Pitch of brass instruments

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The following is a comparison table of the pitch of the common brass instruments in descending order of pitch.


Comparison of pitch

Whereas it is usually quite easy to determine whether an instrument is pitched in, say, F or B♭ or E♭, it is not always obvious which octave of F or B♭ is being referred to. In the following table, the second harmonic (the lowest normally playable open note, written as middle C) is presented using scientific pitch notation to identify the octave. For example, the second harmonic of a B♭ trumpet or cornet is B♭3 which is just below middle C.


In modern times, the range of most three-valved brass instrument is formally considered to extend from three whole tones below the 2nd harmonic to the 10th harmonic of the unlengthened instrument, though skilled players can produce tones outside this range. For transposing instruments this is from written F♯ below middle C, to E two octaves and a third above middle C.

Whole tube vs half tube

The downward range limitation applies to the high brass that are three-valved half-tube[1] instruments (e.g., trumpet, cornet, flugelhorn). The low brass instruments such as trombone, tuba, euphonium, and alto horn are whole-tube and can play the fundamental tone (1st partial) of each harmonic series. Furthermore, the low brass often have extra valves to extend their range uniformly, since the fundamental is chromatically discontinuous with the lowest 2nd partial reachable on three-valve instrument or via the seven-position slide on a trombone. Trombone and tuba in particular are often called upon in modern music of all genres to play pedal notes (1st partial notes) and so-called "false harmonics" and "false tones" below their formal range.

Special case of the Horn

Classifying the horn as pitched in B♭ is somewhat controversial. Its fundamental pitch is F near that of the bass tuba, but it is normally played much higher in its register. This is aided by the narrower bore and much smaller mouthpiece. What is written as middle C for a horn is in fact the fourth harmonic, not the second. However, most horns are fitted with a fourth valve which puts the horn into B♭ a fourth higher, which alleviates the problem in the higher register of the harmonics being uncomfortably close together. In fact, much of the time the horn is played in B♭, and its range corresponds more with an instrument of that pitch.

Modern bass trombone

The modern bass trombone is like a tenor trombone but has two valves, one pitched in F and one in G♭. When combined, these valves put the instrument into D. Bass trombones have a wider bore and mouthpiece to facilitate the production of lower notes. In the past, single valve instruments were popular, with the valve adjustable to produce F, E, or E♭. Before the advent of the tenor-bass trombone (the modern tenor trombone with trigger), bass trombones were simply made in lower keys, the most popular being G.

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