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- This article is about the instrument in the flute family. For other meanings, see Piccolo (disambiguation).
The piccolo is a small flute. Its name in Italian is "flauto piccolo" which means "small flute". Like the flute, the piccolo is normally pitched in the key of C, one octave above the concert flute (making it, effectively, a sopranino flute). Music for the piccolo is written one octave lower than concert pitch in order to avoid too many ledger lines above the staff. Fingerings on the piccolo correspond to fingerings on the flute, but sound an octave higher. Also, many alternate fingerings may be used to tune the individual pitches, as many are consistently out of tune.
In addition to the standard C piccolo, there is a piccolo pitched in D-flat that is sometimes used in bands and a piccolo pitched in A-flat rarely used outside Italian marching bands.
Timbre and construction
Because the piccolo's sound is in a very high register, it has a potential to be strident or shrill. Thus, it is often used only as an ornamental, "flavor" or "garnish" instrument. Nonetheless, there have been many concertos and solo pieces written for the piccolo, written by notable composers such as Persichetti and Vivaldi. (Vivaldi’s concertos, however, were originally for the sopranino recorder). One of the earliest pieces to use the piccolo was Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Triple-woodwind orchestral works typically include two flutes and one piccolo or three flutes with a piccolo double. Not all flute players play piccolo. Though the fingerings are the same, the embouchure and other differences do require a separate effort to learn.
It is increasingly difficult to sustain notes in the third octave – these notes can damage the eardrums. Those who play the piccolo use ear-plugs to stifle the sound.
The piccolo is somewhat notorious for being difficult to play in tune, as evidenced by the joke circulating among musicians that defines a minor second as "two piccolos playing in unison". Besides being generally sensitive to tuning, the piccolo does require a great deal of breath support and is quite conspicuous when out of tune.
Piccolos may be constructed out of wood, metal, plastic, or a combination. Many piccolo players find that wooden piccolos offer a more mellow timbre than metal ones. A popular compromise combines a metal head joint with a body made from wood. In more recent years the piccolo has also been made out of a plastic composite material. The composite piccolo is durable enough for marching and produces a fair quality sound. Most professionals agree that it should be made out of one material as two separate ones rise to separate temperatures, leading to tuning inconsistencies.
Historically the piccolo had no keys, but does today, and should not be confused with the fife, or classical piccolo, which has a smaller bore and is therefore more strident. The piccolo is used in conjunction with marching drums in traditional formations at the Carnival of Basel, Switzerland.
- Kennan, Kent Wheeler. The Technique of Orchestration New York: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1952: 88 - 91
- Sadie, Stanley "Piccolo." The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie, Vol. 19. NY: Oxford University Press, 2001.