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I play E♭ tuba in a wind orchestra, and we always get the notes written in concert pitch, and we have to logically "transpose" to the instrument key on the fly.

How common is this approach? Why is it done?

Additional info to clarify:

When I was first learning to play tuba as a child in the school band, I always got to play sheet music written in G clef transposed for E♭ tuba. This means when the sheet note say C, it is really the tone E♭ in natural concert key.

This site gives a good basic understanding about what this is all about.


Concert pitch:

Example written in F clef (or bass clef) for concert pitch (or C tuba)
These notes read and sound as:

E D♭ C B B

Note that this is using bass-clef (or F-clef), which is below the G-clef - think of the lowest line in a note system for piano.

Transposed for E♭ tuba:

Example written in G clef for E♭ tuba
These notes read as:

C♯ B♭ A G♯ G♯

but sound as:

E D♭ C B B

Note that this is written in the G-clef, because it is transposed to look the same as if you played a transposed sheet for trumpet (or any other instrument).


It is most common to write tuba notation in concert pitch, and not the transposed version.
My question is WHY?

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According to Wikipedia "Some instrument families, like trombones and tubas, are not written transposed." - but no reason is given. – slim Sep 28 '12 at 12:49
up vote 13 down vote accepted

The composers/arrangers/publishers of tuba parts and sheet music have no idea what key of instrument you play!

In Europe, the Eb tuba is fairly widespread, but the standard issue tuba in American school bands is actually keyed in Bb!

In a conservatory, you will find tuba players who own multiple instruments for a wide variety of different playing engagements. What's more, these instruments will further vary by size (tuba size, i.e. 3/4, 4/4, 5/4). Tuba players don't want to use their largest equipment for playing in a brass quintet, for example, but they will need the largest instrument they have if they're going to play in an orchestra! Due to the wide variety of instruments out there being played for different reasons, it's impractical for publishers to ship three copies of music written in Bb, C, and Eb for every piece. You also don't want to exclude people who only own one type of tuba from playing your music.

A side note about differences between American and European bands: Most American wind bands include brass, reeds, and percussion. The low brass can be easily grouped together because the trombone, euphonium/baritone, and tubas all read concert pitch music in bass clef despite being pitched in Bb.

In contrast, western Europe has a very popular brass band tradition that excludes reed instruments. The brass instruments are more diverse as a result, and for instruments such as the euphonium, playing technique is taken from the top of the ensemble instead of grouping with the bottom. That is, cornet technique is very similar to euphonium technique, and as a result, euphoniums read treble clef music in Bb just like the cornets do. The same is true for trombones for a similar reason. The tuba is still excluded from this for the reasons mentioned above, but the cultural distinction is very interesting and relevant for all of the other brass instruments that typically don't transpose.

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My experience in Norway is that in brass bands, it's most common to have tubas pitched in B♭, but in wind bands, it's more common with E♭ tubas. I believe that a reason for this might be that most school bands are wind bands, and it is practical for kids to start with the smaller size E♭ tuba. Brass bands are not so common in school bands for kids. They start with that in young adult age. – awe Oct 18 '13 at 7:45
Western European brass bands tend to include both E♭ and B♭ tubas (or "basses", as they are known). Like other brass instruments, learning to play transposed music makes it easier to switch between them. – Dan Hulme Oct 19 '13 at 12:20
As a counterpoint, as a trumpet player it is quite easy, in most cases, to find Bb, C, and Eb transcriptions of just about anything. – Darren Ringer Mar 24 '15 at 4:55

Here is a plausible explanation paraphrased from a discussion elsewhere.

Trumpets and horn used to be valveless instruments. You could use a "crook" to adjust the pitch.

If you wanted to play trumpet in the key of C you put in the C crook and you could play using the C major triad. To play in D you put in the D crook,and so on.

So, they would write all music for natural trumpet or horn as if in the key of C. The player would link a particular action to a particular stave position.

Trombones have always been fully chromatic, so there was never a need to transpose.

Tuba is a recent invention, and always had the benefit of valves.

This isn't fully convincing because it must be inconvenient if you've learned the fingerings for a C tuba, and move to a Bb tuba. But conventions aren't always fully rational.

