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my real goal is to pick a brass instrument to pick up, but I don't know the right words to research what I want.

I have a strong ear, so certain instruments are easier than others for me.

So one example of an "easy" instrument is the bass guitar. Every string is a 4th apart, and every fret is a half step apart. So this means with a little knowledge of music theory, it is very easy to play a song in any key (especially if you play closed position fingerings)

An example of a harder instrument is the piano. The distance between the white keys and black keys is different, which makes playing in different keys feel very different. This would be "fixed" if you removed all the black keys, and tuned the white keys a half step apart.

Is there a brass instrument that has this sort of regularity or close to it? I imagine it is harder because when you blow harder you go up the harmonic series, so that goes up a 5th then a 4th then a 3rd...

Is there a resource for brass instruments that explains the function of the buttons in terms of intervals? When I try to Google this the beginner content just shows me the fingering for different notes and it's hard to find the pattern.

Is trombone the best?

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  • music.stackexchange.com/questions/84172/… this was helpful for me to understand how a trumpet works. Right now I am leaning towards trumpet Commented Jul 1, 2023 at 14:09
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    Aside from the trombone, all brass instruments have their notes laid out in essentially the same way. French horn introduces some complications, but the principles are the same. You won’t find any instrument as easy to transpose on as bass guitar. It’s the easiest. Commented Jul 1, 2023 at 15:06
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    What you've written has little to do with transposition. Your description of a halftone piano is absurd and unusable. And in any case, the difficulty of playing an instrument well depends on a dozen factors far more important than whether you can transpose. Commented Jul 1, 2023 at 18:30
  • One thing I don't see mentioned in the answers is the overtone series. A natural horn (imagine a straight medieval-y trumpet) can play only these notes. In some ways it's the least transposable instrument! All valves, buttons, and slides invented since then are about changing the length of the tube to let you play "the notes in between." I wonder whether the question you really want is a different one, like "which brass instruments are easier to learn." Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 18:33
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    @ToddWilcox a trombone is essentially the same as a valved brass instrument if you equate slide positions with valve combinations. I played trumpet and horn (rather poorly) in my 20s so I always approached valve combinations as sums of 2, 1, and 3. This translates very well to trombone (in my somewhat limited experience).
    – phoog
    Commented Feb 15 at 10:38

5 Answers 5

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I don't believe any brass instrument is suitable for easy transposing, like your bass (or even guitar). But it appears that a lot of trombonists can and do transpose with their instruments, mainly from the dots.

To transpose by ear, one would need a good grasp of theory, to guide them through - knowledge of keys and intervals would be a good start point. The actual layout of a trumpet makes playing the notes fairly easily understood, if not performed, for a beginner. A lot of players (myself included, a long time ago) will learn the one tone transpose trick, as trumpets in B♭ will have the music written in a key a tone higher than it sounds, so as to compensate for the fact that a B♭ trumpet will play 'a tone low', so learning to play a tone higher than the dots say allows one to play from the same music as others who play in concert pitch, if that makes sense.

But, as far as picking up any brass instrument and being capable of transposing a tune 'by ear', well, nothing will work like a bass guitar.

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  • except for open-string notes... Commented Jul 1, 2023 at 18:31
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    Even that works for bass. I'm surprised you haven't dv'd ... Do you save your quota?
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 1, 2023 at 18:47
  • Do please explain how you intend to (sans capo) pick a different fret for an open string to play a step lower. And, Mr. Sarcastic, I save DVs for answers that are wrong. Commented Jul 1, 2023 at 19:50
  • @CarlWitthoft - as a bass player, one would play the whole lot an octave higher - unless like me, one played a 5/6 string. 'Answers that are wrong '- in my opinion. Not sarcastic - realistic....
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 1, 2023 at 19:56
  • Playing in the wrong octave is strictly verboten. What next, a soprano singing the baritone's part? Commented Jul 1, 2023 at 23:35
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With a little tongue in cheek I would suggest the natural horn.

