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So why are instruments named alto, tenor, bass or whatever?

It seems like some don't even make sense. The bass flute has a very similar range as the alto sax, right? In clarinets it goes ... soprano, alto and then skips to bass. With saxes, there's the tenor and baritone too. And both clarinets and flutes have contra alto, contra bass, sub contra... etc. Wondering why they're named so vaguely...
Soprano sax, soprano clarinet and soprano flute all have comparable ranges, so there's one.
Alto's are all about the same too.
Tenor and bari sax are the oddballs, they tend to follow brass nomeclature with the bugles.
Flute and clarinet jump down to the bass straight from alto, however ever in choir the tenor and bass have overlapping range it's just where they are written.
From bass everyone moves down the same with contra's and sub contras.
Clarinets have the contralto and contrabass because of pitch. This is similar to the bass and contrabass saxes. The clarinets are a bit more descriptive since contralto is an octave below alto and same for bass/contrabass. It should be noted though that contralto clarinet is in line with the baritone sax for range. Although clarinets have much lower range, their "meat and potatoes" range is similar to saxes.

My best guess for tenor and baritone, this has no fact base, but seems to make sense, at least to me.
Sax was designed to have more umph in orchestra and marching band settings while still being able to blend with the human voice. Human voices are categorized into soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass. Baritone and bass have very very similar ranges. Baritones usually able to hit a low E or F with basses expected down to D or C. This is very comparable to baritone and bass sax ranges. Since saxes are much newer than the flute and clarinet families, I guess he was trying to make something that would make more sense then the huge jump from alto to bass.
Just my two cents, if anyone knows the actual reason, please feel free to set me straight.
This isn't something that's bothering me so much, just interests me. I never thought of the relation to voices and that. I still find it weird that an alto sax would have a similar range as a bass flute.:???:


Distinguished Member
Distinguished Member
"Bass flute" is kind of like "jumbo shrimp". Everything is relative.

One thought why there might not be a "tenor" clarinet is that because the clarinet is a cylindrical instrument, even though it is in the same key as a tenor sax, its lowest note is 3 whole steps lower than a tenor sax which is just 1/2 step above the low Bb of a bari sax.



Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
This is the continuation of a conversation started in http://www.woodwindforum.com/forum/showthread.php?t=1784, starting at post 20. Lotsa info there about names and pitches ....

If I get a chance, I'll try to summarize, here, the portion of that thread that dealt with pitches/terms.


Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
As Threatened:

Rambling Around the Ranges

(Most of the below is also distilled from various Wikipedia articles and/or my fevered brain):

Vocal Ranges

The human voice is generally split into the following (C4 = "middle C"):

Female voices:
Coloratura Soprano:
literally, "soprano with color" or "lively soprano". This is a soprano voice that has a very high range, typically to F6, but maybe as high as A6.
Soprano: general range is B3 to D6.
Mezzo-Soprano: literally, "middle soprano". The idea is a "mellower soprano voice". Range is A3 to A5.
Alto: literally, "high". Range is G3 to F5.
Contralto: "Contra" in Latin means "against". When it's prefixed to another word, it generally means "lower", so "contralto" translates as "lower alto" or, transliterated, "lower female voice". Range is F3 to F5.

Male voices:
"Counter" also means "against", but in music, "counter" as a prefix, means "higher". So, a countertenor is a really high male voice. There is some debate as to whether a countertenor has the right vocal quality to substitute for castrati (which were Renaissance-era singers that had a few body parts lopped off before puberty), but a countertenor is generally the only subsitute for one. Range is D3 to F5 (there are sub-classifications of countertenor based on tone color and overall range).
Tenor: The name comes from Latin and means "to hold". The idea is that a tenor has a lot of parts that have long notes and/or the tenor has a huge lung capacity. Range is C3 to C5 (there are sub-classifications of tenor based on tone color and overall range).
Baritone: From one of a variety of different languages, but it's generally translated "deep". In practice, it's the middle male voice. Range is C2 to C4 (there are sub-classifications of baritone based on tone color and overall range).
Bass: From the Latin meaning "low". Lowest vocal range, from E2 to G4 (there are sub-classifications of bass based on tone color and overall range).