Transposed scores for tuba are the exception, but some do exist. It seems Richard Strauss wrote his tenor tuba parts transposed.

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+1 I believe you are in the correct realms of this subject. :-) – Ulf Åkerstedt Sep 28 '12 at 13:11
Most tubaists stick to one kind of tuba, or use one low (Bb or C) and one high (Eb or F) kind. So you seldom need to transition from C to Bb and if you do it's often a one time affair plus it's quicker than you'd think to relearn the music reading. – Ulf Åkerstedt Sep 28 '12 at 14:09

I can't say as to your original education, but in the United States, the tuba is not treated as a transposing instrument. Most students of the tuba learn to read music in concert pitch regardless of how their particular instrument is tuned. So, in the US, you wouldn't have been taught based on transposed music.

This is primarily because the tunings of a tuba are not nearly as standardized as for other instruments. An alto sax is always an Eb instrument, a tenor sax is always a Bb instrument. But the tuba can have partials tuned to Bb, C, Eb, or F, and which is more prevalent depends on region. Tenor tubas and trombones can have similar partial tunings; schools in the US typically have school instruments in Bb partials, but trombones in C are not unheard of, and C euphoniums are even more common. Bb tubas are most common in the US primarily because the sousaphone, which high school and college band students use for at least half the school year, is usually tuned to Bb.

So, to solve your problem, I would suggest you simply "forget" the names of the notes produced by different valve positions as you originally learned them. The fundamental note of your instrument, the lowest note you can play without using any valves, is Eb, the note one leger line below the bass clef. The partial above that should be Bb, and then the partial above that should be the octave Eb. Pressing the second valve from any of these open partials will lower the note by one half-step, the first valve by a whole step, and the first and second, or the third, by a step and a half. Valves 2 and 3 lower the pitch by a major third, 1 and 3 (or 4 if you have a four-valve instrument) by a fourth, and 1,2, and 3 (or 2 and 4) by a tritone.

It'll be rough, but if you are given concert-pitch music, you must play it in concert pitch; transposing on the fly is the very last option for any musician.

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When I was learning to play in the school band, we got all sheets transposed for E♭ tuba in G clef. See my examples: For the transposed version for E♭ tuba in G clef, the notes has the same positions on the note lines as the concert key in bass clef. The only difference is in the sharps and flats. As a general rule when transposing for E♭ tuba, I am just thinking "remove 3 flats (or add sharps)". This works just fine until we get something like A♯ in concert pitch, which translates to F♯♯ in my head, which is really G. – awe Oct 21 '13 at 8:56

In addition to other brilliant answers here, I would also point out another benefit of generally being able to read concert pitch bass clef. From time to time, we have compositions that include parts written for contrabass or string bass, and those are naturally written in C natural. If there are important sections in those parts that are missing in the tuba parts, our conductor would want us to play that (as we are a wind orchestra and thus not have string instruments that those parts were originally written for...).

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In Australia, following the British Brass Band tradition, all instruments in the band, other than bass trombone and sometimes Bflat Bass, are learned in transposed treble clef. The reasoning behind this is that a player can jump from valved instrument to valved instrument and not be concerned with learning a new scale etc (despite the pitch being different between Eflat and Bflat instruments).

Concert bands and orchestras on the other hand generally have parts in concert pitch bass clef (for lower brass). Orchestras for the reasons given above, concert bands because generally the brass players are doing nothing so have time to think about the transposition :)


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In the British Brass Band tradition, all instruments (except bass trombone, and please don't expect me to explain why :-) are written in transposed treble clef. This allows any player to pick up any instrument and at least know the fingerings!

In the orchestral tradition, Trumpets and Horns are written transposed. This can be explained by their construction in pre-valve days, I won't go into it here. Trombones, although they came in Alto (Eb), Tenor (Bb) and Bass (often G - though this varied) varieties were all written in concert pitch (though in Alto, tenor and Bass clefs). Thus, as a trombonist, I have to be fluent in Brass Band Treble (transposed) and Alto, Tenor and Bass clefs (concert pitch).

I'm going to stop there, before I even get to the tubas (go, on, mark me down for not answering the question :-) There is a very simple answer. Tradition. And, as no-one is going to re-publish the standard repertoire using a different system, you're just going to have to cope.

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