Back when I was part of my school's wind band, we used to always tune to a concert Bb. Why do wind bands tune to a Bb rather than an A (as discussed here)?

I recall our director once vaguely explaining this as being related to the fact that A is a relatively "difficult" note (in some sense) for brass instruments to play and that this confounds tuning somehow. I'm not sure what exactly this means, though, never having played a brass instrument.

Auxiliary question: do professional wind bands also tune to Bb, or is this just something done for the benefit of younger/less-skilled instrumentalists?

  • Thank you for posting this! I was also in a school wind band, and I could remember tuning to something other than concert A, but I couldn't remember exactly what it was. And I think this is an excellent companion question to the one I posted. – Bradd Szonye Jun 3 '14 at 22:03
  • All of which just begs the question of what wind instruments are doing in B flat to begin with! – Codeswitcher Jun 3 '14 at 22:31
  • There's a side mention of this issue in this article, which Caleb Hines helpfully linked in my related question. – Bradd Szonye Jun 4 '14 at 2:15
  • @Codeswitcher - a question I posed here about a year ago. – Tim Jun 4 '14 at 5:43
  • Here is the question Tim mentions: music.stackexchange.com/q/7734 – senshin Jan 2 '15 at 20:18

The reason is that most wind instruments are transposing. The "open" note (no valves down, trombone in home position) is B flat. It is best to tune to this to set the main instrument tuning. If other notes are out of tune, then the valve slides (or on smaller instruments "lipping" the note) will bring them into tune.

If A was used, then B flat brass would be tuning to their B natural (Concert pitch A - 2nd valve down). This would give the option of using either the main slide or 2nd valve slide to bring the note into tune.

Its a while since I played brass, but I think a G on an E flat instrument also sounds as concert pitch B flat, and is again a "no valves down" note.

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    Generally agreed, but the fact that the instruments are transposing doesn't really enter into it, just the fact that, as you said, concert Bb is an open or first position note. Eb instruments are very rare by the way, I've only ever seen the occasional clarinet in that key, and then only because it was a Mahler symphony. – Pat Muchmore Jun 3 '14 at 17:14
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    The alto saxophone is an Eb instrument. They're pretty common in wind bands. – David K Jun 3 '14 at 19:05
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    My dinky little high school band had alto and baritone saxophones, plus the occasional Eb and alto clarinet (all of which are pitched in Eb), so I don't think Eb instruments are all that rare. – senshin Jun 3 '14 at 19:50
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    No that's not true. Trombone is a C instrument, but Bb is still the most natural key (to the extent that one can even say there is one and only one "natural" key for any instrument). The only difference with a Bb instrument is that the note is written as a C. Concert Bb is (almost always) the tuning note for a concert band, despite the fact that there are at minimum 4 different transposition keys (and often at least a couple more) amongst the instruments. – Pat Muchmore Jun 5 '14 at 15:34
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    @kiwiron - I'm not sure if there are just some confusing differences in how Norway and America discuss these things. I've been playing trombone for twenty years, the standard tenor and bass trombone are non-transposing, concert pitch instruments in every piece I've ever played, and yes, they have a fundamental in first position of Bb. The tuba is another example of this. Transposition key does not equal most natural key. – Pat Muchmore Jun 9 '14 at 23:45

As kiwiron states, it's open tuning. This means the valves themselves will not affect the tuning of the 'main' instrument.Tuning of each individual valve should change very slightly, but still relatively in tune, when the main tuning slide is moved.so if tuning was to match a valved note, that little slide may have to be adjusted, and would put the rest of the instrument out.

EDIT: To your last part of the question, yes. I'm playing sometimes with a predominantly sax/trombone/trumpet band, and before the gigs start, the conductor always gives me two fingers - pointing down - to ask for some Bb notes from keyboard as reference points for the brass players to align to.

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  • +1, but please specify which instruments you're talking about. For example, the open note on B♭ clarinets and saxophones is G (concert F) – a concert B♭ on those instruments has most of the stops closed. – Bradd Szonye Jun 3 '14 at 22:44
  • Saxophones and clarinets with valves? I was really thinking in terms of brass.But, point well made. – Tim Jun 4 '14 at 5:41
  • Unfortunately I'm pretty clueless about brass. I only know woodwinds (where open tuning is mostly irrelevant) and strings (where it's very important). – Bradd Szonye Jun 4 '14 at 5:46

The question becomes then why were band instrument built in flat keys to begin with. I know that sax built his new instruments in Bb and Eb for bands, but also built sets ain F and C for orchestras which are little used. Originally, in the Baroque period for instance, D was the typical key for trumpets and therefore tympany. The trombones, the most ancient of brass instruments (sackbuts) come from the Renaissance when the pitch standard was about a half step higher, A = 460. But back then first position was called A. So when pitch standards changed trombones did not change their length, they simply redefined their open note as Bb.I do not know why trumpets became Bb instruments.

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  • Look at the comments below the question. There you'll find reference to my question in similar vein. – Tim Jun 18 '17 at 12:06
  • I've wondered about this myself- why did the general trend for "band" instruments (brass, clarinets, saxophones...) to be built in flatter keys start? Reading up about it, it seems there is discussion but no satisfactory answers. I can't imagine one myself. – Scott Wallace Jun 20 '17 at 14:02

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