The natural horn has no valves, it can basically only play the natural tone series. (You can make some changes with your hand in the bell).

In order to transpose you change the lenght of the tubing by switching out parts, usually called crooks. To transpose from, say, F to G you select a differen length of tubing. The horn comes with a set of different lenght parts to facilitate this. One example of sets could be, not quite all tones but most: Supplied with 8 crooks in A, Eb, F, G, E, D, C, Bb

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If you’re looking for a logical layout my vote would be for the trombone. It has a slide with seven chromatic positions available similar to the fretboard on a bass guitar. It is not tempered so you do have to physically learn where the positions are, so think “fretless bass”.

You will have to deal with the overtone series when starting to expand your register upwards as each position offers multiple notes but that is the case on any brass instrument.

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  • slide positions map quite nicely to valve combinations on valved brass instruments. Commented Jul 1, 2023 at 18:32
  • @CarlWitthoft Let’s see, trombone partial chromatic scale: 7,6,5,4,3,2,1 trumpet partial chromatic scale: 0, 123, 13, 23, 12,1,2,0 Sorry, I don’t see it. Commented Jul 1, 2023 at 21:42
  • There is a mapping. That means 1:1 relationship, not "oh my god a trivially easy thing to learn." Commented Jul 1, 2023 at 23:34
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    The mapping of slide positions to valves makes a lot more sense if you think about the extra tubing that each valve adds. The first valve is 2 semitones worth of tubing, the second valve is 1 semitone and the third valve is 3 semitones. Therefore you can think of combinations of valves as equal to trombone slide positions that drop a note by the same number of semitones. For example, pressing valves 1 and 2 would drop a note by 2+1=3 semitones, which is the same as 4th position on the trombone. (This is complicated by the fact that 1st position is dropping a note by 0 semitones)
    – Andy
    Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 10:08
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At a very superficial level, the trombone fits your criteria best.

But playing a brass instrument isn't like that. You very quickly learn 'to get THIS note, put the slide HERE, do THIS with your lips'. Then the choice of which note to play becomes a purely mental procedure. I'm a trombonist. Trust me, when transposing, the mental process just ISN'T 'one position up/down from what it says'.

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  • OK, but you provide no reasoning to support your recommendation here Commented Jul 1, 2023 at 18:30
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Is there a resource for brass instruments that explains the function of the buttons in terms of intervals? When I try to Google this the beginner content just shows me the fingering for different notes and it's hard to find the pattern.

The pattern is quite standard. The first valve lowers the fundamental by a whole tone. The second, by a semitone. The third, by three semitones. Each valve does this by lengthening the vibrating column of air by adding a small length of tubing.

There are some tuning considerations arising from the logarithmic nature of these relationships, because in their simplest implementation, the valves are additive, but pitch is multiplicative, but a discussion of these finer points seems beyond the scope of your question.

So, for a major scale in the key of your valved instrument, the fingering is

  • C: 0
  • D: 1, 3
  • E: 1, 2
  • F: 1
  • G: 0
  • A: 1, 2
  • B: 2
  • C: 0

The first note is the fundamental of the "open" instrument with no valves. The next three notes are the fifth, lowered by the valves 5, 3, and 2 semitones respectively, then the fifth of the open instrument. The last three notes are the octave, lowered by 3, 1, and 0 semitones. Continuing upward, we have

  • D: 1 (the tenth, lowered two semitones)
  • E: 0 (the unaltered tenth)
  • F: 1 (the twelfth, lowered two semitones)
  • G: 0 (the twelfth, unaltered)

These fingerings work for any transposing three-valved brass instrument, e.g., trumpet and (single) horn. Trombones are not transposing instruments, but you can easily translate the above fingerings into slide positions for the major scale in the instrument's fundamental key, keeping in mind that the slide being all the way in is "first position":

Valves  Position
123     7
1_3     6
_23     5
12_     4
__3     4
1__     3
_2_     2
___     1

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