What is a Trombone?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

The trombones—along with trumpets, horns, and tubas—make up the main groups of the brass instrument family. The name "trombone" means large trumpet, and that is how they were conceived.

Man playing a guitar
Man playing a guitar

The individual trombones that make up the group include the slide trombones — soprano trombone, the alto, tenor, bass, and contrabass trombones — and the valve trombone, which features valves in place of a slide. Of these, the alto, tenor, and bass trombone are used in the contemporary orchestra, with the tenor being the most often used in jazz.

Some slide trombones feature a valves or trigger that lowers the pitch and add to the range. This is a different situation than the valve trombone, which has no slide. The tenor trombone may have an F attachment, in which case, it may be referred to as a tenor-bass trombone, while the bass may have both an F and an E or D valve.

Trombones have either six or seven playing positions, specific placements of the slide, at each of which several pitches are available. In sixth or seventh position, depending on the instrument, the slide is completely out. In addition, a number of pitches can be created at multiple positions, while some can be played only at one position. A passage in which a player moves mainly between adjacent positions will be easier to play than one in which the player has to move between extreme positions.

The trombone may be used as a solo instrument or provide harmony. Famous trombone solos are included in:

  • John Cage’s Solo for Sliding Trombone
  • Leonard Bernstein’s Elegy for Mippy II
  • Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem
  • Christopher Rouse’s Trombone Concerto
  • Paul Creston’s Fantasy for Trombone
  • Tommy Dorsey’s “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You”
  • Alexandre Guilmant’s Morceau Symphonique
  • Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird

Famous players include Christian Lindbergh, Alan Ralph, Bill Watrous, Joseph Alessi, Tito Puente, Tommy Dorsey, Frank Rosolino, Arthur Pryor, Don Lusher, Nick Hudson, Denis Wick, J.J. Johnson, Ian Bousfield, and Glenn Miller. Other well-known players include Leroy Kenfield, August Mausebach, and Carl Hampe, Urbie Green, Kai Winding, Ronald Borror, Ralph Sauer, and Henry Charles Smith. The most famous reference to trombones may be the song “Seventy-Six Trombones” from the musical The Music Man by Meredith Wilson.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


@heavanet- I agree with you. It also helps people who are learning to play the trombone or any musical instrument to practice in front of friends and family. This helps develop control and ease nerves when it comes time to play for a larger audience.


My niece began playing the tenor trombone in band last year. It really is a beautiful sounding instrument, but anyone who wants to learn to play well must commit to frequent practicing. Spending at least 30 minutes playing her instrument each day has really helped my niece become a good trombone player.

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