The contrabassoon is a larger version of the bassoon sounding an octave lower. Its technique is similar to its smaller cousin, with a few notable differences.
With a range beginning at B0 (extending down a half-step to the lowest note on the piano on instruments with the low A extension), and extending up just over three octaves, the contrabassoon is the deepest available sound in an orchestra of standard instruments. Accordingly, the instrument is notated an octave above sounding pitch in bass clef, with tenor or even (rarely) treble clef called for in high passages. The instrument has a high range extending to middle C, but the top fifth is rarely used. Tonally, it sounds much like the bassoon except for a distinctive organ pedal quality in the lowest octave of its range which provides a solid underpinning to the orchestra. Although the instrument can have a distinct 'buzz', which becomes almost a clatter in the extreme low range, this is nothing more than a variance of tone quality which can be remediated by appropriate reed design changes. While prominent in solo and small ensemble situations, the sound can be completely obscured in the volume of the full orchestra.
Currently, contrabassoons are made by Heckel, Fox, Wolf, Moennig, Moosman, Püchner, Adler, Amati and Mollenhauer (and possibly others). In 2001, Fox introduced a new model of the contrabassoon with a completely revised system of register keys (octave keys), designed by Arlen Fast of the New York Philharmonic, and built by Chip Owen at Fox. It addressed a variety of problems with the standard system, including poor articulation, and weak and uneven tone in the upper registers of the instrument. This design was granted a patent (#6,765,138) in 2004. The changes introduced with this system have greatly improved the playing characteristics of the contrabassoon and have extended its effective range upwards. It was quickly adopted by the contrabassoon players in the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra and the National Symphony, as well as others. The Kalevi Aho Concerto for Contrabassoon (2005) was written for Lewis Lipnick of the National Symphony, playing on a Fast-System Fox contrabassoon. It became the first contrabassoon concerto to be recorded and released by a major record label, BIS Records.
Most orchestras use one contrabassoonist, either as a primary player or a bassoonist who doubles, as do a large number of symphonic bands and wind ensembles. While relatively rare, the instrument is most frequently found in larger symphonies, particularly those of Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Dmitri Shostakovich. The first composer to write a separate contrabassoon part in a symphony was Beethoven, in his Fifth Symphony (1808), although Bach, Handel (in his Music for the Royal Fireworks), Haydn, and Mozart occasionally used it in other genres. Composers have often used the contrabassoon to comical or sinister effect by taking advantage of its clumsiness and its sepulchral rattle, respectively. A clear examples of its sound can be heard in Paul Dukas' Sorcerer's Apprentice. Some modern composers such as Gunther Schuller, Kalevi Aho and John Caughman have written concertos for this instrument. Orchestrally, the contrabassoon is featured in Maurice Ravel's Mother Goose Suite and Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. It can also be clearly heard providing the bass line in the brief "Janissary band" section of the fourth movement of Beethoven's Symphony #9, just prior to the tenor solo.
The contrabassoon acts as the lowest voice of the woodwind ensemble, though the orchestral tuba can reach lower pitches. It is also often used to support other mixed orchestrations, such as doubling the bass trombone or tuba at the octave. Frequent exponents of such scoring were Brahms and Gustav Mahler. Joseph Haydn also used this instrument in both of his oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons. In these works the part for the contrabassoon and the bass trombone are mostly, but not always, identical.
Contemporary contrabassoonist Susan Nigro has released six albums featuring herself playing the contrabassoon as a virtuoso instrument. The albums include classical concertos, as well as modern tunes, such as The Pink Panther Theme. She affectionately calls the contrabassoon the "big bassoon" in her album titles.
Prof. Dr. Werner Schulze of Austria owns a contrabassoon with an extension to Ab0, the note a half step below the lowest note on the piano.
Recently, the instrument makers Guntram Wolf and Benedikt Eppelsheim have collaborated in the reworking of the contrabassoon, resulting in a new instrument they call the Contraforte. It has a larger bore, as well as larger tone holes, resulting in a slightly different tone from a normal contrabassoon. The Wolf Contraforte contains a natural extension down to A0, and several other features such as silent key movement and an automatic water drain.