(My vocal range is C2 to Bb4, although a comfortable range is G2 to G4. I'm considered a bass.)


Instrumental Ranges

Rather than writing out their approximate ranges, take a look at http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/timeline/dc26f08d2b4ace7e67c063c94a514d49.png.

String Family (those still in common use):

Violin: Soprano/melody.
Viola: Alto.
Cello: Tenor.
Double-Bass: Bass.

Brass Family:

The standard melody/soprano instrument.
Eb Alto Horn/French Horn: Alto voice.
Bb Baritone Horn/Trombone: Tenor voice and a bit lower.
Bass Trombone: Really a baritone voice.
Tuba/Sousaphone: Bass voice. ("Tuba" is a Latin word meaning "horn", btb.)

Saxophone Family:

Bb Soprillo (sopranissimo):
The "Soprillo" name is a product of Mr. Benedikt Eppelsheim. There are other Bb sopranissimos -- and "sopranissimo" just means "highest (available) soprano".
Eb Sopranino: "Sopranino" means "high soprano".
Bb/C Soprano: Your standard high melody instrument.
F/G Mezzo Soprano: Middle sopranos.
Eb/F Alto: Alto range, although a lot of melody sits here.
Bb/C Tenor: Ah, the tenor range.
Eb Baritone: Classically, this is really a tenor voice, as it parallels the Cello.
Bb/C Bass: This also isn't a "true" bass, as it's more in a Cello range, but goes slightly lower.
Eb Contrabass: A true bass voice and then some. Tubax is a brand name for an instrument made by Benedikt Eppelsheim.
C Contrabass: A true bass voice and then some.

Clarinet Family:

A/Ab/G/Bb/C "Piccolo" Clarinets:
These are sopranissimo clarinets, although they're occasionally called "sopraninos". The word "piccolo" means "small flute". It has been extended, correctly or not, to cover all really small instruments. Just remember that "piccolo" refers to size, not range.
Eb/D/C/Bb/A/G Soprano Clarinets: Soprano/melody instruments.
Basset Clarinet/Basset Horn/Eb or F Alto Clarinet: Alto range, roughly.
A/Bb/C Bass Clarinet: Tenor range, mostly.
Eb Contrabass (Contralto) Clarinet, Contrabasset Horns in G/F/Eb: Baritone range.
Bb/C Contrabass Clarinet: True bass range.
Eb Octacontralto Clarinet: An octave below alto clarinet. True bass range and a bit lower.
Bb Octocontrabass Clarinet: Lowest wind instrument. Ranges to below standard bass line.

Double-Reed Family (mostly copied from http://baroque-music.com/wc/info/oboe.shtml):

Oboe (hautboy, derived from French hautbois --'loud wood'). The oboe is a woodwind instrument blown through a double reed and with a compass from the Bb below middle C upwards for over 2 1/2 octaves. Standard orchestra instrument, also in chamber music and military bands. It is the note A sounded on the oboe to which the rest of the orchestra tune their instruments. Many concertos have been written for its solo use, e.g. by Vivaldi, Albinoni, R. Strauss, Vaughan Williams, Martinau, etc. Derives from the shawm and the curtal. Known in France and England in the 17th century as hautbois and hautboy. This would be the soprano/melody instrument.

Oboe d'amore (lit. "oboe of love"): pitched a minor 3rd below normal oboe. Has pear-shaped bell, which gives it its mellow and individual tone-colour, and is midway in size between oboe and cor anglais. Was favoured by Bach, but subsequently neglected. In 20th century, has been used by R. Strauss in Symphonia Domestica, Holst in Somerset Rhapsody, Ravel in Bolero, Janacek in several works, including operas, and John McCabe has written a concerto for it (1972). This is a mezzo-soprano-ish instrument.

