Trumpet vs Cornet, and why it’s important

Introduction – My Story

Being a professional high-brass specialist and growing up in England with our brass band tradition I have been juggling performing on the cornet and the trumpet for my whole playing life. The first brass instrument I played was a cornet and I was extremely excited to take this beaten-up, smelly heap of metal home from school and try to make sounds come out of it. I played in the Wells City Band and it wasn’t for a few years that I even saw a trumpet. My first real exposure to a trumpet was when I joined a big band at the age of twelve. They looked weird! Too long, and sounded harsh. It wasn’t long before I got a trumpet of my own, but it wasn’t until the age of sixteen that I switched from being a cornet player who owns a trumpet into a trumpet player who also plays the cornet. I had recently begun some lessons with Wells Cathedral School head of brass Paul Denegri because I was planning on auditioning for a place at the music school. On his advice I had been to the local trumpet dealer and bought a Vincent Bach Stradivarius trumpet.

I always had this idea in my head that switching between the two instruments was a problem because they felt different and like many people I followed the advice of the local dealer and bought a mouthpiece for my trumpet that was the same as the one I use on my cornet. That was a big mistake. Firstly, the two instruments feel different because they are different; secondly, by using a mouthpiece on one that was designed for the other you are going to achieve the effect of neither; and thirdly, the difference is a good thing! It would be so much more confusing for them to feel the same but behave differently. I think that the problem lies in the expectation of being able to do the same thing with tools that were designed for different purposes. More on this later.

I showed up to my trumpet lesson, proud of my new trumpet, and the only thing I can remember is my teacher looking at me and saying “that doesn’t sound like a trumpet”. Those words still echo in my mind to this day and I had no idea what he was talking about!

So, here’s a blog post that will hopefully provide the information you need to understand and appreciate the difference between these two instruments and aid you in related decision-making to make your musical life easier. Knowing these things really does make my job easier.

A Bit of History

Putting these two instruments into context requires that we look back in time and understand why they were created, and what they were used for.

The history of the trumpet is a long story. Ed Tarr spends this first seven chapters (about 150 pages) of his book The Trumpet just getting up to the point that I’m starting at. But there are only a few important points that we need to take from all of that to help us get to grips with the instrument’s purpose. In culture the trumpet has always had somewhat of a split personality. The primary role of trumpet-like instruments is that of a signal. Usually this is imagined in a military setting and can basically be thought of as performing fanfares. To be played loudly and heard over a long distance (quality of tone is not an issue!). The secondary role of the trumpet is its place in art music. Performing high-pitched florid melodies, akin to the human voice in timbre and demanding a very delicate control of the high register.

Whilst you continue reading, listen to this music in the background and really soak up the sound of the baroque trumpet. This music is performed by my teacher and friend Robert J. Civilietti, an American trumpet player. He was the first, and to date only, person to make recordings of this repertoire on the baroque trumpet. Joseph Riepel Concerto in D performed by Bahb Civiletti

Whilst the trumpet during the 18th Century was undoubtedly a beautiful instrument it had one big flaw – there were huge gaps in the available notes in the low and middle registers meaning that you could not play chromatically, or even diatonically over most of the instrument.

A major distinction between the trumpet and the cornet is that the trumpet evolved over time whereas the cornet was invented. In the first quarter of the 19th Century there were various instruments developed using different types of valves or keys that finally enabled a high brass instrument that could play melodically in its lower register with a consistent sound quality. This is something that composers wanted and players, who by this point had lost the upper register skills of their predecessors, jumped at the chance of playing lyrical melodies on these instruments. This loss of ability is something that happened because composers in the classical period had been treating the trumpet very differently to the past and there was no-longer any need to develop such skills. It was also not popular to perform period music in those days.

With the development of tonguing techniques and popularity of Theme and Variation Solos the cornet became a very popular soloist’s instrument. Cornets found their place in wind bands and with the advent of saxhorns in the 1840s the brass band was now possible too. There was some use of cornets in the symphony orchestra as well, but that’s a story I’m saving for later.

Physical Differences and Similarities

Physically speaking the modern cornet and piston-valve trumpet are very similar. The text-book differences are these:

The taper of a cornet should be at least 2/3rds conical and 1/3rd cylindrical. The conical section from the mouthpiece to tuning slide is longer on a cornet, which should give it better intonation. Because of this the tubing has four 180 degree bends in it, whereas a trumpet only has two. This is a major factor in creating the characteristic sound of the cornet. The bell on a cornet is shorter and usually has “shepherd’s crook” shape to its curve and generally has less of an exponential-curve-style flare to its shape.

