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What range of notes (pitches) can be handled by any instrument in a symphonic orchestra (excluding percussions, of course)?

EDIT: In other words, I am asking about that core part of instruments' ranges where all of them overlap. I am not even sure if such core part exists. Most likely, piccolo and tuba don't share any notes (pitches) in common.

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  • Are you asking for a list of ranges for each instrument? If so, the question is likely to be closed.
    – Tim
    May 25, 2022 at 6:52
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    Go to Boss TU-12H manual and there is a chart showing just what you ask.
    – Tim
    May 25, 2022 at 7:54
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    It would help people trying to answer, if you can explain why you are asking this question? What are you hoping to do with an answer? May 25, 2022 at 10:01
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    @Tim, brilliant: that chart is wrong. It is trivial to find tuba music that extends well above C4 (middle C).
    – phoog
    May 25, 2022 at 10:36
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    Well, unsurprisingly, middle C is more or less the point of overlap. If you have no particular reason, middle C is a good enough point to satisfy curiosity. May 25, 2022 at 14:40

3 Answers 3

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The answer, if there is one, will depend on how wide a net you cast with the phrase "any symphonic instrument." If you include the most common instrumentation in a classical orchestra, there may be a small overlap, but many compositions and orchestras include less-common or more-modern instruments that extend the range up and down.

For reference, look at the chart on Wikipedia at Range (music) § Typical ranges.

You can see that it's even possible to have a single section of the orchestra with little-to-no overlap, for example the octocontrabass clarinet and the sopranino clarinet have no overlap. (Of course it's probably rare to have both of these in the same piece.) The contrabassoon and oboe have only a couple notes worth of overlap.

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Well, quite obviously there are instruments that do not have overlapping ranges, which is kind of the idea behind having different ranges. To make Mr. Phoog happy here is an example of such: The highest instrument of the typical symphonic orchestra is the piccolo flute, which cannot go lower than a C5. The lowest common instrument would the contrabassoon, whose range is usually considered to go up to C4.

Of course possible way to counter this is by transposing in octaves. This does make a lot of sense as with a change in register you also get changes of colour, dynamic expressibility and such. While it would technically be possible to play a piccolo part on the bass tuba it will not sound good together. Or more reasonably: The bass clarinet can play a lot of clarinet stuff in the original octave, but it will sound differently.

If we were to talk about the individual ranges it is quite safe to assume that most professional instruments have at least a range of 2-2.5 octaves. Of course this then depends: There are instruments such as percussive instruments and keyboard instruments that do have a very specific set of pitches. You do have string instruments where the range is limited above by the length of the fingerboard (although technically you can do harmonics to get more range upwards). You get brass instrument where the range is limited by above only by what you can achieve on your mouthpiece using lip tension. And there are woodwinds, where the upper limits depends on how many overtones you can overblow.

So while brass and woodwinds theoretically do have no upper limits, going higher on these instruments gets really hard quickly. (Also strings do have not theoretical upper limit, using harmonics.)

So we see that most instruments do have a hard lower limit and some sort of soft upper limit, which can be pushed up by technique. This means that technically this "shared range" is only limited by the instrument with the highest lower limit, which would be piccolo. But this is not really reasonable.

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  • Thank you for this input. Can you, please, explain to me what you mean by "doing harmonics" (or "using harmonics")? It looks like you are talking about some special technique that can produce some very high-pitched sounds, which are normally not produced on a given instrument.
    – brilliant
    May 25, 2022 at 8:58
  • @brilliant Playing harmonics or flagolett on a stringed instrument means playing while touching the string at a node of some harmonic overtone, blocking all but mupltiples of this harmonic. Thus at the middle you get the octave, at a third you get the fifth above the octave, at 1/4 you get two octaves, at 1/5 you get two octaves and a major third, at 1/6 you get two octaves and a fifth, at 1/7 you get two octaves and a natural seventh, at 1/8 you get three octaves, at 1/9 three octaves and a big wholetone and so on. Of course the higher you go the less energy will be there.
    – Lazy
    May 25, 2022 at 10:25
  • This answer would be improved by naming a specific pair of instruments and specifying their non-overlapping ranges. As it is, it cannot be verified.
    – phoog
    May 25, 2022 at 10:33
  • @phoog What would be the use of that, considering the OP himself gave an example in the question?
    – Lazy
    May 25, 2022 at 10:42
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    the lowest note on a piccolo flute is D5 May 25, 2022 at 10:54
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The range of a bass tuba extends to G4:

https://www.vsl.co.at/en/Bass_tuba/Range

If you consider that a piccolo part can always be required to double (full-sized) flute, then you can write unison passages for your full orchestra in the range C4 to G4.

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  • This answer does not exactly answer the question. Also the bass tuba is not the lowest common instrument in a symphonic orchestra (unless using pedal tone. The tuba is quite flexible).
    – Lazy
    May 25, 2022 at 10:50
  • Thank you for this answer. Can you, please, explain what "to double the flute" means? Does it mean to play the exact part, except one octave higher?
    – brilliant
    May 25, 2022 at 11:07
  • @brilliant "doubling" often means "play the same notes as," whether in the same octave or another or even at some other interval. Here it refers to playing more than one instrument in a single piece. The player's part will specify which instrument to play at which point. See e.g. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woodwind_doubler and local802afm.org/allegro/articles/… ("Doubling: A premium of 20% is paid for the first double, and 10% for each add'l... There are some exclusions, such as: A, Bb and C clarinets, trumpets...")
    – phoog
    May 25, 2022 at 13:02
  • @brilliant also e.g. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… ("3 flutes, the third doubling piccolo").
    – phoog
    May 25, 2022 at 13:04

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