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B-flat Instruments

I've not been posting a whole lot lately, mostly because I've been working really hard at my day job, which has left me exhausted when I'm not working. Tonight, however, I'm a bit hopped up on the caffeine that was in the yummy coffee that Mrs. Mellow brewed up earlier this evening.

So I've got some time to write a post that's been brewing for a couple of weeks.

It all boils down to a single question: Why can't all instruments be in the same key?

Specifically, I turn to my trumpet. If you don't already know, the trumpet is a B-flat instrument. All of the other instruments (piano, guitar, mandolin (soon), etc.) I play are C instruments. What does this mean? It means that I need to think really hard when I try to play my trumpet with someone else playing guitar, because I always get confused on what notes I should play, because a note on the trumpet is a different pitch than the same note on the guitar. Why? Because the guitar is a C instrument, the trumpet is a B-flat instrument, and I think in the key of C.

Sounds crazy, doesn't it? I sure think so.

So if I want, for example, to play the trumpet part for Ring of Fire while my buddy is playing the guitar part in the key of G, instead of playing the trumpet part as D DD DD E C D, which are the correct notes in the key of G, on the trumpet I think I need to play C CC CC D Bb C in order to be in tune with the guitar.

The way I think about it, a musical note *should* be tied to a frequency. So if I play a certain frequency on ANY instrument, it should be called the same note. That's just not the case. I don't like it. It confuses me.

I'll give at least 3 points to anyone who can comment on this situation in a way that makes me feel better about it.


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 11th, 2004 10:12 pm (UTC)
The real question is why is the trumpet a B-flat instrument?

Electronic tuners (for guitars, at least) work on the assumption that the key and strings for the instrument are fixed.

This is not always the case for all music and instruments.

Here is an interesting discussion on how notes are and are not tied to frequencies:
Feb. 12th, 2004 12:42 am (UTC)
Why are saxophones made in different keys? (http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a1_319b.html) Short answer, the "D DD DD E C D" technically refers to the valve settings rather than the tone.
Feb. 12th, 2004 06:20 am (UTC)
Thanks for the Straight Dope, Anonymous Commenter! If you don't mind revealing yourself, I'd love to know who you are and award you 4 points for the helpful link.
Feb. 12th, 2004 02:02 am (UTC)
I say its a conspiracy against you from the entire creation of music
The musical notes just want to confuse and frustrate all humans with their secret code
Or maybe it is just 4am oops 5am now and I am half asleep

Maybe I could get one point for each of those?
Feb. 12th, 2004 03:17 am (UTC)
Wow, Passion spam again. How annoying. Do people think that no one's heard of the film? Gah.

I used to play the clarinet, so I feel your pain. However, when I play stuff on the guitar, I'm transposing tunes all the time to get it in a key I can =sing=. So transposing is a good skill to learn for all instruments (I cheat -- I just write out what the new chords should be before playing. Another obvious cheat is using a capo on the guitar.)

My guess as to the origin is tradition -- an instrument is designed so certain tonal ranges sound pretty for that instrument (and others sound muddy, or bright, or whatever). Then they come up with note conventions so that the person doesn't have to read music with a bunch of accidentals when playing in the key is was designed for. I know that there are baroque recorders of differing keys (taking the place of bass, cello, viola, and violin) -- and people played music alot, so transposing was no big deal.

OR it was a conspiracy by the copyists of an earlier era: it prevented the "outsourcing" of a copying jobs, because you couldn't simply copy what the composer handed you, but had to know to transpose the score for different instruments...

I like my last explanation. Not that it's true, but it's fun.
Feb. 12th, 2004 08:07 am (UTC)
My guess lies with tradition as well. But it makes me think that they named the notes wrong on different instrumetns. I still think a sound of a certain frequency should be given the same name no matter what instrument produces it. Then you wouldn't have to transpose between instruments. Of course, it would require that all of the current fingering charts for non-C instruments be discarded in favor of more correct nomenclature, and that's probably where tradition wins.

Anyway, your post made me feel a little better about the situation, so you get three points. You also get a bonus point for the conspiracy theory, 'cause I love conspiracy theories. Be sure to keep up with your points and redeem them for valuable prizes at the end of the game.
Feb. 12th, 2004 04:40 am (UTC)
I think you have to blame the Greeks. Just for kicks.

I would fall back on my normal response and say "the trumpets derserve it," but I didn't know you were a trumpeter when I was so fond of that one. If, however, all instruments were in the same key, it would sorely limit the number of saxophones we could have, y'know? Because we just *really* need an alto sax, a tenor sax and a bari sax... Also, when all else failes, blame the trombones or the percussion.

I don't know. I've been awake for 4 minutes. I should not be commenting this early.

Feb. 12th, 2004 04:45 am (UTC)
No brainer
Why can't all instruments be in the same key?

Its the fault of the French.

