Trombone Wars – The Tenor Clef (I – VI – VII)

Few topics on the Orchestration Online Facebook page have incited more controversy and strong feelings than the use of the tenor clef for trombones. Many professional-level composers with band or semipro orchestra experience will dismiss it peremptorily, even suggest its use be abolished. The reasons cited for this point of view are usually a.) that the bass clef is good enough, and b.) the player isn’t bothered by a few high ledger lines. This viewpoint is sometimes backed up by personal experience as a trombonist – in their view, they didn’t need to use it; and when they did, it was a bother.

Though I greatly empathise with these perspectives, I find them more revealing of the trombone’s recent evolution than necessarily useful advice. There’s a spectrum of history and craft that must be absorbed before one can honestly decide whether the tenor clef should be utilised or annihilated. But before I get into it, let me give you the tl:dr version:

  • The trombone is basically a tenor-range instrument, which only recently has been trending toward a lower spectrum of tones
  • Any trombonist at the full-time professional level had better be able to read and play tenor clef instinctively and without complaining
  • The tenor clef remains a useful resource for trombone, but it must be applied as an indication of register, rather than just to save ledger lines.

The average orchestrator may just stop right here and move on – but that won’t really give them any justifications for accepting the above advice in an argument, nor the tools for using it in a knowledgeable way. For that, read on!

First, let’s go back to the modern orchestral trombone’s beginnings. After some early introductions of the instrument into the orchestra by Baroque and Classical composers, the Romantics settled on a group of three trombones, the alto, tenor, and bass trombones. The construction of each of these bones was a perfect fourth apart (though the reading has always been in C, rather than transposed). The simple way to think of it is: what note is sounded by the first, second, and fourth partials when the trombone slide is in Position I? The answer is E-flat for alto, B-flat for tenor, and F for bass. This system put the sweet part of each range into a different clef, and they were notated accordingly thus:

Cart showing the fourth to eighth partials of the trombone family

Orchestral scores from this era usually show the alto and tenor trombones sharing the alto clef, with the bass trombone sharing a staff with tuba. Of course, when extracted, all these instruments would receive a part with the appropriate clef for their range, with the tenor trombone usually scored in tenor and sometimes bass clef.

3 Trombone e Tuba

So what happened to this perfectly logical little system? The evolution of musical taste, instrument design, and composer’s demands. The old F trumpets were thrown out in favour of today’s B-flat and C trumpets, allowing for a dedicated second and sometimes third trumpet player with a more secure lower register. This obviated the need for the first trombonist to play such a high instrument. On top of this, it was becoming ever harder and harder for the first player to fulfill a leadership role on such a high instrument as the alto, right at the same time that composers were scoring more and more parts for two tenors. By the end of the Romantic Era, two tenors had become the norm.

Let’s examine the exact range and technique of the trombone now. With the slide closed, the fundamental (aka pedal tone or first partial) of the player’s harmonic spectrum is a B-flat. This is Position I. The trombonist progresses downward in pitch by extending the slide, covering 6 more positions. This gives the player a full chromatic span from E2 upwards, plus a few pedal tones (below Position III, the pedal tones become rather poor in quality).

Chart showing all possible Tenor Trombone pitches without F Trigger

The standard chart above, used by trombonists and orchestrators alike, is very revealing. Notice that the bass clef register is completely covered second, third, and fourth partials. This means that with a basic tenor trombone with no extra attachments, notes in this region that are next to each other on the staff might be quite far apart in terms of positions. This is the reason why the trombones section starts to really move their slides energetically as the music gets lower and lower. To go from F3 to G3 means sliding from Position I to Position IV; from A2 to C3, a simple skip upward of a minor 3rd, requires that the slide move from Position II to Position VI, sliding down a ways in order to go up a short distance in pitch. The crowning inconvenience is to go from B-flat2 to B2. These two pitches may be a semitone apart, but they’re a full seven positions away from one another! Scoring slurs between these two pitches in rapid succession might be seen as orchestrational incompetence if done unwittingly, or as a bit of leg-pulling (or slide-pulling) if done on purpose. To really perform the following passage by Bartók on an old-style tenor trombone would be to look rather silly, with one’s slide pumping furiously forward and back. And it would be terrifically tricky to play.

