Trumpet History – How Did it Evolve into Our Days

The trumpet is a wind musical instrument belonging to the brass family, with a vast history, perhaps one of the vastest in the instruments of a typical band.

It consists of a cylindrical tube bent over itself, at whose ends are the mouthpiece and the bell. Three valves (pistons), introduced in the 19th century, allow it to emit all the notes. It is a very frequent presence in both, classical and jazz ensembles.

The Trumpet Dating Back to Ancient Days

The trumpet is probably one of the musical instruments that evolved in existence today.

In its earlier days, thousands of years ago, the trumpet wasn’t seen as a musical instrument. It was used more like a tool of communication as it could be very loud and could play little types of fanfares that sounded different to people.

Our ancestors began to use natural elements (such as animal horns or shells of mollusks) to amplify the sound.

Since then, immense changes have been made, so much so that today’s trumpet has very little to do with its predecessor.

First Evidence of the Trumpet in History

The earliest evidence of the trumpet’s existence dates back to about 1500 BC, according to paintings found at the tomb of the Egyptian emperor Tutankhamon. The Egyptian trumpets consisted of a tube of about 120 cm, built-in silver or bronze, and were used mainly as a means of signalings, such as battles or the arrival of someone.

This seems to have been the main use of the trumpet throughout a very significant part of its history, at least until around 1800, when the introduction of valves allowed the instrument’s chromatic expansion and catapulted it into the limelight.

In fact, before the introduction of the valve system, the trumpet was confined to emitting sounds at natural intervals (depending on the length of the tube) which limited its use, as a musical instrument, to fanfares and similar groupings.

Some Examples of Fanfares Played with Trumpets in the Past

  • Used in armies: for example, for calling all the troops to charge at the same time
  • To call a town full of people if a bad storm was coming
  • Used in horse racetracks for calling when a race is about to start and it’s time to watch the horses (imagine if you using a bathroom)

There were a whole lot of these fanfares and they all sounded a little bit different than the others. Many you’ve probably heard or are familiarized with. Normally they were used to communicate over bigger areas with a lot of people. These trumpet fanfares couldn’t be seen as music songs, but instead just a way of basic communication.

A Musical Instrument Used in Several Ancient Civilizations

Traces of the use of the trumpet are still found in other ancient civilizations, from Greece to China, India, ancient Rome, and Japan. The Dung, a kind of trumpet used in Tibet, still exists today. It is almost 5 meters long.

The trumpet assumed an almost sacred role in antiquity. In Tibet, Rome, and Israel, for example, its sacred character meant that only priests could use it. Biblical references to the trumpet itself establish a strong connotation between this instrument and the voices of angels.

Despite the imposing character given to the trumpet, during a significant part of its history the trumpeters were not so fortunate… In fact, during the Middle Ages, for example, although the trumpet music announced the arrival of the king and enlivened the court evenings, and the trumpeters were decorated with special costumes, being at the base of the social pyramid, and were treated as servants.

First Steps to Evolution

In the Renaissance period, finally, the trumpeters decided to get together and start composing music for the trumpet, aspiring to something more than playing fanfares or emitting war and signaling touches.

A new type of trumpet emerged at this time, similar to the ancestor of this type of trombone, in which a sliding tube was added to the original tube so that its movement (shortening or decreasing the total length of the tube) allowed the emission of sounds at chromatic intervals that would otherwise not be possible.

With the invention of this type of trumpet, the instrument freed itself from the tying and limitation that constituted the emission of a limited set of notes, opening the doors for the freer use of the instrument in melodic terms.

However, another limitation remained – the use of a sliding tube, despite increasing the instrument’s harmonic range, was not functional and feasible in technical terms because it did not allow speed in the instrument’s execution.

Due to this limitation, such type trumpet did not survive… but an important step was taken for the future, and by this time the trumpeters began to acquire a more privileged status, so much so that professional trumpeters began to appear who only played for the wealthier social classes and, curiously, in certain periods of history, the poorer classes were forbidden to play this instrument so as to allow only the best instrumentalists – professionals – to carry out their activity.

Time for the Natural Trumpet or Baroque Trumpet

In the 17th and 18th centuries, a new type of trumpet gained popularity: the natural trumpet or also called a baroque trumpet (depending on who you ask).

It was (is) a trumpet about eight feet in length, made of a circular metallic tube without any valves, with one end having a kind of nozzle and the other a bell.

Around those years, such types of trumpets were responsible for the instrument to started being seen more and more as a musical instrument and not just a signal calling instrument.

If you see a natural trumpet live, the most significant difference you might notice is that there are no valves.

With no valves and because of its length, it’s more limited in what it can do. Basically, unless you change the slides, it only plays one key at a time, and in the low register, meaning there are only a few notes that you can play with it. That’s pretty limiting and doesn’t give you a whole lot of options for melodies unless you play higher and be more on the up register.

That’s exactly what surged around that time in the past. A new type of execution of the instrument was emerging, the so-called clarino. It consisted of playing the trumpet in its sharpest register where the natural range of harmonics is much closer forming a complete scale. The musicians were thus trained to play only in this high register that began in the 3rd octave of the instrument.

