A transposing instrument is a musical instrument for which written notes are read at a pitch different from the corresponding concert pitch, which a non-transposing instrument, such as a piano, would play. Playing a written C on a transposing instrument will produce (sound) a note other than concert C. The concert pitch of that written C determines the key from which an instrument transposes. For example, a written C on a B♭ clarinet sounds a concert B♭. Transposing harmoniums or electronic keyboards with a transpose function can also sound a different set of pitches from what is notated, but these are not usually called transposing instruments.
Reasons for transposing
Though writing for transposing instruments entails more work for a composer or arranger, there are several reasons why instruments are transposed.
Transposition at the octave
- See also octave clef.
If an instrument has a range that is too high or too low for its music to be easily written on bass or treble clef, the music may be written either an octave higher or an octave lower than it sounds, in order to reduce the use of ledger lines. Instruments that "transpose at the octave" are not playing in a different key from concert pitch instruments, but sound an octave higher or lower than written. Some instruments with extremely high or low ranges use a two-octave transposition.
Music for the contrabassoon and the double bass is written on the bass clef, one octave higher than concert pitch. Music for the guitar and, frequently, the tenor voice is written on the treble clef, one octave higher than concert pitch. Music for the piccolo is written on the treble clef, one octave lower than concert pitch. If these instruments did not transpose at the octave many of their pitches would be written far above or below the staff, making reading comparatively cumbersome.
Historically, some instruments have come to be accepted (and widely manufactured) with a certain transposition as a standard and most music written for those instruments would be transposed accordingly.
Families of instruments
Many instruments are members of a family of instruments that differ mainly in size, such as the saxophone, clarinet, flute, etc. The instruments in these families have differing ranges, with the members sounding lower as they get larger. If the music for each was not transposed to maintain the same fingerings for the same written notes, players would have to learn to read differently for each pitch of instrument. As a result these instruments are transposed based on their range so that the written notes are fingered the same way on each instrument. Some instrument families, like trombones and tubas, are not written transposed.
Instruments that transpose this way are often referred to as being in a certain "key", such as the A clarinet (clarinet in A), or the F horn (horn in F). The instrument's key tells which pitch will sound when the player plays a note written as "C". A player of a B♭ clarinet who reads a written C will sound a B♭ while the player of an F horn will read the same note and sound an F.
The flute family contains instruments with different transpositions. The standard concert flute is a non-transposing instrument with a range from middle C up about three octaves. The alto flute is a very similar instrument, but longer, and hence pitched lower, with a range starting from the G below middle C. The fingering that would produce a C on a standard flute produces the G a fourth lower on the alto flute.
The situation is similar in other families of instruments. For example, clarinets come in various pitches (A, B♭, C, E♭), with music transposed appropriately for each so that the player can maintain the same fingerings for the same written notes. For reasons of timbre or to minimize switching between different instruments, expert clarinetists sometimes use a different instrument from that for which their part calls—usually substituting the B♭ for the A or vice-versa—transposing the parts at sight instead. Advanced trumpet players may do this also, usually with the B♭ and C instruments.
In some families of instruments, the non-transposing C version had fallen into disuse; the clarinet family is one example, where only the B♭ and A members are common, but in recent years, there is a tendency to use the C clarinet when required. Horns are another example.
Some families containing transposing instruments:
- The clarinet family (piccolo clarinet in A♭; sopranino clarinet in E♭, D; soprano clarinet in B♭ and A; basset horn in F; alto clarinet in E♭; bass clarinet in B♭ and A; contrabass clarinet in BB♭; and several other very low clarinets)
- some members of the oboe family (oboe d'amore in A, cor anglais in F)
- the saxophone family (either B♭ or E♭)
- certain brass instruments, notably the trumpet and horn.
