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I am not sure if my observation is correct, but more often than not, I have seen in various videos that trombones are playing different parts when they presumably are supposed to play the same thing. Perhaps the following video is the best example:

It is just hard for me to imagine that in that part, the trombones are supposed to play different lines. I have two reasons for assuming that:

  1. firstly, we simply don't hear two lines of trombones here;

  2. secondly, it looks like the discrepancy between the trombones falls only on some notes—if it were two different lines, then the discrepancy would have gone through the whole part. It is very unlikely that the arrangement was done to have two voices appearing only on some notes—even if that were the idea, it didn't bring any effect then here at all.

Yet, if we look at the movements of the trombonists, we can clearly see that they are playing differently. Why is it so?

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Trombones are able to play many notes in more than one slide position. Some trombones also have an "F-trigger" which may allow them to play a note in a slide position where a normal trombone would not be able to. So, two trombones playing the same part may not visually look the same.

Conversely, each slide position gives access to many notes. So, two trombones playing totally different parts may visually appear the same in some moments.

This particular example is a dense enough arrangement that it's difficult to hear what the trombones are actually playing. Wherever you see different movement, they might be playing different parts, or they could just be shifting their slides differently during a rest.

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    @brilliant Yes, strings sections coordinate bow directions (and have done so for a long time; Lully was a stickler for uniformity). However, like trombones, they can play certain notes in different positions on different strings, and some personal variation in these choices is expected. So if you could look very closely at their left hands you might find them in varying places along the fingerboard at times. Commented Jun 21 at 16:43
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    @brilliant Just as fingering marks are rarely in the urtext piano scores, so are bowing & fingering marks in violin scores. Only the notes are critical, plus whatever the composer deems important. Commented Jun 21 at 22:53
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    @brilliant This copying of the bowing marks (not needed for every note, only in the ambiguous situation) happen during rehearsal, plus sometimes a violinist has a "stand partner" who share the same score. But AndyBonner know a lot more of the practices. Commented Jun 21 at 23:26
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    @brilliant Stand partners are musicians who share a music stand in orchestra, so they share the same score + all markings they would need per decision from their section leader. Commented Jun 22 at 0:09
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    @Edward everything you say is true. But in this case I see Trombones 1 & 2 playing largely in unison, with the same slide movements, and the Bass Trombone playing a different line, supported by the Tuba.
    – Laurence
    Commented Jun 22 at 14:03
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It´s very unlikely that the trombones play the same notes.

Actually, you are approaching from the wrong direction. This looks like a symphony orchestra backing up a pop/rock group. A composer or arranger has written the score and the separate parts for orchestar. Most probably this person follows the conventions of the symphony orchestra. And a symphony orchestra follows a centuries old recipe.

In the symphony orchestra we have strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion. The strings are first and second violins, violas, cellos and basses. The strings generally have several players playing the same notes (divisi or solo are exceptions). The recipe calls for at least four of each with possible exception for a lesser number of basses. This is because strings need the sound volume as well the timbre of several instruments playing at the same time.

In contrast, the woodwinds and the brass instruments basically never plays in unison in any one instrument. Each player has his own part, different from his partner on the same instrument. The trombones often comes in three, sometimes they are called after the parts they play: alto, tenor, bass as in a choir. The pure sound volume of a trombone is strong enough for it not needind to be doubled with instruments playing in unison. So in all likelyhood, the trombones plays different notes most of the time.

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  • Interesting. Thank you!
    – brilliant
    Commented Jun 22 at 13:25
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In your video, Trombones 1 and 2 often DO match their slide positions and seem to be playing in unison. Bass trombone is playing something else, probably in unison (or octaves) with the tuba. Yes, trombones do have the choice of alternate positions for many notes, and there's the F-trigger. But I don't think that's really the issue here.

In a military band the trombones often march in the front row, for obvious reasons. There's an apocryphal story of a senior officer demanding that they all moved their slides in the same way because it looked untidy. Even though they WEREN'T all playing the same part.

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  • Interesting and funny story! Is that trombone a special bass trombone or it's just the same type of trombone except playng the bass line? Is trombone playing in octaves with the tuba a common practice?
    – brilliant
    Commented Jun 22 at 14:53
  • Today's bass trombones are very similar to the tenor variety. Still basically 'in Bb', but with larger bore tubing. As well as the F extension they may well have additional 'triggers' giving a variety of options - look at a modern manufacturer's catalogue if you're interested. Yes, Bass Trombone/Tuba pairing has been common (but not inevitable) ever since the tuba joined a standard symphony orchestra.
    – Laurence
    Commented Jun 22 at 15:54
  • I see. Thank you!
    – brilliant
    Commented Jun 22 at 15:56
  • It is a (somewhat) common joke amongst trombone players to play Jobim's One Note Samba in a way where the "One Note" part is played in different slide positions whereas the fast melody is played with a static slide position: youtu.be/Dzl8BrUbQ_k Commented Jun 23 at 18:21
  • @JörgWMittag I'd be more impressed if he'd played the 'one note' more accurately!
    – Laurence
    Commented Jun 24 at 23:49
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My wife, an oboist, runs into "string bias" often. She points out that every wind player is essentially a soloist, in that their part is almost always unique. Unison playing, in orchestral winds, is rare. (In strings, it's normal. They're never alone, unless soloing.)

Trombones, alone among the brass, don't have fixed 'fingerings'. (If you like, they're 'fretless'.) So, even if you have multiple trombones playing in unison they don't have to be using the same slide positions, given that any given position can play one of several notes. (All brass instruments have at least some 'alternate fingerings', but trombones have the most. By far.) But there are conventions, so if playing in unison it is likely they'd use the same slide positions. It's just that they rarely do play in unison. In pop music like the example, though, I'd not be surprised if the full expressive potential of an orchestra goes unexploited, with a lot more unison playing than the norm.

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When there are three or four of any sort of instrument playing, why should they all be playing in unison? Violins, maybe, but even then, there are often at least two different violin parts.

They play different notes because they can, and there's nothing wrong with that. Those notes will generally be part or all of a harmony, so having several players all playing the same note is wasteful. Sometimes, the same notes are found in different slide positions, but generally, they look like they're playing different notes - because they are!

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    Are you sure they are playing different notes? I can't hear that.
    – brilliant
    Commented Jun 21 at 15:52
  • From experience in many bands, many trombones will not all be playing the same notes. True, can't hear much from this clip, either way.
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 21 at 16:13
  • Any section in a band or orchestra will sometimes play unison passages depending on what the arranger/orchestrator is going for. Commented Jun 21 at 16:32
  • @JohnBelzaguy - of course they will, but it's probably more often that they won't - why waste the opportunity..?
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 21 at 16:50
  • Because not everything needs to be harmonized. There is a certain sound and feeling that comes from a section playing in unison and it can be very effective musically in contrast to playing in harmony. Commented Jun 21 at 17:15

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