Understanding woodwind key nomenclature systems

bamboo flutes
Photo, Allan Reyes

Most woodwind instruments come in several sizes, and a naming system is required for describing the size and pitch of each. The most familiar for players of modern Western woodwinds is that used for (for example) the clarinet and saxophone families, with most of those instruments being described as “in B-flat” or “in E-flat.” However, there are several other systems in use in the larger woodwind family tree. This can be confounding for newcomers to folk, ethnic, and period woodwinds, but I’ll attempt to shed some light on things.

Here are the four primary systems. The names are my own:

  • Modern. This system is used for modern Western orchestral/band woodwinds and brasses. In this system, each member of the instrument family (such as all of the clarinets) match a written pitch to a fingering, so that, for example, a written C can be fingered the same way on any of the clarinets, and the actual pitch produced depends on the instrument’s size. (Playing written C, incidentally, produces the sounding pitch for which an instrument is named: Playing “C” on a B-flat clarinet produces a sounding B-flat, “C” on an A clarinet produces a sounding A, and so forth.) This is convenient to the clarinetist, but awkward for composers, copyists, conductors, and others dealing with multiple transpositions. It also leads to oddities such as the lowest contrabass clarinets, like all their clarinet siblings, being notated in treble clef.
  • Non-transposing. The recorder family, for example, is always notated at concert pitch. (Or sort of at concert pitch—all the major recorders but the alto [treble] and tenor recorders actually sound an octave higher than written.) This means that a recorder player must actually learn more than one fingering system: all holes closed on a soprano (descant) or tenor recorder produces a C, but all holes closed on a sopranino, alto, or bass produces an F. Therefore, the recorders are non-transposing instruments (disregarding the octave). This system adds an element of difficulty for the recorder player, but greatly simplifies score reading. The bass recorder reads bass clef, which seems intuitive in terms of score notation but is a surprise to modern woodwind players.
  • Six-hole. Pennywhistles, so-called “Irish” flutes, and some other simple-system flutes use a naming system based on the note produced when six fingers (the three middle fingers of each hand) cover their respective holes. Thus, a flute whose six-finger note is D is referred to as a D flute. For most modern woodwind players, it’s familiar for this six-finger note to be a written D, but the fact that the six-finger note produces a sounding D makes this flute a concert pitch instrument, or what in modern nomenclature is a “C” instrument.
  • Three-hole. This of course works the same way as the six-finger system, except that it is based on the note produced when the three middle fingers of the top hand (usually the left hand) are covering their respective holes. This system is used most notably for bamboo simple-system flutes such as the Indian bansuri and Chinese dizi. Thus a D flute in the six-hole system would be renamed as a G flute in the three-hole system.

For many simple-system woodwinds using six- or three-hole naming systems, there is no well-established standard for writing parts in Western notation. Among the proposed systems, I think the simplest to understand for modern Western woodwind players is to transpose parts so that the six-hole note is always notated as D below the treble clef staff. This puts flutists, oboists, clarinetists, and saxophonists at ease by playing on the similarities in their fingering systems (with a “six-hole” D), and transposes the parts for different sizes of instrument in the way to which modern woodwind players are accustomed.

Okay, let’s try an example. Suppose that you have a simple-system flute (with an embouchure hole and six finger holes that produce a major scale). When all six holes are closed, the sounding pitch is D. Here is how that instrument would be described in each system:

System Flute key name Notated D sounds as
Modern C D
Non-transposing (none, technically) D
Six-hole D D
Three-hole G D

Here’s another example: a simple-system flute with a three-hole note of B-flat.

System Flute key name Notated D sounds as
Modern E-flat F
Non-transposing (none, technically) D
Six-hole F F
Three-hole B-flat F

I hope this information will come in handy for woodwind players who are new to folk, ethnic, and period instruments when reading notated parts (remember, alto recorder uses different fingerings than soprano) or purchasing instruments (remember, a dizi in D isn’t the same size as an Irish flute in D).


2 responses to “Understanding woodwind key nomenclature systems”

  1. This is really flippin’ good!

  2. greg robeson Avatar
    greg robeson

    Thanx, for info, am trying to help a older new music student play the Clarinet, i have been a student of musical instrument since before Mr. Nixon was a US President, i do recall Clarinet students, playing Recorder instruments before the learning to play the Clarinet, which Recorder wood help a B flat Clarinet player be a stronger player?

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