Things would be easier for you if you thought of the theory behind the music and read the music relative to the key it is in. For example, if the music is in the key of G and you see a C note, think 4th instead of C. It takes some practice, because you are teaching yourself a new way to think, but it makes transposition a lot easier and eventually you'll be able to do it on the fly.

I think the accidental explanation makes sense. The less clutter on the score, the easier it is to read.
Feb. 12th, 2004 08:03 am (UTC)
Yeah, that's what I really need to do -- change the way I think. I'm pretty sure I think in the key of C. I need to think in math, instead.

I'm not convinced the accidental explanation makes sense. As it stands now, if you hand music to a pianist in the key of C, you hand music to a trumpeter in the key of Bb. It would be easier, I think, if you just handed them both music in the key of C. What that would mean is that the trumpeter wouldn't be using the same fingering chart that he currently uses -- the names of the notes on the fingering chart would have to be shifted a whole step. But then, at least a C on the trumpet would produce the same frequency as a C on the piano.

I like meep's conspiracy theory. That may be because of my fondness for conspiracy theories in general.

Anyway, thanks to your suggestion about changing the way I think. That's worth five points. Keep track of your points and redeem them for valuable prizes when the game is over.
Feb. 12th, 2004 06:58 am (UTC)
I still maintain it has to do with the ease of fingering/ fingering cominations on each particular instrument. Cecil Adams did a much better job of putting into words than I.
Feb. 12th, 2004 07:41 am (UTC)
Learn something new every day.

Y'know I never knew any of this despite playing guitar and singing for decades. I never bothered to ask any horn player about his insturment or make an independant inquiry.

Feb. 12th, 2004 08:42 am (UTC)
The way I think about it, a musical note *should* be tied to a frequency.

This probably isn't significant, but I'm going to throw in out (in hopes of more points). The frequencies for the notes aren't really set. More importantly the relative differences in the frequencies in different keys is not really set. Most people use the equal temperament scale now which makes the B-flat major sound like C major, just a little bit lower. You get this tunning by fuzzing some of the intervals. Back in the day they used different tunings, where C major would sound A LOT different than C# major. The different keys had different 'emotions' associated with them because the intervals in the scales were different depending on the key being played in. Maybe they different keyed instruments were made in the different keys to take advantage of the feelings for that particular key.

I can't find my theory book and my internet connection is being weird but you might do a search on scale tunings. There was something that I found interesting a few years ago that had something to do with Pythagoreans Comma or something like that. If you start on a note and go up by fifths you'll get a bunch of frequencies. If you start on the same not and go up by fourths you'll get another bunch of frequencies. A few octaves up the frequencies are supposed to hit the same not, but the difference is significant in the frequencies (something like a minor third). Don't take my word for this, because I'm pretty sure I'm messing some of it up. I just don't remember the details and can't find my info. I do remember that it caused me a lot of discomfort when I thought about it.
Feb. 13th, 2004 04:03 am (UTC)
I, personally, vote for having all instruments Bb. Just think of all the money that the Moravians could save on Chorale Books not having C, Eb, and Double-Bb. Incidentally, at Fairview, when the brass instruments play the Hosanna wirh the organ on the First Sunday in Advent and Palm Sunday, it's the organ that transposes.
I also think that we should blame Adam and Eve. Aren't they the root of all of mankinds problems?
Feb. 13th, 2004 07:40 am (UTC)
Re: Bb
Used to, I would have agreed with you, fellow (Bb) clarinet player. Now that I've defected to the flute (a C instrument), I should probably keep my mouth shut. It is easier to play along with piano/organ accompaniments. But back when I was playing the clarinet, I got pretty good at transposing on the fly. I'm sure it would have been more difficult had I been playing Eb horn, or something.
Feb. 13th, 2004 01:12 pm (UTC)
Re: Bb
Which reminds me - Melvin, the new band director, said that he would like you (and me) to come to band practice on Mondays. He is working up several special groups - low brass and clarinets - but I think he wants you for the flute.
Dec. 31st, 2004 05:36 pm (UTC)
i share your confusion, i have always written music by just writing out fret numbers or "A#" as a letter. recently i have been trying to compose in traditional form of notation, but then my converstion with my friend the alto sax player left me feeling a bit hopeless and confused. I have since asked many musicians why a note cannot stay (a frequency)itself. Many answers have been offered, but it seems like it is just a centuries-old-habit, or just plain stupid. Frankly since i never liked the whole concept of 8 out of 12 notes being significant, so this stupidity seems like an extension of an earlier stupidity, a coming-of-stupidity's-age...sorry but i spend WAY TOO much time trying to decide whether to call a perfectly good note A# or Bflat...i would prefer to call it "steve" and never deviate. but another good question would be why when i switch from oil paints to acrylic or to tempura or even when i switch media entirely and pull out a video camera, why is the color blue always blue? fuck music!!
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )

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