I am learning to play trumpet. I would like to be able to play with my friends who play other instruments and be able to share sheet music with them.

What is the best way to learn how to transpose music written in C for a Bb instrument?

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    As a clarinettist...practice, practice, practice is about all there is too it!
    – Chris
    Feb 13 '15 at 9:31

10 Answers 10


There seems to be an awful lot of over-thinking in some of the previous answers. For playing concert pitch on a B flat instrument, my solution was dead simple:

  • Read the music "up a note". That is, if the note on the treble clef is a C in the third space, read it as a D on the line above. This is a pretty easy technique to master.
  • Add two sharps to the key signature (or remove two flats). For instance, if the concert pitch is G (1 sharp) then you are going to be in A (3 sharps). If the concert pitch key is F (1 flat) then you will be in G (one sharp)
  • Keep a weather eye out for accidentals. Just move your transposed note in the same direction.

But if you are going to play trumpet professionally, I would look at some more formal training, as you are likely to strike read oddities like parts for "trumpet in D" which will need a very odd transposition to play on a standard B flat instrument.


I'm sort of disappointed in the answers here. I think a lot of the respondents don't actually play trumpet, or any kind of transposing instrument. I've been playing in orchestras on trumpet and horn for years, both of which often have to deal with odd transpositions, and nobody learns new fingerings or employs clef tricks. You just mentally move each note by the correct interval. Knowing your scales so that you can transpose whole chunks at a time rather than each note individually helps a lot.

You have a Bb trumpet, and you're trying to read concert pitch (C) music. That's a difference of a whole step (major 2nd). But which way? The way I remember it is to move your instrument's key to the target key. You're in Bb but you need to be in C, that's up a whole step. If I'm playing Beethoven 9 (for trumpet in D) and all I have is a Bb trumpet, I need to move from Bb to D, which is up a major third. If I'm playing a horn (F) and need to read an Eb horn part, I need to move F to Eb, which is down a whole step.

  • 2
    It's not true that "nobody" uses clef transpositions. It was arguably more common in the past than today, since so many musicians never learn other clefs than the primary one for their instrument. That said, most trumpet (but not all) trumpet players seem to gravitate toward interval transposition. Jan 16 '16 at 0:05

I'm seeing suggestions to either relearn the fingerings on trumpet or just mentally calculate the transposition of each individual note while playing. I would strongly advise against either of these methods. Instead, you should learn to read the music on the staff differently. The key to relatively easy transposition is learning different clefs.

Specifically, in you case, learn how to read an alto clef, the clef violas read.

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A trumpet is a Bb instrument, so when you play a C, it's a sounding Bb. So, if you see C on non-transposed score, you want to be able to read that as a D. If you have practiced reading an alto clef, all you have to do is imagine you are reading an alto clef, and then transpose up an octave. You also need to add 2 sharps to the written key signature.

The only tricky part is accidentals. For instance, if you have a song in the key of C, and there is a Bb, that will look like a Cb on a alto clef, although it should be a C natural. You just have to remember with accidentals that any notes that changed when you altered the key signature, will need to be handled differently.

So, this is still a bit of mental workout; however, this method is a lot easier than trying to relearn fingerings or actually transpose each note individually on the fly.

This is a nice write up of the process I'm talking about: http://derekremes.com/wp-content/uploads/Transposition%20by%20Changing%20Clef_by%20Derek%20Remes.pdf

  • This isn't always a possibility, at least not with a standard clef, and as you pointed out, still doesn't fix the key signature issue. Clef tricks work out sometimes, but you really need to be able to transpose by intervals on the fly. With some theory to assist, it's really not bad at all.
    – MattPutnam
    Feb 14 '15 at 17:33
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    Why is this not always a possibility? This is a pretty standard way to read in transposition.
    – Casey Rule
    Feb 14 '15 at 19:37
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    I play trumpet and played euphonium, which sometimes has music written in Bb and sometimes C, so being able to transpose on the fly was essential. "Clef tricks" are actually a pretty common way to handle this sort of thing. Not only is it less mentally taxing, but reading in other clefs is a great skill to develop anyway.
    – Casey Rule
    Feb 14 '15 at 19:47
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    You can do any transposition if you learn the 7 clefs. Down a fifth? Read it with a mezzo soprano clef. Up a fourth? Same thing up the octave. Up a major 3rd? Base clef up 2 octaves. Down a fourth? Baritone clef up an octave. If you can read moveable C, F and G clefs, you can use this method to transpose to any key.
    – Casey Rule
    Feb 14 '15 at 21:58
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    I can see why if you only ever have to read treble clef music, this method might seem odd, but if you ever want to learn to read music with other clefs (piano, viola, cello, any bass instrument, old choral music, etc.) there is a huge advantage to freeing yourself from the idea that the middle line on the staff can only ever be a B. If you’ve got another way to do it that works for you, that’s great; but this method has the advantage of reducing the number of mental calculations needed on the fly and strengthening a useful auxiliary skill. Don’t knock it (or down-vote it) ’til you try it.
    – Casey Rule
    Feb 14 '15 at 22:00

