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Firstly, I'll apologise in advance - I'm a self-taught rock 'musician' and I have virtually no knowledge of music theory (didn't stop me playing hundreds of gigs though!).

I have a four-string bass in standard tuning (EADG), and my girlfriend has a flugelhorn. I was trying to learn a piece of piano music on my bass, struggling to read sheet music. It's rather hard to play both the bass and the treble parts on a bass, so I asked my girlfriend to play the high part.

Playing the music as written, she appeared to be consistently a semitone lower. Perplexed, we tried getting her to play notes into a guitar tuner app on my phone, which suggested she was slightly sharper than a semitone lower than the note she thought she was playing.

I've read that the flugelhorn's fundamental pitch is B♭. Does this mean that what's written as a C in sheet music written for a flugelhorn is actually a B (ie a semitone lower than a C) for everyone else? Hence any music would need to be transposed a tone to be readable to her whilst in tune with everyone else? Is her flugelhorn just out of tune? Are all brass instruments built this way, or can you get flugelhorns/trumpets that are built with a fundamental pitch of C?

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    I want to go on record supporting the idea of a bass / flugelhorn duet. Also her instrument transposes (whole step) if she’s only registering a semitone off then she’s playing sharp, which is a separate issue. Trumpet, flugelhorn, baritone TC, French horn all transpose. Trombones and tubas are “non-C non-transposing instruments” if you want to get really nerdy. – jjmusicnotes Jan 4 at 0:19
  • @jjmusicnotes Chuck Mangione – Carl Witthoft Jan 4 at 13:22
  • Recommendation: toss that "guitar tuner" app and install a chromatic tuner -- which will tell you if any standard (12-tone) pitch is in tune. – Carl Witthoft Jan 4 at 13:24
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Welcome to the wonderful world of transposing instruments.

As you've identified, the factors at play here are:

  • The flugelhorn is indeed a transposing instrument, in Bb. That means it plays a tone (not semitone) lower than written. If you play a written C on a flugelhorn, it will really be a Bb.
  • The flugelhorn is a wind instrument, which will not play in tune by default. If at all.

So, she's probably playing the wrong note (she needs to transpose up a tone), and is also apparently playing very sharp. This may be a technique issue, or a broken instrument. The tuner may also be lying; it could be set for a capo, or just broken (much less likely).

I'd check this by playing a C on the flugelhorn. Your tuner should show a Bb.

Once that's sorted, you'll need to either transpose the music, or she'll need to learn to sight-transpose from concert pitch. Both are useful skills.

There are concert C brass instruments. They're comparatively rare, and have a tendency to be somewhat garbage. I should also mention that the trombone is often learnt as a concert pitch (C) instrument.

There are many other answers on this site about transposing instruments that may be of interest.

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    what do you mean when you say wind instruments "will not play in tune by default. If at all?" Wind instruments are played in tune by amateur and professional musicians all around the world every day. – Peter Jan 4 at 13:48
  • @Peter Probably my ongoing exposure to junior concert bands sneaking out again. They certainly don't play in tune without some practice, unlike, say, a piano. A number of specimens never seem to play in tune, but I think we can guess where that fault lies. – endorph Jan 4 at 22:13
  • "the trombone is often learnt as a concert pitch (C) instrument": are trombone parts ever scored in a pitch other than concert pitch? I've never seen such a thing, but I haven't seen many band scores. – phoog May 7 at 19:36
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    @phoog Bb trombone parts are a brass band thing, which occasionally escape into concert band parts. – endorph May 7 at 21:28
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Most wind instruments are fine-tuneable. They need to be so when they play with others, they can all play at the exact same pitch. Sounds like this flugel is a little off, and needs the fundamental B♭ adjusting. At least then it's not playing 'in the cracks'. There's also the probability that the player isn't playing some notes exactly in tune, even though the flugel itself might be.

As a transposing instrument, as so many brass instruments are (although C instruments exist), the music needs to be written just one tone higher than it comes out. Read a C note, blow and it sounds like a B♭ - 'cos it is.

You could, for the purposes of playing together, tune down your bass by one tone. It'll still play fine, and then you can read, correctly, the dots together. Or, you could compensate, and read the dots as if they were one tone down. Actually not that difficult. Or, as I did when learning the trumpet, read the dots one tone higher, thus playing in the key above that on the music. For a C note, read a D; for an F note, read G. That's actually a useful trick - it means you can play any old sheet music with everyone else without having a B♭ version of your own to rely on.

But the first thing is to get both instruments playing notes in tune with each other, not half a fret out, as it seems at the moment.

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You are correct that the flugelhorn is in the key of Bb. So it should actually sound TWO semitones lower than your bass.

Instruments like this are called "transposing" instruments. Trumpet, tenor saxophone, clarinet, and soprano saxophone are also in the key of Bb. Bass, guitar, piano, flute, and most other brass instruments are in the key of C (which is usually called "concert pitch"). There are also instruments in other keys, like alto saxophone (in Eb) and "French" horn (in F).

To answer your last question, they do make trumpets in C, but the standard trumpet is in Bb.

  • Thanks for taking the time to answer, I've marked the other as correct as it's more expansive. – EngineerBetter_DJ Jan 4 at 7:35
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It is possible but unlikely that your girlfriend's flugelhorn is a very old one in Bflat but at A456. These were standard in British brass bands in the 1960s but most bands had converted to low pitch (A440) by the mid 1970s. But this does not explain your tuner reading. It should read around 1.5 semitones flat for an A456 instrument.

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Your question gets a bit confused between B and B♭, tones and semitones.

But, misprints apart, you're basically right. Her instrument is going to sound a tone (two semitones) lower than written.

The basic trumpet is in B♭. There are other sizes, including on in C, and the C trumpet is relatively common among professional players. It has a brighter, more cutting sound which can be useful in the orchestra.

But the whole POINT of a flugelhorn is to be a mellow alternative to the trumpet. I hesitate to say there's NEVER been a Flugel in C, but don't hold your breath waiting for one to come along!

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