When learning to play any instrument, it’s best that you get familiar with how it works and the parts that are involved in producing sound. Today we’re going to explain the valves of the trumpet – not just how many there are but how they work too.
The trumpet is usually considered the simplest instrument in the brass section and its accessibility means that everybody can learn it, no matter the size or age.
Learning the trumpet is also a handy way to develop techniques that can then be used with more advanced brass section instruments.
Since we’re focusing on the valves, we’ll get the other pieces out of the way here.
The trumpet consists of a mouthpiece and a bell adjoined by brass tubing that’s designed to filter and echo the sound that’s pushed through it, creating the instrument’s sound.
Between the mouthpiece and bell, however, we have the valves that dictate which notes are produced.
But how many of these valves are there? The simple answer is three. The overwhelming majority of trumpets are Bb trumpets.
These are the first trumpets a student will get their hands on and the same trumpets that you’ll see in the hands of professionals the world over, so learning the structure of the Bb trumpet will give you an intimate understanding of this brass instrument.
So, what does each of these three valves do? The purpose of piston valves is to increase or shorten the tubing length so that the pitch of the instrument’s sound is changed. Generally, the longer the tubing, the lower the note that the trumpet will produce.
In three-valved trumpets, the first one lowers the pitch by one step, the second one lowers the pitch by a half-step, and the third one lowers the pitch by one and a half steps. Half steps are otherwise referred to as semitones in the music industry.
In your standard Bb trumpet, pressing the first valve will extend the tubing to 160mm, the second will put it at 70mm, and the third extends the trumpet tubing the furthest by 270mm.
As for other types of trumpets, most of them will have three valves too. These include:
- The Bb Pocket Trumpet
- The C Trumpet
- The D Trumpet
- The Flugelhorn
- The pTrumpet (plastic trumpet)
All of the above will usually have three valves because this is the standard for most trumpet types. The triple-valve setup is so common because each valve conveniently matches your index, middle, and ring fingers so that you can manipulate the instrument’s sound much easier.
Notable exceptions to the three-valve rule include the bugle, though that’s usually separated from trumpets nowadays due to the absence of any valves, and the piccolo trumpet. The piccolo trumpet has four valves and was originally created to replicate the D trumpet.
The new valve lowers the trumpet pitch by two and a half tones. Despite having one extra valve when compared to every other trumpet, it’s actually the smaller of the trumpet family.
The fourth valve of the piccolo trumpet increases the range of the instrument further than the standard three-valved trumpets, all the way down to F#.
How Do They Work?
Now that we’ve covered how many valves a trumpet has, it’s worth going through how valves operate, along with how the trumpet structure as a whole works.
Before we say anything, it can’t be stressed enough that the quality of a trumpet’s structure will vary wildly depending on how much you paid for it.
You can get them cheap and you can get them expensive and, as you’d expect, the more expensive ones have been more rigorously constructed.
Fortunately, you don’t need to buy a trumpet that costs a thousand dollars if you want a suitable model. Student trumpets usually set you back a few hundred dollars at most.
We’d advise that you don’t go too cheap and buy a trumpet that won’t have longevity or needs constant repair, as this will be more expensive than just buying a quality instrument in the long run.
Also, we’ve already mentioned the existence of pTrumpets, these plastic trumpets are an increasingly popular tuition instrument that uses the same three-valve structure that we’ve described above.
These are a great budget-friendly option for learners but they’ll need to be replaced by a brass instrument at some point.
This is because a student’s ability is capped by the sophistication of the instrument they’re learning with. This means that a student should expect more and more high-end instruments as they become proficient in trumpet playing.
As we’ve said, the three valves on a trumpet are there to change the sounds your instrument will make. These three valves cover all of the available notes that a trumpeter can play.
The full range of a three-valved trumpet will be approximately thirty-nine notes or three octaves, and seven of those are available to you before you even press down any of the piston valves.
Most of the available notes are towards the lower end of the scale since only the pros can even hope to squeeze high notes out of their instruments and do it in a way that’s pleasing to the ear.
The piston valves only create an approximation of the note you’re aiming for, so you’ll need to use mouth adjustments or slide manipulation to reach a pitch-perfect note.
This is done via two slides, one by your left thumb and one by your left ring finger so that they’re situated at either end of the piston valve arrangement.
There’s more to a trumpet’s sound than just the trumpet structure, mainly the tonguing techniques that the player uses to blow air through the instrument.
The mouthpiece will then produce the original sound, and different mouthpieces can be used for making different sounds depending on how deep or shallow the mouthpiece cup is.
The sounds of a trumpet can also be quietened and changed through the use of a mute, which can be used to achieve a variety of sound effects that aren’t possible with an unmodified instrument.