What Key Is A Trombone In?

What Key Is A Trombone In

Along with the trumpet and the tuba, the trombone is probably one of the most instantly recognizable of the brass instruments, especially for its long slide whose position changes which sounds are produced.

Due to practical differences between brass instruments, it can be challenging to pin down by ear which key signatures each instrument plays in, so today we’re answering what key the trombone usually plays.

To properly explain at key a trombone plays in, we need to talk about concert pitch and any other deviations to the standard trombone key that players must face when learning this instrument.

The Concert Pitch

The concert pitch was designed as a reference for music bands and ensembles. Where multiple musicians are playing instruments from different families, the concert pitch exists to establish a standard pitch that all pieces of the arrangement can be tuned to, guaranteeing that their sound harmonizes.

Concert pitch is usually used to differentiate the sounds of certain instruments from transposing instruments.

Modern concert pitch tuning is set at 440 Hz for the A above middle C, using this reference to set all the other notes in accordance. This is where our answer comes in, the traditional trombone is written in the C key to keep in line with the concert pitch.

This is uncommon for brass instruments, which are usually transposing instruments written at Bb, and makes the trombone’s notation identical to that of other arrangement instruments like the piano.

It's also worth adding that historically the trombone was keyed to A, but in the modern-day tenor trombones play in C/Bb.

Key Altering Attachments

Just like the trumpet, the trombone is capable of playing a variety of notes depending on the slide’s position. That said, there are attachments available to tenor trombones that change their key. 

The most popular of these is the F attachment which, as you can guess, changes the trombone to play in the F key. It does this through the same principle that changes the sound profile of every brass instrument, by adding to the overall pipe length of the trombone.

The F attachment is popular because many are dissatisfied with the sounds produced by a standard trombone further down the scale. Being able to play in the F key takes this difficulty away, so many people grab an F attachment when they need to play deeper notes.

These attachments aren’t unique to standard tenor trombones either, with bass trombones having the ability to host an F attachment and a Db attachment so that even lower notes are playable.

Trombone Types

Just like with most instruments, there isn’t one type of trombone. The formation of popular instruments involves a lot of experimentation, so there are a few other non-standard trombone types that you can find out there.

Not only that but with brass instruments, you get different types whose primary difference is the key at which they’re designed to play at, so let’s go through the most notable ones here.

The types of trombone are as following:

  • Cimbasso
  • Contrabass Trombone
  • Bass Trombone
  • Tenor Trombone
  • Alto Trombone
  • Soprano Trombone

Let’s talk through these trombone types and which keys you can expect to find with each.

Firstly, the cimbasso is mostly available in the F key nowadays, though it has had Bb, C, and Eb key signatures in the past.

Now, the cimbasso is generally held as a historical example of the trombone, so you won’t likely play one nowadays and if you do, it’ll have more in common with the contrabass trombone than the original cimbasso.

With that said, it’s worth knowing what key this instrument played at to have all of our bases covered.

The contrabass trombone plays in the F key too. As we said, modern cimbasso constructions heavily mirror the contrabass in terms of sound, adopting the F key in which the contrabass trombone has been traditionally played.

The bass trombone is pitched at Bb and is structurally similar to the tenor trombone, the main difference being that the bass’s bell and mouthpiece are larger to fit its lower register.

A bass trombone will either have one or two valves to change the pitch of the sound that’s created, either to the F key or even the Gb key. If both valves can be engaged at once, the sound will lower to Eb or D.

The tenor trombone is the most common trombone type, so we’ve talked about it above. Also called the straight trombone, they often have a fundamental note of Bb but, being a non-transposing instrument, have traditionally played at C to integrate with concert pitch notation.

Depending on the particular instrument and the player’s ability, you can expect a tenor trombone’s range to reach as high as F-sharp to as low as G.

You can probably tell by now that we’ve started with the lowest pitched trombones and are steadily making our way up, so next we have the alto trombone that plays at Eb, though attachments can change this to D or Bb, or even F.

With the standard Eb trombone, you can expect a range of A to Bb.

The Soprano trombone is typically pitched at Bb, though at a full octave over the tenor trombone. It’s not that popular nowadays and there’s even a historical debate as to whether it was practically used at all, but that’s not what we’re here for.

If you do pick up the soprano trombone, you can expect an E to be the lowest note you can play.

Though not on our initial list of alternate trombones, we should also add that there are trombone variants that play even higher than all of the above.

Often mentioned together, the sopranino and the piccolo trombone actually tend to be favored by trumpeters who are more trained in handling these brass styles. 

At any rate, should you encounter these in the wild, it’s worth noting that the sopranino trombone plays at Eb while the piccolo trombone plays at Bb.