How does a trumpet produce sound?

Updated March 23, 2017

Trumpets are one of the oldest musical instruments, first appearing in China roughly 4000 years ago. Like all members of the brass family, they consist of a metal tube that is held to the lips and through which air is blown. The first trumpets were straight and mainly used to produce single-note blasts or simple sequences. In the 14th century, the trumpet took on its modern shape, twice coiled and with valves and additional tubing, making it much more versatile and useful in musical applications.

How a Trumpet Works

The pitch of sound emerging from a musical instrument depends on the speed of the air passing through the instrument and the distance it travels. Thus trumpet players can modulate pitch by the changing the pressure on their lips and the force of air blown into the mouthpiece or by changing the length of the tubing through which air flows.

The position of the lips in the mouthpiece is called embouchure and is crucial to producing musical sounds from the trumpet. All sound is produced by vibration and, whereas woodwind instruments use a thin wooden reed to produced sound, in brass instruments like the trumpet, the vibrating object is the player's lips. Thus, musical sounds from the trumpet begin as the buzzing produced when air is blown into the mouthpiece through lips pressed tightly together.

Modern trumpets have three valves, which allow the production of many more musical notes than their ancient ancestors. The valves are balanced on small springs that allow them to be depressed and to return to their original "open" position when released. The holes bored into the valves direct the flow of air through the trumpet into tube additional lengths of tube, altering the pitch. Each valve has a corresponding tube shaped exactly to produce certain notes. Notes can be produced by any combination of "fingerings," with the valves depressed individually or in combination, or not at all. Because of the limited number of keys, the trumpet player must use lips and airflow to distinguish between notes produced by the same fingerings. The full range of the standard trumpet extends from the F-sharp below middle C up to about three octaves higher, though a player's ability often limits the range, and other sized trumpets are designed for higher or lower registers.

Common trumpet technique involves "slurring" notes together by changing the fingering without altering airflow. A staccato effect can be produced by "tonguing" the mouthpiece, stopping the airflow suddenly between each note. During the jazz era, novel uses of the trumpet became popular, such as using a plunger or mute to produced a softer, rubbery tone, and the use of very fast airflow to produce shrill, scream-like sounds.

Cite this Article A tool to create a citation to reference this article Cite this Article

About the Author

Joseph Nicholson is an independent analyst whose publishing achievements include a cover feature for "Futures Magazine" and a recurring column in the monthly newsletter of a private mint. He received a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Florida and is currently attending law school in San Francisco.