require more embouchure strength for precision. So the more tired my lips are, the more likely I am to crack a high note or land on a lower overtone than intended.

Here are a couple of other minor considerations to take into account when writing in the upper register:

  • Dynamics:
    Range and dynamics are closely related. While trumpet players can play the full dynamic range in the low, middle and most of the high register, as the pitches move through the high and extreme high registers, the dynamic range shrinks.
    Generally speaking, playing extremely loud or soft can be quite challenging in the higher registers, sometimes impossible. But it may also be the case that, depending on the player’s condition (again, see my post on endurance), some higher notes may only be possible on two dynamic levels, sounding (I got it!) and not sounding at all.
  • Mutes:
    In short: playing with a mute is more strenuous than playing without a mute. This is especially true when it comes to the high register. If a trumpeter is using a mute, then the extra strength they need to play against the mute may very likely limit the high notes they are able to reach.

You should now have a fairly good idea of the restraints and complications inherent in range and in exploring the upper reaches of the trumpet. I hope I’ve been able to express that the trumpet’s range is so much more than what you found in a chart (although, please do refer to my chart!), and depends on the individual player as well as a whole host of other factors.

As I already mentioned, a player’s range is also intricately linked to the issue of endurance, so do read my post on that topic where I give plenty of tips and tricks for friendly trumpet writing and some examples from the trumpet literature.

Footnote 1: Whilst I have focused here on the natural range of the trumpet, it is also possible to extend the range two octaves downwards by using pedal tones. Watch out for an upcoming post where I will explain more about the pedal register.

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