Like all brass instruments, sound is produced when the player’s vibrating lips (embouchure) cause the air column inside the instrument to vibrate. Nearly all trombones have a telescoping slide mechanism that varies the length of the instrument to change the pitch. Many modern trombone models also utilize a rotary valve as a means to lower pitch of the instrument. Variants such as the valve trombone and superbone have three valves like those on the trumpet.
The word trombone derives from Italian tromba (trumpet) and -one (a suffix meaning "large"), so the name means "large trumpet". The trombone has a predominantly cylindrical bore like its valved counterpart the baritone and in contrast to its conical valved counterparts, the euphonium and the horn. The most frequently encountered trombones are the tenor trombone and bass trombone. The most common variant, the tenor, is a non-transposing instrument pitched in Bb, an octave below the Bb trumpet and an octave above the Bb tuba. Trombone music, along with music for euphonium and tuba, is typically written in concert pitch in either bass or tenor clef, although exceptions do occur, notably in almost all brass-band music where tenor trombone is presented as a Bb transposing instrument, written in treble clef.
The detachable cup-shaped mouthpiece is similar to that of the baritone horn and closely related to that of the trumpet. It has the venturi: a small constriction of the air column that adds resistance greatly affecting the tone of the instrument, and is inserted into the mouthpiece receiver in the slide section. The slide section consists of a leadpipe, the inner and outer slide tubes, and the bracing, or stays. Modern stays are soldered, while sackbuts (medieval precursors to trombones) were made with loose, unsoldered stays (this remained the pattern for German trombones until the mid-20th century).
The 'slide', the most distinctive feature of the trombone, allows the player to extend the length of the air column, lowering the pitch. To prevent friction from slowing the action of the slide, additional sleeves were developed during the Renaissance, and these stockings were soldered onto the ends of the inner slide tubes. Nowadays, the stockings are incorporated into the manufacturing process of the inner slide tubes and represent a fractional widening of the tube to accommodate the necessary method of alleviating friction. This part of the slide must be lubricated frequently. Additional tubing connects the slide to the bell of the instrument through a neckpipe, and bell or back bow (U-bend). The joint connecting the slide and bell sections is furnished with a ferrule to secure the connection of the two parts of the instrument, though older models from the early 20th century and before were usually equipped with friction joints and no ancillary mechanism to tighten the joint.
The adjustment of intonation is most often accomplished with a tuning slide that is a short slide between the neckpipe and the bell incorporating the bell bow (U-bend); this device was designed by the French maker François Riedlocker during the early 19th century and applied to French and British designs and later in the century to German and American models, though German trombones were built without tuning slides well into the 20th century. However, trombonists, unlike other instrumentalists, are not subject to the intonation issues resulting from valved or keyed instruments, since they can adjust intonation "on the fly" by subtly altering slide positions when necessary. For example, second position "A" is not in exactly the same place on the slide as second position "E." Many types of trombone also include one or more rotary valves used to increase the length of the instrument (and therefore lower its pitch) by directing the air flow through additional tubing. This allows the instrument to reach notes that are otherwise not possible without the valve as well as play other notes in alternate positions.
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