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Topic: Instrument Tunings (e.g. clarinet in Bb)

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  1. #1

    Question Instrument Tunings (e.g. clarinet in Bb)

    Good morning,

    I'm about to ask a question that has made many a music teacher cry when they attempt to answer. Prepare yourselves.

    I really don't understand why some instruments have different tunings, e.g. "Horn in F" and "Clarinet in A" or "Bb". Is it something to do with playabillity? I'm a violinist, so I'm used to concert tuning, and although Sibelius has a useful tool where you write all parts in concert tuning and it will transpose automatically whenever you want, I would feel more proffessional if I new the theory behind this.

    And on that note - how does one transpose to and from these different tunings. Is it just a matter of counting up or down a few semitones (despite the fact that the note stays at the same pitch, as I understand)?

    Any guidance from yourselves would be very helpful, but a link to a page explaining this would be equally useful. I hope to eventually understand the reasons behind the tunings, and be able to transpose myself manually, should the need arise.

    Have a nice day,

    Tom P

  2. #2

    Re: Instrument Tunings (e.g. clarinet in Bb)

    Transposing instruments:

    Here is part of the notes from Oxford Companion to Music

    Transposing instruments are those for which the music is written higher or lower than it sounds by a known or stated interval. ....

    Stringed instruments are rarely transposing .....

    Practically all the transposing instruments are wind instruments. With these the operative interval is in most case stated in the instruments designation eg Clarinet in Bb. The rule is that the named note is that which the instrument will sound when the player sounds C.
    (in this case Bb, all other notes are also a whole tone lower)

    There are historical reasons for this, but it is mainly to maintain the fingering when changing from one instrument to another, (this is most obvious in the saxophone group - soprano,alto,tenor, baritone - although it was originally based on clarinets in A,Bb,C,D,Eb etc and oboes and cor anglais)

    Brass is the same - but completely different - early brass had limited range and crooks could be added to change the key. Sometimes brass is written out transposing, at others it is written without a key signature and accidentals are used. Both are considered correct (in Europe at least)

    How do you do it? You're right - you count up and down. On a Bb clarinet, play a C and hear a Bb in concert pitch whole tone lower. ( On a C clarinet play middle C, hear an octave higher. - This is to do with size of the instrument, a C clarinet at concert pitch would be too long to play, remember the original instrument used a simple system of keys not the Boehm system and yours fingers did much more work. I learnt on a simple system clarinet in Bb and as a child could only just reach the finger holes)

    If you want to write music in the correct transposition, either used the built in application OR do what we did in the past- learn it by heart.

    (I always get the notes in the C clef for viola muddled, just can't get to grips with this - its too late now to worry)

    Hope this helps a bit
    Derek
    Things may come and things may go but the art school dance goes on forever
    NOW WITH Cubase 5, JABB,GPO, Fender Strat, Ibanez RG, Yamaha Fretless Bass, Framus Archtop, The Trumpet and Mr T Sax, together with GREEN SEALING WAX


  3. #3

    Re: Instrument Tunings (e.g. clarinet in Bb)

    Hi Tom,

    Yes, it has something to do with playability -- more specifically, standardization of the fingering. An example is the difference between an alto saxophone and a tenor saxophone. The tenor sounds a perfect 4th below the alto.

    If I play a note on the alto without pressing any of the keys, it sounds like a concert E. If I play a note on the tenor without pressing any of the keys, it sounds like a concert B.

    Clarinets and flutes (which have a similar fingering as the saxophones) have the same issue -- using the same fingering on each instrument will result in different sounding pitches as you change instrument.

    Rather than having to remember a different note name for the same fingering on different instruments, it is easier to standardize the note names of the fingering across all of these instruments. In that way, playing an open note (no keys closed) is called a C# no matter which type of saxophone you are using (or any other instrument that uses the same fingering as a saxophone).

    However, now we get back to the issue that the tenor sounds a perfect 4th below the alto. Playing a C# on the alto sax sounds like a concert E, and playing a C# on a tenor sax sounds like a B.

    In reality, C# is not such a good reference note. I used it for this example, because it is the "open note" on all of these instruments, and I didn't want to try to describe fingerings for different instruments.

    The reference note should be C. In that case C on an alto sax sounds like concert Eb (a major 6th below). C on a tenor sax sounds like Concert Bb (a major 9th below). This is why the alto sax is called an Eb alto sax, and why the tenor is called a Bb tenor sax -- it tells you what concert tones the fingerings will produce. The same applies to the Bb clarinet, A clarinet, F horn, etc.

    Since you are a violin player, here's another way to look at it. Suppose for some reason you decided to tune your violin a whole step lower than the normal tuning. Now let's say your violin buddy plays an E and asks you to play an E also. If you play a note using the fingering for an E, you will actually play a D, and your friend will tell you he wanted an E, not a D. So to make your friend happy, you would play an F#, which sounds like an E to your friend, since your violin has been tuned to sound that way.

    If you were to use this non standard violin tuning all the time, you would constantly need to mentally transpose the notes you read up a whole step to stay in tune with the other violins. Rather than doing that, wouldn't it be easier to have someone write the music a whole step higher for you, so that you could just play the notes you read?