Cor Anglais/English horn. Neither English, nor a horn, but an alto oboe. pitched a 5th below oboe. Name possibly a corruption of cor angle. A transposing instrument, being written a 5th higher than it sounds. Compass from E upwards for about 2 1/2 octaves. The reed is inserted in a metal tube which is bent back. Invented by Ferlandis of Bergamo in 1760. Not much used before 19th century Romantic composers, but there are several famous solos for it, e.g. Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, Act III; in slow movement of Franck's Symphony, and in Sibelius's The Swan of Tuonela.

Bassoon (It. fagotto -- which means "bundle of sticks"). Bass member of the double reed family, pitched in C, with a range from Bb upwards for about 3 1/2 octaves. Made of wood and with a conical bore. Dates from 1660s. Came to prominence as solo instrument in 18th century. Vivaldi composed 39 concerti for it. Others to use it as solo instrument include J. C. Bach, Telemann, and Boismortier. In 1774, Mozart wrote his concerto (K. 191). Modern instruments made by Heckel (Ger.), Buffet-Crampon (Fr.), and Fox (Amer.). Often used for comic effect but its capacity for melancholy has not been overlooked by composers. Here's your tenor.

Contrabassoon (double-bassoon; Fr. 'Contrebasson'; Ger. 'Kontrafagott'). Wind instrument an octave deeper than bassoon and notated an octave higher than it sounds, though Wagner and Debussy sometimes wrote for it at pitch. Some Baroque examples were made but standard modern design is Heckel's (1876). Conical bore tube is 18' long, with 5 parallel sections connected by 5 U-bends. Crook fits into metal tube. Brahms scored for it in his 1st Symphony. In Strauss's Salome there is a long solo for the instrument when Jokanaan descends into his cell. Here's your bass.


So, why is, say a bass clarinet called a bass clarinet and not a tenor clarinet? Well, that might be why A. Sax introduced a "tenor sax" and a "baritone sax".

A lot of the names are given in such a way to a) approximate the human voice range and b) approximate the name of other instruments. If you look at the brasswinds, for instance, you've got a "baritone" horn and an "alto" horn. The baritone is definitely the middle of the range of brasses and does approximate a baritone singing voice. The alto horn is a high horn that's not a trumpet and is slightly lower than a trumpet, thus it's an alto.

ALL of the ranges seem to have some cross-over, even for vocals. For instance, my voice extends from bass to baritone to tenor to low countertenor, contralto, alto and even soprano. However, the tone color of my voice means that you might not mind me singing tenor (which I have), but you don't want me singing anything higher, because it doesn't sound "right".
and my computer just died after a very long drawn out explanation and clarification on what pete wrote. Here's abridged version.

Human range is primarily classified on where the vocalist is comfortable singing as opposed to the range they are able to sing. Pete, from a singers standpoint, and I don't know how much singing you've done, but if you're comfortable range is G2 to G4, then you'd be placed as a 2nd baritone as opposed to a bass. At least in a full mens choir, or advanced mixed choir.
I'm considered a basso profondo with my comfortable singing range from A1 to A4 in full voice if I'm warmed up, C2 to F4 if I'm not, with falsetto going from C4 up to G5 on a good day. The overlap in full voice and falsetto is controllable and depends on how loud I am able to sing. A4 doesn't come out at soft volumes and requires belting. I can sing soprano if I have to using falsetto... It is not abnormal for basses to have a higher top end than a tenor because most tenors have an extremely limited falsetto range, while basses are typically quite large.

In mixed ensemble, the ranges are Sop 1 and 2, Alto 1 and 2, Tenor 1 and 2, Bass 1 and 2. Baritone range is equivalent to Bass 1's. Mens ensemble is where the the full distinctions are used. Typically written as Tenor 1-3, Baritone 1 and 2, Bass 1 and 2 *sometimes the bass 2 part will be split if drones are needed. In some Russian music the basso profondi will sit between an A1 and E2 and just hold the notes through the whole piece, moving very rarely, while bass 1 and 2 will have moving parts.
Russian composers are insane and will fairly regularly send the basses to Bb1 or A1, since the basso profondi are typically Russian or Scandanavian. *Don't know why this is, it's gotta be something genetic, but if you look at the big names in operatic basses, they have an uncanny ability to have names like Ramey, Ghiaurov, Loginov and Plishka.

