"On hearing this Trifaldin bent the knee to the ground, and making a sign to the fifer and drummers to strike up, he turned and marched out of the garden to the same notes and at the same pace as when he entered, leaving them all amazed at his bearing and solemnity" - Don Quixote by Cervantes,

Why is a Bb Fife Called a Bb Fife?

     This is a question that is frequently asked of me and plagues musicians everywhere. I am going to do my best to explain it, but the answer will still be somewhat unclear because the process is inconsistent.

     Many band instruments are described by a method known as the "German System." Using this method, the instrument is named after the pitch it produces when a "C" is played. An Eb Alto Saxophone, when playing a "C," produces a tone equivalent to an "Eb" on a piano, which is a "C" instrument. Got that? Maybe you had better go back and read it again, because it gets worse. During the Roaring Twenties there was a saxophone called a "C Melody Saxophone." When you played a "C," you got a "C!" Brilliant! They don't make 'em anymore! A player of this instrument could sit right down beside a piano player and read the same music, playing right along. The guy with the Alto Saxophone (Eb) or Tenor Saxophone (Bb) has to transpose the music in order to pitch with the piano.

     The Bb fife and some whistles are different. When you play a "C" on a Bb fife, you get an "Ab." or an "A" with all the holes open. For reasons I can't fathom and nobody else I know can either, these instruments are named after the note they produce when all of the finger holes are closed. When I close all 6 holes on the Bb fife, I get a "Bb" when compared with the piano or any other "C" instrument. In other words, when I play a "D" on the fife it is really a "Bb." I honestly don't know why. That is just the way it is. While I am at it, I must clearly state that the Model F Fife is a Bb instrument. It does not pitch in F! Understood?

      I suspect the reason for all of this nonsense is that the fife is a much older instrument than the majority of band instruments, with the possible exception of the drum, which is near and dear to all fifers. That's probably why drummers wander around using terms like "paradiddle" and "ratamacue." At least they get to play in the orchestra!

    A client of mine, Andrew Plett, writes, "I am interested in and play many types of early wind instruments, and all of them are named after the lowest note they can play. For instance there are "F" and "C" recorders, "G" and "D" flutes, "D" tinwhistles, "G" crumhorns, "F" cornamuse, and our near and dear "Bb" fife. All of them are named after their lowest note. In fact, I was surprised when you talked about the 'German' system of naming the instrument after the note it makes when you play "C". I thought all instruments were named after the 'woodwind system!' I hope this is some use to you; my main point is that all the older wind instruments I know use the woodwind system."

     Another contributor, Chuck Winch, suspects that there was a lot of shared repertoire between fifers and fiddlers in the early days, a result of which was that fifers had greater access to violin music. The fiddler would prefer playing in D over C, and scored much of their music that way, so the fifers merely adapted their method and instrument to the fiddler's music. It could be true. Fifers and fiddlers share a lot of repertoire to this day.     

     This does not mean that when a fiddler is playing a tune in the key of "D" the fifer can play right along, reading the same music, and pitch with the violin. In this instance, the fiddler is playing in a true pitch of "D" and the fifer is really playing in a true pitch of "Bb."  The music just looks the same.

    Even if what I have said so far doesn't make any sense to you, read on because the rest will be helpful. The vast majority of fife music I have ever seen is scored in the KEYS of "G" (one sharp) or "D" (two sharps). When you are playing a Bb fife, theoretically you can play in any key, if you master a bazillion fingerings, but "D" and "G" are really where it is all at. So when I say it is scored in those keys, I don't mean you need a "D" or a "G" fife, which are sometimes used for Contra dancing and Irish music, but not in military music. Everybody I know in fife and drum corps and reenactment units in the United States plays a Bb fife, and plays music scored in "D or "G." I sure hope this helps. If anybody out there thinks they can explain it any better, send it to me and I will post it right here. I will even put your name on it so you can be famous.

     Finally, if you are uncertain if the fife you have is a Bb fife, measure the distance between the center of the blow hole and the center of the 6th or last finger hole. If it is somewhere around 10-7/8 inches or so, you are fine; it is a Bb fife.

In the Spirit of '76,

Ed Boyle


Interesting Link:


Home Page