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History and Development of the Trumpet

It has been said that to know your past is to see your future. Most trumpet players know very little about the history of the trumpet.

Throughout Trumpet History

The Conch Trumpet was invented when a fisherman blew a sea animal out of a shell and it made a noise. It was mostly a voice distorter. They shouted into it. Shell trumpets are still used today. On Madagascar they are used for religious services. In France they are blown on Easter Sunday.

Hollow log trumpets date back to 2000 B.C., some are hollowed out by hand while others are made from branches or trunks which were eaten by ants.

In Africa they are mostly side blown and play two notes. Along the Amazon they make a conical trumpet out of rolled bark. It is 12-20 feet long. The Aborigines of Australia play the Didgeridoo made from branches 4 or 5 feet long. The player blows and mumbles at the same time. This can produce thousands of different sounds.

Source: Didgeridoo Player. Graham Crumb, 2022.

The Shofar

The Shofar, made from a ram horn and the Hatzotzeroth, made of metal, are both mentioned in the Bible. They were used to blow down the walls of Jericho. They are still used on certain religious days. The Roman Cornu, originally made of horns and later metal, was made in several sections and about 10 feet long. Two were found in Pompeii.

The trumpets of Asia were made from bamboo, bones, or metal. In Tibet it was made from a human femur covered in human skin and ending in a copper bell. The Pungacuqua was made by the natives of Mexico out of clay.  The tomb of King Tut had two metal trumpets in it. They were 23 inches long.

The Lur, a bronze 8 foot long “S” shaped horn, dates back to 1000 B.C. It could play up to the 12th partial. The Salpinx was a straight trumpet 62 inches long, made of bone or bronze. Salpinx contests were a part of the original Olympic Games.

The Alphorn is still used today. You’ve seen them on television in a cough medicine commercial. They are “J” shaped, made in two sections, and 5-13 feet long. Alphorns can play from the 2nd to the 16th partial, and are used for signaling as well as a call for prayer in the Catholic Church.

The Wooden Cornetto

The wooden Cornetto had six finger holes and was chromatic for one full octave. The Serpent (a large Cornetto) also had six finger holes, but because of its larger size, it had a chromatic range of two and one-half octaves.

Source: The renaissance chanson Mille Regretz, composed by the incomparable Josquin des Prez, performed by Bruce Dickey & Hanneke van Proosdij, with divisions in the style of Ganassi and Bassano. Video from the Voices of Music Great Artists series, October, 2012. Mille regretz was one of the most famous compositions of the renaissance, and was called “Canción del Emperador”, the song of the emperor, by the Spanish composer Narváez as it was reputedly the favorite of Charles the V. Josquin’s composition is a perfect miniature of contrapuntal simplicity and elegance, ending with a brief litany in declamatory style on the text “brief mes jours definer”, “so soon my days will end.” In this performance, Bruce Dickey recreates the art of renaissance and early baroque ornamentation: first, the original chanson is performed, with the cornetto sounding the treble and the other parts played by the organ; next, two versions are performed using original techniques of ornamentation, with an interlude for solo organ. Pitch and temperament are a vital part of the sound of this music. This video was recorded at the pitch of 467 Hz in quarter comma meantone.

During the 1400’s trumpets in Europe were made of brass. They used either 70% copper and 30% zinc or 85% copper and 15% zinc, giving a more mellow sound.

During this time trumpet players were used in watch towers as lookouts. They watched for fire and advancing armies. These lookout players were called Thurmers. King Henry VIII had a corps of fifteen trumpets and ten sackbuts. In 1571 Queen Elizabeth used eighteen trumpets and six sackbuts. During the coronation of Christian IV of Denmark in 1588 there were sixty-four trumpeters used.

The E-flat soprano cornet has served an indispensable role in the British brass band; it is commonly considered to be “the hottest seat in the band.” 1 Compared to its popularity in Britain and Europe, the soprano cornet is not as familiar to players in North America or other parts of world. Chen, Yanbin. “Soprano Cornet: The Hidden Gem of the Trumpet Family.” PhD diss., University of Georgia, 2019.

The extra use of the trumpet brought about many changes. One of these changes was the slide trumpet. The mouthpiece was connected so that it could be pulled out up to twenty-two inches. This lowered the pitch by a third. The modern version of this would be the MF Firebird by Holton, which uses both valves and a slide.

The Baroque Trumpet

The Natural Trumpet or Baroque Trumpet was the most popular trumpet during the Baroque period. It was a long, cylindrical tube built in a loop which flared out into a bell that was four to four and one-half inches across.

