When you begin practicing any brass instrument, you might not be able to make the sounds you want. And not everyone is going to be pleased to listen. If you're playing in a public space, it can be tricky to play to the room's feel, especially if there is a strong echo. Luckily, there is a handy little tool that can change the voice of your instrument.
A trumpet mute is a device that fits inside the opening of the trumpet's bell or is affixed to the outer rim of the bell covering the opening. Both rigid and soft materials like cardboard, rubber, foam, or cotton in the mute dampen the instrument's volume. It helps to change timbre and lower volume. You don't require a mute to play the trumpet.
It is merely a tool that enables you to play at lower volumes and with a more subdued tone. While it isn't required to play, it is an essential piece for any musician. To learn a bit more about mutes and their application, read on.
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Open wide and make an “ahhhh” sound just like you would at the doctor's office when they're looking in your throat. Now, make a fist with an open grip and put it to your lips. You can also change the angle of your hand or open or tighten your grip to further alter the sound.
This a simplistic explanation but, it gets the point across, though most mutes go inside the trumpet bell, held in place by cork.
You can still make plenty of noise, but it has changed significantly. With many different mutes available for the trumpet, there is a lot of room for experimentation with these exciting devices. Though there are different styles, they all work basically the same: by altering the output of air and sound from the trumpet with soft or hard materials at the bell end.
Most mutes aren't made with the sole purpose of making the instrument quieter. They are primarily used for changing the way an instrument sounds. They can either make the high end or the low end of an instrument's sound more pronounced.
This can allow musicians to change the mood and tone of their instruments for different compositions and styles. While a jazz musician might prefer a Harmon mute for a more subdued, warmer tone, a player in a classical symphony may opt for a straight style mute for a brighter, more shrill sound to cut through the other instruments.
For a quieter overall volume, practice or “whispa” mutes can lower the instrument's volume significantly. These mutes make it much more difficult to blow, especially in higher registers, but the reward is a quiet sound that is less likely to bother neighbors, parents, or roommates.
There are several mute styles to choose from, all of them changing a trumpet's sound in different ways. Let's start with the three most common types in use today:
- Straight Mute – Shaped like a truncated cone, the straight mute tends towards a piercing, sharper sound. It is usually made from aluminum, though some straight mutes are crafted from synthetics, producing a less harsh, darker sound.
- Cup Mute – This mute style has a similar construction to a straight, though with an added inverted cup that covers both the inner cone and the opening of the trumpet. Cup mutes are popular with jazz musicians and any players looking for richer, darker tones and subdued pitch.
- Harmon Mute – This famous trumpet mute is responsible for the wah-wah-wha trumpet sound effect that you've definitely heard in at least one cartoon. If you're not sure what we mean, check out the below video. Harmon mutes are often called wah-wah or wow mutes because of this. They have a removable stem that sits inside the bell-shaped mute that allows a lot of tone variation.
These aren't considered “the best” mutes available; they are just the most commonly used, and many compositions have these styles in mind. These are the styles you are likely to hear in a lot of recordings.
While the straight, cup, and harmon are all fairly common sights in a trumpet player's kit, some other styles lend even further spectrums of variation to tone, volume and texture to a trumpet's sound:
- Practice Mutes – Stealth, whisper, whispa, Ssshmutes…there are many brand names and nicknames to these handy mutes. These are must-haves for those who live in apartments, are on the road, or are just a bit tired of full force trumpeting. While they don't completely eliminate sound, they do quiet it significantly.
- Solotune – These mutes consist of two cones overlapping, often made from cardboard, but come in plastic and metal as well. They allow for loud, intense playing and a cutting tone that amplifies a trumpet's voice.
- Bucket – The bucket mute looks like, well, a bucket. A cylinder the diameter of a trumpet's bell is clipped onto the instrument's rim. The metal bucket is lined with a soft material like cotton or cork, giving the instrument a diminished, softer tone.
- Plunger – Popular with thrifty musicians, this mute is simply the rubber head of a toilet plunger. The perfect size for cupping the bell, it can be adjusted with the player's free hand to produce a wide range of shifting tones.
- Derby Hat – Likely too small to be worn on one's head, these mutes resemble derby hats. Go figure. Like the plunger, they allow variation mid-play via stopping. They also lend the tone a soft tone due to their felt lining.
There are further variations of these and more. So, if you are looking for a specific sound, you might need to play around for a bit to find it. Many musicians throughout history have had their favorite styles that contributed to their sound and helped define their place in their genres.
For instance, Miles Davis was a proponent of the Harmon mute sans stem, which became an integral flavor of his trademark sound. By playing around with different types of mutes, you'll likely stumble into something that ticks all the boxes, something that sounds like you.
If you're learning the ropes of the trumpet, you're likely to soon come upon music that requires the use of a mute. Certain pieces of music are written with a muted tone taken into account, and it can make or break a composition.
Modern pieces should note which style of mute they are referring to, though they might not always. This goes double for classical composition. When in doubt, many agree that the best course of action, if a specific mute is required, is to go with a straight mute.
A notation will also direct the player when to add and remove the mute and give direction for using the hand to mute the instrument.
Whether you are looking to add some spice to your sound by bringing out the highs or knocking down the lows, there is a mute out there for you. If you are simply looking to practice without bothering your loved ones or pets, the many forms of the practice mute await.
Remember, you don't need a mute to play. A trumpet works just fine without one. However, some pieces and styles do require these handy devices, so they are worth the investment when you get the chance. A straight mute is a good choice if you have to pick just one. And remember, a rubber plunger head can work wonders in a pinch.