Excerpt from Bartok Dance Suite

Before we examine how instrument builders have helped players to out-fox kidders like Bartók, let’s take another revealing look at the chart. Notice how the tenor clef has been used for pitches from the fifth partial upwards. In old-school scoring, this was the sweet spot for the tenor trombone, and it still is a great register. I have to use tenor clef here just to make it readable, as the lowest note in Position I is F4 (the treble clef ossia has been provided for score-readers unaccustomed to tenor clef). But look at it another way. This region is quintessentially built for the tenor register. All the pitches are fairly closely spaced, with a variety of positions from which to choose for many notes. The pitch of G#4, for instance, is available in Positions I, III, V, and VII.

But the tenor register goes beyond mere convenience. The positioning of the fifth to tenth partials covers an ideal range for the tenor voice: G#3 up to D5. There are many superb trombone solos written for this tessitura, which ring heroically or make eloquent statements. They fit into the range of the tenor clef with perfect logic, and are not only readable for the player but also help the conductor to put the register into context with the rest of the orchestra in a full score. When you read a tenor clef amongst all the other staves in the brass section, it infers that a certain register is going to be well-supported. An experience score-reader will get that immediately.

Love Potion No. 9

So why should there be any controversy? Why should professionals disagree vehemently about the need for tenor clef in today’s scoring? Well, with the liberation of the first trombone from the role of alto player, composers started scoring the trombones ever lower, pushing for big, crashing unisons and fat bottom ends. This naturally brought players up against the rather flabby notes of their bottom end. In the chart above, E2 is shown as the lowest second partial pitch possible, available in Position VII. The truth is that this note just sounds weak and gasping, a real surprise for composers expecting a Hollywood sound down there.

This is why nearly all professional trombonists now use a trombone with an F trigger. This device essentially turns the tenor into a bass trombone, by opening an additional three feet of tubing. (Indeed, the bass trombone is the same instrument, except with a larger bore and bell size.) This trigger makes lower notes much more secure, fills in the gap between B-flat1 and E2, and helps the players work around passages like the Bartók above.

But this step forward has come a price, and that is the common understanding of what a trombone is good for. The notion that the tenor clef is simply a device for saving ledger lines is so pervasive that even orchestration manuals such as those by Adler and Piston mention this, stripping away a huge layer of historical context, not to mention setting the perception of the trombone as a bass instrument on an ever firmer path. The result is a preponderance of scoring so dedicated to the lower register of the trombone as to arouse anger towards the suggestion that the standard trombone is a tenor instrument in need of a tenor clef.

And yet the fact remains that a vast quantity of orchestral trombone parts are scored in a variety of clefs: tenor, bass, and even alto. As many alto trombone parts seldom crack the ceiling, they’re often played by tenor trombones. This means that while we may argue over the need for tenor clef, the reality is that a professional concert player had better be able to sight-read it with aplomb, wearing it like a comfortable old shoe.

So in conclusion, I’d recommend using the tenor clef, just as in cello and bassoon, as a sign of register rather than simply “to save leger lines” (as Piston puts it). No, that clef is there for a reason, and that reason is built right into the instrument, for all the change of context and redesign. Use it wisely and use it well.

Thomas Goss is a professional composer and orchestrator with an international roster of clients. He has worked with such talents as Billy Ocean, Melanie C, Sharon Corr, and Nikki Yanofsky. His compositions, orchestrations, and crossover arrangements have been performed by such ensembles as Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony Chamber Ensemble.

Thomas lives and works in Wellington, New Zealand, with his wife Erica and son Charlie, and one very unappreciative cat.

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