Famous composers such as Bach, Haydn, and Handel wrote for this instrument. However, due to the limitations of the instrument, few works were written specifically for the natural trumpet.

The clarinet style still surprises today’s trumpeters since it demanded, due to the instrument’s limitations at that time, an exceptional capacity from the musicians of that time. In such a way that the selection of trumpeters was extremely demanding. It is even said that at that time only the children of members of the school were admitted to trumpet schools, even as apprentices…

Contemporary Natural Trumpet Recordings

If you are curious enough to check some contemporary work with the natural trumpet then the work by Nicholas Eckland will give you a great source of how it sounds. He is a Swedish trumpet player who is very famous for playing natural trumpets with a series of albums called “the art of baroque trumpet”, which became very popular.

Niklas Eklund – Youtube Topic

Another similar example comes from a recent recording done by the also famous British trumpet player, Alison Balsom – Album: “Royal Fireworks”.

A Significant Evolution – the Valve System

At the entrance of 1800 the trumpet was beginning to lose popularity considering the limitations already pointed out. To try to solve the problem, in 1801 Anton Weidinger, from Vienna (Austria) invented the trumpet with keys. He was not happy, since the type of keys used were similar to those used in saxophones and the sound of the instrument clearly lost qualities in terms of its timbre and sharpness. This type of trumpet has not gained particular popularity…

But when the decline of the trumpet began to be worrying, behold, in 1813 the greatest invention in the history of the instrument appeared and allowed it to acquire a status never before achieved: the introduction of the valve system.

The trumpet was now able to comfortably produce a full scale in several timbric records, and its performance became much less difficult. This invention determined the rise of the trumpet in terms of its orchestral use.

How Does the Valve System Works in a Trumpet

Trying to explaining briefly how the valves work in a trumpet, could be as: without any of the pistons pressed, only the main tube is used and the air crosses it from one end to the other in the shortest possible route. When one of the pistons is pressed, an extension is added to the main tube; the air passes from the valve to the additional extension of the tube and from this one again to the valve coming out after this one to the main tube of the trumpet.

Such a process (increasing the extension of the tube) results in the emission of a lower sound. If more than one piston is actuated, the air first passes through the extension that is furthest from the musician and then follows its path through the other valves until it exits at the end (hood) of the instrument.

This is the system of pistons and valves commonly used today, but there is another system of rotating valves (used, for example, in the English Corne). The functional principle is the same as the mechanical system, it differs being so complex that it would be tedious to explain it here.

With such introduction the trumpet starts to become a much more functional instrument, and composers like Berlioz and Rossini, later Stravinsky and Shostakovitch start writing trumpet parts in their works.

The first piece that featured the chromatically capable trumpet was the Concerto for Trumpet in E flat composed by Joseph Hayden.

The evolution of the trumpet was not only at the level of that tuned in Bb (which is the most common one today), but also a number of variants of the trumpet, with various tunings, such as trumpets-bass, trumpets with rotating valves, fliscornes, “piccolo” trumpets, etc… Some are more popular than others, and different countries and cultures favor the use of some to the detriment of others.

One of the instruments invented with the piston trumpet revolution was the Bb Cornet. Given its smaller and rounded tube, the bugle emits a more velvety and tuned sound, especially in the treble records, which allowed it to quickly acquire a prominent role in replacing the trumpet, particularly in melodic and solo interventions.

One of the main drivers of the bugle and the technique of this instrument was the French Jean Baptiste Arban (1825-1889). His method for trumpet is still widely used today and is considered by many as the “Bible” of this instrument.

The Trumpet Starting to Be Used Across Different Music Genres

In the 18th century, the trumpet began to take on a new role in the British brass band and began use as a military marching instrument.

The use of the trumpet in these British brass bands is what brought the instrument to America as bugles for military music, marches, or commands. 

As the use of these instruments in the military started to deteriorate in the late 19th century the instrument began to see some slight design changes and saw use in the popular music of the time as in marches, orchestral works, and early forms of Jazz.

From the 19th century until the beginning of the 20th century, several new forms of musical expression have appeared, such as blues. As a melodic instrument, the trumpet has always played a privileged role in these new forms of musical expression.

The Trumpet in the 20th century

In the 20th century, the trumpet saw its use in all theaters of music such as Jazz, pop, marching ensembles, and many more. During this time the trumpet saw many minor changes as well including the length of its tubing and composition of materials and became the instrument that we see today.

By the time of World War II, the trumpet began to be used in Jazz music with more and more support, given the timbre characteristics that allow it to play more melodious and velvety parts as well as more aggressive and metallic parts and its potential to adjust acoustically to any kind of environment.

The intensive use of the trumpet in Jazz music has led to the potential of this instrument and the technique of the instrumentalists being taken to an extreme, with advantages not only in this musical genre but also in the various artistic fields where the trumpet assumes and will certainly continue to assume a fundamental role.

The trumpet has a long history and has evolved greatly since its origins. It has been used for several purposes including religious, military, and communication, and its musicality has changed along such process.