(Perhaps somewhat unusually) I understand how a transposed score works, but I don't understand the details of how "concert score" works – it's not as simple as: show every note at sounding pitch.

I am trying to read a concert score [Romeo & Juliet, Op. 64 – Prokofiev], and I'm finding it more difficult that reading a transposed score.

In particular:

  • piccolo seems* to be at written pitch rather than sounding pitch
  • cor anglais (english horn) is shown in alto clef
  • bass clarinet is shown in bass clef
  • tenor saxophone is shown in bass clef
  • bassoons are shown in bass clef, when tenor clef would be more appropriate
  • contrabassoon seems* to be at written pitch
  • french horns are changing between bass and treble clefs
  • trombones are shown in alto clef
  • contrabass (double bass) seems* to be at written pitch

[*] While the piccolo, contrabassoon, and double bass parts seem to be at written pitch, maybe I'm misinterpreting these parts (the notes shown aren't exactly out of range, but it seems unlikely they are at sounding pitch).

What exactly are the rules/conventions for writing a concert score?
- Which instruments aren't shown at concert pitch?
- Which clefs (that normally wouldn't be used) are used?

Who is a concert score written for?

3 Answers 3


Even in a Concert Pitch score, the instruments that are written an octave away from their sounding pitch continue to be so. The octave transposition of piccolo, double bass etc. don't count as 'transposing'.

In this particular score, Romeo & Juliet, you're also seeing some peculiarly Russian conventions. Russian composers were strangely fond of alto clef, using it for Cor Anglais and for both 1st and 2nd Trombones. (Beethoven used alto, tenor and bass clefs for 1st, 2nd and 3rd Trombone, but wrote high 1st Trombone parts, intended for the smaller Alto Trombone. Prokofiev, Shostakovitch etc. wrote for two tenor trombones, but favoured alto clef for both. Here's more on the topic: http://www.jayfriedman.net/to-alt-or-not-to-alt/)

For some reason, movie scores are always written in concert pitch. Modern concert music may be. In any case, the instrumental parts will be transposed to suit the actual instrument. An Alto Saxophone player will get a part 'in Eb', he won't be expected to sight-transpose! (Don't be confused when you see'Trumpet in C'. This is an actual instrument, built a tone higher than the more common 'Trumpet in Bb', which is favoured by some modern writers for its slightly brighter tone. It's not a transposition thing.)

'Who is a concert score written for?' In any case, transposed or not, it's for someone who wants to study and/or conduct the music.

Re Prokofiev in particular:

"It was while working with Tcherepnin on a Berlioz score that Prokofiev came to the idea of writing his own full orchestral scores "in C" -- that is, a transposed score in which the parts for all instruments are written down as they actually sound to the conductor (or, as they would be played on the piano). Why not simplify, he asked in his characteristic rage for clarity? He eliminated the tenor clef and used only three clefs -- soprano, bass and alto -- believing this system was more logical, simple and efficient. The transposing instruments in the orchestra (clarinets, trumpets, English horns, French horns, saxophones) would play from transposed parts while the conductor worked from a score in C. Prokofiev used this system throughout his career (so have other composers, including Samuel Barber), but it never caught on universally the way he thought it might.

Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography by Harlow Robinson (page 84)

  • This score is not for a conductor though, a conductor uses a transposed score. I am trying to study part of the score (Dance of the Knights) and I'm finding it impossible without rewriting it into a transposed score. It's a weird process because I have to transpose the transposing parts backwards. Oct 10, 2021 at 22:38
  • 1
    @Elements in Space It's the only score there is! See my expanded answer above.
    – Laurence
    Oct 10, 2021 at 23:20
  • Oh right, so I can blame this abomination of a score on the fittingly mad and rebellious composer himself. This sits surprisingly well with me. Oct 11, 2021 at 0:13
  • @ElementsinSpace "this score is not for a conductor": what score is the conductor supposed to use, then?
    – phoog
    Oct 12, 2021 at 10:24
  • @phoog I was taught that conductors used transposed scores, but apparently this isn't universal Oct 13, 2021 at 5:26

Instruments such as piccolo, contrabassoon, and contrabass, which sound in a different octave from the written octave, are generally not considered to be transposing instruments, because the music is written in the same key as it is played in.

Alto clef is a different clef, not a transposition. Traditionally, trombones would be in an alto-tenor-bass trio, with each in the corresponding clef, but by Prokoffiev's time that tradition may well have fallen by the wayside. Trombonists should be able to read all three clefs, however.

Concert scores, like all scores, are written for those who are conducting or studying a piece of music.

  • I do understand that using different clefs is not the same a transposition, but I don't understand what rules/conventions are used when deciding which clef to use in a concert score. Oct 10, 2021 at 19:33
  • I've always thought of the piccolo etc. as transposing by an octave, because they sound different to what is normally written. If a octave doesn't count as a transposition then why are the bass clarinet and tenor saxophone shown in bass clef (i.e. transposed down by a Major 9th, rather than just in treble clef down by a Major 2nd)? It just seem inconsistent. Oct 10, 2021 at 19:45
  • 1
    @ElementsinSpace unfortunately I cannot download the score you link to. But I don't see why you find the bass clarinet being written in bass clef to be inconsistent. I would expect everything to be written at concert pitch in an appropriate clef except for very high or very low instruments, which would be written (by long-standing convention) an octave lower than sounding in treble clef or an octave higher in bass clef. If the point of the concert score is to be convenient for the conductor, why would you expect the bass clarinet to be in treble clef?
    – phoog
    Oct 10, 2021 at 20:49
  • A concert score is not for the conductor, a conductor's score is the same as a transposed score. It's inconsistent because most instruments but not all, are in concert pitch. You say there is exceptions for very high/low instruments yet, the tuba part is very low, yet is scored at concert pitch. ? Oct 10, 2021 at 21:34
  • @ElementsinSpace there are no other transposing scores of this piece written for use by conductors. The nomenclature is confusing. The purpose of both types of score is the same; they just use different notational conventions. In this convention, every instrument is in the sounding key. In the other convention, each instrument appears in its written key.
    – phoog
    Oct 11, 2021 at 7:37

The most important pecularity of full scores I'm aware of are more frequent clef changes (contrary to what you observe in bassoon), with the intention to reduce ledger lines. Too many ledger lines can easily break the space restrictions of the page layout.

Some other space-saving strategies are:

  • Leave out instruments, which don't play in the respective bars (except in the first page, where all instruments are shown).
  • Very seldom different instruments playing the same notes are merged, but this is only done in passages, where very few systems remain anyway.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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