Musical instruments have been manufactured in different keys throughout musical history, some of them evolving from one key to another depending on sound quality and accuracy of intonation.
In music we take the pitch of a piano as a reference for pitch. This standard is known as ‘concert pitch‘. It is believed that it is the most simple key to facilitate instrumental playing. Many instruments such as flutes, oboes, violins and piano among others are built in this key.
Other instruments are made in other keys such as Bb, A, F, G, D, etc. These instruments are called ‘transposing instruments’ as they need to play a different note to sound C in concert pitch.
The main reason that there are transposing instruments is directly related to their size. This will determine two or three parameters of an instrument:
- Register: the larger the instrument the lower it will sound, and vice versa.
- Timbre: This parameter has always been essential for composers, who have explored different sonorities and instrument combinations all through the development of music.
The clarinet family belongs to this fascinating group of instruments. It is my intention to write about the complete clarinet family in an upcoming post, but just to mention the main clarinets used today are manufactured in the following keys:
- Clarinet in Bb: has been the most reliable in tone and intonation. Other historical clarinets such as clarinet in C or D have gradually fallen into disuse, as they weren’t as accurately built as the Bb.
- Clarinet in A: quite common within orchestra and chamber music repertoire. With a bit more mellow sound than the Bb. Mozart favoured this instrument for its tonal qualities.
- Clarinet in Eb: it is the smallest of the family, which can play in a higher register with a brighter sonority. A good example of its use is in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.
- Bass clarinet: It is also in Bb, but its dimension makes it sound an octave lower than the soprano Bb clarinet. An example of this sonority Strauss, Don Quixote.
Clarinet players, as any other player of transposing instruments, require a different perspective when playing with other instruments. They must be aware that when they play the note they call C, it sounds as a concert Bb or A depending on the instrument they are using. They must therefore be able to adapt to any situation they find themselves in.
Many orchestra works include C clarinet parts if this instrument was used at the time the music was written. Very few players own a C clarinet today, so these C clarinet sections are usually transposed with the Bb clarinet by reading a tone above the written note. Not to mention some orchestra works which include clarinet in Bb, A and C within the same movement. On some occasions there is no time for the player to switch from one instrument to another, so players tend to transpose that section with the clarinet they are playing at the time.
Bass clarinettists on the other hand tend to read in bass clef, especially in German notation – kind of a cello part but in Bb. However, the difficulty increases when composers – e.g. Wagner, Verdi, etc. – wrote bass clarinet parts with sections for clarinet in A, either in treble or bass clef. A good example of bass clarinet in A in bass clef is in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, act 2.
In order for the player to develop this ‘extra transposing skill’ it is advisable to train our brain in advance by practising exercises related to this subject.
Be prepared, find yourself a set of short exercises that you can transpose to all the different keys. This will make you a greater player.