I am putting together a band to play the piece Variations on a Korean Folk Song by John Barnes Chance. I Was wondering if I could substitute both clarinets parts with a Alto sax seeing as they are both pitched in the same key.

https://www.jwpepper.com/Variations-on-a-Korean-Folk-Song/153544.item#.YbI2u9DMKUk This is the piece there is a preview on the website

  • How desperate are you? :-) . You can substitute anything while losing intended tone/timbre, etc, or you can make the Principal Clarinet transpose the Eb soprano part, and so on. Commented Dec 9, 2021 at 18:03
  • Probably the best idea, timbre-wise, @Carl Witthoft I don't remember how high it goes but it shouldn't be too much for a skilled Bb player
    – nuggethead
    Commented Dec 10, 2021 at 0:11
  • @CarlWitthoft - from the question, I feel that OP doesn't want to use clarinets, so where would the Principal Clarinettist be?
    – Tim
    Commented Dec 10, 2021 at 8:26
  • 1
    It sounds like a "too many saxophones, not enough clarinets" problem
    – nuggethead
    Commented Dec 10, 2021 at 10:38

2 Answers 2


Two instruments being pitched "in Eb" does not mean they sound in the same octave, so one Eb instrument cannot necessarily be substituted for another.

  • The Eb alto clarinet has a sounding range from G♭2 to B♭5. (SOURCE)
  • The Eb soprano clarinet sounding range is usually given as E3 to G6. (SOURCE)
  • The Eb alto saxophone has a sounding range from D♭3 to A♭5. (SOURCE)

This means that the lowest tritone on the Eb alto clarinet (Gb2 – C3) and the highest octave (roughly) on the Eb soprano clarinet (A5 – G6) will not be available on the Eb alto sax.

In practice, whether the substitutions will work depends on the specifics of the score and whether, for example, changing the octave of a part will sound okay.

At the most straightforward level of arranging, if those lowest and highest pitches are needed then

  1. If no, then alto sax will be fine;
  2. If used infrequently, you might be able to avoid them or replace them with other pitches;
  3. If used frequently, you would have to move the part up or down an octave.

No, you should not make this substitution. Aaron's answer illustrates how these three most common Eb band instruments have different ranges. So some notes may already be impossible.

My answer is more from the perspective of the composer's intent. Chance wrote for a specific timbre, and just as you wouldn't want to just go changing some of his notes arbitrarily, you shouldn't mess around with changing a bunch of timbres either. The alto is a much stronger timbre and it doesn't blend as well as the clarinets.

Assuming you are conducting this piece, you'll have to weigh the importance of Chance's masterful orchestration against the need to balance your ensemble. If it means that a young person might get to play in this wonderful piece ONLY if you make this substitution, does that outweigh the desires of the composer? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't.

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