The below two questions resulted in some debate, confusion, and consternation:

The core issues centered around the trumpet: whether or not "pedal tones" on the trumpet are its fundamental pitches, and whether or not the trumpet is capable of "false tones"

So, what are "pedal tones" and "false tones", and what's the difference?


TLDR: Scroll to the end of the post.

The source of the problem is that what trumpet players call "pedal tones" depend on how "pedal tones" are defined.

Pedal tones on most brass instruments are usually defined as the fundamental pitch....

Trumpets are a slightly different animal, though. First, the design of the trumpet has an acoustical impedance that makes their “pedal C” below the treble clef staff not quite function acoustically quite the same way it does on the other brass. Furthermore, trumpet players usually talk about the pitches between low F# and pedal C also as “pedal tones.” In contrast, other brass players tend to call those “fake tones.” (SOURCE)

Confusion arises from whether "pedal tone" is taken to be synonymous with "fundamental pitch" or whether it means "fundamental pitch, also natural to the instrument."

The pitches trumpet players call "pedal tones" -- the pitches from the F below the lowest F#, descending to the C below (written) middle C -- are the instrument's fundamental pitches, but they are not natural to the instrument. By contrast, on tuba and trombone, the pedal tones (fundamental pitches) are a naturally occurring sound.

Certain low brass instruments such as trombone, tuba, euphonium, and alto horn are whole-tube and can play the fundamental tone of each harmonic series with relative ease. (SOURCE)

The previous article continues:

the fundamental is chromatically discontinuous with the lowest 2nd harmonic reachable on a three-valve instrument or via the seven-position slide on a trombone. Trombone and tuba in particular are often called upon to play pedal tones and "false tones" or "privileged tones" which have a pitch between the normal range and the fundamental.

Where tubas and trombones differ from trumpets is that the trumpet's fundamental pitches are not discontinuous from the normal range of the instrument. One can play "trumpet pedal tones" from C to F and then continue into the instrument's normal range with F#. On the other hand, low brass pedal tones "sound good", whereas the trumpet's "pedal tones" are a clearly different timbre than the rest of its range.

The key to all of this lies in differences in the instruments' construction: specifically, the width and "conical-ness" of the bore. "Whole tube" instruments (see above) have a larger bore, which is what allows for the production of a "true" pedal tone. This is in contract to "half tube" instruments, which have a narrower bore.

Whole-Tube Instrument – a brass instrument capable of playing its fundamental pitch (the so-called pedal tone).

Half-Tube Instrument – a brass instrument that cannot play its fundamental pitch.

What makes an instrument whole- or half- tube? There are two factors. One is how wide the bore is.... The second factor is how conical the bore of the instrument is.(SOURCE)

(Note that the above article goes on to say that "whole-" and "half-tube" are messy concepts, and it's better to look at the actual capability of the instrument.)

Thus, low brass are capable of both "pedal tones" (fundamental) and "false tones" (between the fundamental and second harmonic); trumpets can play the fundamental, but those pitches more resemble what are called "false tones" on low brass.

  • 2
    Good writeup, but I have a couple issues as it is right now. "The pitches trumpet players call "pedal tones" -- the pitches from the F below the lowest F#, descending to the C below (written) middle C" - The pitches from F to C (fingered 123) are not the fundamental pitches. The fundamental pitches would be the "tuba terminology" pedal tones, i.e. Bb to F# an octave below the normal range. It seems that these "trumpet pedal tones" / false tones are played by fingering a fifth above the intended note, so the played note is not even in the harmonic series for the tube it's played on. – Edward Dec 28 '20 at 4:33
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    Secondly, this is little but I prefer the more conservative definition of a half tube instrument as an instrument that cannot easily play its fundamental pitch, or one whose fundamental pitch isn't of practical use. Because you can play a pedal Bb on a trumpet, but it's hard and it doesn't sound great. – Edward Dec 28 '20 at 4:36
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    Do you have a source for the statement "Where tubas and trombones differ from trumpets is that the trumpet's fundamental pitches are not discontinuous from the normal range of the instrument."? This follows from your statement that "The pitches trumpet players call "pedal tones" ... are the instrument's fundamental pitches" but I'm pretty certain both statements are false. – Edward Dec 28 '20 at 4:40
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    Below written middle C (C4), the first note that "slots" is C3, an octave down from C4. In order to play notes in the range between C#3 and F3 the instrument gives you no resonant support; it tries to drag you to the nearest slot. You can only play these notes by decoupling your lips from the resonance of the instrument, which is why these notes sound unstable. I'd suggest that proper pedal tones are supported by a slot, whilst false tones are in the range C#3 to F3 and are not supported by a slot. – Brian THOMAS Dec 28 '20 at 11:14
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    @BrianTHOMAS Based on the lengthy chat between Edward and I, I think we're both coming to the same conclusion. We left off in the midst of trying to resolve the physics of it all and trying to find a definitive explanation/source. – Aaron Dec 28 '20 at 13:41

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