    That is what happens for transposing instruments. The alto sax player reads a C, and uses the finging for a C -- but you hear an Eb. The tenor sax player reads a C, and uses the same fingering as the alto player, but you hear a Bb. If you want the tenor sax to play the same concert Eb note as the alto, you would write an F, not a C.
    Best Regards,
    Ernie

  4. #4

    Re: Instrument Tunings (e.g. clarinet in Bb)

    Quote Originally Posted by Tom P View Post
    Good morning,

    I'm about to ask a question that has made many a music teacher cry when they attempt to answer. Prepare yourselves.

    I really don't understand why some instruments have different tunings, e.g. "Horn in F" and "Clarinet in A" or "Bb". Is it something to do with playabillity? I'm a violinist, so I'm used to concert tuning, and although Sibelius has a useful tool where you write all parts in concert tuning and it will transpose automatically whenever you want, I would feel more proffessional if I new the theory behind this.

    And on that note - how does one transpose to and from these different tunings. Is it just a matter of counting up or down a few semitones (despite the fact that the note stays at the same pitch, as I understand)?

    Any guidance from yourselves would be very helpful, but a link to a page explaining this would be equally useful. I hope to eventually understand the reasons behind the tunings, and be able to transpose myself manually, should the need arise.

    Have a nice day,

    Tom P
    Tom,
    You can read about the system, and how/why it evolved, here

    and the mechanics are here .

    Jim
    Jim Williams
    Professor of Capitalism
    N9EJR
    Indianapolis Brass Choir
    All Your Bass Sus&Short Are Belong to Us.

  5. #5

    Wink Re: Instrument Tunings (e.g. clarinet in Bb)

    Gosh, I feel spoilt! Thanks all, the penny has pretty much dropped (It's just a case of revising and remembering now).

    If you want to write music in the correct transposition, either used the built in application OR do what we did in the past- learn it by heart.
    Will do.

    Since you are a violin player, here's another way to look at it. Suppose for some reason you decided to tune your violin a whole step lower than the normal tuning. Now let's say your violin buddy plays an E and asks you to play an E also. If you play a note using the fingering for an E, you will actually play a D, and your friend will tell you he wanted an E, not a D. So to make your friend happy, you would play an F#, which sounds like an E to your friend, since your violin has been tuned to sound that way.

    If you were to use this non standard violin tuning all the time, you would constantly need to mentally transpose the notes you read up a whole step to stay in tune with the other violins. Rather than doing that, wouldn't it be easier to have someone write the music a whole step higher for you, so that you could just play the notes you read?
    That was a great way of putting it, thanks!

    Tom,
    You can read about the system, and how/why it evolved, here

    and the mechanics are here .
    Ah! I forgot about the Garritan Wiki. I printed off the table from the second link for reference while I try and learn.

    Thanks again, all of you! One last thing then; theorteically, if my PC exploded (big if), and I had to go all 19th century with manuscript and a pencil, could I write it all out in concert tuning (making sure I didn't exceed the range of instruments), and then transpose myself in a second draft? I don't see why not...

    Tom P

  6. #6

    Lightbulb Re: Instrument Tunings (e.g. clarinet in Bb)

    Quote Originally Posted by Tom P View Post
    ***
    Thanks again, all of you! One last thing then; theorteically, if my PC exploded (big if), and I had to go all 19th century with manuscript and a pencil, could I write it all out in concert tuning (making sure I didn't exceed the range of instruments), and then transpose myself in a second draft? I don't see why not...

    Tom P
    Sure. In fact, sometimes you find scores published in concert pitch. Makes it easier to see the harmony of the ensemble at a glance.

    Enjoy,

    Grant
    ==============================
    Grant Green ||| www.contrabass.com
    Sarrusophones and other seismic devices

  7. #7

    Re: Instrument Tunings (e.g. clarinet in Bb)

    Quote Originally Posted by lunker View Post

    Rather than having to remember a different note name for the same fingering on different instruments, it is easier to standardize the note names of the fingering across all of these instruments. In that way, playing an open note (no keys closed) is called a C# no matter if you are on a flute, any type of saxophone, or any type of clarinet, etc.

    In reality, C# is not such a good reference note. I used it for this example, because it is the "open note" on all of these instruments, and I didn't want to try to describe fingerings for different instruments.
    OK, it's a long time since I played my clarinet, but I'm fairly sure the open note was a G. Not that I want to ruin the thrust of your argument.
    David

  8. #8

    Re: Instrument Tunings (e.g. clarinet in Bb)

    Yup, you're right. That's what a sax player gets for not checking his facts. I'm probably wrong about the flute, also.
    Best Regards,
    Ernie

  9. #9

    Lightbulb Re: Instrument Tunings (e.g. clarinet in Bb)

    Nope, mainly right.
    OPEN NOTE:
    • Flute: C# (sounding G# for alto flute)
    • Oboes/English horn: not used (would be about C#, but oboe players always play it as part of the upper register)
    • Clarinet: G natural (written, sounding F for Bb clarinets, Bb for Eb clarinets)
    • Saxes, sarrusophones: C# (written, sounding E for Eb horns, B for Bb horns)
    • Bassoon, contrabassoon: F
    • Reed contrabass: Eb

    Enjoy,

    Grant
    ==============================
    Grant Green ||| www.contrabass.com
    Sarrusophones and other seismic devices

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