Keys and Intonation

For Anything and Everything to do with Flute Playing and Music

Moderators: Classitar, pied_piper, Phineas

Post Reply
Posts: 12
Joined: Sat May 29, 2010 4:50 pm

Keys and Intonation

Post by accidentaltourist »

Two questions that don't seem to fit in any section so I decided to put in General...

Why is E-flat major such a popular key for composers (esp. classical) to write for wind instruments? :roll: I was told once that it is because Eb best avoids intonation problems, but I remain unconvinced. Any more detailed explanation here?

Also any jazz flutist around who can help me understand why jazz musics are often written in keys with sooooo many flats on it? Already not good at sight-reading, I am really suffering when reading jazz music (and find it less painful to test out the notes by the ears...) :oops:

Any insight most welcomed!

"What sounds more out of tune than a flute player? Two flutists playing together" - WA Mozart

Posts: 14
Joined: Fri Apr 01, 2011 11:41 am

Re: Keys and Intonation

Post by Mindermast »

There are quite a few wind instruments rooted on other keys than c-major. Of course the next question should be "why are those instruments in such odd keys?", but I don't have a good answer to that, only one guess: Compromise between sound, size and handling.

Saxophones in E-flat and B-flat are very popular.
Trumpets come in B-flat.
Trombones come in B-flat as well.
Single horns come in F, B-flat, or even E-flat
Clarinets most commonly come in B-flat.
Recorders come in C and F, historical recorders had many keys.

As you can see, wind instruments favor flats.

String instruments have no hard limits on intonation and therefore can adapt easily to any key as long as they don't need to play empty strings.

Wind and string instruments cover a wide range of classical ensemble and orchestra music, and therefore it is quite logical, that flat keys are easier to write. Of course, this is not so much fun for musicians who play instruments based on c, such as flutists and pianists. Concerning the piano, I can tell from my own experience, that you get used to it. I suppose, the same is true for flutes. And if you study exercises for jazz music or for church organ, you often find a hint "practise in all keys".

On the other hand, there is the concept of moods for the keys, which might be important too. But this subject is extremely unclear because even in ancient times, when there was no tempered tuning, people could not agree on the moods of the keys.

Post Reply