Musical Register

Daniel Stevens

Register can be described in general terms as the “highness” or “lowness” of a particular sound or figure (motive, theme, pattern). These terms, of course, reflect a particular culturally-defined conception of sounds as mapping to a vertical space in which sounds move “up and down” to “higher and lower” sounds; other metaphors for mapping sound relationships exist in other cultures.

Register can also be defined using the particular octave in which a pitch or figure occurs. When appropriate, we’ll use a system called “American Standard Pitch Notation” which has become commonplace in music theory classrooms. In this system, middle C is labeled C4, and the notes above middle C retain the label “4” until the C an octave higher is reached (D4, E4…B4, C5). These labels can be used somewhat flexibly to identify the register of specific pitches or musical figures. For example, a musical motive that occurs throughout the piece might be tagged by the register of its starting pitch. Noting the register in which certain musical elements occur within a piece can help you discover significant processes at work in a composition.

Thinking about register opens up a field of interesting questions to bring to pieces of music, including:

  • In what register does important material occur and reoccur?
  • Are there important locations where new registral high (or low) points are achieved? Are these points significant or “hard earned”?
  • What is the registral space implied by a piece at its opening? Is there a registral “ceiling” or “floor” suggested by the piece, and does the piece work within those limits or move beyond them?
  • How is register influenced by the instruments for which the music is composed? What is the range of each instrument, and which registers within that range does the composer employ?

Activity: Listening to repeating patterns in Brahms’ Intermezzo

Goal: Develop a sensitivity to the register of important events in music, and how those events change over time.

Instructions: Brahms’s Intermezzo in A Major (Op. 118, no. 2) begins with a three-note motive (C#–B–D) that is transformed in various ways throughout the piece. List the Pitch-Register dyad of the first note of each instance of this motive.


Activity: Finding a song where register plays an important role

Goal: Develop a sensitivity to register in music.

Instructions: Find a piece of music in which register plays a significant role. Improvise or recompose an alternative arrangement of the music that preserves most features but drastically alters the register. How does changing the register impact the music?

Activity: Describing register’s role in a Beethoven Piano Sonata

Goal: Develop a sensitivity to register in music.

Instructions: Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in C major (Op. 2, no. 3) begins with a primary theme that seems constricted primarily to the C4–C5 register throughout (mm. 1–12). How does the rest of the piece unfold with respect to registers?



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