In comparison a trumpet should be 2/3rds to 3/4ths cylindrical over its length, is straighter in appearance and has more dramatic flare to the bell. These things contribute to its focused sound and livelier overtone series.

In the first half of the 20th Century short trumpets in B-flat (modern piston-valve trumpets) and the cornet evolved quite rapidly, taking aspects of each other’s design to improve their own. By the 1960s there were instruments available that on first glance were physically indistinguishable from each other apart from the mouthpiece.

The most important of these developments, and significant difference from the piston-valved trumpet’s rotary-valved cousin for the trumpet was the addition of a leadpipe.

The first section of tapered tubing between the mouthpiece-receiver and tuning slide vastly improves intonation on the modern trumpet, and also contributes greatly to the resistance profile of an instrument, allowing for much better control (slotting of harmonics) in all registers. Renold Schilke used leadpipe design to vastly improve the intonation of smaller, higher pitched trumpets and Schilke is still the best-known brand for D/E-flat and piccolo trumpets today. Various instrument makers such as Rudy Mück, Schilke and Callet Trumpets, experimented with conical sections or varying bore sizes of trumpets to further improve their response and intonation. Many high-end professional trumpets made today are “Step Bore” and would not fit into the text-book model at all.

The next most obvious difference, and one of the most important, is the mouthpiece. There’s a lot of chatter about mouthpieces so I’m just going to give some general rules without a lot of explanation.

Firstly let’s state this: The trumpet is the only brass instrument that uses a bowl shaped cup in its mouthpiece design. The original trumpet mouthpieces had a defined angle at the point that the bottom of the cup meets the throat, this point is called a shoulder. That hard shoulder is something that gave the baroque trumpet its characteristic sound, and also assisted with note production on a simpler instrument. The cornet, which was designed to be a little horn (that’s what the word means!) should be played with a small, deep mouthpiece with a V-shaped cup. This is something that gives the cornet its characteristic sound – but also creates the limitations that many players of both instruments find disturbing.

I am going to go into more detail about sound concept in the final and most important section of this article. Before I do so, however, I need to write about two mouthpiece manufactures that have, in my opinion at least, gone against the traditional design of cornet mouthpieces to the detriment of the instrument’s use in modern times.

The first of these is Vincent Bach. I have a long article titled What to know about the Vincent Bach mouthpiece that you may wish to read. In that article I mention how Vincent Bach began making very popular cornet mouthpieces with trumpet-shaped cups and longer shanks. This may have made the instrument more comfortable to play and assist some people with the upper register, but it also served to lead people into making a sound that was not characteristic of the instrument they were playing and I would speculate that this would lead those same people to switch to trumpet playing in the long term if that were an option. This opinion is in part influenced by articles that I link to in the blog post above. Part of me believes that using a traditional “cookie cutter” cornet mouthpiece forces the player to learn to play with proper technique whereas a trumpet-style mouthpiece allows for someone to have some degree of success with poor technique and a brute force approach.

The second manufacturer is more recent than Vincent Bach and is worthy of a long critical article of its own. It is Denis Wick. I once attended a talk given by the famous Denis Wick. He was a professional trombone player who, out of necessity, designed his own trombone mouthpiece because the sort of design he wanted was not available on the British market at the time. Denis Wick mouthpieces are very good for the trombone and at the time were probably the best available. Later on the company he created went on to design mouthpieces for all brass instruments. As far as some instruments like the Euphonium, Baritone and Tenor Horn are concerned they may well have done a good job, I don’t actually know. And like Vincent Bach it was a huge step towards standardisation of mouthpiece design.
For Trumpet and Cornet, however, these mouthpieces are some of the worst I’ve played. For the cornet the less popular, deeper, mouthpieces are similar to the original shape of cornet cup, but the throat is far too big and the internal diameter at the top of the cup is also far larger than you would ever find in an old cornet mouthpiece. The larger throat would serve to deaden high overtones in the sound, require more air to play, and make the instrument much less agile overall. It may make the instrument feel more “free blowing”, which is how people often describe the difference between the feel of the trumpet when compared to the cornet. However this  is a misnomer. It just saps energy and kills your stamina. The more popular ‘B’ cup just looks like a scaled-down trombone mouthpiece – something most definitely not suited to a cornet. Because of their low price point for many years these mouthpieces have become the standard in the British Brass Band scene. Only in the last ten years or so are other companies now making “true cornet cup” mouthpieces that are more similar to the older designs. Denis Wick has since jumped on the band wagon by bringing out their Heritage Series, which I’ve heard from one of their consultants is just a direct copy of a vintage cornet mouthpiece.

