World Wide Woodshed

Commentary: On Keys And Chords

by Greg Haacke

[Editor's note: this letter was received in response to the article Performance tip: On jazz and keys. I am reprinting it here with the permission of the author]

Hi, Warren,

  I am a band director, trombone player, and arranger, and I recently came across your product and website. I have tried the demo version and it works great. I will probably be ordering the real thing soon. It would be quite helpful in my arranging.

I read your item "On Jazz and Keys" and I had a few comments for you:

I have played a lot of jazz music (mostly big band), and have not really noticed any preference for an Eb key signature. What you will find, however, is that a majority of music written for wind instruments is in a "flat" key (F, Bb, Eb, Ab). This is why your flatting of B, E, and A usually works.

There is a logical reason for this: most wind instruments are constructed and tuned to a Bb scale. All brass instruments except french horn have a Bb as their "fundamental" (open) pitch. Even though the bass clef instruments are in "C," they are Bb open horns. Trumpets transpose up a major second, so they read C but are playing Bb. Same for Bb clarinets; flutes are in C.

Alto saxes and french horns are exceptions, but for good reason. Their natural range falls in the middle between trombones and trumpets--as an "alto" sound--to provide for full sounding orchestrations. In fact, the same principle works for the viola, which falls between violin and cello. These keyings are not historical "accidents" but were purposely developed in the 18th and 19th centuries to provide a continuous orchestral range of pitch from the highest to the lowest. In this way, chords can be voiced with even spacing, yet with all instruments playing in similar parts of their overall range.

Even the saxes are keyed in this manner. You mentioned that the sax is in Eb, but this is the alto. The tenor is in Bb, transposed up a major 9th, and the soprano is also in Bb, up a major 2nd. The baritone is in Eb like the alto, but transposed up an octave plus a sixth. The idea is the same: provide a continuous, overlapping range of pitch.   

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