Are you interested in composing for piccolo? If so, you need to understand how the instrument works and how it differs from the larger concert flute.
That way, you can make sure your music will sound good and be fun to play. If you can make that happen, you may get more sales and commissions on your music.
Before we get into the tips, this post contains affiliate links. Read the full disclosure policy to learn more.
Understand the Range
First, you have to understand the written and sounding range of the piccolo. The instrument sounds one octave higher than written, so you use a similar written range to the flute.
However, the piccolo can’t play some of the lowest written notes. Most piccolos can only go down to the D below the staff, while the flute can go down to middle C or the B just below that.
That’s important, especially when writing piccolo solos. While a couple of piccolos have those lower notes, most players don’t have those models because they’re pretty expensive.
Remember to Transpose
Speaking of the range, it’s important to write the piccolo part an octave lower than how it will sound. That way, you can make better use of the staff.
Players will also know what notes to play, so they will play the octave that you want as you compose. Some notation software will transpose the part for you.
But if your software doesn’t, be sure to transpose as you’re composing for piccolo. Or you can go back through the piccolo part and rewrite it an octave down.
Think About the Texture
When you’re writing a piece for an ensemble, think about the thickness of a section. This is particularly important when you want to write a piccolo solo.
If you write the solo in the low octave, it may be almost impossible to hear, especially during a tutti section. But you can make good use of the piccolo in the second or third octaves.
The piccolo can also sound good in its full range when you’re writing just for the piccolo or the piccolo and piano. It will be easier to hear the lower notes in those cases.
Recognize It Will Be Heard
When composing for piccolo, remember that it will cut through an orchestra. If you want to write higher notes, the piccolo player will be able to project above a large ensemble.
That’s okay, and it can even be a good thing depending on the piece you want to write. However, it’s important to keep that in mind when writing music, especially if the piece will be for a student group.
If you aren’t careful, you may write a calm section that other instruments can play quietly. But a piccolo student might not be able to play the instrument well without playing somewhat loud.
Be Careful With Quiet High Notes
Speaking of writing quiet sections, you can compose for piccolo and write good, quiet music. But quiet notes are very difficult to play in tune, and they’re even harder to play when they’re in the high register.
Do your best to avoid writing those types of passages, especially when writing for a school band. You can drop the piccolo part by an octave, or you can leave it out entirely.
However, you can use some quiet high notes when writing music for professionals. Some players can play those notes well without compromising the sound of the piece.
Avoid Always Doubling the Flutes
When writing for an ensemble, it can be tempting to give the piccolo the same part as the flutes. This may work in some cases, but you should avoid it if possible.
The piccolo can shine when it has its own part, so choose wisely if you want it to double the flutes. Doubling the flutes can add the brilliance from the piccolo for sure.
However, if that’s all you do, piccolo players may not want to play your music. Instead, give the piccolo its own line or have it play with the brass or clarinets at times.
Consult a Piccolo Player
If possible, have a piccolo player look over your music before you publish it. They can make sure the music is playable and that the piccolo part will sound good.
Consulting a performer is also useful when writing for beginners. The player can tell you if the piccolo part goes too high or is otherwise too difficult for a student to play.
If you want even more guidance, you can pitch a piccolo piece to a performer for a commission. Then, they can work with you throughout the composition process.
Review Popular Piccolo Solos
If you can’t work with a piccolo player, take a look at some popular solos. These solos have become standard for a reason, so you can use them as inspiration when composing for piccolo.
Think about the range a composer uses and what dynamics a part has. Listen to the solo in the context of the entire piece to see how you can do something similar with your own music.
Here are some great piccolo solos you can look at, and you can get Orchestral Excerpts for Piccolo to view the music.
Shostakovich wrote a lot of amazing piccolo solos throughout his symphonies. The solos are often lyrical, so they can make the piccolo sound sweet and beautiful.
You can look at most of the symphonies for inspiration. And you can compare the different piccolo solos to see how well they work for the instrument.
Beethoven Symphony No. 5
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 was one of the first major works to include the piccolo. While it only plays in the last movement, it has both lyrical and technical passages.
The range doesn’t go too high, but the piccolo is able to fit in with the rest of the orchestra. It’s a great piece to listen to if you want to compose similarly to Classical and early Romantic composers.
Bartok Pe Loc
From Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances, Pe Loc is a short movement that’s basically a piccolo solo with strings. The piccolo stays within the upper part of the staff, so it doesn’t go too high or low.
If you want to learn how to write for a small group with the piccolo, this is a great example. You can learn how to use the piccolo as a solo instrument and how to accompany it well.
Speaking of solos, the Vivaldi Concertos have become standards of the piccolo repertoire. Technically, Vivaldi wrote them for another instrument, but they work well on the piccolo.
There are three different concertos you can look at to learn about composing for piccolo. Each one has slow and fast movements so that you can see how to use the entire range of the piccolo.
Rossini wrote a lot of amazing piccolo solos, specifically in some of his opera overtures. Semiramide, Barber of Seville, and La Gazza Ladra are all fantastic examples.
The composer uses the high notes of the piccolo without making the music sound shrill. If you want to write an opera, these excerpts can help you learn how to use the piccolo well.
Composing for Piccolo Doesn’t Have to Be Scary
Composing for piccolo may seem intimidating. However, the instrument can be an excellent tool in your music, so consider how to write good parts for it.
Then, you can gain the trust and loyalty of flute and piccolo players. And you can keep from annoying band and orchestra directors by not writing shrill, piercing piccolo parts.