Before valves became common about 1800, the horn could play only the notes of the overtone series from a single fundamental pitch. This fundamental could be changed by inserting one of a set of crooks into the instrument, shortening or lengthening the total length of its sounding tube. As a result, all horn music was written as if for a fundamental pitch of C, but the crooks could make a single instrument a transposing instrument into almost any key. Changing the crooks was a time-consuming process, so it took place only between pieces or movements. The introduction of valves made this process unnecessary (although Richard Wagner wrote horn parts as if crooks were still in use, evoking the tradition which was quickly becoming archaic). While an F transposition became standard in the early 19th century, composers differed in whether they expected the instruments to transpose down a fifth or up a fourth, especially when written in bass clef.
There are a few families of instruments that have instruments of various sizes and ranges, but whose music is rarely or never transposed. The recorder family is one of these. The higher members of the family (soprano and above) transpose at the octave, as do the bass instruments (bass and great bass). However, they are referred to as "C-fingered" or "F-fingered" depending on the lowest note, which is fingered the same on all sizes. A player may go from one C-fingered instrument to another easily, and from one F-fingered instrument to another easily, but switching between the two requires learning a new set of fingerings or the ability to transpose the music at sight.
Tone and sound quality
Because of tone quality issues, some C (concert pitch) instruments — the C melody saxophone, C soprano saxophone, and C soprano clarinet, for example — have declined in popularity in favor of the standard versions (B♭ soprano and tenor saxophone; B♭ and A clarinets).
It was found that sometimes instruments sounded better when built in certain keys. For instance, the C clarinet was not a very pleasant sounding instrument, nor was the D or the E♭ clarinet; it was generally agreed that the B♭ clarinet was the most pleasant sounding, and for this reason was the one that remained in dominant use in the present day. This is also true of the B♭ trumpet, as well as several other instruments, such as the French horn and the trombone (which, outside the United Kingdom brass band tradition, is not treated as a transposing instrument, although its basic overtone series is B♭ or E♭).
Mechanical and physical considerations
On woodwind instruments there is one major scale whose execution involves (more or less) simply picking up each finger sequentially from the bottom to top. This is usually the scale that reads as a C scale (the major scale with no sharps or flats) on that instrument. If it is a transposing instrument, the note written as C sounds as the note of the instrument's transposition — on an E♭ alto saxophone, that note sounds as a concert E♭, on an A clarinet, that note sounds as a concert A. The bassoon is an exception; it is not a transposing instrument, yet its "home" scale is F.
Brass instruments, when played with no valves engaged (or, for trombones, with the slide all the way in), play a series of notes that form the overtone series based on some fundamental pitch, e.g., the B♭ trumpet, when played with no valves being pressed, can play the overtones based on B♭ (although not the fundamental pitch). Usually, that pitch is the note that indicates the transposition of that brass instrument. Trombones are an exception — they do not transpose, instead reading at concert pitch, although tenor and bass trombones are pitched in B♭, alto trombone in E♭. Music for baritone or euphonium is sometimes written in bass clef at concert pitch also.
In the cases above, there is some reason to consider a certain pitch the "home" note of an instrument, and that pitch is usually written as C for that instrument. The concert pitch of that note is what determines how we refer to the transposition of that instrument.
With the exception of the bass trombone, all of the instruments in United Kingdom brass band music (including cornet, flugelhorn, tenor horn, euphonium, baritone horn, tenor trombone, and even the bass tuba) are notated in treble clef as transposing instruments in either B♭ or E♭.
On the conductor's score
In conductors' scores, music for transposing instruments is generally written in transposed form, just as in the players' parts. A few publishers, especially of modern music, provide conductors with scores written entirely in concert pitch, making the pitch relationships of the entire score easier for the conductor to see.
