The Role of the Piccolo in Classical Music

By David Pogue, Scott Speck

The piccolo provides a unique sound in classical music. This instrument works like a teeny weeny flute — actually, it’s half the size of a normal flute. Thus the column of air inside the piccolo is also half as long as that inside a flute. What this means is, when you press the same keys that you would press on a flute, the notes come out sounding one octave higher than those of the flute.

The word piccolo is Italian for “little” (as in, “Mamma, per piacere dammi un piccolo pezzo di pesce blu alla salsa di senape” — which means, “Mama, please give me a little piece of bluefish with mustard sauce”). After someone invented a little flute, that instrument was called the flauto piccolo (“little flute”). The name stuck. Now everybody refers to the little sister of the flute as the piccolo.

The piccolo’s high notes are brilliant and can be heard over nearly everything else, including a full orchestra. The low notes are soft and weak — but if you wanted low notes, you wouldn’t need a piccolo, now, would you?

Antonio Vivaldi’s Piccolo Concerto in C major, p. 79, is a lovely concerto for piccolo and orchestra. It was probably originally written for a small recorder, because in Vivaldi’s time, the piccolo as it is know today hadn’t been invented yet. But today, it’s usually played on a piccolo.

Here are a couple of wonderful piccolo excerpts from orchestral literature:

  • Gioachino Rossini: La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) (overture)

  • Sergei Prokofiev: Lieutenant Kije Suite

  • Peter Tchaikovsky: Symphony no. 4

  • Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade (fourth movement)

Other flutelike instruments exist besides the piccolo. A larger and lower version of the flute is the alto flute; it’s rarely used, but it gives a rich, silky quality to the very low notes. (For a really exotic, spicy treat, check out the alto flute solos in Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring — especially near the beginning of Part 2. Or, if you prefer, check out the score to Disney’s original cartoon version of The Jungle Book.)

An even larger and lower flute than the alto flute is called the bass flute. This instrument is so long that the end must be curved around, and it produces very low notes indeed. The bass flute comes the closest of all instruments to sounding like a cola bottle.