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Is there a reason for which some transposing instruments (say, horns in F, bass clarinets etc.) don't have transposing clefs? For some instruments it's not odd to have them, e.g. tenor voice always have G clef with 8va bassa mark, sometimes piccolo or glockenspiel have clef transpositions, too. I've even seen contrabasses with transposing F clef.

I know it's something superfluous, because musicians and conductors know the transposition drill and don't need to have those clefs. But since some instruments still do have them, and it seems purely typographical feature, I'm wondering if there are actually any major downsides that keep editors from using transposing clefs? Apart from technical restraints, of course.

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  • The orchestral bass clarinet does transpose, there's just confusion about whether it transposes by a second or a ninth. Dec 3, 2022 at 10:52
  • Current music notation has many problems for historical reasons, see musicnotation.org
    – root
    Dec 3, 2022 at 16:22
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    " Tradition.... TRADITION!" [cue the orchestra as Tevye dances] Dec 4, 2022 at 21:27

4 Answers 4

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Much of it is a historical accident. Different instruments were invented at different times in different places. Usually, a transposing instrument was tuned in a key that physically fit the instrument well; also the types of music being played would be an influence. After a few pieces are written down, it becomes difficult to change the convention because older scores must be either re-printed or discarded. (It's similar to the problem of spelling reform; a single reform may not gain much and all such reforms obsolete earlier writings.)

This is still a problem with notation from different composers from the 1600s to the 2000s. There are different conventions in different countries. Modifications just add their own peculiarities without necessarily being helpful.

What "everybody knows" quickly becomes "everybody forgot." This applies to musica ficta (adding accidentals during a performance), swinging some notes, and playing dotted notes as double dotted in (especially French) baroque music.

There is a funny transposition for baritone horns. The open pitch is (usually Bb); bass clef music is written in concert pitch but treble clef music is written a ninth above its sounding pitch. Changing this would add another convention.

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    That's a very interesting thing you said, but when it comes to this baritone horn you mentioned: wouldn't it be even more helpful to have its part written in treble clef marked with a G clef with "9" below, while the part in bass clef marked with F clef with no transposing indictacion? It could help to clarify that interchangeble transposition.
    – Alex Kowal
    Dec 2, 2022 at 21:27
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    Perhaps, but those who know the current conventions will stop and ask what's the difference. It would also could be useful to notate "swing" and "straight" in jazz arrangements but that would be a third convention.
    – ttw
    Dec 3, 2022 at 1:35
  • @AlexKowal One of the key things here is that written music has never been a "complete" set of instructions; it's never recorded "everything about" the intended performance. (It's impossible; no matter how many dynamics you write, a sensitive performance ought to add many unwritten nuances.) The written music is simply a tool to help create the performance. In some times and places it has been a more or less complete tool (notation vs lead sheet, e.g.). Unwritten performance conventions always supplement what's written. Dec 3, 2022 at 16:58
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    @AndyBonner But unlike those instructions that can be freely interpreted or omitted by musician like dynamics or swing/straight in jazz music, the transposition isn't something to be questioned while performing, so it's more a matter of explicitly indicating something rather than supplementing the unwritten.
    – Alex Kowal
    Dec 3, 2022 at 18:16
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tenor voice always have G clef with 8va bassa mark

No they don't, not always. That clef wasn't invented until maybe 60 or 70 years ago. Tenor parts started to be written in octave-transposed treble clef maybe 100 years before that. Even today there are publishers that use a plain treble clef for tenors -- Boosey and Hawkes comes to mind.

I'm wondering if there are actually any major downsides that keep editors from using transposing clefs?

It's visually cluttered, fussy, and overly pedantic. Why do it when, as you note, it's superfluous?

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  • There's also tenor parts written on bass clefs plus actual tenor clef (one of the two C clefs), although I don't think I've seen tenor clef used for tenor voice parts. Dec 3, 2022 at 4:11
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    Alright, not always, but usually. I daresay it's common to that point, that when one thinks of tenor part, the transposing G clef immediately comes to mind. Using this clef is also recommended by Elaine Gould or Kurt Stone. As for those clefs being "visually cluttered and fussy" it's purely subjective feeling, isn't it? Some SMuFL music fonts like Bravura have really well designed clefs with transposing intervals, but again - it's my own opinion.
    – Alex Kowal
    Dec 3, 2022 at 15:37
  • @ToddWilcox For the use of tenor clef on vocal parts see these questions: music.stackexchange.com/questions/120631/… music.stackexchange.com/questions/86821/…
    – PiedPiper
    Dec 3, 2022 at 17:16
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    70 years ago is 1952. G8 clefs have been in use long before that. I'd suggest that Tenor G8 clefs have been around since 1900, give or take, and before that C4 clefs were the norm. Whether the G had an 8 or not is down to the publisher's style.
    – benwiggy
    Dec 3, 2022 at 17:45
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    It's rather vague convention at Boosey & Hawkes - sometimes they use ottava clef, sometimes they don't (see choral scores).
    – Mart33n
    Dec 3, 2022 at 19:44
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As far as I know, there aren't any "major downsides" that should keep you from using those clefs, if you really want to. It's the so called "engraving tradition" haven't acquired (yet?) the habit of using transposing clefs wherever it's possible. On the other hand, it's no fresh idea since K. Stone in his Music Notation in the Twentieth Century mentioned bass clefs for horns that transposes either 5th below or 4th above. It just didn't catch on.

If you really find a good reason to use such clefs, then nothing stands in your way, I guess.

EDIT: But when you eventually do so, it's good to preface your score with an editorial note where you indicate using these clefs and explain why you do this.

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The use of ottava clefs in vocal scores is important in music where the usual label of "Tenor" is not applied. For instance, a dramatic work where the character's name is used instead.

Also, editions of early music, where a part might be labelled "Quintus" or "Altus" and require an ottava clef to indicate that it is for a modern Tenor's pitch. Conversely, a part labelled Tenor might actually be intended for an Alto at pitch.

You can argue that there may be other indications of the correct pitch, but information that concurs, rather than contradicts, is more helpful.

However, for something like a piccolo, or a double bass, there is no confusion as to which octave is intended. Double basses sometimes share the same stave as a cello, so the 'doubling' is understood.

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  • As for other than vocal parts, I don't see how exactly the use on non-standard transposing clefs would be contradictive.
    – Mart33n
    Dec 3, 2022 at 18:24
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    @Mart33n Indeed. It isn't. I believe some composers (R. Strauss?) explictly use the ottava symbols on instruments.
    – benwiggy
    Dec 3, 2022 at 18:29
  • Many opera scores indicates the voice type of particular characters along with its range in editorial note, so I guess the use of ottava clef in that case is still a courtesy and a publisher's convention.
    – Alex Kowal
    Dec 3, 2022 at 18:30
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    @AlexKowal Yeah, but who reads Editorial Notes....? ;-)
    – benwiggy
    Dec 3, 2022 at 19:19
  • @benwiggy As funny as true. Sadly, as an editor, I feel like I'm doing the editorial notes for no one apart from myself. But I also feel like I'm fully covered when inputting some uncommon stuff in score but explaining it in preface. ;)
    – Alex Kowal
    Dec 3, 2022 at 19:56

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