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How to Transpose Music for Your Instrument

Updated on July 29, 2014

What Is a Transposing Instrument?

It is a musical instrument whose notes are written in a different key from the pitches that sound when it plays. For example, a B flat Clarinet, or French Horn in F. When the concert key is C, a B flat clarinet will sound a B flat when it sees the note C. When a french horn sees the note C, it sill sound an F below C.

Why are there transposing instruments?

Many instruments differ in size. The flute, clarinet and saxophone are all very different sizes. They all have different ranges (different highest and lowest notes) and the larger the instrument, the lower the notes it can produce. Most instruments in the woodwind family, for example, use the same fingering so that a woodwind player can play several instruments, based on using the same fingering patterns. As a result, instruments are transposed based on their range, and that the fingering is identical.

Concert Key and Instrument Key

Instruments that transpose are said to be in a certain "key." Examples would include, B flat clarinet, horn in F (french horn) B flat trumpet, etc. The key the instrument is in indicates which pitch will sound when the player plays C. Clarinets in B flat that read a C will sound a B flat below C. A french horn player that reads C will sound an F below C.

Transposing for Your Instrument

So if an instrument will sound notes lower than C, then you would have to write the pitch higher than C to get the right pitch. Clarinets in B flat will sound a whole step lower than the pitch it sees on paper. So to get it in the right key, you have to write the part a whole step higher to sound a C. That means you would have to write a D in order for the clarinet to sound C. So when concert key is C, your key signature is D. If you are in the concert key of G, then your clarinet part needs to be in the key of A, and so forth.

For French Horn, which is in F, a middle C will sound a perfect 5th below the written pitch (sounding F below middle C). Therefore, to sound a C, you need to write the key signature a 5th higher than concert key. So for horns in F, if the concert key is C, then horns in F are in the key of G.

So whatever the concert key is, you compensate by going the opposite direction at whatever interval the instrument is away from C. So an E flat instrument usually sounds a 6th lower than middle C, on a low E flat. So you would have to write it a 6th higher than C to be in the right key (A flat).

Remember the basic rule is that whatever interval lower or higher the instrument sounds from written C, you transpose in the opposite direction to get the right pitch to sound. If the instrument sounds lower than C, then you transpose by going the same distance higher than middle C.

Other Resources and Helps

Other related articles about music and music publishing include: "Learn to Read Music in Ten Minutes," here, "DIY: Publish Your Own Sheet Music," here, "Do I Have Perfecct (Absolute) or Relative Pitch?", here, "How to Find a Sheet Music Publisher," here, "How to Play Piano with Nine and One Half Fingers," (humor), here, and "A Piano Parable for Christmas," here.

Ptich ranges of orchestral instruments

Here is complete list of articles and topics by Daniel Carter.


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    • Kathleen Holyoak profile image

      Kathleen Holyoak 3 years ago from Paradise Valley, Arizona

      Great article, meistro Dan. You seem to have answers for everything! Keep hubbing, my friend!

    • Daniel Carter profile image

      Daniel Carter 6 years ago from Western US

      From Wikipedia and other sources, basically the reason there are transposing instruments is because not all instruments would sound good if they were in the key of C. In other words, some instruments have a "natural voice" in a particular key, and so over time, they have been designed so that they produce their most beautiful sound in the key that is most native to their distinctive sounds. In other words, a Horn in F probably wouldn't have the same sound and timbre as a Horn in C. We would wonder why it sounds so different and not as good, from what I've read. And from my experience as a composer and orchestrator, I would have to agree that this is correct.

      However, it does make it a little more complex in combining instruments together having to write in different keys. But that is a skill to be developed in and of itself, and it does increase musical skills and talents. I hope this helps.

    • profile image

      Arthur Armstrong 6 years ago

      Like Kathleen, I have a question. Why do we need to transpose these instruments at all? This may sound like a stupid question but please give an explination as to why this is required at all?

    • Daniel Carter profile image

      Daniel Carter 8 years ago from Western US

      Thanks, katiem. Glad to be able to provide a little info.

    • katiem2 profile image

      katiem2 8 years ago from I'm outta here

      Daniel, Now I love music and yet today I've learned something I did not know, thanks for the knowledge on How to Write Parts for a Transposing Intrument. Peace :)

    • Daniel Carter profile image

      Daniel Carter 8 years ago from Western US

      Thanks Kathleen! Those are great ideas for additional articles. I'll start working on them!

    • profile image

      Kathleen Holyoak, Composer/Arranger 8 years ago

      This is an excellent article for anyone learning to compose for transposing instruments. Having perfect pitch, I find it can also be a curse because transposing instruments throw me in a tizzy. Therefore, when starting a new score, I have to start out with ALL the instruments in concert pitch, or rather, in the key of my non-transposing instruments such as harp, keyboards, strings, etc. When I am finished with my score and have checked for accuracy, at that time I change the keys to fit the transposing instruments. After that I listen again for errors because my ear picks up inaccurate notes better than my eyes do. I am currently writing a score for orchestra in the key of C. However, my Alto Sax. will need to be converted to the key of A (hence 3 sharps) and my Bb Trumpets and Clarinets will be written in the key of D (2 sharps.) Thanks, Dan. I will be sharing your article with my students.

      I'd like to see you write an article explaining the differences between "relative pitch", "perfect pitch", having a "good ear", and the many misconceptions relating to them.