What is the distance between C and Bb/A#? 1 tone. So you transpose every note on the sheet by 1 tone. For example, if a note is D then it will turn out to be C when transposed. If it is F you get Eb/D#

C (st) C#/Db (st) D (st) D#/Eb (st) E (st) F (st) F#/Gb (st) G (st) G#/Ab (st) A (st) A#/Bb (st) B (st) C

(St) means semitone

The C major scale is


The Bb major scale is

Bb C D Eb F G A Bb

Each note on the C scale corresponds to the note on Bb So C --> Bb, D --> C, E --> D, F --> Eb And so on


Assuming you are aware of which sharps or flats occur in which keys, I suggest you re-learn the trumpet's valve order. As in open is actually a Bb, not the C; valves 1 and 3 give C, not the D that you're fooled by on the dots, etc. If you're reading, then imagine each dot is on the next line UP if it's written on a space, or next space UP if it's written on a line. This will give the correct LETTER NAME, but you'll have to adjust sharps or flats as mentioned earlier.

Trombonists have the same problem, in that their notation can be written in several different ways, so they learn their notes can be portrayed in very different places on the stave.Not using just one stave either. Ask a trombonist how he copes with what sounds like a nightmare.

  • No, don't do this, it confuses things and doesn't even solve the problem. Just learn to transpose.
    – MattPutnam
    Feb 13 '15 at 18:14
  • @MattPutnam - isn't what I described transposing?
    – Tim
    Feb 13 '15 at 18:17
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    no, relearning fingerings is not transposing. Are you going to relearn a new set of fingerings for every possible transposition? I hope not.
    – MattPutnam
    Feb 13 '15 at 20:45
  • @MattPutnam - there's only one transposition - up a tone.
    – Tim
    Feb 13 '15 at 21:04
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    What do you mean, "there's only one transposition"? What if you need to read a horn part, or an alto sax part?
    – MattPutnam
    Feb 13 '15 at 23:25

You transpose the key the same interval as the notes you want to transpose. So for instance if you are in C major and you want to transpose the piece a major third up your new key should be the key a Major third up from C ie E. This conveniently makes all the notes three spaces up major thirds. Just remember that you should still take into account any accidentals that may change the intervals.


You just do it a lot. At the start you'll be thinking "up one from C is D". After a bit it will just come naturally.

I used to teach brass instruments. Trumpet/cornet was the most popular choice. If there was a piano in the room, I'd improvise an accompaniment to their pieces. I can still look at any piece of music and play it "one down" almost without thinking, I'd learned to read "in Bb". You will too. (Only the other way round :-)


The way that works best for me is I hear in my head the music as written, and simultaneously play it by ear but in the new key.

You need two skills to do this: The ability to read music and hear it in your head without playing it on an instrument, and the ability to play a tune by ear on your instrument of choice. Both are skills you'll need to develop as a musician anyway.

It is quite straight-forward to practice this method of transposition. Take a short piece of music. You could start with a single phrase. Put your instrument down, and then sing it to yourself. Sing it out aloud if that's easier, or just in your head. Don't try to sing it in the original key - in fact don't pay any attention to the absolute pitch.

Once you've memorised it, pick up your instrument and play the scale of the key that you want to transpose it into so that you've got that key into your head. Optionally, sing it one more time, but this time in the key you just played. Finally, play it in that same key on your instrument, by ear and without looking at the music.

Once, you've got the hang of that you'll find it isn't too much of a leap to do both steps at once so that you can sight-read through a piece transposing as you go.

(I don't have perfect pitch, and I strongly suspect that this method wouldn't work for someone who does have perfect pitch because it would presumably be impossible to separate the sense of where a note comes in the scale from its actual note name..)


If the music is relatively simple, you can sometimes do this by thinking of every note by its scale degree, and transposing it in your head to the other scale before you play it. If you are reading a piece on a Bb instrument, you would simply shift every note up a whole step in your mind.

However, the "right" way to do this (i.e. the one taught to students at extremely rigorous conservatories) is to learn to sightread in every kind of clef. In other words, you simply pretend you're reading a different clef than the one written on the page. To illustrate this technique, if you're sightreading a passage in treble clef in D major, you need to pretend you're reading in the clef where the fourth-highest line is the note E, which turns out to be the alto clef.

This technique is very hard to learn, but once you do learn all the clefs, you can sightread anything you want in a transposed key just as easily as in the written key.


This is the answer, if you are unable to invest the time learning mental transposition (which is obviously the method of choice, but might get tricky in stress situations as public performance): transpose the scores yourself. Any decent note typesetting software has this function- the most critical part being to decide in which direction you have to transpose. If the score is easy (and trumpet as all wind instruments at most has one note at a time, which helps) it does not take overly long to type it into the software of your choice. There are also internet portals providing pieces in "source" form, so if you are the one to select the pieces to play, you may simply download the appropriate file.

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