Why are they pitched Bb or in Eb?

Discussion in 'The Rehearsal Room' started by 2nd tenor, May 4, 2014.

  1. 2nd tenor

    2nd tenor Active Member

    I hope that this is the right section to post in and that no one will mind what might be a rather simple question to the better schooled. It's long been a puzzle to me as to why Brass Band Instruments (and others too) are pitched in Bb and Eb rather than in C. :confused: For those that don't know already when you play what you believe to be a C on a Bb instrument you are actually playing a Bb in true or concert pitch (as on a piano).

    There are many well informed members in the forum, please spare a few lines to explain. Thanks. :clap:
  2. pbirch

    pbirch Member

    it is a good question, but you should know that not all brass instruments are in Bb or Eb, tubas come in C, and F, and trumpets and cornets come in A, C and D as well as Bb and Eb, there may be other pitches too.
    All the pitch of an instrument represents is the pitch of its fundamental note, from that any instrument can play any notes as soon as the player can work out the transpositions.
    A better question might be why do we use only instruments pitched in Bb and Eb in the brass band? The answer is probably because it is historically the way we do things with no real reason or drive to change things.
  3. GJG

    GJG Well-Known Member

    Indeed; specialist companies like Schilke will also provide you with soprano trumpets pitched in E (natural), F and G, as well as piccolo trumpets in A, Bb, and C
  4. Euphman2

    Euphman2 Member

    The overlap from Eb cornet to Bb cornet to horn and so on does provide greater depth in sound.
    Covering a BBb bass part on a euphonium is not easy nor is covering the sop part on a Bb cornet.
    Perhaps this is a simple answer.
  5. tubadaz

    tubadaz Member

    There may also be some relation to the traditional non-valved instruments in the British Military, namely the Bb Bugle and the Eb Cavalry Trumpet.

    ...but then again, I may be barking up a totally wrong tree! :-D

    (That said, the traditional US Drum & Bugle Corps instrumentation of valved G Bugles in various sizes *did* stem from the US Cavalry's non-valved G Bugles!) :)
  6. 2nd tenor

    2nd tenor Active Member

    Thanks to everyone who has replied so far :tup .

    There is always a reason why things evolve in the direction they do and end up as they are. Sometimes the reasons disappear over time or just fade into the background. I think some of the woodwind instruments are also pitched in Bb and Eb and there's some mileage in the overlap theory. Interestingly French horns are pitched in F and so are some orchestral tuba's, but why those pitches for them and why Bb and (then?) Eb for us?
  7. bb
    Last edited: May 5, 2014
  8. It is the written music for a British brass band that is “pitched in Bb, Eb”, etc., and not the instruments. Brass band music is designed to keep the fingerings of the various brass instruments the same (give or take), to make transfer between instruments relatively straightforward.

    The very same instruments
    that are played in British brass bands are played in other settings in concert pitch. The instruments have come to be labelled as “pitched in” Bb, Eb etc. specifically as a result of the common-fingering system.

    Under other systems, a bass player will read and play the very same instrument in concert pitch. This applies equally to, for example, a Bb bass, and an Eb bass. Both will read a C as a C, play a C and produce a note of C. Where they will differ outside the British Brass band system is in the fingering. To play a C, our own Bb player playing outside our system will play what we read as a D. Our Eb player will, elsewhere, play a “brass band A” to sound a C.

    Because percussion does not share the valve layout of brass instruments, bar-mallet instruments are written in concert pitch (although sometimes not at the sounded octave). If brass instruments did not all have different fingerings to produce a particular note, they too would be written in concert pitch.
  9. Laserbeam bass

    Laserbeam bass Active Member

    The difference in pitch of a fourth/fifth between instruments has been around for centuries. Violin/Viola/Cello/Double Bass; Recorders from Kleine Sopranino to Sopranino to Descant down to Great Bass and beyond.

    The reason to pitch in Bb/Eb for brass instruments could be as simple as, the fourth/fifth has worked throughout time for other instrument families, and the Bb/Eb option over C/F instruments is a slightly different, and more aesthetically pleasing timbre?
    Last edited: May 5, 2014
  10. 2nd tenor

    2nd tenor Active Member

    In my own research I came across this in Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trumpet):
    "There are several types of trumpet. The most common is a transposing instrument pitched in B with a tubing length of about 148 cm. Earlier trumpets did not have valves, but modern instruments generally have either three piston valves or, more rarely, three rotary valves. Each valve increases the length of tubing when engaged, thereby lowering the pitch."

    It's quite a big article but doesn't specify why Bb and Eb where chosen. Interestingly another article on that site about Saxaphones indicated that they were originally available in many pitches but that only the Bb and Eb survived. Their might have been some military band influence.

