A piccolo is a woodwind instrument most closely related to the flute. The range of a piccolo, however, is usually an octave above that of most flutes. This gives the piccolo a very bright but often strident tone, which is most effective when used sparingly. Many piccolo players begin as flautists, since the fingerings are virtually the same and a flute's tone is easier to master. It is not unusual to find only a handful of piccolos in an entire flute section.
If you happen to hear a piccolo during a parade or other outside event, chances are it is made completely out of metal. A metal piccolo is durable enough to survive beginner's abuse or cold environments, but the tone is often shrill or pitchy. Professional piccolo players often select models made from wood, although the mouthpiece section may still be metallic. A wooden piccolo has a mellower tone in general, although players often find it necessary to use alternative fingerings to maintain proper pitch. Piccolos share the same reputation as Scottish bagpipes -- no two are ever in perfect tune.
Because a piccolo can cut through even the heaviest orchestral sound, its use in compositions is generally limited to occasional solos or decorative colorings behind other woodwinds. Perhaps the most famous use of a piccolo occurs in John Philip Sousa's march Stars and Stripes Forever. Towards the end of the piece, several piccolos can be heard playing a trill-filled countermelody against the brass section. This is a common theme for piccolo players. In order to sound its best in performance, the piccolo must often be played very loudly. Special earplugs are sometimes provided for rehearsals.
This is not to suggest the piccolo is always doomed to play ornamental countermelodies or fills, because some music for piccolo and accompaniment does exist. The problem is that much of it was written during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time considered to be the Golden Age of piccolos. The type of piccolo used in those compositions, tuned to D-Flat, is no longer produced. The majority of piccolos produced today are tuned to C. In order to accommodate the piccolo's octave range, however, most music is written an octave lower. This means a generous amount of ledger lines, but flautists playing the piccolo should still be able to read their scores comfortably.