As far as I know, most of the wind instruments are transposing, and many of them are either in B, in E-flat or in F - these keys make them more suitable for playing in "flat" keys. My question is why there are no counterparts for playing in "sharp" keys (for example, sounding a semitone lower - in A, D and E, respectively), like clarinets, which do exist in 2 "kinds" - in B for using in flat keys and in A for the sharp ones?

  • The alto flute is in G, so add one flat. Yes, it's not common. – user1803551 Apr 18 '16 at 3:26

The clarinet is different from almost every other wind instrument because it overblows at the twelfth, not at the octave. Therefore, the notes to cover the "break" between the lowest octave and a fifth are technically more difficult, especially on early clarinets with a limited number of finger-keys.

The orchestral use of B flat and A clarinets dates from before the instrument was redesigned following the Boehm system in about 1840. (Note, the redesign of the clarinet was not actually done by Boehm himself). Apart from the extra lowest note, most "A clarinet" parts can be (and often are) played successfully on modern B flat clarinets.

For an full ensemble of wind and brass instruments, there is no need for two "sizes" a semitone apart - most music is written in flat keys, and arrangements are often transposed up or down a semitone.

Because of the acoustic compromises needed in designing brass instruments with valves, the "best sounding" keys have a few flats more than the natural key of the instrument. For example D flat is a popular key for brass ensembles, corresponding to written keys of 3 and 2 flats for the Bb and Eb instruments.

As a relevant bit of trivia, 19th-century military bands often used piccolos in D flat because of the use of flat keys - the small physical size of the piccolo means it has fewer keys than the bigger woodwinds. This was often not explicitly marked in the score or the player's parts - and was sometimes erroneously indicated as "Piccolo in D," not "D flat".

  • "brass instruments with valves, the "best sounding" keys have a few flats more than the natural key of the instrument": is that because C# comes earlier than Db in the series of sharps resp. flats, and that fingering 123 is too sharp on brass instruments? If no, what acoustic compromises do you mean? – Gauthier Apr 18 '16 at 8:15
  • It feels like you might have the knowledge to answer this question: music.stackexchange.com/q/39970/63 – Gauthier Apr 18 '16 at 8:17
  • @Gauthier the answer that discusses intonation and fingering is the answer I would have given. If you look at a guitar fingerboard and measure the distance of the first 3 frets from the nut, it's obvious that the sum of distances to the first fret + second fret doesn't equal the distance to the third fret. But when you push down more than one valve on a brass instrument, you are combining several extra lengths of tubing in a way that is analogous to assuming the third fret is at the position of "first + second". Flat keys avoid the notes with the worst intonation problems. – user19146 Apr 19 '16 at 15:53

To add to alephzero's notes on the clarinet, I'm pretty sure Adolphe Sax designed his set of instruments so a musician could easily switch from clarinet to sax and back. As it happens, there is a "C-melody sax" in rare use as well.

Now to the question of key signature: The resonances and timbres of keyed instruments depend on the bore and the bottom note (all keys/holes closed), not on the transposition. For example, the Bb clarinet's low note is E, concert D. This means one could write in a key which simplifies fingerings (which really doesn't bother anyone reasonably skilled) or in a key which produces certain sonorities.

It would take some work to provide a distribution of concert keys for which notable clarinet works exist, but I can say from experience that there's plenty both in a few flats and otherwise (including of course items in A or a for A-clarinet).

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