Four-Foot, Eight-foot, Six-Foot Pitch Explained
by Wendy Powers
The recorder is a transposing instrument, like the B-flat clarinet or French horn in F, but many recorder players may not realize it. A soprano recorder playing in standard treble clef produces notes that
sound an octave higher than a soprano singer reading the same part. An F basset recorder playing from standard bass clef
is not a true bass instrument, but actually
sounds in the range of an alto singer.
A little pipe organ terminology
This trait -- sounding an octave higher than an instrument reads -- is often referred to as playing at "four-foot" pitch, an expression lifted from pipe organ terminology. The c-pitch organ pipe
two octaves below middle C -- the lowest key on most organ keyboards -- is about eight feet long, and so, for organists, sounding the pitch that is being read on the page is called "eight-foot" pitch. The C organ pipe a
single octave below middle C is half that length, about four feet long, and thus the practice of organists playing a set of pipes that
sound an octave higher than they are
reading is called playing at "four-foot" pitch. The C organ pipe
three octaves below middle C is about 16 feet long (big! deep!), and so
sounding an octave lower than what an organist is
reading is "sixteen-foot" pitch. You get the idea.
The four-foot recorder consort
An SATB recorder consort playing, say, a Lassus motet from a choral edition is therefore at four-foot pitch, because it sounds an octave higher than an SATB vocal choir, the eight-foot standard. Still with me? Okay!
The eight-foot recorder in mixed consorts
The recorder's four-foot character is of little consequence if recorders keep to their own kind. However, recorders are sociable instruments, and sometimes find themselves playing with other instruments, such as viols, or with singers. Those are the times that being aware of what octave one lives in is important. To create an eight-foot consort of four recorders that can play at the same pitches as an SATB choir, one needs a C tenor, an F basset, a C great bass, and an F contrabass recorder. This last is a true bass instrument, like a bass viol or a cello. The growing adoption of these big instruments is a wonderful development in the world of the recorder.
A six-foot recorder consort
With the increasing number of players willing to play G alto and G bass, another type of ensemble is now possible-the "six-foot" consort.
Playing on G alto, C tenor, G basset, and C great bass recorders while
reading an SATB score drops the sound down a perfect fourth, a nice compromise between the high sound of the four-foot consort and the great hand stretch of the eight-foot, one reason that several makers of Renaissance recorders include G instruments in their consorts.