Helmholtz pitch notation is often used to specify ranges of notes in historical instruments. This could be a total range (the compass), or it could describe a device like a keyboard or a lever that’s used to operate a part of the compass. In musicology or organology research domains the English variant seems to be the preferred notation in the running text.
- How standard is this format, and where can I find a comprehensive description for it?
- How do you pronounce it?
Naming the octaves is clear from the description on dolmetsch.com. So simple ranges:
are pronounced as:
- “great octave c through three-line octave c”
- “contra octave f though three-line octave c”
There could be missing notes in the beginning of the series; and sometimes also at the end, and this is written like so:
You all know that the layouts known as “short octaves” have notes in a specific order which is written as:
which could be pronounced as:
- “contra octave g, a, though three-line octave c, d”
- “great short octave c, e, through three-line octave c”
Quite a number of historical harpsichords have a layout in the bass end that’s different in some other way, for example it could be “broken”, which is then often written as:
- “C/E-c’’’ with split sharps D/F# and E/G#”
Here a short octave is used, but the accidentals are not omitted. Still, it’s probably pronounced as:
- “great short octave c, e, through three-line octave c with split sharps on great octave d and e”
Finally, in Peter Williams’s New organ history, a more advanced notation system is described to refer to an organ’s stops and keyboard combination.
Because of the pandemic, I can’t have the book with me at the moment, but if I remember correctly, an interrupted range is meant to refer to the pedal keyboard’s highest note:
which, I suppose, could be pronounced as:
- “contra octave c through one-line octave f pedal range, and three-line octave c keyboard range”
One can also refer to a divided bridge (FF-F,G#-f’’’) or a bass (FF-c’) and treble (c#1-f’’’) section for split registers etc. English is not my main language, and I’ve heard many people struggle with this. Please let me know what you think is a good colloquial American or British style to use, say, on radio or podcasts, for an audience of peers (those who are familiar with the notation through reading). It’s not clear to me how to unambiguous and fluent at the same time for certain expressions. Also it would be nice if you’d contribute references to descriptions like the one Dr Williams made.
I’m also thinking about programming a parser which can transform a subset of these rules to a series of notes in another format (like integers in the MIDI standard), which can then be used to draw a keyboard (in TikZ, LaTeX).