Blowstick Theory and a Brief History of the Trombone

By Tim Walker

An ancient impulse compelled us to pick up a hollow stick, buzz our lips into one end and listen to a transformed sonority emerging from the other.  From slapstick to sublime in a few short inches.  In Australia, this impulse resulted, over 1,000 years ago, in a continent-wide tradition of transforming termite-hollowed logs into musical instruments, with little modification beyond that accomplished by the termites.  Polynesians and others have been buzzing through conch shells for millennia.  King Tut was entombed with a trumpet 3,400 years ago (presumably because the trombone had yet to be invented).

The origins of European “stick blowing” 1 go back perhaps as far as modern humans have been there.  Certainly, bone flutes go back at least 30,000 years.  But what about the lip buzzing instruments?  People worldwide have buzzed through animal horns for thousands of years. Brass lurs, long natural (no valves or holes) horns with widened ends, were played in Denmark in the Bronze Age.

The trombone was invented in Europe sometime in the fifteenth century.  In an attempt to socialize the brutish natural trumpet, a valveless instrument of war 2 (calls to charge, retreat, etc.) capable of expressing only a single harmonic series, it was given a slide to alter the pitch.  That was a single sliding tube, though.  As soon as the slide evolved to a double tube, it became a sackbut, the smallish, conical-belled precursor to the trombone.  As the instrument evolved, including acquiring a flared bell which increased the depth and sonority of the tone, it became the trombone, Italian for “big trumpet.”

Why the slide? Why alter the length of the tube you are buzzing through? Little bit o’ music physics here: If you only have one length of tubing, you get one harmonic series. For example, if a trombone slide was stuck in the closed position (1st position), you could play these notes only:

You get from one note to the other by tightening up your lips as you buzz. There’s no “in-between,” you just jump between the notes in the harmonic series. A bugle, for example, has just one harmonic series because it has no valves or slide to alter the tube length. Consequently, all bugle calls (taps, reveille, etc.) use only one harmonic series. If you want the in-between notes, ya gotta change tube length. The slide, as you move it out and increase the tube length, lowers the notes and gives you access to seven different harmonic series, and thus access to all the notes you need for every tone used in western music within the range of the instrument. The math and physics behind the music theory of all this is beautiful, by the way: a subject for another day.

Appreciation for the utility and sonority of the fully realized slide trombone resulted in expanded use of the instrument by composers and performers of renaissance dance music, liturgical music, operas, and, eventually, symphonies. The first notable symphonic appearance of a trombone section was in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C-Minor in 1808. The great classical and romantic composers of the 19th century jumped on that train and brought the sound of a symphony trombone section to amazing heights. Listen to the trombone chorales of Schumann and Brahms or the thunderous walls of sound (thank you Phil Spector) from Mahler, Strauss, or Bruckner.

Although a latecomer to classical symphonies, the trombone was in on the ground floor for jazz. From Dixieland to Big Band to Bebop; from Jack Teagarden to the plunger mastery of Al Grey, the velvet tones of Tommy Dorsey to the ground-breaking bebop of J.J. Johnson, the trombone has benefitted from a parade of master musicians who chose it as their instrument.

Lest we forget, the trombone is central to the great European and American heritage of wind bands. One of the greatest trombone soloists ever, Arthur Pryor, was in John Phillip Sousa’s band. The Walnut Creek Concert Band continues the tradition of using a community-based wind band to celebrate and honor significant occasions we find meaningful enough to set to music. See you at the next concert for some lip buzzing and blowsticks!

  1. My son, as a toddler in his car seat, saw a truck driver smoking a cigar and said “Why does that man have a . . . blowstick?” The term stuck, so naturally I now think of all wind instruments as blowsticks.
  2. Before the catcalls begin, let me just say that some of my best friends are trumpet players.