To classify instruments, the ranges are easier to make 2 different schools of thought. Vocal parallels, and string parallels.
Woodwinds fit better with the vocal ranges, and brass better with the strings.
Contrabass for all intents and purposes doesn't exist in human vocal range, and Bass is bottomed out at Bb1. The distinction in actual range is very small and has more to do with where in the range they prefer to sing as opposed to where their range lies.

Double reeds fit the ranges almost perfectly. Bassoon 1 and 2 direct to Bass 1 and 2. Same ranges, but Bassoon 1 is in high range, Bassoon 2 down low. English horn in tenor range, and Oboe up high.
Saxes fit about perfectly as well.
Flutes fit great except the bass should be a tenor. No clue why they skipped it, but if there was no need for anything lower than a Bass flute for flute choirs, then they may have just named it a bass not for range, but as the lowest member of the family.
Clarinets work, although they don't have a tenor, but since Bb soprano clarinets cover at least 2 parts usually 3, it covers the girlies. Bb 1 sits above the staff a la soprano 1's. Bb 2 sits from like their E2 to their G3, which is soprano 2 range, and Bb 3 from like C down to low E which is alto range. With a written range of over 3 octaves, clarinets are weird, and break the trend in the woodwinds.

Brass parallells the strings almost perfectly, both from written range and nomenclature. You have to look at the bugles instead of the modern instruments if you want the nomenclature to fit, but the ranges are about the same. Bugles are defined as bell front instruments with 0-4 valves.
Soprano bugle=violin
Alto Horn Mellophone Bugle/G Bugle=viola
*odd thing here, is they go Eb, F, G in pitches
Baritone horn =1st cello
*cylindrical version, plays in high register, com
Euphonium/bass bugle=2nd cello
Contrabass bugle=Double bass.

Written ranges are almost identical. Parallels to concert band are as follow
Alto=French Horn
Baritone=tenor trombones and baritones
Euphonium=Bass bones and euphoniums
Contrabass bugle=BBb tuba

Cello's written range is over 4 octaves *C2 to C6, which for a trombone section, is not all that difficult. 2 valve bass trombones are expected to be able to play at least 3 octaves comfortably, and a first tenor trombone *at least in jazz setting* is excepted to play 3 octaves as well but one octave higher than bass.
Bass from Bb1 to Bb4, and tenor from Bb2 to Bb5

Double basses with 4 strings parallel and 3 valve BBb tuba with low end bottoming out at E1, and expected up to Bb3. 5 string basses and 4 valve BBb tubas limited at B0, with tubas able to hit BBb 0 in the pedal partial.

Ok, I think that's good for now. Sorry for the contrary points of view Pete, but this is what I learned in our instrument history classes, as well as doing DCI for the instrument stuff, and singing as a semi-pro vocalist on the voice stuff
For brass, once you know one, you pretty much known them all though, it's just a matter of embouchure, and sort of fingerings on the French horn, and I guess slide positions on bone.

Should be noted. All brass instruments function the same partial system.
Pedal tonic, tonic, 5th, tonic, 3rd, 5th, tonic, flat 7th, tonic. They also use the same valve combinations. 2nd valve lowers half step, 1st valve a whole step, third a step and a half, 4th if applicable 2 and a half steps.

Sopranos/Trumpets are all the same. Bb Trumpet, cornet, and flugelhorn all function on the same partials, same fingerings, similar embouchure. No real change there. Moving around to the other trumpets and cornets is specialty work for true trumpet players, so no need to learn thoughs.

Alto horn is barely used, and when it is, it's almost strictly British Brass Band. Mellophone, and french horn all work on the same partials as well, so no big change there except french horn uses left hand instead of right. The meat and potatoes registers for the brass is listed above with tonic yadda yadda. French horn due to it's odd configuration, starts it's meat range with the 3rd tonic listed above, then third, fifth, tonic. From there it starts to become each whole step as a new partial. This is due to it's long overall length of 12 feet *keep in mind, a BBb tuba is 18, and a trombone is 9 feet*, while maintaining a bore that is similar to that of a trumpet, about .470", with trombones between .50 and .58. and tubas around .75.