    Please keep the replies coming, every one gives a little more information. Thanks. :)
  11. mikelyons

    mikelyons Supporting Member

    One suggestion I might make is to do with the simple pragmatism of size. Most instruments ended up at their particular size because that is a convenient size for human use. Clarinets in Bb and A are most common because they are 'just the right size and weight not to be too tiring to hold or requiring too awkward finger positions, while also having an aesthetic tonal quality. There are limitations imposed on instrument construction to do with the length of tubing (and, for fingered instruments, the distance between and position of finger holes/string positions) where different harmonic series produce more, or less, pleasing results. Horns and trumpets had different purposes to fulfil and their size is determined by that usage (eg. horns were often carried on saddles). Wish I had more time to discuss this
  12. nigeb12

    nigeb12 Member

    they are in Bb and Eb so we can play with saxophones;)
  13. Mello

    Mello Member

    According to Wally Horwood, famous Saxophone Guru , and exceedingly well respected Sax authority - organised a recreation of the first public saxophone appearance, It was a Baritone Sax in Bb, and during the performance a key fell off ! . The recreation took place at the British Saxophone Congress in Wakefield in the Centenary year of Adolph Sax. The small group featured a Baritone Sax . which true to form had a faulty key ( deliberately so - as in its debut appearance. )

    Interestingly ( which is why I post this info ) in the small group was none other than
    Jean Baptiste Arban , whose Cornet Method is considered as a Brass players Bible.
  14. MoominDave

    MoominDave Well-Known Member

    I believe the British bass trombone in G was a throwback to the days when tenor trombones could be found in C - the 'quartbass' to the Bb tenor trombone would naturally be in F, as found in various places on the continent in the 19th century and before. When Bb tenor trombones evolutionarily won out (19th century), we were left with the G bass as a vestigial organ...

    I will have more of a dig on this one generally, as I do not have a good answer as to the big question "Why Bb and Eb?". I agree - it does look odd.
  15. PeterBale

    PeterBale Moderator Staff Member

    Not sure of all the historical background, but military bands quickly gravitated to use the Bb/Eb series of instruments (clarinets, cornets, horns). When the saxophone was invented, there were originally two complete series, one in Bb/Eb for military band use, and one in C/F for orchestral use. The latter range was soon phased out, although the C melody sax continued a little longer, as the player could read straight off the piano copy without having to transpose.
  16. trumpetmike

    trumpetmike Active Member

    Not quite - the instruments of the brass band ARE pitched in Bb and Eb - the open lowest harmonic produced IS a concert Bb or Eb. It is possible to purchase C (and A) cornets but they are very rare and would involve transposing for the vast majority of cornet music.

    You are right to say that in other genres of music the instruments are found reading from concert pitched music (especially the trombones and tubas/basses) but the instruments themselves are pitched in Bb/Eb.

    There are a number of good suggestions already as to why the instruments are found in these pitches more than others. Having spoken to a number of manufacturers, one of the other reasons could easily be because it just happens that instruments are easier to build in those keys. Building a cornet in C (for example) appears to be more difficult than one in Bb - the intonation is generally less secure (even with the very finest manufacturers they appear to have this problem, so it isn't just a question of the ability of the maker).
  17. Of course, I stand corrected.

    While writing, I'd like to add to the point I was trying (to the extent you mention, badly) to get across. Where everything is written in concert pitch, that means that, as already stated, the fingerings are different for Bb, Eb and other-pitched instruments. However, it means that everyone is reading in the same key, unlike in brass bands where Eb, Bb and concert-pitch instruments are presented with different key signatures. Thus, there are pros and cons to both concepts.
  18. 2nd tenor

    2nd tenor Active Member

    The ideas continue to come in, great! Keep them coming please, all ideas are valued and they prompt further ideas and discussion.

    The half octave split to allow instruments to overlap makes sense to me. In terms of the number of flats and sharps in the key of a piece played by a band I believe that there is only one (sharp or flat) difference between the Bb and Eb instruments. I think that minimal difference helps with keeping pieces equally playable for all the band. Perhaps some clever and better informed person (I've not got the skill) might work out for us what would happen with different half octave splits.

    The choice of instrument size first makes sense too: this is what we can make now go play it or this size can be carried on your horse in battle, etc. Perhaps the bugle pitch was also chosen on what sound carried a distance and could be heard through other sounds in battle. For herald (straight) trumpets there will be a maximum practical length for holding and as they are (and were?) played in small groups did the sound and availability of particular melodic intervals in the music they played (in unison) drive development?

    Reading an article on early trombones (sackbuts http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sackbut ) it seems that they were originally pitched in what was called A (the first note in the octave?) and a change in standard pitch (to A = 440) made that into Bb. The Sackbut's dimensions are to some extent based on human size, the slide can only be so long before you need to add a stick to it (like on a G trombone).

    Thanks again for all the comments, more please :).
    Last edited: May 6, 2014
  19. DS2014

    DS2014 Active Member

    Might it be something to do with the comfortable range of the average human voice?

    I'm using reverse logic here... if you look at the red hymn book, which I am guessing is written in keys that can be easily "sung along to", practically all of the hymns are in relatively straightforward keys (scarcely any with more than three or four flats or sharps). If the instruments were pitched differently, then it might be more awkward for musicians to play music to which people could sing along. If one goes back far enough, I guess, the orchestral instruments were initially built to be sung along to as well.
  20. mikelyons

    mikelyons Supporting Member

    The voice idea does have merit, but that dates back to medieval times. Voices have ranges that are about a fourth apart (SATB) and very early church music used voices in parallel motion at the fourth or fifth (the other 'perfect' intervals to the octave.

    The OP seemed to be concerned with the reason for the use of Bb and Eb.

    As to the thing with trumpets and trombones, they are designed to project their sound. Early mouthpieces for these instruments were funnel shaped which enhanced the projection. If you look at French horns, you can still see this. The cup shaped mouthpiece came in with the cornett and other 'brass' instruments intended for indoor use. It produces a quieter sound. and was easier to carve in wood.

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