In this post, I will define the piccolo register as the register that plays routinely one octave about the standard soprano instruments. This register would start at roughly C5, one octave above the middle C.
There are three instruments that fall easily into this category (I will leave out the recorders for the time being as their whole family is skewed pitch-wise an octave higher than normal). These instruments are:
- A-flat Clarinet
- Piccolo Saxophone
There is no member of either double reed family that extends into this range. The mechanics and physics of a double reed simply will not allow this.
Acoustics of the Piccolo Register
It could almost be said that instrument choice makes little difference when it comes to instruments that are this high. The overtones that form the basis of timbre are to some extent outside the range of human hearing, especially in the topmost octave. Percy Grainger exploited this phenomena in his rarely performed Hill Song no. 1, which has 19 double reed instruments – and two piccolos. I have heard this piece both live and on recordings and the piccolos do not detract from the nasal quality of the double reeds. instead, they serve as the upward harmonics of the sound.
In this range, the note is important, the timbre is secondary.
The Three Instruments
Of the three piccolo instruments, only the Piccolo (Flute) is widely (ever?) available. It is standard in both the orchestra and the band. Nearly every flute player will possess and be able to play the instrument.
The other two instruments are far rarer. The A-flat Clarinet used to be a rare visitor to bands, especially European bands, but today it is a rare sight even there. The Piccolo Saxophone is one of the newest of all woodwinds (marketed under the brand name “Soprillo” by Eppelsheim). As the instrument has only been made for around a decade few are extant, but the numbers are increasing. Due to the nature of the single reed, both of these instruments are exceedingly difficult to play well.
The A-flat Clarinet is the middle ground between the two instruments, it has an even timbre and dynamic range from top to bottom. The Piccolo, like all flutes will sound loudest in its upper register and softest in its bottom. The Piccolo Saxophone is the opposite of this sounding loudest in its bottom register, though still able to play quite loudly as it ascends.
The A-flat Clarinet will be able to play the softest of all three instruments, whereas the Piccolo Saxophone will play the loudest.
Both the A-flat Clarinet and the Piccolo will have roughly three octave ranges, whereas the Piccolo Saxophone will have at most 2.5 octaves. However, the Piccolo will be able to play an octave higher than either of the single reed instruments.
Orchestration and Use
This register of any ensemble should be used the least. Human ears grow tired very quickly of high pitched sounds. Perhaps 10-20% of a piece should/could contain passages for these instruments. This advice is also keenly noted for the A-flat Clarinet and the Piccolo Saxophone whose players will tire extremely quickly due to the extremely firm embouchure.
These three instruments can easily be doubles for larger members of their family.
Unless you know for certain that the A-flat Clarinet and/or Piccolo Saxophone are available (or you’re crazy), only score for the Piccolo.