What Is A Mute? Despite “mute” meaning “quiet” or “silent” to most people, a brass instrument mute does not truly silence the brass instrument. Instead, a mute changes the sound of the brass instrument (like a trumpet) in different ways depending on the type of mute used.
A mute reduces the volume and alters the instrument’s timbre, which is its tonal quality. Although there are a few exceptions, most mutes are placed into the bell of a brass instrument and are held in place by a cork pressed on the inside of the bell.
To keep the mute in place while the person is playing, moisture like a light sprinkling of water sometimes has to be applied to the cork.
When Are Mutes Used?
While a lot of brass instrument mutes are used in Classical music pieces, for trumpet players a mute is most often used when they are playing jazz music.
In a small jazz band, mutes can often help trumpet players mix better with the rest of the band.
A brass player may frequently use a mute to lower the volume of their instrument when playing with a singer so that their instrument does not drown out the sound of the person singing.
The same thing applies to Big Band music, where trumpet mutes are still a vital part of this type of musical performance.
Types Of Mute
Brass instrument mutes come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Each type of instrument mute gives the instrument its own distinct tone.
The volume and timbre of a muted brass instrument are also affected by differences in the materials and construction of each mute. Here are the most common mutes used by both amateur and professional trumpet players.
A practice mute muffles the sound of an instrument, allowing a brass musician to practice without disturbing others as much as usual practice would.
Usually made from cork, the mute prevents all the sound from leaving the bell of the trumpet (the horn part that the sound comes out of), but still allows the musician to get their practice in.
This makes a practice mute is particularly well suited to a performer who has to warm up quietly at the venue, or a brass player who lives in a condo or apartment and doesn’t want to disturb their neighbors.
Though they are very useful, they are never used in a performance setting as hardly any sound can be made from playing the instrument with one of these in.
They are also not the perfect replacement for practicing normally, as a practice mute changes the air resistance of the trumpet, which can have a slight impact on how a person would play.
To stop you from getting too used to playing with these slight changes, you should still find time to practice without the mute in so that your style does not change.
This mute looks like a bathroom toilet plunger, and that’s because it is! (don’t worry, platers only use new, clean plungers).
Unlike most other mutes, the plunger mute is held in the left hand of the performer and has no connection to the instrument.
It is widely used by brass musicians to cover and then expose the trumpet or trombone bell. While this mute produces a sound similar to that of the Harmon mute, it lacks the metal tone that the Harmon mute produces.
Using this mute can make the trumpet sound almost like it’s talking. In fact, it has been used in many animated movies for this purpose, like how it was used for the parent’s voices in the Charlie Brown movies.
In the days of big bands, a plunger mute was frequently made of cardboard and painted white and red. This was probably because it appeared more sophisticated than using a bathroom plunger, especially in a beautiful ballroom setting.
When reading music that calls for a plunger mute to be used, an “+” and “O” are used. The “+” means that the player should cover the bell with the mute (but not completely), while the “O” means that the bell should be exposed (but not completely).
If you want to buy this type of mute, then almost any plunger will do. Musicians do normally make some slight adjustments to these though, usually by either drilling some holes into the nub on the top of the plunger or adding a penny here. This gives the sound an extra “rasp” effect that some musicians are looking for.
This type of mute is also sometimes known as the wah-wah or wow-wow mute. Aluminum is used in almost every Harmon mute. This mute is divided into two portions. The larger bell-shaped piece goes inside the instrument and is held in place with a strip or cork around the top.
The second piece, the stem, fits into the first. The instrument can be played with the stem completely inside, partially inside, or outside altogether. The placement of the stem will have an impact on the sound of the mute and the instrument.
When reading a jazz chart that calls for the use of a Harmon mute, the chart will usually include instructions on how to use the stem in that piece of music.
Despite being called a straight mute, this is actually shaped like a bell. The small open end of a straight mute goes inside the bell of the brass instrument, while the bigger, closed-end goes outside. Three pieces of cork hold the mute in place.
Depending on the material used, the mute will have different effects on the instrument’s sound. If it is constructed of cardboard (the “Stonelined” mute), this mute makes a stuffy sound, however when made of aluminum, it provides a more piercing, brighter sound.
This mute is the most common one used for band and orchestra pieces, so if you are looking to buy your first mute you should start with this one.
A cup mute is a straight mute with a cup on the end. A cup mute is fitted into the bell so that the cup entirely covers the bell’s entrance and air escapes only around the cup’s edge.
This mute is almost always made of cardboard and held together with three pieces of cork.
A cup mute produces a sound that is softer and more muffled than a straight mute.
Cup mutes come in a variety of styles, including adjustable cup-style mutes that allow for a more or less muted sound, and felt-lined cup mutes, which are most commonly used in pit orchestras.
Out of all the mutes, this is probably the second most common one found in orchestras.
The bucket mute produces the most muffled sound of all the cardboard mutes.
A bucket mute is a round, bucket-shaped cardboard mute filled with cotton that clips onto the exterior of the bell. Some mutes, like a straight mute, are designed to fit inside the bell.
Bucket mutes aren’t commonly used, so most players wait until they’re needed for a certain piece before investing in one. These mutes are usually found in pit orchestras and large bands.
What Mute Should I Get First?
If you are looking to buy your first mute but you don’t know which one to start with, then your best bet is to go with the straight mute. For students who began learning in school, this is the first type of mute they are normally introduced to.
After this, you can move on to a cup mute. This is the second most popular one used in musical pieces and is the natural next step after the straight mute.
After this, move on to the Harmon, but once you have this one where you go from there is up to you, you may not even need to get any more.
If you are practicing a lot at home, then it is recommended that you get a practice mute, as this will stop your neighbors or your family from complaining about the noise while also letting you get your practice in.