If you want to learn about the piccolo, you may wonder what key the piccolo is in. Unlike the flute, the piccolo has been in a couple of keys throughout history.
Read on to learn more about the most common piccolo keys. That way, you can make sure you get the right instrument based on the type of music you play.
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Both today and throughout history, the majority of piccolos have been in the key of C. That means the note you see on the page of a piccolo part is the note you’ll hear when you play it.
Compare this to other instruments, such as the clarinet, which are transposing. That means the note you see on the page is NOT the note you hear when you play it.
In C but Not Concert Pitch
Something important to note is that while the modern piccolo is in the key of C, it’s not in concert pitch. Instead, it sounds exactly one octave above the written note.
For example, if you play an A in the staff on your piccolo, it will sound like the A just above the staff. The bass flute is like this but in reverse since it sounds an octave lower than written.
So while the regular C flute is in concert pitch, you could argue that the piccolo is technically a transposing instrument.
The Db Piccolo
If most piccolos are in C but not all, what key are other piccolos in? The other piccolos have been in the key of Db, so they sound a half step higher than the modern C piccolo.
That means they also sound a minor ninth higher than written. The Db piccolo was popular around the turn of the 20th century, and it was particularly common in bands.
Having piccolos a half step apart meant that players could avoid keys with tons of flats or sharps. Since a lot of those piccolos didn’t yet follow the Boehm system, playing in all keys was sometimes difficult.
Instead of having to play in B major on your C piccolo, you could play in Bb major on your Db piccolo.
Why the Key Matters
Because there have been both C piccolo and Db piccolo parts, it’s important to choose the right piccolo part to play. In college, I played a piccolo part in wind ensemble that had a C part on one side and a Db part on the other.
Probably the most famous example of this is Stars and Stripes Forever by Sousa. You can find the orchestra version (in D/G) in the Orchestral Excerpts for Piccolo book, but the band version is in Eb/Ab.
This isn’t super common, but it does happen. If you grab the wrong part based on the transposition of your instrument, you’ll sound out of tune, and we already get a bad rep for that.
If you want to play a piccolo, you need to know what key it’s in. Odds are, 99% of the piccolos you come across will be in C, so it’s not a huge issue.
However, many vintage piccolos are in the key of Db. If you try to play a C part on a Db instrument, you’ll sound a half step higher, which can make you even more out of tune than usual.
Do you need help tuning your piccolo (whether it’s in C or Db)? Check out the piano keyboard and drone!