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.
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
Interior mutes include:
- Open Tube
- Wah Wah
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.
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
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!