History of Mutes
Mutes From Monteverdi to Miles:
The story of brass instrument mutes from before Monteverdi to Miles and beyond.
What is a mute?
The criteria for selecting a mute for any player are: the mute should have good overall intonation, should be playable in all registers, should have good response at any dynamic level and have a characteristic muted sound.
Straight mutes will generally fit any Bb or C trumpet bell. The mute should be playable to the low F-sharp. If the low register does not respond, the corks should be sanded down gradually until the low F-sharp responds. Because the B-flat trumpet can play a whole tone lower than the C trumpet. corks on a B-flat trumpet mute have to be a little lower, allowing the mute to go farther into the bell.
A mute that is slightly sharp overall is better than a mute that is generally in tune but with several bad notes.
Cup mutes tend to be in tune or slightly flat, depending on the mute, the trumpet, and the player.. The cup mute should have the cup relatively close to the bell, about an eighth to a quarter of an inch of space, depending on the softness and the “cup” sound desired. Some mutes have an adjustable cup; others have to be permanently adjusted by sanding down the corks a little at a time to achieve the right fit. When so adjusted, the cup is only good for trumpets of similar bell sizes.
Wah-wah mutes tend to be sharper than straight mutes. Some wah-wah mutes are too small. They have insufficient interior volume to play well in the low register, often not being usable below low B-flat concert. Using the wah-wah mute without the stem also creates problems with some brands of mutes. One should be able to play to the low F-sharp on the B-flat trumpet with the stem-cup removed. An extra piece of brass or cardboard tubing, 1/4 to 3/4 inches long, to extend the interior tube of the mute, will help if the low register does not respond. Harmon or wah-wah mutes should fit any standard B-flat or C trumpet bell. Some bell curves may make it difficult for the mute to stay in the trumpet wah-wah mutes that fall out can be treated by rubbing a very small amount of violin bow rosin on the corks.
Different types of metal definitely affect the mute’s tone quality and response, much as different metals used in a bell affect a trumpet’s tone quality and response. It is very difficult to describe what these differences are, however. One person’s “dark” is another person’s “dead”; another person’s “bright” is someone else’s “tinny.” To me, the Tom Crown all-aluminum straight mute is bright, the brass-end mute less bright or somewhat dead, and the copper-end or the all- copper mute is dark.
The muted passage for three trumpets in Fetes by Debussy is usually played with a very soft mute, such as the Shastock “Whispa” mute. Now it can also be played with Tom Crown practice mutes. The ideal volume should be that the woodwinds, when they play the same passage after the trumpets, sound much too loud.
My model A mute is very good for a variety of soft passages, and ideally one should have two such mutes, one with the corks lower than the other, the one mute for normal use and the other for very soft passages. The very low corks do not significantly effect the intonation.
type of mute does one use for the
Gershwin Concerto in F or An American in
Paris? “With felt crown” is indicated A
felt crown is the crown of a fedora hat,
usually without the lining or brim.
Slits are cut so the hat will stay on
and over the bell. This gives the
“jazzy” muted sound that Gershwin must
have heard from jazz trumpeters of his
What is the life expectancy of a
often meet professionals who still have
and use mutes they have had for twenty
or more years, but some students think a
mute is beyond hope if a cork comes off
or the mute is no longer shiny. Dents
should be avoided, although I know
professionals who use mutes that are
completely covered with dents. Small
dents usually have no effect on the
sound of a mute. Mute dents can be
removed by brass repair shops, but this
is usually more expensive than buying a
new mute. Metal mutes with an out of
round opening can be improved by forcing
the mute opening back into round with
the shank of a discarded mouthpiece.
Mute timbres are very subjective. A
player should experiment with mutes the
same way we all experiment with trumpet
equipment to arrive at what will be
satisfactory from the end of the bell to
the back of the hall.
When did mutes appear?
The article "What is a Mute" was adapted from a contribution by Tom Crown to Gabriele Cassone's La Tromba.