Woodwinds and “altissimo” registers

I recently had a saxophone student perform a repertoire piece with some altissimo technique in it, and a non-woodwind-playing musician asked me afterward about the instrument’s extended range. This led to further questions about “altissimo” on other instruments. The answers are a little complicated, but here is some information:

The term “altissimo” suggests an extreme high register. The term is widely used by clarinetists and saxophonists, with essentially the same definition: pitches in the instrument’s third register or higher. Basically, this is notes above (written) F-sharp-6 for saxophones or (written) C6 for clarinets. (It’s not really that simple if you factor in alternate fingerings: a clarinetist, for example, might use a trill fingering to produce a D6 in the second register, or a saxophonist might use a “front” fingering to produce E6 or F6 in the third register.) For clarinetists, using some of the altissimo register is a pretty basic technique, part of the instrument’s “standard” range (which extends maybe to G6, depending on who you ask), and accessible to, say, an intermediate-level high school student. For saxophonists, altissimo is viewed as a more advanced technique, outside the “standard” range, perhaps accessible to college-level musicians or motivated high schoolers.

The word “altissimo” isn’t used much in the flute and double reed worlds, though those instruments’ third registers are widely used even by intermediate-level players. (Christopher Redgate does use the term in his writings about oboe extended techniques, but arbitrarily defines it as beginning at G6, well into the instrument’s third register.) The flute’s third register begins (basically) at D6, the oboe’s at C-sharp-6, and the bassoon’s at E-flat-4.

the lowest pitch (written) of each woodwind's third register
the lowest pitch (written) of each woodwind’s third register

In short, all of the woodwinds do have an “altissimo” range in the sense that they have a third register and higher. But not all of them use that terminology, and those that do differ on whether the altissimo range is “standard” or an extended technique.

9 thoughts on “Woodwinds and “altissimo” registers

  1. The clarinet being lucky to have a 19-note first register (from E3 to Bb4), why doesn’t the third register start another 19 notes beyond this, that is, at E6? Same might be said about the bassoon too, after exhausting the second register, the third register should technically start at F#4.

    1. I’m not sure in what sense you mean that the registers “should” start at certain notes. They do start at those notes because using fingerings based on those particular overtones are thought to have the best combination of pitch, tone, and response. For example, it’s possible to play B-natural4 on clarinet using a side-key fingering, but that’s generally used only for special circumstances because it just doesn’t work as well as the second-register fingering.

  2. I guess what I’m getting at is, there is some overlap between the second and third registers. Excluding the trill keys you mentioned (there to bridge the gap over the break) and only including the notes of the core octave (E3-Bb4), the second register technically goes a twelfth higher (B4-F6), and the third register 2 octaves and a major third higher (G#5-D7). So the notes in the G#5-F6 interval have technically 2 possible realizations, but somehow the third register is said to start at C#6?
    Does the end of the second register sound that bad on the clarinet? Same with the bassoon that switches to the third register before the end of its regular second register (I even found a resource that qualified E4 at the top of this register a “fake”/”false”/”invented” fingering, when it’s just the regular overblown E of the fundamental octave).
    On the other hand, the saxophone makes full use of its second register (and even adds a couple more notes to it, as you mentioned) and there doesn’t seem to be a need to switch to the third register halfway through it.
    I was just wondering ;)
    Thx

    1. Which register you are in depends on which natural harmonic you are currently using. If that doesn’t suit your way of thinking, your dispute is with the laws of physics, not with me or with woodwind pedagogy.

      When there is overlap between the registers, we have choices about fingerings, and can select the best ones for the situation.

      1. I’m not trying to dispute anything or push whatever way of thinking, sorry if I’m sounding like that. It definite is more a physics / acoustics related question. I was just surprised at the difference between the saxophone in the one hand and the clarinet/bassoon in the other.

  3. I am curious to learn more about the choice of the bassoon altissimo beginning on Eb4. The transitions into altissimo on the other woodwinds makes sense to me as their finger combinations begin anew (from no tone holes closed to at least one closed when entering this range) but with this, for me, does not constitute the bassoon’s altissimo range to transition from Eb4 to E4. Would it not make more sense for it to begin at the transition from D5 to Eb5 given the drastic shift in open tone holes and ventilation in the left thumb as forked fingerings are commonplace for both modern and historic bassoons? For example, the patterns for most third octave ranges and higher on all woodwinds is based on manipulations of the harmonic series. I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject.

    1. Which register you are in depends on which natural harmonic you are currently using, not your fingerings. In some cases the fingerings appear to follow logically, and in some cases they may not.

    2. Altissimo is when you start using 3rd or higher partial notes, that is, the notes above the fundamental octave (1st partial) and the overblown octave (2nd partial).
      On the bassoon, the fundamental octave goes from F2 to F3, the overblown octave goes from F#3 to D4. Note that D#4-F4 could also be overblown but the sound is weak.
      So the altissimo range starts with D#4, which is a 3rd partial G2. Note that higher partials on the bassoon are sharper and sharper, so that the expected 3rd partial of G2, D4, sounds like D#4. The fingering for this note (xxo|xxx) with an open LH3 hole is the sign of a 3rd partial fingering, since it opens a vent on a third of the tube’s length. The overblown 2nd partial G3 opens the vent halfway (/xx|xxx). The 4th partial is technically G5, but sounding as G#5, venting on both half and quarter of the tube’s length (/xx|oxx). The 5th partial is technically B5, but sounding as C#6, venting on 1/5 and 2/5 along the tube’s length (x/x|x/x) or (d xox|xox venting another 1/5-length point with the high D key). The 6th partial is technically D5, but sounding as E5 (also called “harmonic E”), venting on half and third of the tube’s length (/xx C#|xxx).

      Note also that the lowest altissimo note is not D#4 but C#4. This note has a short fingering belonging to the overblown octave (2nd partial), while the long fingering is a 3rd partial of F2 (technically C4, but sounding as C#4).

    3. After re-reading your comment, I have the impression that it might just be a misunderstanding in the octave naming convention. Altissimo starts at D# above middle C (xxo|xxx) after which the pattern of forking and ventilation in the thumb changes drastically, as you said.

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