The Natural Trumpet in “F” was six feet long and had slides and crooks, or extensions to change the key to E, Eb, D & C. The keys of B, Bb, A & Ab could be played by combining crooks. The D trumpet was the most popular. It was seven feet long. The range of the Natural Trumpet in “D” was from D to a3, which is its 24th partial. No one player could play the entire range of the trumpet. The range was divided into four parts; Clarino, Second Clarino, Tromba & Principal. Each range required a different mouthpiece, as well as a different trumpet.

Source: Lukasz Rafiński- trumpet

The Clarino player used a trumpet which had a very small bore, or inside diameter. He played a very, very shallow cup shaped mouthpiece with a wide rim. As the range lowered, the players used larger and deeper mouthpieces. The Principal Players used trumpets with a very large bore size and deep mouthpieces. The Natural Trumpet was not chromatic and could only play the notes in its own harmonic series. That is why the crooks were so important. They were twice as long as modern trumpets in the same key. That made it easier to play the same partial. It also made the horn mellower than our modern version.

The stopping-Trumpet was based on the hand stopping principle of the French Horn. By pushing your hand into the bell (stopping) the pitch could be lowered. In order to keep the instrument from being too long to use your hand in the bell, curved crooks called inventions were used.

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Trumpets During Middle Ages

From the middle ages until the 18th century every city had its own trumpeters who were responsible to the municipal officers. The status of the trumpet player was codified. The rivalry between court hired trumpet players and the tower watchmen was so extreme that it caused a guild, or union, to be formed. The Hoftrompeter, or court trumpeters belonged to a knightly class. They played ceremonial music, accompanied chapel choirs and led the army into battle.

In 1787 William Shaw invented the vented trumpet. It had four vents which allowed one key change without using crooks. Now only three crooks were necessary. In 1801, Anton Weidinger and Joseph Riedl invented the keyed trumpet. In 1810, Joseph Halliday made the first Kent Keyed Bugle.

Heinrich Stolzel and Friedrich Blubmel invented a two valve trumpet in 1818. The valves were square boxes made of copper. In 1824 John Shaw added springs to those valves and C. A. Miller added a third valve.

The 1820’s were very important. The Flugelhorn was invented in Vienna and the three valve cornet as well. Adolphe Sax invented ten different Sax horns in 1843. Each one had either three or four valves. Wagner invented the Bass Trumpet for the “Ring of the Nibelung”.

Late in the 1800’s the Echo Trumpet was invented. It had a non-detachable mute which was opened and closed with a valve.

The modern trumpet in Bb is pitched a sixth above the Natural Trumpet in D. It has three valves which, when depressed, changes the key of the horn by making air go through additional tubing. The modern cornet is mellower, warmer and more agile than the trumpet because of the use of more conical than cylindrical tubing.

Source: One of the world’s foremost jazz trumpeters, Arturo Sandoval, graced the KNKX studios for a mind-blowing​ set January 13, 2012. Awesome solos around the room in this tune, “There Will Never Be Another You.” Musicians Piano: Mahesh Balasooyria Sax: Zane Musa Bass: John Belzaguy Drums: Johnny Friday.
One more general aspect of trumpet playing in the early twentieth century was the influence of jazz styles which emerged from the United States of America. The trumpetist Elgar visited that country four times after he had achieved international recognition in the early twentieth century. His compositional style was well established by this time, and there is no evidence that he was influenced by the emerging musical style of jazz. The influence of jazz may have been an important factor in the history of the trumpet in the United Kingdom after World War 1. Nevins, Paul Leonard. “Trumpet in Transition: A History of the Trumpet and its Players in the United Kingdom through the Music and Relationships of Sir Edward Elgar.” PhD diss., Birmingham City University, 2018.


Nevins, Paul Leonard. “Trumpet in Transition: A History of the Trumpet and its Players in the United Kingdom through the Music and Relationships of Sir Edward Elgar.” PhD diss., Birmingham City University, 2018.

Chen, Yanbin. “Soprano Cornet: The Hidden Gem of the Trumpet Family.” PhD diss., University of Georgia, 2019.

Baines, Anthony. Brass instruments: their history and development. Courier Corporation, 1993.

McCann, J. L. (1989). A history of trumpet and cornet pedagogy in the United States, 1840-1942 (Doctoral dissertation, Northwestern University).

Eli Lira

pianist and professor