Baritone and Euphonium differ the same as Trumpet and Flugel. Same partials, same fingerings, different timbre, but the same instrument from a learning perspective. Baritone will sometimes be written in Bb treble clef to allow trumpet players to make the switch down with ease. C.G.C.E.G.C partials in treble clef, versus the Bb.F.Bb.D.F.Bb in concert pitch bass clef to allow for trombone and tuba players. I have never seen euphonium music written in treble clef.

Trombones are all the same for partials. Slide positions vary SLIGHTLY from horn to horn depending on bore size, but this is minute. Big difference here is you have small bore pea shooters for lead bone work. Large bore tenors for most orchestral stuff, usually seen with an F attachment so allow for shorter positions in the low range, as well as the ability to play a low B in 7th position. Bass bones are larger bores, and usually have a Gb/D attachment in addition to the F to allow for even shorter combinations for the low range. The low B in 7th on a large bore becomes 4th on a Bass trombone, which is nice to not have to go past 4th position.

Tubas are the same as Baritones and Euphoniums except down an octave. Same Bb.F.Bb.D.F.Bb partials on BBb tubas. Tubas in CC are used often times in Symphonies due to timbre preferences. All tuba music is written in concert pitch and as such different fingering systems are used on the tubas. I.e. a Bb on a BBb tuba is played open with no valve. The same Bb when seen by a CC tubist will be played with first valve. Sight transposition, same with Eb and F tubas.


Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
More like a couple weeks, off and on, but thanks, AC.

> Singing credentials, because I was asked: yes, I'm really a bass. I've had too many professional teachers tell me this. I retired from singing a couple years back, after some medical issues, but I had been singing in various choirs (and a memorable barbershop quartet, where I sang lead tenor) for about 10 years -- and took lessons for about that long. I fooled around in a church choir, as a bass, for about 8 years prior to that, but had no formal training. In choir, I generally bounced from tenor to bass as the need arose. I was practicing to sing one of the bass solos in Handel's Messiah before my medical issues ....

> Brass credentials, because I was asked: I was married to a trumpet player. That DOES count :).

(I'm now married to a sax player.)

I happen to know that there are a lot of trumpet variations, like the flugelhorn, cornet, flumpet, etc. These instruments are primarily designed for a particular tone color enhancement.

I don't play the trumpet, though, and never took brass classes as a music major, so any fingering info. is beyond me.

I have no problems if someone wants to add/expand on what I wrote. It's kind of a general outline. I just rather like the Wikipedia graphic I linked to. That's awesome.
Cool beans Pete. The G as bottom of comfy range is what threw me though, but I guess if you can get to a low C the E should be pretty easily attainable with good volume.

The trumpet deal is mainly going from cylindrical with trumpet to poly cylindrical on cornet to conical with flugel. All function the same.


Clarinet CE/Moderator
Staff member
anyone know how/if "alto", "tenor", "bass" correlate to the clefs ? going back to the old days ?

of course another question that begs to be asked is that why aren't all instruments just written in treble clef ?

piece of info .. for those of you that don't know on the piano music the RH is generally the treble clef and the LH the bass. If you push the two clefs together you will find that line in between is the middle C (below staff for treble, and above staff for bass) .. thus the grand staff all dealing with range.

(no wonder I like the cornet .. it's polycylindrical .. go Carree - ok, no relation to the R13 just brass)


Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
anyone know how/if "alto", "tenor", "bass" correlate to the clefs ? going back to the old days ?
Well, the "alto"/"tenor" clef is a movable clef ....
Well, the "alto"/"tenor" clef is a movable clef ....
All the clef's are technically movable. That's one of the ways to sight transpose is to shift the clef around a little bit.
I highly double it has to do with the range of the instrument though since very few instruments use the C clef *alto and tenor clef*. Viola, Cello and sometimes bassoons and trombones etc.