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History of the Trombone

The trombone is one of the few instruments that has not changed in design throughout the
history of instrumental music. From playing in 17th century mass to playing in jazz ensembles
across the globe, the trombone shows its versatility and importance in the music world. The
sackbut changed into the modern trombone and composers adapted to the changes as well. The
development and use of the trombone from a mechanical and aural sense is significant in its own
The trombones earliest ancestors can be traced down to the first early trumpets.
Trumpets in 1375 first started popping up in towns across Europe. We know this due to the
dating of certain paintings that were preserved and discovered of this time. Other cultures across
the world also had their own trumpets for different purposes. From the chronological
information we have, the idea of the trombone came out of the European trumpet innovations. In
the 15th century, trumpets were widespread enough to be changed and invented in different ways.
A few notable trumpet variations of the 15th century were the trompette des mnestrels and the
trompettes de guerre. The trompettes de guerre were used for war and had a very piercing sound
due to their shape and nature. These trompettes de guerre were curved and look more like a
modern day trumpet. The trompettes de mnestrels were very long, straight, and conical. From
this long-shaped instrument, it made sense that the ability to elongate the instrument would
provide the ability to play more notes. From this thinking, out emerges the slide tumpet.
The slide trumpet is the earliest representation of what the trombone is today. It was first
identified in 1420 in Burgandy. The slide trumpet is essentially the same as a trompette de

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mnestrel, but with a movable mouthpiece. The mouthpiece was pushed and pulled into the lead
pipe of the trumpet by the moving of the trumpet itself. This did not yield much of a difference
in pitch more than a whole step, but the idea of a tune-able aerophone is very enticing to
instrument makers of the 15th century.
Through more instrument experimentation and time, the sackbut emerged. The specific
origins of the sackbut are not known. One known fact about the making of the sackbut is that
Erasmus Schnitzer and his family perfected them. The earliest of the Schnitzer sackbuts were
made in 1551. However, the name sackbut preceded this date. It is unknown whether it comes
from the Spanish or French Language. The Spanish verb sacar and the noun bucha meaning
to pull and a tube, repectively, or the French saquer (to pull) and bouter (to push) are the root
words involved.
Sackbut is the English term as it was used in England and English speaking countries. In
modern-day Germany, they refer to this invention as the posaune. The posaune is still used today
as the term for the modern-day trombone. In Italy, the sackbut is called a tromboni, just like it is
today. In English and French, there is a separation the term sackbut (sacqueboute in French) and
trombone. Everywhere else, the sackbut is just an early trombone. In 1487, a travelling writer
links the widespread use of the sackbut/trombone as classifying it as the countertenor in a dance
band. This position was consistent in most places across Europe.
The performance style of the sackbut was generally versatile. Sackbuts were a large part
of dance bands and wind choirs. Their melodies were generally improvised over a cantus firmus.
Occasionally the lower sounding sackbuts would be the cantus firmus. The Piffari band played
at ceremonies in Germany and northern Italy. They were a sackbut ensemble. Venice had the

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most popular Piffari band in the late 1400s to 1500s. They performed hour long concerts in the
Piazza every day. They also played at St. Marks Cathedral occasionally. Another notable
ensemble with the sackbut was the Alta Cappela. The Alta Cappela was a town wind band that
the community musicians formed as part of a guild. The main instrumentation involved shawms
and sackbuts. The English equivalent to the Alta Capella was the Waites. The Waites were
groups of wind musicians that would play on balconies in the Medieval and Renaissance periods.
The introduction of the sackbut into the religious world was in 1503 in Innsbruck,
Austria. Its role was to back up the choir in the melodies of the mass and different liturgical
texts. Special instrumental music was also performed in various churches. Ceremonial music
was the most popular of the music composed. Two of the most prominent beginning composers
for the sackbut are Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli. Composers were inspired by their style of
brass writing.
What makes a sackbut different from a trombone? The design hasnt changed much
compared to other instruments. The idea of a mechanism to change pitch by the slide is very
effective and creative. There were a few different types of sackbut to fit the needed range. There
were the alto, tenor, bass, and double bass sackbuts. The bell of the sackbut is much more
conical than the modern-day trombone. This meant that it is not flared out at the end. The stay,
or the piece to hold and move the slide by, was rectangular and flat on a sackbut. On todays
trombones, the stay is tubular and much easier to grasp. On the modern trombones, another 6
inches were added to the tubing. On the double bass sackbut, a baton was used to move to slide.
They used a baton to move it so the players could reach the lower slide positions due to the very
long slide.

