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Instrumental Ranges

9 January, 2015 - 10:59
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The same terms used to identify vocal ranges are also often used to identify particular instruments.

For example a bass trombone has a lower range than a tenor trombone, and an alto saxophone sounds higher than a tenor saxophone. Some other terms that are used to describe instrument ranges are:

  • Contra - Means lower: for example a contrabassoon sounds lower than a regular bassoon, and a contrabass clarinet is even lower than a bass clarinet.
  • Piccolo- Means higher (literally "smaller"): for example, a piccolo trumpet is higher than a regular trumpet.
  • A Note Name - If an instrument comes in several different sizes (and ranges), the name of a particular size of the instrument may be a note name: for example, an F horn, a B flat clarinet, and a C trumpet. The note name is the name of the fundamental harmonic of the instrument. An instrument with a slightly higher fundamental will have a slightly higher range; an instrument with a much lower fundamental will have a much lower range. Some instruments that are identified this way are transposing instruments47, but others are not.

The ranges of some instruments are definite and absolute. For example, even a beginning piano player can play the highest and lowest keys; and even the best player cannot play beyond these. But the ranges of many instruments are, like vocal ranges, not so definite. For example, an experienced horn or clarinet player can play much higher and lower notes than a beginner. An exceptional trumpet player may be able to play - with good sound and technique - high notes that the average high school trumpet player cannot play at all. Other instruments may be a mix of absolute and indefinite ranges. For example, on any string instrument, nobody can play lower than the note that the lowest string is tuned to. But experienced players can easily play very high notes that inexperienced players have trouble playing well. So it is sometimes useful to distinguish between a possible range, which includes the notes that a very experienced player can get, and a practical range, that includes all the notes that any competent player (including a good younger player) can get.

Note: Outside of the instrument's practical range, it may be a strain for even a very good player to play long or tricky passages. So if you are composing or arranging, it's a very good idea to be able to distinguish between these two ranges for the voices or instruments you include.

Some sources even list the power range of an instrument or voice. This is the part of the range where the instrument or voice is particularly strong. It may be in the middle of the range, or at the top or bottom, but writing in the power range should guarantee that the part is easy to play (or sing), sounds clear and strong, and can be easily heard, even when many other instruments are playing.