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A Brief History


According to mute maker Tom Crown, “Mutes actually go back a long  way, maybe even to King Tut. The first mention in writing of mutes was in 1511, in Giorgio Vasari's biography of Piero di Cosimo,although the mute is such a basic principal it must have been in use for centuries before.  Monteverdi, in 1607 used mutes for the first time in a written musical score, in the Toccata preceding l'Orfeo.”


These first mutes resembled wooden chalices turned on a lathe.  The “bowl” of the “chalice” was tapered to fit in the bell of the trumpet.  The throat of the the mute was an open passage through the center of the “stem” of the “chalice”, and terminated in a small cup. These were transposing mutes ( which raised the pitch of the instrument.  The closest relative of this mute is still in use the Stopping mute for french horn.


Italian references to mutes were indicated on sheet music by the directions con sordino (“with mute”, often abbreviated con sord)  and the senza sordino (or senza sord - “without mute”).  The equivalent German terms are mit Dämpfer and ohne Dämpfer, respectively. When written in English the directions, "mute" and "open" are used.


Brasswind Mutes:

A variety of mutes have been used and continue to be used with brasswinds. They all either are placed in the interior of the bell, or clip on the outside lip of the bell. Mutes have been made of wood, cardboard, metal, glass, leather, celluloid, rubber, plastic, and fibre ( resin impregnated cardboard).



The basic type of interior mute is the straight mute, a hollow, cone-shaped device, open at the small end of the cone and closed at the large end.  This mute that fits into the bell of the instrument and is held in place by strips of cork or felt. Interior mutes provide in a more metallic, nasal sound, and often are louder at certain frequencies than others.  

Interior mutes include:


Exterior mutes typically clip onto the rim of the bell, or are held up to the bell.

Exterior mutes include:


All types of mutes are commonly made for trumpet/cornet and trombone. Less common are mutes for flugelhorn.  Even more restricted is the selection available for piccolo trumpets, alto horns, euphoniums, tubas which are generally restricted to straight, cup, and bucket mutes.  Novelty types ( such as Wah Wah, Open Tube and Buzz) are not commercially available for lower brass.  This author believes the main reason for this is that, besides the lack of demand,  these effects do not transfer well to very large bore instruments.


French horns are a subject unto themselves.  As mentioned previously, they use stopping mutes,  which perform the same function as hand stopping  (the technique of the hornist inserting his/her hand into the bell of the instrument to raise the tone a semitone). A stopping mute is a stubby straight mute made of brass or fibre, with a small branch and tiny opening or brass bell.  

Woodwind Mutes:


Not much is heard about woodwind mutes.. This is because they are usually impractical, ineffectual, or both. The primary reason for this is because the sound of a woodwind instrument emanates from all the holes that cover the darned thing (I guess you can tell the author of this site is a brass player by now).  

Woodwind mutes usually take the form of a “donut” mute ( a hard ring covered with soft cloth or velvet  which is inserted in the bell of a sax or clarinet), or a portable chamber or cloth bag that the instrument can be placed in and played, reducing the volume.


Some bassoonists have been known to use mutes, and occasionally a handkerchief has been used to occlude the oboe or clarinet bell, but these usages are really too rare to merit discussion here.  They are too obscure for even this obscure web site!