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I would like to know which instruments of a modern orchestra are not able to play a full chromatic run?

I know that the harp for example is in a certain key and you have to use the pedals to change the key you're in. So a fast run wouldn't be possible, because you can't change the pedals that quickly.

The modern Timpani is as far as I know also already able to play a chromatic scale, but how fast can you actually change the pitch with the pedal?

Are there any other instruments which requires certain actions to play outside of a specific scale, or are there even instruments which aren't able to play a chromatic scale?

  • What kind of orchestra are we talking about? Does a big band constitute an orchestra? Some percussive instruments won't be able to play a full chromatic scale, like kettle drums, as you have already noted. – Pyromonk Jul 7 at 13:15
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    All the untuned percussion? – Tim Jul 7 at 13:40
  • @Pyromonk I have more like a film scoring orchestra setting in mind. – Andy Jul 7 at 14:18
  • @Tim Yea... Of course I meant from all the pitched instruments only. – Andy Jul 7 at 14:18
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    @Andy, wow, that expands the list of instruments exponentially as we speak. I cannot think of an instrument that hasn't been used in film scores, including customised ones. It makes your question really difficult to answer. – Pyromonk Jul 7 at 14:32
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In a modern western orchestra, that's about it. Unless you're foolish enough to try to write precise pitches for flexatone or slide whistle, and then try to write a chromatic scale.

Playing a chromatic scale on timpani is definitely dubious. Besides the speed and accuracy needed, you would be re-tuning the same drum as you played it, which would cause a slide between every note. Basically it would turn into a glissando, which is a real thing for timpani, but it's an effect, not a scale. I would expect a competent timpanist to have no problem playing a slow chromatic scale, say one note per second. It would be weird and probably something they've never done, but ultimately not unreasonable. Twice that fast would be impractical, and I'm not sure where the transition is.

I don't know what kind of music you're trying to write, but all woodwinds and brass have particular spots where playing chromatically is difficult. Modern woodwinds have enough keywork that all half step and whole step trills are playable, but some are more awkward than others. Brass instruments have some impossible trills.

  • What about saxophones? Modern professional instruments are more than capable of half-step and whole-step trills (there are even additional F# keys for those who are lazy/incompetent). Unless you mean high register or altissimo, of course. There are plenty of resources out there for alternative fingerings as well. I've personally had no trouble with any trills on tenor or alto. – Pyromonk Jul 7 at 14:59
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    Right, like I said they're all possible. But some are pretty awkward. Aside from the low ones (Bb-B, B-C#, C#-D#), I think that D#-E and G#-A are bad. You either have to trill two fingers, or leave the pinky down and trill the ring finger. Not impossible by any means, but if you wanted to write a really fast trill those would be bad spots. – MattPutnam Jul 7 at 18:16
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    Trombones will also struggle with fast chromatic runs and trills... – Max Jul 8 at 1:14
  • @MattPutnam, you are absolutely right. I could not find any good alternative fingerings for D#->E and G#->A (and they are also problematic, because G, G#, D and D# are often stuffy/squeaky). The low end switches you list are probably some of the most painful indeed. Even professional musicians with decades of experience struggle with those. Thank you for clarifying your answer. – Pyromonk Jul 8 at 1:56
  • @Pyromonk Feel free to edit any information into the Community Wiki answer. – Your Uncle Bob Jul 8 at 2:18
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Instruments capable of chromatic runs over their whole range at high speed[1]:

  • Keyboard:
    • Piano
    • Harpsichord
    • Organ
    • Accordion
    • Ondes Martenot (also full-range glissando)
    • Synthesizer
    • Celesta
  • Strings:
    • Violin
    • Viola
    • Cello
    • Double Bass
    • Guitar
    • Mandolin
    • Banjo
    • Hurdy-Gurdy
  • Brass:
    • Horn (modern valved)
    • Trumpet
    • Trombone
    • Tuba
  • Woodwinds:
    • Flute
    • Oboe
    • Clarinet
    • Bassoon
    • Saxophone
  • Percussion:
    • Vibraphone
    • Marimba
    • Glockenspiel
    • Tubular Bells
    • Crotales
    • Steel Pan
  • Others:
    • Chromatic Harmonica
    • Theremin (also full-range glissando)

