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What Is a Contrabassoon?

Liz Thomas
Liz Thomas

A contrabassoon is the lowest of the wind instruments and produces some of the lowest notes played in an orchestra. It is twice the size of a traditional bassoon and much heavier. The modern version is played widely today, as the first versions had pitch issues. This wind instrument is not commonly used but typically takes part in large symphonies or for specific pieces of music.

A member of the double reed family, the contrabassoon's range is solely in the low registers, using bass clef. The lowest note that can be played is the same as the lowest "A" found on the piano keyboard, known as A1. Their low register is typically used to support other bass instruments in the orchestra, such as the tuba.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

The contra is also called the double bassoon, as it is physically very similar to a traditional bassoon. Some of the main differences between the two include reed size, fingering, and overall length. The contrabassoon is about twice as long as the bassoon, with the tube curving around on itself. The fingering is slightly different, due to the widely spaced keys and the reed used is about 0.5 to 1 inch (about 10 to 20 mm) longer than on a traditional bassoon.

Playing the contra requires considerably more air than playing other wind instruments due to the length of the tubing. The conical bore of the contra is just under 16 feet (about 5 m), while the bore in a traditional version is seven feet (about 2 m). Most are made in one piece and cannot be taken apart, making it very heavy. Musicians rest the instrument on a peg that sits on the floor.

The first contrabassoon was developed at the end of the 17th century. It was not widely used because of intonation problems. The range of these first instruments, now considered semi-contras, were not as expansive as that of modern versions. The range only went a fifth below the lowest note of the traditional version.

Development and creation of the first modern versions can be traced to the late 19th century. Wilhelm Heckel built the first modern instrument, correcting many pitch problems. With the new modern version it was possible to play a scale completely in pitch.

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