At this point, if you’ve listened to the recording mentioned above then you may wish to try this recording of Philip McCann playing with the Black Dyke Mills Band. If you can tolerate his incessant use of vibrato, which is very common in brass bands, then it’ll give you a good idea of a cornet sound by comparison. (For the record – vibrato is not a bad thing, but when it is a mindless, ever present habit then I see it as a sign of a player putting their personal style above that of musical interpretation. I’m sure many would disagree!)

So what about the sound?

As you’ll know from reading my previous articles and the story above, playing with a correct sound is a very important topic for me. I believe that for developing players it is both a sign of good technique and a limiting factor in terms of development. Quite simply put, the day I stopped trying to make a dark sound on a trumpet my control, projection and general ease of playing improved markedly. It was by college teacher who wanted me to make this dark sound despite him using a C trumpet in the orchestra – go figure… But this part is not about me. The point I want to make is that when one is learning to play a trumpet or a cornet they need to understand the sound that the instrument was designed to make and its associated limitations as a result of that.

Not taking the context of an instrument’s origin into account, players will often try to use one instrument to create the sound of the other. Understanding that a trumpet is designed to have a focused, clear, projected tone is primary to developing on the instrument and a preoccupation with creating the diffuse sound of a cornet in the middle register will only serve to push the player to tiring their embouchure by working against the nature of the instrument. Trumpet players, especially in classical schools, will devote many hours to practising smooth lyrical playing in the middle and low register. Trumpet players more often than not will also play on large mouthpieces to facilitate this desire and never develop a reasonable high register, let alone a powerful one. This large mouthpiece compensates for a lack of accuracy in the embouchure which is necessary for creating a direct, well-projecting sound. Unlike cornet players it is very common for a trumpeter to switch to a smaller trumpet so that they can maintain control on the cusp of the high register without developing any accuracy up there on their B-flat instrument. These trumpet players are trying to use a trumpet like a cornet – relying heavily on valves rather than developing a good embouchure.

Many cornet players will struggle with their higher register (the sound naturally becomes more diffuse the higher you play) whilst not taking into account that when the cornet was invented it was the normal thing to use a small soprano cornet in E-flat to play the higher notes (there is still one soprano cornet in a standard brass band configuration). In fact according to Jean Baptiste Arban the cornet in C was also very popular in the 19th Century due to its “distinguished sound” and ease of transposition for orchestral playing. Within the two and a half octave range of the cornet one does not need to develop delicate embouchure control for the simple reason than most movement between notes is taken care of with the valves and the deeper mouthpiece, again, accounts for playing off pitch-center. This is not a criticism, just the nature of the instrument.

During the 19th Century the cornet began to replace the trumpet in some orchestras. There were many composers who, recognising the value of both instruments, wrote music that included both parts for the trumpet and the cornet but some composers and conductors disliked the cornet greatly. Hector Berlioz described its sound as imparting “platitude and odious vulgarism […] without the nobility of the horn, nor the pride of the trumpet”. The truth is that the low valved trumpet in F was no better an option because of its poor intonation and sound quality. According to Crispian Steele-Perkins the slide trumpet was still being used in British orchestras until the end of that century. In his book La Trompette et le cornet Merri Franquin recalls the following:

The problem occurred for the first time during a rehearsal for [Ernest] Reyer’s Sigurd at the Paris Opera [c. 1884]. In this opera, the cornets today still [c. 1922] play the [valved] trumpet parts. At the work’s read-through, in the orchestra, there was a solo entrance in the [valved] trumpet parts—entrusted to the cornetists—that climbed up to a sustained B-natural (concert pitch). When the note was not reached, Monsieur Reyer asked why, affirming that it had been played successfully elsewhere (he was alluding to the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels where Sigurd had its premiere). So we confessed to him that the cornet was incapable of replacing the trumpet in that situation. At the next rehearsal, the passage was transferred to the trumpet desk, by means of a momentary exchange of parts [where it was played on small C trumpets].

In his book Trumpet Crispian Steele-Perkins tells a story of a Slide Trumpet vs Cornet Battle that took place in New York in 1834. Apparently the limitations and abilities of both instruments prevented the two players from being able to compete by playing the same music, which in itself demonstrates the point that I’m trying to make. The outcome of the initial competition was a draw.