List of instruments by transposition
- Instruments in C (high) — sounding two octaves higher than written
- Instruments in C (high) — sounding an octave higher than written
- Instruments in B♭ (high) — sounding a minor seventh higher than written
- Piccolo trumpet (may also be tuned to A)
- Sopranissimo saxophone (soprillo)
- Instruments in A♭ (high) — sounding a minor sixth higher than written
- A♭ piccolo clarinet (very rare)
- Instruments in G (high — sounding a perfect fifth higher than written
- Soprano Bugle
- Instruments in F (high) — sounding a perfect fourth higher than written
- F trumpet (very rare)
- Descant Horn
- Musette (piccolo oboe in F)
- Instruments in E (high) — sounding a major third higher than written
- E trumpet (very rare)
- Instruments in E♭ (high) — sounding a minor third higher than written
- Instruments in D (high) — sounding a major second higher than written
- D soprano clarinet
- D trumpet (may also be tuned to E♭)
- A selection of Instruments in C (unison) — sounding as written; these are non-transposing instruments
- C soprano clarinet (moderately rare)
- C soprano saxophone (rare)
- Alto (treble), tenor, contrabass recorder
- C Trumpet
- Alto trombone
- Tenor trombone when written in tenor or bass clef
- Bass trombone
- Euphonium or baritone horn when written in bass or tenor clef
- Tuba when written in bass clef
- Instruments in B♭ — sounding a major second lower than written
- Instruments in A — sounding a minor third lower than written
- Instruments in G — sounding a perfect fourth lower than written
- Instruments in F — sounding a perfect fifth lower than written
- Instruments in E♭ — sounding a major sixth below what is written
- Instruments in C (low) — sounding an octave below what is written
- Instruments in B♭ (low) — sounding a major ninth (an octave and a major second) below what is written
- Instruments in A (low) — sounding a minor tenth (an octave and a minor third) below what is written
- A bass clarinet (obsolete)
- Instruments in G (low) — sounding a perfect eleventh (an octave and a perfect fourth) below what is written
- Contra-alto flute (rare)
- Baritone Bugle
- Euphonium Bugle
- Instruments in F (low) — sounding a perfect twelfth (an octave and a perfect fifth) below what is written
- Instruments in E♭ (low) — sounding a major thirteenth (an octave and a major sixth) below what is written
- Instruments in CC (low) — sounding a perfect fifteenth (two octaves) below what is written
- Instruments in BB♭ (very low) — sounding two octaves and a major second below what is written
- Instruments in GG (very low) — sounding two octaves and a perfect fourth below what is written
- G subcontrabass flute (rare)
- Contra Bugle
- Instruments in EE♭ (very low) — sounding two octaves and a major sixth below what is written
- Instruments in CCC (super low) — sounding three octaves below what is written
- C subcontrabass flute (very rare)
- Instruments in BBB♭ (super low) — sounding three octaves and a major second below what is written
In the 17th and early 18th century, timpani were often treated as transposing instruments, as they were usually tuned to the tonic and dominant notes. These were notated as C and G, and the actual tuning was indicated at the top of the score (for example, Timpani in A–D). This notation style was not universal: Bach, Mozart, and Schubert (in his early works) used it, but their respective contemporaries Handel, Haydn, and Beethoven wrote for the timpani at concert pitch.
- Category:Transposing instruments
- ^ Stein, Keith (1958). The art of clarinet playing. Alfred Music Publishing. p. 45. ISBN 978-0-87487-023-7. http://books.google.com/books?id=EdvJ3JleBy4C&pg=PA45. Retrieved 22 October 2011.
- ^ The modern saxophone family is in B♭ and E♭, but there is also an orchestral family of saxophones in C and F: F-sopranino, C-soprano, F-alto (sometimes called mezzo-soprano), C-tenor (now called C-melody), F-baritone, C-bass, and F-contrabass. The last of these was manufactured in the 1930s.
- ^ There are two complications with horn transposition. First, some older editions write for valved horns as if they still had crooks, and thus may change the transposition several times within a piece or movement. Second, when horn parts are written in bass clef, they may be written an octave lower than expected, transposing up, rather than down as in treble clef. In today's scores, horns always transpose down, even in bass clef; but the other notation was standard until the beginning of the 20th century."Written Vs. Sounding Pitch". http://www.dml.indiana.edu/pdf/byrd_WrittenVsSoundingPitch_0105.pdf. Retrieved 2007-03-22.
- ^ Del Mar, Norman (1981). The Anatomy of the Orchestra. Univ of California press.
- Kennan, Kent Wheeler. The Technique of Orchestration, Second Edition. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970, 1952; ISBN 0-13-900316-9
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