Auxiliary instruments of the orchestra

Alto Flute

The alto flute is a transposing instrument in the key of G that is notated a fourth above the actual note played. It is the next instrument down in the flute family below the C or concert flute. A member of the woodwind family, the alto has a notably larger bore and tube length than the concert and can be found in two configurations. With the straight head the mouthpiece is like the smaller C but with the curved, the head is brought around to effectively shorten the player’s required reach and adjust the instrument’s centre of gravity for ease of playing.

Like all other (standard) members of the modern flute family, the alto uses the Theobald Boehm system of keys and rings to cover the fingering holes, allowing the player to reach the more remote tone holes positioned to be more acoustically accurate.

The alto is occasionally called the bass flute in British orchestras although this leads to a confusion caused by a technicality. The concert (C) flute plays in the same range as the renaissance tenor flute so the next lower would logically be called the bass. A true bass flute exists and is pitched in C, an octave below the concert.

Being pitched at G, a fourth below the concert (in C), the alto is perfectly placed to provide a more robust lower range to that provided by the concert, allowing the composer to make a smooth transition or bridge to the ranges of the clarinet, bassoon and brass instruments.

The textures and range provided by the alto is displayed nicely in “Vermont Counterpoint” by Steve Reich which you can read about and hear here.

Cor Anglais

The Cor Anglais or English Horn might be considered the alto member of the oboe family, sitting in the woodwind between the oboe and bass oboe or bassoon.

The modern instrument was developed during the early to mid eighteenth century and underwent major development under Guillaume Triébert, Henri Brod and François Loirée to arrive at the instrument that we know today with its distinctive mellow, romantic tone.

Although being given an increasing amount of solo or centre stage work, the Cor Anglais is a resolutely orchestral instrument, often played by the same musician as the oboe. However, when it is pushed to the fore, the results are emotional, evocative, and immediately recognisable in pieces such as Dvořák’s New World Symphony or Rossini’s William Tell (especially of course, the overture).

One of the most visually striking elements of the English Horn is its bulb shaped bell in place of a flared type. Nobody really knows why the instrument has this feature but it doesn’t seem to modify the tone in any way compared to the traditional type. Being a member of the oboe family, the Cor Anglais makes use of the double reed method of energy transfer from the player (via a curved metal tube or “bocal”) to the instrument allowing the musician a great deal of control over the dynamics of the tone produced.

The conversation between the cor anglais and the flute in “The William Tell Overture” is a wonderful display of the wistful tones available from both instruments. Read about and hear it here.


The contrabassoon (or bass bassoon) is the lowest member of the bassoon family. Also a transposing instrument, it plays an octave below where it’s written on the stave, sounding an octave below the standard bassoon.

It’s a large instrument, folding back on itself twice with approximately five metres of tubing. Support is provided by a floor spike and (optional) neck strap. The column of air available inside the tubing takes a considerable amount of energy to manipulate and, like most bass instruments, the attack phase of a note can be quite slow leading to poor staccato. This can be overcome to a large extent by tonguing in the middle of the available register or by playing legato.

The contrabassoon usually plays a supporting role in the orchestra, frequently paired with the contrabass (double bass) to lend depth and texture to the required part.

The mass of air in the instrument being warmed by the breath of the player can cause detuning and a tuning slide is provided on most instruments to allow for and correct this.

Read about and listen to the contrabassoon add weight to the bass in the fourth movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony here.

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