Take the 2-minute tour ×
Music: Practice & Theory Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for musicians, students, and enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I've read this term many times. However, I'm not quite sure of what it exactly is. What is a transposing instrument? What would be an example of one?

share|improve this question

1 Answer 1

up vote 14 down vote accepted

A transposing instrument is one for which the standard practice is to write music in a key different from the sounding pitch of that instrument.

For example, a non-transposing instrument is something like a piano (anything with a keyboard, really)--when you read a C on the staff, you play a C and it sounds a concert pitch C. Most pitched percussion instruments fall into this category, as do traditional C transverse flute, oboe, harp, tuba, and most string instruments (like violin, viola, cello).

A transposing instrument is one where the player reads a C, plays a C, and what sounds is the name of the key of the instrument. Most instruments are often referred to with the key in their name, for example Bb trumpet, Bb clarinet, Horn in F, Eb alto saxophone, Bb tenor saxophone.

There is a third case, where instruments sound an octave displaced from the written notes (to avoid the player having to read too many ledger lines). These aren't usually grouped with keyed instruments, but they are technically transposing (for example: crotales, guitar, string bass, piccolo).

Players of transposing instruments will have trouble reading music written for other instruments in different keys, unless they are experienced at transposing written music on the fly (regardless of transposition, this is also true for instruments written in different clefs.) The reason for transposing instruments has to do with the fact that many of these instruments come in different sizes that are all playable by someone who knows the technique and fingerings for one of these instruments. There are also historical reasons owing to the fact that brass instruments (before the invention of valves) could only play in the harmonic series native to their current instrument.

Anyway, when a saxophone player picks up a saxophone, regardless of whether it's keyed in Bb or Eb, the player will use the same fingering for written C on each instrument. The music needs to be transposed into the correct key for this to work, but the result is that the player can play any size saxophone with the same set of fingerings. If the music was not transposed, the player would have to have a different set of fingerings for each saxophone that they played.

The above applies as well to the various sizes of clarinet, and the various keys of trumpet.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule left and right--french horn is a particular beast, as professional horn players will see music written in a HUGE range of keys, and be expected to transpose at sight to, typically, an F/Bb double horn.

share|improve this answer
2  
It should be pointed out that, in some cases, the individual parts may be written in transposed form, but in the conductor's score, they won't show as transposed instruments: they will all be written "in C." –  aeismail Feb 5 '12 at 8:19
    
Yup. This can usually be identified if all parts of the score have the same key signature. In more modern music absent a key signature this can be ambiguous, and again, horns are a constant exception. –  NReilingh Feb 6 '12 at 2:08
    
Bass (both double and electric) is another example of your third case, where the instrument sounds an octave lower than written. –  wadesworld Feb 6 '12 at 18:50
2  
Additional octave-transposing instruments include the electric and double bass (sound one octave lower) and handbells (sound one octave higher). And one more reason to transpose; many wind instruments have a "natural" key (their "C") that's played using the main pads/fingerholes. The further you get from that key around the Circle of Fifths, the more of the add-on chromatic keys need to be used, making the keys harder to play in. Hence, Bb and A clarinets, with basically the same range, but one is easier to use in "flat" keys while the other is easier to use with sharps. –  KeithS Sep 28 '12 at 19:40
1  
You should probably edit: guitar and basses are transposing at the octave, while tuba is not (in bass clef at least)! –  Ulf Åkerstedt Oct 8 '12 at 5:07

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.