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I'm a new boy at transposition school(!). (I play piano so am familiar with which note is which in the two clefs.)

I play clarinets, Bb and A. We only use treble clef, so it's a simply process of raising the key by a two semitones (Bb clarinet) or three semitones (A clarinet) to accompany our trio who play in concert pitch.

However, my other band needs help transposing trombones and tubas from bass clef to treble clef. I have read the instructions above, but I need to understand the 'why' before I can help the band, and spot if I am transposing the tuba or trombone correctly. Obviously I don't need to understand brass instrument fingering, or trombone positioning, but must grasp what happens for the change from bass clef to treble clef.

I used to think that, if a brass instrument should play a 'C' in bass clef, then, (after using Musescore to transpose), the instrument should play a C in the treble. Not so, it seems. That is my mystery.

Any pointers for my now-addled brain would be most welcome.

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    This leaves several important points unclear. Why do you want to have tubas notated in the treble clef although they play in a deep register? Why do you think that a 'C' becomes something else when notated in a different clef? Changing a clef should only ever involve moving everything on the staff around by as many lines/gaps as the difference between the two clefs warrants. Oct 11, 2021 at 9:44
  • If tubas and trombones are having trouble transposing, even an octave , then aren't they going to have more trouble reading in treble clef, when they're used to bass or tenor clef dots?
    – Tim
    Oct 11, 2021 at 9:55
  • I'd start by asking them to see what they usually play and comparing that to the score to find out how this is usually handled. My guess is that they'd read just like a Bb bass clarinet.
    – nuggethead
    Oct 11, 2021 at 19:09

3 Answers 3

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Orchestral trombones and tubas typically read from bass clef and are treated as concert pitch (non-transposing) instruments. So when they perform a written bass-clef C the sounding note is concert C. Orchestral trombonists also have to read several other clefs too, but those are less common.

In some non-orchestral ensembles (e.g. UK Brass band) trombones are written in treble clef and treated as Bb transposing instruments. So when they perform a written treble-clef C the sounding note is concert Bb.

UK brass bands notate all instruments (apart from bass trombone) as transposing instruments in treble clef (even the basses!). All instruments are treated as Bb transposing apart from Soprano cornet, tenor horn and Eb bass, which are Eb transposition.

If you're using a package like Sibelius, it's very straightforward to create a treble-clef transposing stave for your trombone or Eb bass or Bb bass and then copy an existing concert pitch line into that stave, and it will be transposed automatically. I expect Musescore can do something similar.

If you're doing it manually rather than via software (or if you want to check what the software has produced), remember that Bb instruments are written one tone higher than the desired sounding concert pitch (perform written C, produce sounding concert Bb) And Eb instruments are written a minor third lower than sounding concert pitch (perform written C, produce sounding concert Eb).

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  • I didn't know that about UK bands using treble clef for everything! With assumed one-octave-down? or would it be two for the bass trombone, tuba, etc? That explains a lot. BTW, @Clive, just to clarify, your original assumption is normally correct: Clefs in and of themself don't usually imply anything about transposition; A "C" in bass clef is a "C" in treble, just one with an impractical number of ledger lines below the staff barring any assumption of 8vb. Oct 11, 2021 at 12:20
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    @Brian THOMAS Not Big Band. Those trombones stay firmly in bass clef, even when the number of 'telegraph poles' makes tenor clef a more obvious choice! VERY occasionally a high solo passage will be written in (untransposed) treble clef. But this gets mentioned in textbooks al lot more than it actually happens!
    – Laurence
    Oct 11, 2021 at 15:59
  • @Andy Bonner In British Brass Band notation, Bass Trombone is the exception. It is written the same as orchestral bass trombone, concert pitch bass clef. Even when the obsolete 'G Bass Trombone (the one with a handle on the slide) is being used.
    – Laurence
    Oct 11, 2021 at 15:59
  • I mentioned Bass Trombone in the third paragraph. And I've removed Big Band from the second para. Oct 11, 2021 at 16:30
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In British brass bands and certain other types of ensemble the low brass are written as transposing instruments (with the appropriate key signature change) and in treble clef.

  • Tenor trombone, baritone horn and euphonium are B-flat instruments and are written a major ninth higher than they sound.
  • E-flat tuba is written a major thirteenth higher than it sounds.
  • B-flat tuba is written two octaves and a second higher than it sounds.
  • Bass trombone is not transposed and stays in bass clef.
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The reason is that most people who learned trombone in an old-school English brass band will have learned it as a Bb instrument. The Bb euphonium and Bb horn in brass bands are written just like your Bb clarinet parts (except raised up an octave to place the notes inside the staff so that they are readable). Therefore middle C on a piano ends up being notated as D second line from the top in treble clef on a euphonium part.

To make life easier, they traditionally taught the trombone players off the same music because they have a similar range. So a trombone player like that will see D treble clef on the page, will call it D, and will play a note that is actually concert C.

Ditto tuba, except they will have raised the treble clef notation two octaves to make it readable.

Except bass trombone, which is a relatively new addition to brass bands and is always bass clef, concert pitch.

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    WAY back, local bands doubtless used a serpent or ophicleide, with bass clef notation. But once the Brass Band line-up became established, it was pretty much always a G bass trombone - the one a bit longer than the Bb instrument, with an extension handle to reach the further positions! The valved instruments, from BBb Bass to Eb Soprano Cornet all read treble clef, and all fingered the written notes in the same way. Pick up any instrument - no need to learn new fingerings. If a Soprano Cornet player 'lost his chops' he could descend through Bb cornet, tenor horn, baritone, bass :-)
    – Laurence
    Oct 12, 2021 at 23:48
  • Yes the other advantage for the band is the trombone player can read & play euphonium or baritone parts if need be (e.g. if someone doesn't turn up) or move permanently to those instruments if that's what the band needs more. Or vice versa.
    – eemz
    Nov 23, 2021 at 19:15

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