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I understand how trumpets work - valves open to force the air through crooks, which lengthens the pathway the air must travel, thus decreasing the resonant frequency.

The question is, why are trumpets designed like this? Couldn't they also be designed with all the crooks open by default, such that activating the valve decreases the length of the pathway? Is there a reason they aren't made like this, or is it just a matter of tradition?

  • Would be great if someone could tag this with "valves" and "instrument-construction" – naught101 Aug 26 '12 at 23:15
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    Actually, very little air flows through a trumpet. It's about making the resonant air-column longer or shorter. – Laurence Payne Mar 6 '15 at 19:03
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The simple answer from a historical perspective is that valves on brass instruments were an addition to simple coiled horns like the bugle and hunting horn. It's kind of counterintuitive to add something in order to take away something; why not add something that adds something? Add the valve, and add its pipe; with the valve not depressed, the instrument is the same as (or as close as possible to) the original instrument. It's when you depress the valve to open that pipe and extend the speaking length of the horn that there's any change.

In addition, from a practical and engineering standpoint, valves add back pressure. The more 90-degree turns a pipe has, the less laminar the flow of air through it becomes, and thus the more resistance the pipe presents to airflow. Modern valves are designed to minimize this by providing as straight a path as possible through the valve tree when all valves are open, only introducing the 90-degree turn into the valve pipe when necessary. This makes the instrument more free-blowing, which gives a more focused tone (though other design elements of the instrument can affect backpressure and tone as much or more, and the amount of backpressure inherent in a design is subject to personal preference).

Lastly, it's just common sense (among wind players at least). Virtually all woodwinds have a series of "main" pads or holes; as each one is pressed or covered in order, the instrument's pitch is lowered because its speaking length is increased. While most modern woodwinds also have keys that raise the pitch when pressed (because they raise a normally-closed pad), these keys were relatively late additions to the instrument, to increase and fill out its range. So, this "key down = lower" mentality was pervasive among wind players before the first valved brass instruments were developed (and in fact, older "keyed brass" such as the serpentine and keyed trumpet used similar mechanisms to adjust their own partial lengths, so even among brass players it was a common way of thinking).

  • Common sense? Well, amongst wind players, perhaps. In string instruments it's always the opposite – left-hand action raises the pitch – and I daresay it's generally more naturally to associate “more action” with higher pitch, also in wind instruments and in singing. It's really more the ancestry of woodwind instruments from keyless-hole instruments that has inverted this default orientation. – leftaroundabout Oct 12 '16 at 13:19
  • OK, I'll give you the "among wind musicians". I play guitar as well and probably should have remembered that. As far as "more action = higher pitch" in singing, patently false and a totally incorrect way to think about singing. – KeithS Oct 12 '16 at 14:28
  • Hm, I don't know much about singing (and what I do all wrong myself when singing), but surely higher tension on the vocal chords raises the pitch of the voice? – leftaroundabout Oct 12 '16 at 14:49
  • On the vocal chords, yes, but the muscles manipulating those vocal chords work in much more complex ways. The voicebox essentially suspends the vocal chords in cartilage at a natural tension, and then there are muscles to "warp" the cartilage frame to raise or lower the tension. Singing low, in fact, requires more muscle action than singing high. – KeithS Oct 13 '16 at 15:01
  • Agree on the answer. Only adding that I believe there are two possible exceptions. On double French Horns, F / Bb, you may select to get the higher horn when pressing the F/Bb key. Yamaha makes a trombone, YSL 350, where the trigger valve is "reversed" -- pressing it raises two half notes, as example from Bb to C. – ghellquist Feb 14 '18 at 20:20
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I suppose trumpets have the clarion as a base, and that it feels logical to have a clarion when not pressing any valve.

A reason I can see is that the higher notes of the trumpet do not need the third valve. Above middle Ab, you can play all tones with only two fingers (although the Ab above that is often fingered 23). If you had to press the valve to close to crook, you would have to press the third valve most of the time.

  • I don't understand what "clarion" means in this context. Yes, I guess you'd have to play with all three keys down to get a C1, if it were constructed to the same tuning, but you could equally just contruct it to be tuned up a semitone, so that C1 would be open, then you'd have all the same open notes. You'd have D1:1, E1:2-3, F1:1-3. Different, yes, but not impossible (and you could also re-arrange the valves, so that 3 was pressed less often). – naught101 Aug 27 '12 at 7:03
  • I mean the military horn with no valves at all. Since the notes get closer and closer to one another the higher you play, you would end up having to press at least one of the valves all the time anyway. You can play the highest notes with more tube (for example a high Bb fingered 123), but it is less stable (easier to trip to a neighbour tone). – Gauthier Aug 27 '12 at 9:18
  • @Gautier: Ah, I call that a bugle :). You wouldn't have to play with keys for the harmonics - you could just tune it appropriately during construction - if you have the same set of valves down on a trumpet, then you get the same pattern of ratios: eg F#0, C#1, F#1, A#2... is the same set of ratios as C1, G1, C2, E2..., just shifted down 3 tones. But good point about the stability - I'm not yet good enough at trumpet to get high enough to notice :) – naught101 Aug 27 '12 at 11:26
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There is a history of ascending valves, which indeed raise the pitch upon being depressed. R. Dale Olson

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    Would be great if you could add some extra information about this. Welcome to Music.SE, BTW! – Bob Broadley Jul 21 '14 at 15:27

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