Sheet Music for Trumpet/Trombone

OK, so when a trumpeter (or maybe it’s a trombonist) puts something on his instrument to modify the sound (like that gizmo that looks like the rubber part of a toilet plunger), what’s that called? You know what I mean- it gives the instrument a kind-of muffled, razzy, saucy sound (like near the middle of Benny Goodman’s Sing Sing Sing).

And, per the title, how is expressed in sheet music? Is the performer just supposed to know (from having rehearsed the part?), or are the notes expressed differently, or what?

The objects you’re referring to are called “mutes”. Both trumpets and trombones (as well as french horns and, rarely, tubas) can use them, and (as you’ve noticed) they change the timbre of the sound.

There are four types that I can think of offhand:[list=1]
[li]Straight mute. Among classical trumpet & trombone players, the most frequently used. Gives the horn a biting, metallic quality (especially when played loudly), but also reduces the volume.[/li][li]Cup mute. Fairly similar to a straight mute, but used less frequently. I think this generally gives a warmer sound than a straight mute, but I could be wrong.[/li][li]“Wah-wah” mute, or plunger. It looks like the rubber end of a toilet plunger because it almost always is the rubber end of a toilet plunger (at least, that’s where I got mine. I play trombone.) This mute has to be held against the bell of the horn by the player; by varying the amount that the mute blocks the bell, a “wah-wah” effect can be created (hence the name.)[/li][li]Harmon mute. Sound-wise, sort of a mix between a straight mute and a plunger. If simply inserted into the horn, it sounds a lot like a straight mute; however, there’s a hole in the centre that can be covered & uncovered by the player’s hand, creating much the same effect as the plunger.[/li][/list=1]

The first two mutes are the most common in the classical repertoire; the second two are the most common in jazz (although my jazz experience is limited; maybe someone can correct me here.)

As to the notation used: Usually, something is written above the staff to indicate where the player should insert & remove the mute (at least in classical pieces.) If you don’t mind sticking with English, just write “mute” (or “cup mute” or “plunger” or whatever) above the staff when you want it muted and “open” when you want the mutes removed. The plunger and the Harmon mutes can be a little more complicated, since the amount of stoppage can be varied (for the “wah” effect.) If it’s not indicated, the players will ad-lib it (and usually know what will sound best). I have, however, seen indications like

  • ------------- o

written over the music; this indicates that you’re supposed to be nearly closed at the note under the “+”, and fully open by the time you get to the “o”.

Actually, after looking at a few music supply websites, I realize that my terminology was off somewhat: What I called a “Harmon mute” (#4) above is really called a “wah-wah” or “wow-wow” mute (Harmon is a brand name), and a plunger (#3) is not the same thing as a “wah-wah”. Mea culpa.

To make sure that this post isn’t just a correction, I will also supply the following bit of relevant trivia: in the old “Peanuts”/“Charlie Brown” television specials, the voices of the parents were done by a trombone with a plunger mute.

In addition, (French) horn players will use their hands to change the sound. The horn is normally played with the right hand partially inserted to color the tone to begin with.

Playing ‘gestopft’ or ‘closed’, the hand is inserted fully into the bell to create a tight seal, and the resulting sound is distinctively brassy.

Playing ‘muted’ or ‘gedaempft’, the hand covers the opening of the bell but does not fully close it off. Although basically the same as the ‘straight mute’ MikeS described, it is usually used for playing softly and sounding far away, and is ocassionally called ‘echo’.

Stopped may be marked with ‘+’ over the notes, and ‘o’ as necessary to indicate an unstopped note. Muting is usually marked with the written indications over the passage.

Since closing the hand over the bell changes the pitch, too, partially closing the bell was a technique used to get some notes before horns had valves on them (‘natural horn’). Sometimes music meant for a natural horn will be marked with the ‘1/2’ or ‘3/4’ (to mark how much to close) above the note, but this is merely an aid to playing, like a fingering indication.

Here’s a picture of the ‘mechanical’ versions of the above types of mutes.

I play tuba, so I don’t deal with mutes all that often. Tuba straight mutes look like small cheerleader megaphones, and aren’t the sort of thing that players carry around all the time. Generally (if a player even owns one), he/she only brings it if it’s known to be needed.

I have seen pictures of, but never played with, tuba cup mutes. I have not a clue what it sounds like, either.

Mutes are called for in the part with text notation at the points of insertion and extraction. (Hopefully the composer/arranger realizes that several seconds are usually required to make the transition with a tuba - particularly if it’s to be done without lots of clanking and crashing. Not all seem to.)

Of course, several languages are in widespread use for text markings on printed music. You may see:[ul][]Italian: con/senza sordino or con/senza sord. (with/without mute)[]German: mit Dämpfer (I can’t recall how removal is called for)English: with mute, muted; “open” is often used to call for mute removal[/ul]