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A.S. I'm sorry if this question may seem stupid. I've been playing a the viola since years in many orchestras but I'm still a complete ignorant in the field of woodwinds.


I've been trying to transcribe Wagner's Tannhauser in East West Symphonic Orchestra.

This VST limits the extensions of every instrument by default: while writing the clarinet part I've noticed I couldn't play any note below D2. In the VST, instruments extensions are very accurate when it comes to string, so I assume they're correct for woodwinds also and therefore D2 is the lowest note you could play with a clarinet.

However, take a look at this:

excerpt of Tannhauser - showing staff for 2 clarinets in A, with low E2's written

Let me explain the problem. The whole ouverture is in E major and the first note is a B2 for all the instruments that play.

As soon as I saw the notes, I noticed they need to be transposed. In the case of the photo above, they need to go down 3 semitones.

However, if you do that you'll notice that the lower part will go below D2 (and I can't play below D2!).

Why not transpose the clarinet by +9 instead of -3? Perhaps you're just getting the wrong octave? Nope. Unless I'm becoming deaf, there's just one note being played at the beginning and that note is B2 (not B3) so the octave I'm trying to achieve is the correct one. Here, check by yourself: Tannhauser on Youtube

So, what's going on? Is Wagner fooling with the woodwinds? Is the VST fooling with me? Is the score wrong?

Being a string instrument player I've always been in a what you see is what you play mindset. Can someone explain me how does the transposition above works?


EDIT: Yep, according to this page I'm right. Clarinet in A means -3 semitones. How then is even possible to play the part above if a clarinet doesn't go below D2?

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  • 1
    The A clarinet goes down to Db. Are you perhaps notating for a Bb clarinet? Aug 25, 2013 at 22:05
  • It looks like East West VST provides you with sample for a not better specified "Clarinet". This sample only goes down to D2 unless hacked into thinking he's playing above D2...
    – Saturnix
    Aug 25, 2013 at 23:13

1 Answer 1

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This is a good question as transpositions notoriously trip people up.

First off, Wagner's not playing any tricks, and you've got the right octave, so rest easy. :)

The "normal" Bb clarinet's lowest written note is E2 which will sound as you described one whole-step lower than written pitch (D2.)

The A clarinet has the same written range as the Bb clarinet, but sounds a minor third (or three semitones) lower than written pitch. Thus, with an A clarinet, a low C#2 is possible that is otherwise not possible on the Bb clarinet.

It is considered standard practice for an orchestral clarinettist to own (and bring) both a Bb and an A clarinet with them. Many also have bass clarinets (especially if they are 2nd or 3rd chair) and Eb soprano if necessary (again, if they sit second chair.)

Unfortunately, the VST doesn't know any of this, and doesn't distinguish between different transpositions since it's not a real instrument anyway. The problem therefore lies in the fact that the music is written correctly but due to transposition, it is out of the range for the VST, so the VST is incapable of playing the notes.

As a composer, I run into these issues all the time with different instruments, sounds, and effects on a daily (and hourly) basis. I think that composers do just as much "imagining" currently as composers of old, but that's a subject for another time.

My solution to this problem is to use a MIDI patch instead of a fancy VST. Sometimes labeled something like "Smartmusic Synth," the MIDI will play any note entered - regardless if it is actually possible on a real instrument. I find such changes to be helpful when writing things that I know are possible, but are beyond the capability of the computer.

Also, make sure that your staff / instrument's transposition is configured correctly - that will also help with playback.

Hope that helps.

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