In Summary: What do I need to know when playing?
  1. The cornet was designed with the invention of valves in order to play smoothly and quickly in the middle and low register. It produces a pleasing sound in these registers and is very agile over the range of approximately two octaves.
  2. The trumpet throughout history has been used to perform fanfares and high-pitched melodies. It naturally has a more direct, focused sound than the cornet. It is meant to stand out in an ensemble and often creates a thicker, more brash tone in the lower register.
  3. The cornet is an instrument that creates a more diffuse sound than a trumpet. This means that it is quite pleasant to listen to and blends well with other instruments. However it also means that it lacks the focus and clarity that is expected of a trumpet and required when performing in the upper register.
  4. My philosophy: The primary method of controlling pitch on a trumpet must be the embouchure. The valves are only there to allow for chromatic playing. Developing accurate and flexible movement between harmonics is what gives the player the facility required to control the upper register. The primary method of changing notes on the cornet is the valves. Although the embouchure needs to move for change of register there are only six positions in the range of the instrument and fine control is less important.
Why is it important?

Last year a pupil of mine entered a popular UK music competition. Although he performed well and came quite highly in the rankings the comments he received from the adjudicator were nothing short of moronic. My pupil had performed a piece named Fanfare and Berceuse by Arthur Butterworth, a 20th Century composer, on a trumpet. In the remarks it stated “It could have been nicer if you had played with a more veiled tone”. Maybe it should be pointed out that this adjudicator was used to hearing and judging brass band [cornet] players, but despite being in a position of respect in the musical community was seemingly completely unaware of what a trumpeter, performing a fanfare or any piece of 20th Century solo repertoire should sound like. If it is your profession to judge musicians then you should at least understand the characteristic sounds produced by the instruments you are judging. Unfortunately this is just one of many negative experiences that this pupil has had with ill-informed teachers and brass band leaders.

It is paramount as a musician that you develop your ears by listening to music and learning to be critical of what you hear. You’d be surprised how many highly-rated instrumentalists look better than they sound when you focus on the right things.


8 thoughts on “Trumpet vs Cornet, and why it’s important

  1. Nice article, Rich. An interesting read. Even got my colleague sitting next to me asking questions about the difference between the two instruments. On the whole, I prefer the more mellow sound of the cornet, but there are definitely times when the more piercing sound of the trumpet has its place!

  2. Very interesting and informative.

    If you had to choose just one cornet mouthpiece what would it be?

    1. Well I use a Yamaha 7D4d – but that’s just me!! Generally I think that the internal diameter and throat size of most modern cornet mouthpieces is too large and this upsets the balance that made older pieces easier to play. If I could get a mouthpiece like my 7D4d but with a flatter rim then I’d probably prefer that.

  3. This was illuminating! I’m a long-time fan of trumpet and saving money to buy one of my own. I’m also a fan of a lovely novel called Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje–a fictionalized account of the life of Buddy Bolden, a very famous *cornet* player. Foolish as I felt, I’d never really considered how different the instruments were. Thank you 🙂

  4. I play in a Brass Band in America where all the cornet players grew up playing trumpet. Our comment sheets often refer to the cornet sound of the band as too bright. They are right, our cornets sound like trumpets; loud with a lot of muscle. They stand out rather than blend in. How do we change the sound concept of our cornet players?

    1. The key has to be in listening. It’s worth checking that players are using appropriate mouthpieces (i.e. actual cornet mouthpieces and not trumpet mouthpieces sized down to fit cornet – no Vincent Bach mouthpiece will sound right in a cornet for example), but at the end of the day the sound concept is in the head of the player.
      It may be helpful to make a YouTube playlist of brass band music for people to listen to including top bands like Brighouse and Rastrick, the Cory Band, the old Sun Life band, Grimethorpe Colliery Band etc etc.
      A key component to these player’s sound is the vibrato, which is very different from how you’d approach a trumpet.

  5. Viewed your comments for the first time. Found them to be helpful. In your opinion, would Yamaha’s short shank cornet mouthpiece 11E4 qualify as an appropriate cornet mouthpiece. I play a Yamaha MDL. YCR6330S. If not, what would you recommend?

    1. I think those mouthpieces are pretty good yes. I personally prefer a Yamaha 7D4d that I have. You may also like to consider the Lewington McCann mouthpiece, which is very reasonably priced on Amazon.

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