It’s all in the notation…


By Christopher Millard



After 50 years of bassoon playing, I remain surprised by the subtle influences that key signatures have on our interpretation of orchestra passages.

Do you practice orchestral excerpts in different keys?  This is most beneficial in slower lyrical melodies where transpositions into adjacent keys reveal unexpected alterations in vibrato, colour and expressive intent.  Our expression is so influenced by the subtle differences in resistance and tuning that emerge with each new transposition.  Serious students should learn to navigate familiar solos in unfamiliar keys.  Excerpts like Tchaikovsky 4, Scheherazade or the Firebird Berceuse become very different musical challenges simply with a change of key signature.  But we may also react unconsciously to something as simple as an enharmonic change!

The acoustical complexity of the bassoon forces us to master complex fingerings, embouchure and air flow changes as we climb to the highest register. And while differences in resistance and harmonic spectra are most pronounced in the tenor range and above, they are equally challenging as we navigate the simplest of scales.  Learning to overcome unevenness in your bassoon and uncovering your true singing instincts is a primary focus for all advanced players. Playing the melodies you love in different keys reveals everything!  Elsewhere on this website you will find some thorough discussions of various tactics – an article on alternative fingering protocols and lengthy symposium on how to introduce transpositions into your practice.  In this post I want to focus on how sharps, flats and enharmonic equivalents can spell unexpected trouble.

Even though modern bassoons have evolved from the mid 19th century to live happily in the ever-increasing complexities of chromatic harmony, much of their DNA is rooted in their original designs.  The earlier generations of players and instruments found much of their musical landscapes in the ‘flat’ keys: C, F, Bb, Eb etc.  The ‘sharp’ keys of G, D, A etc came a bit later, coinciding with the gradual addition of more keys.

150 years after Almenraeder and Heckel, bassoonists remain a bit unbalanced about naming those black key accidentals [look at a piano keyboard…]  Our usual nomenclature of the keys starts at the bottom with Bb [not A#…]. Then comes C#, Eb, F#, Ab, Bb, C#, Eb, F#, Ab, Bb, C#, Eb, F#, G#, Bb, C#, Eb.  Of course, we could just as easily use enharmonic spellings like low A#, then Db, D#, Gb, G#, A#, Db, D#, Gb, G#, A#, Db, D#, Gb, Ab, Db, D# – but we usually don’t.

This has always struck me as a bit odd.  If you look at my three articles on this website about the layout of the bassoon bore, you will see that typically an accidental is achieved adding a key and raising a note by a half step.  This is true in the fundamental range for C#, D#, F#, G#, A# and C#.  For bottom Bb [not A#…] we add a thumb to lower B and forked Eb we add LH third finger to lower E.  But half-hole F#, G# and A# mimic their lower octaves – we add a finger to raise a semitone.

As we move into the crazy tenor register our normal nomenclature becomes more arbitrary.  Certainly, tenor C# in its simplest form raises a C [with the addition of the left thumb], tenor D# can be achieved by adding that same left thumb, but our normal fingering is acoustically much more related to E natural, so the term Eb makes sense.  Calling tenor F# an ‘F sharp’ makes sense if we use the German fingering with right thumb Bb key; but that same note played with right pinky on low F is really best understood as a Gb.  High Ab is a better description that G# because the latter has no relationship to a G but a clear connection to high A.  High Bb is also more logically tied to a high B, and high C# is certainly easier to navigate as a drop from high D.  Hmmm.  

Bassoon Boot Joint

Why on earth does any of this matter?  We all understand enharmonic equivalents and we also understand that the notes we usually call by their “sharp” or “flat” descriptions are not necessarily sharper or flatter in terms of intonation.

Or are they?

In case you’ve been wondering, that brief excerpt at the top of this article is the bassoon solo in the Adagio of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.  I always loved playing that solo, so dark and grounded and evocative.

The damn thing is in D flat minor.

Did you study basic harmony in college?  If so, you probably had no experience with Db minor, because it’s relegated to the small category of ‘theoretical keys’. It’s certainly a rare sighting in the wild.  Db minor has a relative major of Fb, which has 7 flats and one double flat in the key signature.  Mahler used Db minor a couple of times for brief moments in both the 4th and 5th symphony and even Verdi resorted to the key in a couple of arias.

However,.when composers wanted this sound  they wrote in C# minor, 99.99999% of the time.  You’ve learned C# minor scales – and hopefully you practice them.  I trust you also work on F# minor scales?  Thankfully nobody expects you to practice Gb minor – five flats and two double flats there.  [You’re also generally spared practicing A# major…]  By the way, don’t blame me for those occasionally highly chromatic passages in the Milde Etudes.  You just have to work your way through with enharmonic equivalents sometimes!

So, what is the point of all this nonsense?  I’m deeply grateful to Mahler, because I think Db minor is the most important scale any bassoonist can study if you are looking for perfecting intonation, tonal richness, and projection!!!

I’m totally serious.


The logical response to that declaration should be “That’s crazy, it’s the same as C# minor!!!”



But I find it’s a whole different experience!

I sometimes ask advanced students to play these scales back to back and I can promise you that they always sound different.  How on earth is that possible?  They are enharmonic equivalents!  They use the same fingerings on the same bassoon!!  They MUST sound they same, but they don’t.

Why? Because the psychology of raising a note to a sharp or dropping it to a flat almost always encourages a slight change in the physiology of embouchure and oral cavity.  Air support in a flat key frequently feels more connected to the ground.  Shoulders tend not to rise when we lower a note.  And when we ascend in a flat key we tend not to stretch tuning upward.

‘Flats’ intuitively lead to a darker sound for wind players than ‘sharps’.  This is a tendency that is far more pronounced for bassoonists for the reasons I explained in the opening paragraphs; so many of our key evolutions were based on adding a sharpening mechanism to an earlier design and something in our troglodyte fagott DNA lives on.

[To be clear, I’m not addressing the subtle adjustments in intonation that we might employ for major thirds or leading tones.  There are certainly some remnants of those requirements on some bassoons: if you have an extra tone hole on the boot for back G# you can certainly use that to raise the leading tone in A major much more successfully than the front Ab.  By the way, low Ab is acoustically one of these lease upwardly mobile notes on the bassoon; it’s usually hard to play it sharp. It’s one of the great features of Db minor, a well anchored dominant!]

…Once again, here is the excerpt as it originally appears.

 Try it now in its enharmonic equivalent – C# minor

Try the same theme in D minor!

And finally, in C minor.

Ask yourself how these four different versions affect your sound, intonation, legato and emotional response. The two enharmonic equivalents ought to sound the same, but do they?  For me, there is a subtle but very different outcome achieved in Mahler’s original tonality.  Explore the whole range of the bassoon with these alternative key signatures; the fingerings might be the same, but you will likely react to the music in two different ways!

Christopher Millard is the former principal bassoonist for Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra