I can recall vividly the first time I heard Bach’s Pasacaglia and Fugue in C minor. I was in my college’s top choir, and we were preparing for our spring trip. Our first concert was in a large local church with a magnificent organ. I grew up around a great old organ, but it was a small instrument from the late 1800s, an ancient frontier instrument. It was not an instrument of great power. The organ I was hearing was powerful. Bach’s great work is under 10 minutes in an average performance. The organist has great flexibility in the sounds he or she produces. By the end of this performance, all the stops had been pulled, and I hear the instrument in its full glory. Thirty-two feet of pipe rumbled, and I knew that bass was powerful and meant something meaningful.
Over the years, various instruments have been constructed to emulate these depths. None have been fully successful.
The first instrument made to explore these depths was the Octobass, a gigantic Bass constructed in the middle of the 1800s. Berlioz described it as having the same range as a normal Bass with an extension to low C, but the surviving instruments seem to belie this fact and are actually an octave below this down to the bottom C of the 32’ range. A few of these instruments are extant, but their use is limited to the 2-3 players who have them. Pros – does not use wind. Cons – 10 feet tall and extremely rare.
Octo-Contrabass and Octo-Contra-Alto Clarinets
These are the most promising of the sub-contrabass wind instruments due to the curious fact that clarinets need half of the normal pipe length to produce the same effect. So, to produce the 32’ C, a clarinet would only need 16’ of tubing. Sadly, these instruments were never used and only exist as prototypes. There are several videos of a refurbished Octo-Contra-Alto Clarinet on YouTube. Pros – reduced pipe length means a shorter instrument. Cons- Only one working Octo-Contra-Alto Clarinet and no working Octo-Contrabass.
Despite rumors, this instrument has never existed, though I have found tantalizing evidence that someone is designing a working instrument. We shall see what becomes of that – if anything. Pros – none. Cons – does not exist.
These have been tried, and all failed. In order for these to work, there needs to be 64’ of tubing as the normal Contrabass Tuba is already 32’ to 36’. Pros- exists. Cons – unplayable by human lungs.
What is evident is that mere mortals have a hard time producing the wind for such deep instruments, save potentially for the extra low clarinets.
Can humans actually here these notes?
The short answer is usually no. Classical data says that human hearing stops at about 20Hz. The lowest C of the 32’ range is about 16Hz. However, the studies that determined this were flawed. They used speakers to reproduce the sounds and the speakers themselves could not produce sounds below 20Hz. With acoustic means, humans can hear down to at least 12Hz in ideal circumstances.
What does this mean?
It means that humans with I damaged ears can hear the notes, but they cannot be produced by humans (due to lung limitations) or by electronics (due to speaker limitations). The only real option for producing these notes is by the Pipe Organ, which does not rely on lungs or speakers.
Orchestrationally, the 32’ range is a weapon that should only be pulled out rarely. If at a sufficient volume, it will rumble the bowels of the audience. It’s never guaranteed if these notes are even available, even if a Pipe Organ is present.