What Key Is A Trombone In? (Explained For Beginners)

what key is a trombone in
Written by Corey Morgan

What key is a standard trombone?

The standard key on the trombone is C. Trombones are said to be non-transposing instruments. What this means is that the concert pitch on the piano is the same as that on the trombone.

Unlike trumpets and clarinets that are transposing instruments the actual C pitch they produce coincides with Bb (B-flat) on the piano. And they’re the most common variants to come by.

The pitch of most brass instruments is controlled by keys, buttons and valves. Trombones, on the other hand, are distinct members of the brass family because they use mechanical telescopic slides, which are long metal tubes that are used to change pitch. The slides are moved inwards to increase the pitch and extended outwards to decrease the pitch.

How do I know what key I’m playing on the trombone?

 The trombone is not a transposing instrument like the trumpets and clarinets so this should come relatively easy. The most effective way is by playing the same key on a piano and matching it with that on the trombone. Unlike trumpets (Bb), whose “C” is a Bb on the piano, a C major on the trombone is the same as that on the piano.

Do trombones have Keys?

None, in a nutshell. Trombones, in general, have moveable slides that allow them to play all the notes in the chromatic scale. By assuming their seven slide positions, trombonists are able to change the pitch of their sound.

The only few exceptions are the valve trombones which have three valves, or the superbones, which have a combination of the three normal valves and slides. However, they still do not have keys to regulate pitch.

Types of Trombones and their key specifications

  • The Alto Trombone

If you’ve probably gone to the orchestra and seen any trombonist, there’s no telling that that’s an alto trombone. It gained much popularity between the 1500’s and 1700’s as part of choirs and brass bands.

Alto trombones are widely used in classical performances because they’re high pitched. This is possible due to its relatively smaller bells and bores. It’s not like the regular trombones; so, they play the highest part in a music. It can be heard metres apart when played.

Given it’s use, they’re absolutely rare to come by. It comes in the key of Eb and F. However, rotary valves can be attached to them to achieve a key of Bb or D. Their sound is a fourth higher than tenor trombones.

  • Bass Trombone

Known for its larger bore and wide bell, the bass trombone prides itself in delivering powerful lower notes which is actually a great option for solo. It plays in the key of Bb but has one or two valves that are able to extend between the ranges of D and F. It sounds better when its lower notes are played. Hence makes a crucial part of any band.

  • Soprano Trombone

This is one of the rarest types of trombones to come by. They’re sometimes called slide trumpets. It originated from Germany and they’re most common in jazz music.

They’re made to play in the key of Bb that’s an octave higher compared to tenor trombones. You can barely see people who play it because it’s too difficult to play in tune. They have exactly the same mouthpiece as trumpets. Thus, they sound more like trumpets than trombones.

  • Straight Tenor Trombone

This is the simplest and the commonest of trombone out there. It’s recommended for beginners cause it’s not expensive and gives easy to learn. It has no tubing in the inside but has an extra tuning in the main loop. Its distinctive feature is that it has an F attachment which means that it can play extra notes that most other types of trombones cannot.

It plays in keys that ranges from Bb to F. It’s F attachment which can be called a trigger allows it to play lower notes which in any case, allows players to play lower notes without using the mechanical slides. This gives it an edge in terms of simplicity and wider range options.

  • Valve Trombone

Valve trombones are similar to the conventional trombones but, like trumpets and euphoniums, have three valves. In fact, while other types of trombones are popular in the United States, the valve trombone is more popular in countries like South America, India, and Europe than the slide trombone.

The valves allow the trombone to play faster music more easily, which is especially useful when performing complex or difficult pieces of music.

  • Tenor Bass Trombones

Tenor bass trombones were popular in the mid-nineteenth century, but they are now antiquated. The instrument was normally a tenor trombone with a F attachment. Only bass trombones had this attachment before they were made.

The F attachment is now attached to the tenor trombone. Tenor bass trombones are occasionally available for purchase in online stores that sell vintage items; they are usually made of brass and silver-plated.

  • Piccolo Trombone

A piccolo trombone is two octaves above the tenor trombone and one octave above the soprano trombone, while the soprano trombone is pitched at the same octave as the trumpet. The piccolo trombone and piccolo trumpet are in the same key, and they even have the same mouthpiece size. As a result, the piccolo trombone is essentially a slide-equipped piccolo trumpet.

  • Contrabass Trombone

 Contrabass trombones produce the lowest sounds of any trombone currently in use. They frequently use double slides rather than regular ones, which means the slide wraps twice instead of once, as on tenor trombones.

Contrabass trombones are commonly played in the key of C or Bb. They are an octave lower than the tenor trombone and can have valves or not. In addition, some have a double slide with the same positions as the tenor trombone’s slide.

The contrabass trombone part was frequently played by the bass trombone or even the tuba in professional settings such as orchestras and operas. Nowadays, the contrabass trombone is always used in place of the bass trombone, and the bass trombonist can usually play both parts.

  • Cimbasso Trombone

The cimbasso trombone, which has three to six piston or rotary valves and is usually pitched in Eb, F, or C, has a warm sound that can range from colourful to mellow. It has the same range as the tuba and contrabass trombone.

It is not always heard in regular bands or orchestras, but it has been featured in operas ranging from Aida to Oberto. It is also frequently heard in movie soundtracks.

The cimbasso trombone was originally upright, with a narrower bore than it is now. Except for a brass bell, it was typically made of wood. It is still a cone instrument that is used in reed bands and military brass bands. It also has a low range and a sound that is similar to that of the contrabass trombone.

Composers Verdi and Pelitti invented the cimbasso trombone in part because they could not find a trombone that sounded like the sound they wanted in their works.