Instruments in different pitches or frequencies?


When you want to get an instrument, you usually get in the situation where you need to choose between an instrument in one pitch vs the same instrument in another pitch and that can be very confusing.

For example a recorder flute vs a soprano flute, or maybe a Bb trumpet vs a C trumpet. In this article we will explain the differences and why it matters when you buy an instrument in a fast and beginner friendly way.

How to choose

If you are going to buy an instrument, check the pitch range of it, then check if the songs you want to play are in that range, you also need to decide if you want to transpose the music or not. If your instrument works using frequencies, same thing. 

Now if you don’t know what frequency or pitch are, or how to find the range of your instrument, keep reading.

What is frequency?

Pitch is a way to classify sounds in a similar way than frequency. Frequency is measured in Hertz (Hz), a regular person can hear from 20Hz to 20,000Hz. 20Hz is the lowest, so it sounds dark and/or cold and 20,000 sounds bright and/or warm.

Then why don’t we use Hz in music? Because Hz were discovered after pitch, and pitch has been the standard since the classical period.

So pitch is almost like frequency with the problem that the instruments were tuned by ear or based on other instruments and not by machine.

What are the pitches?

In the past there were Concert pitch, Scientific pitch and Baroque Pitch. Nowadays Concert pitch is considered the international standard, they start with the note A over middle C and tune it at 440Hz (Also known as A440).

Music Notations

Pitches are label using the scientific pitch notation using the letters A,B,C,D,E,F,G and going from the octave 0 to the 8, so the lowest note you’ll find in an instrument like a piano is A0 or C0 and the highest will be C8. That’s why middle C is C4.

If you get an old music sheet you may find another notation, the Helmholtz pitch notation, it also uses A-G, but instead of going from the octave 0 to 8, it goes  C,, C, C c c’ c’’ c’’’, with each “C” being almost an octave.

Highest and lowest pitch and frequency

For reference the highest note for a human will be D#10 at 19912Hz of the 20,000Hz we can hear, with the next one being E10 at 21096Hz.  Also the lowest will be E0 at 20.6Hz, just barely above 20Hz.

Music instruments in different pitches

If you find an instrument in C, D or any key, you can assume correctly most of the time that it is in the 4th octave, C4, D4, etc. The 2nd most common octave for instruments to be in is 3, then 5. This doesn’t apply to instruments with names like Soprano, Alto, Bass, Contrabass, etc (here’s a lot of them). 

Non-transposing instruments

When you read sheet music, the note that it’s written has that exact same sound, so if i read a D and play it, it should sound like a D, that is obvious right? Well no, this is true for most instruments, the non-transposing instruments, but there’s a group of instruments that read one way and sound another.

Transposing instruments

These instruments (full list here) are the instruments that are not in concert pitch, instruments that are in concert pitch are in C, when you read sheet music the sound you read is the sound you make, but with transposing instruments when you read a C and play that C, it’s gonna sound like the name of the instrument.

For example, I have a Bb clarinet, if I play a C in my clarinet the sound is going to be Bb. Another example, I have a F alto saxophone, if I play C on my saxophone, the sound is going to be F.

Let’s say you have a band and they want to play 1 song, you get the music sheet in concert pitch, because that’s the default , your friend plays the piano and you the D clarinet, if you play the same notes at the same time most likely it’s going to sound bad, specially if you add more transposing instruments in different keys.

So you need to transpose the music for it to sound the same, you can do this 2 ways, you can learn how many intervals your instrument is from concert pitch and change every note from memory to that interval or you can get the music sheet and transpose it so there’s no problem for interpretation.

If you would get in an orchestra, the conductor will give you your music sheet on your instrument, but when he talks to everybody about a note, you should assume he is talking in concert pitch and you should do the conversion for your instrument.

What instrument do I choose?

As a beginner, when you have to decide from buying between transposing instruments you need to know which variation/key is the most common, because it will have the most music written for it, if you already know what songs you want to play check if the range of the instrument is enough to play it transposed or not.

Let’s say you want a trumpet instrument to play songs that were made for piano (a non transposing instrument), then i will recommend you a C trumpet to avoid this problem all together. 

Once you get more advanced you can get a second instrument with the range your first one couldn’t play, remember that the key your instrument is in (C,D,E,F,G,A,B) is the lowest pitch your instrument can make without valves.

If you’re having trouble finding the range of your particular instrument (here’s a lot of them) a good rule of thumb is to find the range for a similar instrument or variation of instrument and apply that to yours. 

For example if you don’t know the range of your contrabass flute, but you know that the western concert flute has 3 octaves of range, you can start at contrabass range and assume it is 3 octaves up from there, or if you can play before buying it try playing the lowest and highest note you can with the help of an app for perfect pitch.

Conclusion

Now that you know what pitch is, and how it’s measured, you can check for the instrument you want and see if it’s transposing or not, then check all the variants of that instrument and choose one based on most common or range, then if you find that you can’t play a song or is not that easy, you can get another variant.

For more on each specific instrument’s variants and ranges we have dedicated articles on this website.

Sources

  1. Ultimate Music Theory
  2. Wikipedia
  3. How music works
  4. Britannica
  5. Orchestra Library

Luis Gerardo

Musician as a hobby for +6 years, documenting every instrument in simple words for this website.

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