Instruments with limited capability for chromatic runs[2]:

  • Keyboard:
    • ?
  • Strings:
    • Harp (retunable to different keys using pedals)
  • Brass:

  • Woodwinds:

    • Recorder
  • Percussion:
    • Timpani (retunable using pedals, would be slow and cause glissando)
    • Crystal wine glasses (in quantity, slowly)
    • Handbells (in quantity)
    • Rototoms (in quantity)
    • Tuned gongs (in quantity)
    • Whirlies (in quantity, slowly)

Instruments not capable of chromatic runs:

  • Keyboard:
    • ?
  • Strings:
    • ?
  • Brass:
    • ?
  • Woodwinds:
    • Bagpipes (not chromatic)
    • Tin Whistle, Low Whistle, Diatonic Flute (not chromatic)
  • Percussion:
    • Bell Tree, Chime Tree (pitched, but untuned)
    • Flexatone (unreasonable to tune)

1 Playing several notes per second and not having to do anything (like retune) that you would normally only do while you're not playing and that would slow you down or force you to leave a pause between some notes.

2 Capable of playing a chromatic run only at slow speed, with pauses, or in part of its range.


(Please feel free to edit this answer to add instruments or details.)

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    How fast does a run have to be to qualify as 'limited' or high-speed'? – PiedPiper Jul 8 at 8:17
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    Is this supposed to be limited to instruments normally used in a orchestra? Otherwise it's going to be a very long list. Bagpipes/tin whistles are not orchestral instruments (even if there might be a piece somewhere that does uses them) – PiedPiper Jul 8 at 8:28
  • @PiedPiper I guess it's up to Andy, but he talks of film scoring, so it's not limited to standard orchestral. – Your Uncle Bob Jul 8 at 10:32
  • Fast chromatic run on a theremin? Ok, sure it's physically possible, but it would be ridiculously difficult to do with actual individual, correctly intonated pitches. I would put that in the same category as timpani (though it's probably easier to get it fast, but only in the way it's easier to play fast on violin than on double bass). OTOH, I wouldn't be surprised to hear a fast chromatic run from a tin whistle – good players can half-hole tones quite accurately. – leftaroundabout Jul 8 at 10:38
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    Ok, looks like it's totally possible to play a "fast" full chromatic scale on the saxophone, from the low end up into altissimo. My teacher demonstrated it today. It is extremely difficult and requires a lot of practising, but it's possible nevertheless. – Pyromonk Jul 11 at 7:15
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There are some compositions that require the Orchestra to use Natural Horns or early versions of the instrument. I suspect that most modern orchestras will have the modern horn players fill the parts, but you wouldn't be able to do a chromatic run on the original instruments. For example the bugle and or the hunting horn are sometimes used, and I believe Bach wrote parts for the Shepard's Horn in one piece.

  • To be exact, you'd have to be several octaves above fundamental before all 12 tones are available. – Carl Witthoft Jul 8 at 15:21
  • Valved brass instruments did not exist in Bach's day, so all of his trumpet and horn parts were written for instruments that had limited ability to play chromatic notes. – phoog Jul 9 at 15:50
  • The solution with natural horns is to use several in different tunings. The players would alternate playing the tones. It would probably take three or more players to do a full chromatic scale. Each instrument in isolation could not do it, but the section would. – ghellquist Jul 9 at 16:46
  • @ghellquist while this may have been done in some cases, it was not a common technique throughout the history of the orchestral horn, and it would not have been common for there to be more than two different sizes of horn in use in any passage of an orchestral work. Anyway, by the time chromaticism was really serious, horns had valves and a single instrument could play chromatic passages. – phoog Jul 9 at 17:51
  • @phoog not much to add. I guess it has never been done, and I expect it will never be in the future, but in theory it could. – ghellquist Jul 14 at 14:35

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