Shut Up! (or at least keep it down)

Brass mutes. I had no idea I needed to specify these, nor did I realise there were so many different types that required consideration. I’m a pianist – why would I know!

Every day’s a school day, though, and in my attempt to get back in the saddle and re-programme my stressed out brain into ‘study mode’, I thought I would firstly tackle some research, the first being with regards to brass mutes.

My tutor advised me that I needed to specify which mutes I wanted the brass section to use. Good point; with this one comment, a whole new world has now started opening up for me to explore. And here I am recording my research notes on brass mutes.

Brass mutes don’t silence the instrument, rather they lower the volume and tonal quality of the sound depending on which mute is used.

Most mutes go inside the instrument bell with corks that press against the inside of the bell to hold it in place – some do require moisture, too (players ‘huff’ inside the bell).

Mutes are often used in classical music (20th and 21st century the most common), with Stravinsky, Mahler and Hindemith championing their usage. Mutes with trumpets and trombones are used a lot in jazz, helping them to blend more and lower their volume when soloists play. The Big Band sound is famous for its use of mutes.

There are three main types of mutes, although many others have been made for different uses:
1) The Straight Mute (in notation, described as ‘Str.Mute’)
This is sometimes made of cardboard or aluminium and is cone-shaped. It has a small open end that goes into the bell of the instrument and a larger, closed end that stays on the outside. It’s held in place with 3 pieces of cork. It gives a very tinny sound that is bright and piercing when made of aluminium. As cardboard, it sounds more stuffy.

2) The Cup Mute (in notation, described as ‘Cup Mute’)
This is a straight mute with a cup on the end.  It has rounded edges around the lip of the cup, which allows air to escape from the bell.  It is almost always made of cardboard and held by 3 corks.  It gives a softer, more muffled sound than the straight mute.  I think it sounds squawky and very typical of the Big Band sound.

3) Harmon Mute (the ‘wah-wah’/’wow-wow’)
Made of aluminium, this is in two parts. The larger bell shape is held in the instrument by one continuous cork wrapped around the mute.  The second piece is the ‘stem’, which fits inside the first piece, and can be played in position all the way in, part-way in or out completely, changing the sound. Name comes from when the player uses their hand to open / close the end of the mute. With the stem in, it sounds typically ‘wah-wah’.  When the stem is removed completely, it’s very Miles Davis in sound.

4) Plunger Mute
Often a new bathroom plunger is held in the player’s hand to cover/uncover the bell of the instrument, similar in fashion to the Harmon mute.  Made of rubber, it doesn’t have the same metallic sound to the Harmon.

As far as notation is concerned, all mutes are marked in the score as ‘con sordini’ – with mute.  When the mute is to be removed, the word ‘Open’ is indicated.

I found a great short video clip that demonstrates 3 of the mutes, the straight, cup and ‘wah-wah/harmon’ mute:

Published on 28 Jun 2012

Summer, D. (2016). Brass Instrument Mutes. Available: Last accessed 06 April 2016.


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