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Other differences, possibly the most important when performing on both instruments,
would include the timbre and playing difficulty. When describing the tone of a trombone, in
most settings, it is generally a harsher more directed sound. The trombone is viewed as a louder
instrument. The sackbut is really the opposite in the quality of this low brass timbre. The
sackbut produces a very calm, mellow sound that is easily paired with recorders or other
woodwinds of that time. Its main purpose was to oppose the harsh trumpet timbre. Today when
we think about the recorder and trombone, it would be near an abomination to pair the two
cohesively. The sackbut, due to its timbre is mellow enough for it to work. The more skilled
musicians of the middle ages and renaissance played the sackbut because it took difficult
coordination with the slide and mouthpiece to play. A well-developed ear was a necessity to
playing the sackbut because of the relativity of pitch in the slide movements.
The modern trombone was standardized by a company in Leipzig, Germany called C.F.
Satire. In 1839, with the additions on the valve on trombones, is when C.F. Satire pushed the Bb
tenor trombone with an F attachment. This trombone could play everything all the alto, tenor,
and bass, sackbuts could play. Also with innovations in the shape and contour of the
mouthpiece, the sackbuts became less used in comparison to the modern trombone throughout
the mid 1800s. Symphony orchestras throughout Europe were steadily moving from the
standard three sackbut instrumentation to three modern trombones. Due to the preference of
modern tenor trombones, composers such as Hector Berlioz would no longer specify an alto
trombone as the principal part. Instead, the more common way to orchestrate would have two
tenor trombones and a bass trombone according to range. This is not to say that composers

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completely erased the alto from their minds, however. Prominent composers of the later 19th
century such as Edward Elgar still orchestrated for alto trombone.
The orchestration and treatment of the trombone has changed since the first writings in
1619. Three music writers in the 17th century have all described the trombone in a similar way.
In Michael Praetoriss Syntagma Musicum (1619), Marin Marsennes Harmonie Universelle
(1636), and Daniel Speers Unterricht der Musicalischen Kunst (1687), the use of the sackbut is
all mentioned as the countertenor part in dance bands. The sackbut was described as a sacred
instrument by Praetoris and Marsenne as it played an important role in the music of the
cathedrals. Johann Zedler in 1741 wrote Universal Lexicon which was about the trombones
sizes and they related to the treatment of the trombone. Zedler did not write about the trombone
in a concrete way. Zedler mainly wrote about his speculations of the trombone used in biblical
settings and throughout the early history of the world. The prominent view on the orchestration
and description of the trombone in the 19th century is that of Hector Berlioz. In Berliozs
Treatise on Instrumentation he writes:
"In my opinion, the trombone is the true head of the family of wind instruments, which I
have named the 'epic' one. It possesses nobility and grandeur to the highest degree; it has
all the serious and powerful tones of sublime musical poetry, from religious, calm and
imposing accents to savage, orgiastic outburst. Directed by the will of the master, the
trombones can chant like a choir of priests, threaten, utter gloomy sighs, a mournful
lament, or a bright hymn of glory; they can break forth into awe-inspiring cries and
awaken the dead or doom the living with their fearful voices." (Berlioz 1843)

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This quote, while held dear to trombonists, is representative of Berliozs use of the trombone in
Symphonie Fantastique. It is no surprise that the bold uses of the trombone in this piece did
not sit well with other composers, but the trombone has been used in a wide variety of ways
since the popularity of this piece.
The Bb/F attachment has changed in the 20th century. Up until 1976, the rotary valve
popularized by C.F. Satire was used on trombones. Orla Ed Thayer was an instrument maker
that wanted to revolutionize the valve for the trombone. The rotary valves require 90 degrees to
turn and he felt that this was too great of a distance. In 1976 he released his new invention, the
Thayer Valve. It resembles a cone and only requires the mechanism to turn 25 degrees, making
the valve much more efficient. Also called the axial flow valve by other companies, the Thayer
Valve revolutionized the making and playing of the trombone. This valve was not perfect,
however. Many trombonists find it to be temperamental and difficult to clean. The previous
rotary valve made a comeback after a few years after the release of the Thayer Valve. In the
1990s, the Haggman Valve attempted to fix the Thayer Valve. It was much similar in design, but
was much less temperamental. It did, however, turn 66 degrees instead of 25. The standard
today for student issue is a rotary valve. Many professional players use the Thayer Valve such as
Joe Alessi because of its efficiency. Today there are dozens of different types of valves used by
the trombone. While some trombonists find the Thayer Valve to be lesser than others due to
reliability, it can be said that the Thayer Valve revolutionized the trombone and inspired other
makers to perfect the valve.
The history of instruments has shown how a simple designs can change the outcome of
music. The trombone is no exception to this. Composers have embraced the trombone

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throughout music history and have utilized its changes. It is interesting how in a span of 200
years an instrument can undergo changes so that it is no longer only sacred, but used for
representing threatening music and for savage outbursts in compositions. The trombone may not
change much in the coming years, but like its history shows, minor changes and perfections
could change the way we view the trombone.

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Works Cited

Baines, Anthony. Brass Instruments: Their History and

Development General Publishing Company (1976). Print.

Berlioz, Hector. Treatise on Instrumentation London Ewer and

Co.: 1843. Print

Cullingford, Martin. "Christian Lindberg." Gramophone 87.1054

(2010): 77-. Print.

Guion, David M. A History of the Trombone. 1 Vol. Scarecrow

Press, 2010. Print.

Hall, Mike. "A History of the Trombone. American Wind Band

Series no. 1." ITA Journal 40.2 (2012): 43-5. Print.



Kimball, Kim. "The Trombone in the Renaissance: A History in

Pictures and Documents." ITA Journal 41.1 (2013): 50-2.


Read, David. "Ancestral Brass." Classical Music.900 (2009): 31-2.

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Young, Gayle. "Sackbuts and Spectrograms." Electronic Musician

17.7 (2001): 96. Print.