Instruments, especially those of the brass section, are often differentiated from one another by which key they play in.
As far as instruments go, the trumpet is considered one of the simplest and most fundamental of the brass section, a must-learn for those who might even want to specialize in other brass instruments.
This is because, by learning the trumpet, you learn a lot of transferable skills that help with playing the trombone, tuba, and other larger brass instruments.
Along with practical learning, you’ll need to learn the theory behind the sound of trumpets, and part of this is which key the trumpet plays.
As you might expect, trumpets can play in more than one key so instead we’ll go over the most common, why it’s the most common key, and then describe some of the other keys that trumpets can play in.
The Bb Trumpet
Many trumpet players’ first instrument is a Bb trumpet. That isn’t to say it’s the low-standard trumpet key, however, as many professional trumpeters still use Bb trumpets at the height of their careers.
Even trumpeters who specialize in other trumpet types will own and have trained on a Bb trumpet, that’s how ubiquitous this trumpet model is.
So why is it called the Bb trumpet? In simple and practical terms, the Bb trumpet just means that its C note sounds like a Bb.
This is a feature shared by many other brass instruments while you’ll get a standard C out of most string and woodwind instruments. If an instrument has this feature, it’s called a transposing instrument.
The reason for this Bb standardization is simply because different brass instruments are made from tubing of different lengths, which makes playing a C on all these instruments much more difficult.
Rather than teaching musicians each and every way you play C on a selection of instruments, it’s much easier to simply change the notations attached to those instruments.
If you’ve ever wondered why different musicians in an arrangement need to have their own notes to play with, this is why. Each musician will have their own notations in front of them that ensures they play at the concert Bb pitch.
It is possible to play a C on certain trumpets and other brass instruments, but this is more difficult and not worth the effort if you can get a more pleasing sound out of the Bb standards.
Now that we’ve established that “a trumpet” is probably going to be a Bb trumpet, let’s go into the keys a trumpet can tackle.
That right, keys plural because any trumpet with valves can play any key. Trumpets without valves exist but they’re not most trumpets, so don’t worry about those unless you’re going to play one.
For the Bb trumpet, however, we’ve already talked about its home key signature. It’s Bb! Or B-flat major, to be more specific. This can be said for the majority of transposing instruments of the brass and woodwind variety.
The nomenclature of trumpet types corresponds with the home key, as you’ll see when we go through some alternatives below, but here’s a simpler way to think about this. If you don’t press down any valves and blow through your trumpet, you get the Bb note.
If you do the same with a C trumpet, you get the C note. However, both of these trumpets can play the same notes when their valves are manipulated, albeit with differences in pitch and timbre that are inherent to the different construction of these brass instruments.
That’s why transposition is so important, it allows one to use the same fingerings for multiple transposing instruments.
You shouldn’t worry about potential differences in sounds between trumpets since there are so many other factors that can change the sound of Bb trumpets, from the type of brass alloy used to the material used in the valve and slides.
Other Trumpet Keys
Now that we’ve covered what you can expect from the most common trumpet type, what keys should you expect from other trumpets?
We’ve got some of them right here for you.
We’ve already mentioned the C trumpet above, it’s the second most common trumpet variant and it’s slightly shorter and smaller than the standard Bb trumpet. The C trumpet has been around for just as long as the Bb trumpet, where it found success in opera circles.
C trumpets have a home key of concert C major, which is one of the most common key signatures in Western music, so many trumpeters will have had experience with the C trumpet at some point in their careers.
Its shorter tubing means it plays a pitch higher than the Bb instruments, which also means the sound travels further. This advantage saw it became the favorite of orchestral players in large venues.
Another reason why C trumpets are common is that they’re much easier to transpose. Bb is much closer to C, so they’re the perfect example by which instructors demonstrate how transposition works between different types of instruments.
D trumpets came onto the scene after the Bb and C trumpets and found popularity with Baroque music.
You may have heard that D major, the home key signature of the D trumpet, was referred to as the “key of glory” during the Baroque period, hence why these trumpet types found great success back then.
The name also brings to mind the very bright sound of the D trumpet. If C trumpets have brighter sounds than the Bb trumpet, D trumpets are brighter again and saw much use in religious hymn music.
If the Bb trumpet has a B-flat major key signature, you can probably guess the Eb trumpet’s key signature by now. That’s right, it’s E-flat major and, over the years, has been popularized by Beethoven’s symphonies written in this key signature.
If the D major is the key of glory, Eb major often gets called the heroic key for its bold sounds. The sound at this key signature is very crisp but it’s one of the harder instruments to adjust to in terms of intonation.
Lastly, we have the Piccolo trumpet, which for once doesn’t advertise its key signature in its name. So, what key signature does the Piccolo trumpet usually play at? It depends, really.
What sets the Piccolo trumpet apart most is the fact it has an extra valve that gives it much more of a downward range, essentially phasing out D trumpets in the modern-day.
That said, Piccolo trumpets will play in either A or Bb. This is because they use a leadpipe extension that changes the trumpet from its standard Bb to A. We’ve talked enough about Bb and transposing instruments already, so let’s talk about the A major scale.
Its similarities to D in sound have seen Piccolo trumpets playing in A replacing D trumpets in modern performances of old Baroque pieces.