Taken from the first answer to this question: Should you write in F# Major or Gb Major?

Some instruments—like brass—are more comfortable in flat keys. Although players should be able to play in all keys, your brass players will make fewer mistakes in G♭ major, trust me :-)

why is this?

I can understand why some keys are more practical for some string instruments, but I am completely clueless when it comes to brass (experience: trying to make sounds with a corroded trumped for 5 min when I was 11yo)

  • Maybe the start of an answer here – Tom Jun 9 '20 at 21:12
  • @Tom_C, it was interesting to read, but I don't think there is a clear cut answer there (since the focus went on clarinet with the opening sentence saying it's different from all the other wind instruments). What I got from it is that their range seems to span some extra flat notes around their natural key (so I guess 2 more notes? one on each side) and that for some unexplained reason the flats have a better intonation. – Thomas Jun 9 '20 at 21:24
  • 1
    Well, that was a start! IMO an important point is that all these instruments are transposing, and usually in the same keys: Bb and Eb. If you write a piece in a flat key, this results, after transposing, in an easier score. At least, that is what they told me when I was not understanding why a C on my saxophone was not a real C… – Tom Jun 9 '20 at 21:29
  • yes, that link definitely opened more questions now :) – Thomas Jun 9 '20 at 21:41
  • 1
    Related question – guidot Jun 11 '20 at 8:47

First of all, many brass instruments are transposing instruments in a way that adds sharps. The most commonly used trumpet is in B♭, horn is in F, and even though the low brass read at concert pitch, trombones and euphoniums are based in B♭ and tubas can come in F, B♭, or E♭ (as well as C). That is, for the purpose of this discussion, trombone, euphonium and the low tuba are effectively B♭ instruments. So the instruments are naturally centered more around B♭ than C.

When we transpose a trumpet, its Cs and Gs are always fingered open (no valves pressed). In a technical passage, having open fingerings mixed into the line makes things easier. As we deviate from C major and add sharps or flats, C and G are among the last pitches to be flattened, but among the first to be sharpened. And remember that for a B♭ trumpet we're starting with two sharps. So a piece in concert G results in the B♭ instruments playing in A, and there are significantly fewer open notes (upper Es are also open). This isn't a huge challenge and I always say that fingerings are not the hard part of playing brass instruments, but it is something.

There are also some tuning issues. The low written C# / concert B is a particularly ugly note, which obviously shows up much more often in sharp keys. And there are some other more minor tuning issues that tend to be more easily dealt with in flat keys, but I'd have to get deep into the physics to really explain why.

  • How would a 'D trumpet' fit into the discussion? – Tim Jun 10 '20 at 7:48
  • The low written C# / concert B is a particularly ugly note, which obviously shows up much more often in sharp keys. But in Db (Brass tuning) the flat will be more problematic while C# as leading tone is easier to play. – Albrecht Hügli Jun 10 '20 at 9:00
  • 1
    @Tim you can get trumpets in darn near any pitch you want :-) . Most of them are used only by musicians with a decent level of skill so the key signature no longer is a major concern. – Carl Witthoft Jun 10 '20 at 12:49
  • 1
    Some spurious reasoning here. That low C# has precisely the same issues if it's spelt as Db. And it may be easier to minimise the number of elements in a key signature, but it's really got nothing to do with one fingering being 'easier' than another. – Laurence Payne Nov 12 '20 at 23:57

From what I've noticed is that (often) flat keys are not harder to play but can be harder to read. (Similarly for clarinets and saxophones.) A piece in concert C is written in D for Bb instruments (not too bad.) A piece written in concert E will be in F# for Bb instruments and C# for Eb instruments. There are pieces in B major (sometimes in B minor then moving to B major) which calls for C# major. Most people find keys with a larger number of sharps (or flats) harder to read (not really harder to play) than those with fewer.

  • That’s exactly what I am trying to explain in the addition of my answer. – Albrecht Hügli Nov 13 '20 at 6:00

I think all comes from the origin of the F scale which is very easy for the fingers 1,0,12,1,0,1,0,1. *)

And March compositions are modulating a fourth up in the Trio-Section. So we always are going though the circle of fourths.

(Actually Brass pieces have rarely more than 4 or 5 sharps or flats.)

*) For beginners the use and change 23-12 in E-major is a bigger challenge.

Edit: Another point!

Mind that Eb-Horns have one sharp more than Bb instruments.


Yes, I’m talking about brass band music that might be written for amateurs and beginners. And I supposed the question is referring to these. Profis won’t have problems to play in sharp keys anyway.

But in the pop/rock scene we have another problem, also for amateurs and beginners:

When I was arranging songs for school bands the key E-major was quite easy for guitarists But this meant for Bb brass instruments F# or Gb. Now as we know this music usually extends by secondary dominants in sharp key regions what would complicate the reading again for Bb instruments: e.g. A#7-D#7-G#7-C#7->F#. The accompaniment or the soloist parts will be Bb7-Eb7-Ab7-Db7->Gb and obviously much easier for reading in Gb than ib F#.

  • I'm not convinced by this reasoning. – Carl Witthoft Jun 10 '20 at 12:49
  • I've been playing brass instruments for over 60 years. (I know, that's no argument ;). I've never met arrangements in E or B but in Ab and Db. Mind that Eb-Horns have one sharp more than Bb instruments. I myself avoided playing "home on the range" that has only 2 sharps. – Albrecht Hügli Jun 10 '20 at 13:04
  • That may be true in the wind band/brass band world. In the wider musical field music comes in all keys. Even a pop session may throw up a 'hard' key signature, to accommodate a singer's particular vocal range. And funky horn sections in guitar-based musical styles often find themselves in lots of sharps! – Laurence Payne Nov 13 '20 at 0:01

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.