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Why do conductors use transposed scores vs. concert scores? It adds a lot more mental cost with no return on investment.

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    Compared with everything else a conductor has to think about, this matter is pretty trivial. Any good conductor has to be some kind of a score-reading monster.
    – user207421
    Nov 19, 2023 at 23:04

2 Answers 2

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Why do conductors use transposed scores vs. concert scores?

They don't always. They use what's available. Some pieces are published as transposing scores and others as concert pitch scores. I'm not aware of any edition that offers both for the same piece.

It adds a lot more mental cost with no return on investment.

This is true for some purposes, but not for others. To relate one part to the rest of the orchestra, the reader of a transposing score has to transpose the written part to concert pitch, but to communicate with the player of a transposing instrument, the reader of a concert-pitch score has to transpose the written part to transposed pitch.

The two principal contexts in which the reader of a score communicates with the player of a part are in rehearsal and in copying the part. The latter is more likely to be automated in the last 30 years or so, but traditionally it would have been a more significant consideration: there's a greater potential for human error when a copyist has to transpose the part for a transposing instrument than there is when the copyist is simply copying.

In rehearsal, when (for example) the B-flat clarinet is playing the third of a D-major chord and the conductor wants to discuss that note with the player, there's actually less mental arithmetic needed if the conductor has a transposing score. The conductor sees a G♯ in the part and says to the player "can you play that G♯ a bit more quietly?" Simple. With a concert-pitch score, the conductor sees an F♯ in the score and has to transpose that to "G♯" before speaking to the player.

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    Regarding the last paragraph, I think the conductor could also say something like "sounding F#", leaving the mental arithmetic to the player. :) It's a nice way to remind the player of the conductor's authority and put on some pressure. That's a boss's job, isn't it... Nov 19, 2023 at 9:16
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    Agree with this answer and +1 although I will note, similar to piiperi’s comment, many times a conductor will say “everyone with a concert F# in bar 65, check your accidentals”. Also one reason I like transposed scores is… they look right? If you put French horns in concert pitch in particular all their notes are going to look way too low on the score. Clarinets are likely to have a few more low ledger lines. Trumpets will just look “off”. You gotta read classic scores like Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, when you read a new score it’s nice for it to look similar. Nov 19, 2023 at 12:45
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    @ToddWilcox - seems like your comment is an answer: having everything in concert would put some parts off the stave, or necessitate use of C clef, thus negating any usefulness.
    – Tim
    Nov 19, 2023 at 13:16
  • I assume that modern score->part creation is automated using software so even if the score is in concert pitch, the individual parts can be created without transposition induced human error. Most of the time the conductor reads in concert pitch and the rare time that the conductor needs to communicate with the player he/she can sight transpose or just communicate in concert pitch and have the player transpose. Nov 19, 2023 at 17:35
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    @ShuhengZheng many modern scores are still produced using engraved copper plates or photographic reproduction of paper printed from engraved copper plates. But even if all musical notation were magically digitized today, it would take several decades or even centuries for musicians' habits and conventions of practice to change.
    – phoog
    Nov 20, 2023 at 12:31
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In this way, the conductor is looking at each individual part in the same way that instrument sees it. For a trained/experienced conductor, the transpositions become second nature.

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  • But why does the conductor care about what instruments see? Conductor only cares about the final sounding pitch. Nov 19, 2023 at 7:00
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    @ShuhengZheng Part of the conductor's job is to give instructions to the performers, so being able to refer to the score as they see it makes the communication easier.
    – Aaron
    Nov 19, 2023 at 7:10
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    @ShuhengZheng The conductor may also care about how the players feel, and good communication plays a role in that. Maybe it's a bit up to the culture. Do people matter. Nov 19, 2023 at 11:51
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    @ShuhengZheng - the conductor's job is to make the players' jobs as easy as possible, especially in rehearsals. So talking each player's language (the notes they are looking at) eases things considerably. Besides, conductors are 100% used to the scores they are conducting from.
    – Tim
    Nov 19, 2023 at 13:20

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