You might have heard the sad “wah-wah-wah” sound in a cartoon when a character comically fails a task or in jazz music. This effect can be achieved on brass instruments, most commonly the trumpet or the trombone, through the use of a mute. While you might think a mute silences an instrument, some mutes actually change the timbre, or tonal quality, of the instrument. This timbre change can result in interesting effects like the sad “wah-wah-wah” sound.
The Harmon Mute
Using a Harmon mute, also sometimes called a wah-wah mute, is an ideal option for achieving the “wah-wah-wah” sound on the trombone. This mute has two components -- a bell-shaped part that is held inside the bell of the trombone with cork and a stem that fits inside the middle of the mute. The stem can be taken partially or completely out of the mute, but leave the stem inside to make the “wah-wah-wah” sound. While holding the trombone slide with your right hand, place your left hand over the outside of the stem, slightly touching it. Play a note and move your hand away from the mute stem as you play; you will notice a “wah” sound. The sad “wah-wah-wah” effect uses four notes, descending chromatically. You can play a B-flat, followed by an A, A-flat and G to make the pattern. For each note, start with your hand over the stem and move it away.
The Plunger Mute
The Harmon mute gives you the grittier, comical “wah” sound, but you can achieve a similar effect, albeit with a smoother, rounder tone, with a plunger mute. A plunger mute is the rubber end of a plumbing plunger. Hold the plunger in your left hand, placing the opening in the middle of the plunger between your index and middle fingers to allow the air to pass through the hole. Again, hold the trombone slide with your right hand and hold the plunger over the bell of the trombone with your left. Move the plunger away from the bell as you play a note to create the “wah-wah-wah” sound.
Cara Batema is a musician, teacher and writer who specializes in early childhood, special needs and psychology. Since 2010, Batema has been an active writer in the fields of education, parenting, science and health. She holds a bachelor's degree in music therapy and creative writing.