Technical Library

TUNING I: Describing pitch & compass

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Describing pitch and compass…

The keyboard of the modern piano has a range of 88 notes from AAA–c'''''. Harpsichords, fortunately, do not need quite as many notes.

Our diagram only shows the Cs, the lowest note being CC (Cee-Cee). All the pitches in the lowest octave shown are denoted with two upper case letters. After ascending all the notes in that octave through CC, DD etc to BB, the next note, perched on two leger lines below the bass staff, is C. Most harpsichords probably have FF or GG as their bottom note, so these would obviously be found halfway up that octave, before you get to the C.

The next octave from C uses just single, upper case letters: If you wanted to describe the G which is the bottom line on the bass staff, for example, you could call it big G. The next c up, tenor c or little c is just that, for its octave is described in single, lower case letters. Middle c' and its octave has just one stroke, and a note from that octave like g' could be described as g one or g prime. The next octave begins at c'' (c two) and runs to b'', and I’m sure you can figure out what to call your few top notes above c'''.

I’ve already told you the upper limit of the modern piano compass is at c''''', so that’s clearly another octave above what the diagram shows.

You can play virtually all of Bach on 56 notes, GG–d''', but you might need two keyboards for the Goldbergs, Italian Concerto or French Overture. In Couperin’s first two books, all his works are contained with the FF–c''' compass, the FF in fact only occuring once as an optional lozenge. For his final two books, Couperin extended his requirement in the treble to c''' and d'''. With five octaves, 61 notes from FF–f''', you can cover all of Mozart, and in fact most of Beethoven up to 1801. Scarlatti was a special case, and to play absolutely all of his surviving sonatas on one instrument, you’ll need 63 notes, FF–g'''—but he never used the full range in any one sonata and obviously was writing for instruments of different compass throughout his long life.

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