I'm looking at an orchestral score from the late 1800's (well, OK, it's "The Mikado" by Arthur Sullivan).

In the portion of the score that I am looking at, the non-transposing instruments all have no key signature (a key of C-Major, I presume).

For the "Horn in F" part, he has no key signature, but the notation "Ut" above the staff.

For the "Cornet in B-flat" part, he has an E-flat key signature (three flats) and the notation "La" above the staff.

Here's an image: enter image description here

I know both the Horn in F and the Cornet in B-flat are transposing instruments, but I'm not entirely sure what he's trying to represent here.

Could someone please explain what "Ut" and "La" mean in this context, and what is the meaning of the seemingly-odd key signatures for these instruments?

2 Answers 2


The issue is your assumption that the horn and trumpet are in fact in F and B-flat. Trumpets can be pitched in a variety of keys, and horn historically has played in one harmonic series or another without the use of valves, but by using crooks to pitch the instrument in one key or another.

In this case, the horn part is written in C and the trumpet part is written in A. Modern-day players reading this music would need to transpose to the key of the instrument they have, or use an instrument with the matching key. Modern-day horn players are VERY adept at this kind of transposition as the classic horn parts come in a wide variety of keys, and professional trumpet players will typically have a few different instruments on hand; but if the trumpet player doesn't have an A trumpet, he or she should be comfortable doing the half-step transposition to B-flat.

More likely in this particular case, however, is that only the public-domain score you are looking at has the odd-transposition brass parts -- the individual instrument parts you'd rent to perform The Mikado would almost surely be available in the more typical transpositions of F and B-Flat.

The syllables of Ut and La here come from traditional fixed-do solfege as seen historically in European classical music. Wikipedia

The key signature issue can be explained as follows: The key of the piece is C Major (or A minor -- but that's moot here), so for the trumpet playing in A to sound up a minor third in C (sounding), the written key needs to move from C up a minor third to Eb, which is a key signature of 3 flats.

  • 1
    Fixed-do is not historical, it's the National norm in Belgium, and is far from dead throughout the Continent. They seem not to want to know about modality...
    – Rahere
    Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 0:03
  • Thank you! Being a piano guy, this is all new to me and very interesting. I found a discussion on a trumpet web forum where the Mikado was being discussed. Apparently it was (or still is) common to score a trumpet part in A; and not only can a good trumpeter transpose from A to B-flat, as you said, another possible option is to pull out the tuning slide to "bend" the A trumpet to a B-flat. Live and learn!
    – David H
    Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 0:06
  • 1
    Pulling out the tuning slide of a Bb trumpet could be used to lower the open notes a semitone. But the intonation of any note that then needed a valve to be depressed would be spoilt because the lengths of tubing for the valve crooks are based on the length of the open instrument. I own a D/Eb trumpet which has interchangeable tuning slides - when you change the main tuning slide for D or Eb you also have to fit the corresponding pair of 1st and 3rd valve slides too so the intonation stays correct. Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 17:19
  • 4
    Just to historical note: in the 19th century British cornets were often made with a transposing device to switch between B flat and A. This fell out of use because the A setting was notoriously out of tune. Sullivan has a little joke in the song "Young Man, Despair" in "Mikado," with cornets in A playing a solo imitating the Titipu Town Band (in which Namki-Poo played second trombone) as N-P's intended wife-to-be is married off to the Lord High Executioner. The joke is lost in most modern performances using in-tune trumpets not out-of-tune cornets.
    – user19146
    Commented Mar 27, 2015 at 15:05

Composers could not predict the actual concert pitch of the horn, whose length was intentionally variable. The composer would state his preference as to pitch (e.g. "Horn in G") and, in every bar, add a flat or a sharp to the first occurring of any accidental notes. This was to direct the player note by note whether he was to play a diatonic note or an accidental note. A key signature might merely add to his workload.

The absence of notes in this horn extract prevents any direct question as to its home key. The references to instrument pitch are probably based on the Tonic Solfa, or Doh Ray Me based on the diatonic scale of C major (white keys of the piano). Lah is therefore the pitch of A. If the A cornet plays this part (in "his" E flat), the piano accompaniment will be in C. "Ut" is the French word for Doh, so the part is for Horn in C. A pianist could play it without transposing, as could the horn player deploying a C crook.

  • I suggest to stay with the Italian note names instead of the English pronounciation-equivalents.
    – guidot
    Commented May 7 at 7:05
  • ...Says the person who spells his Italian name as if it were French. "niggle" is my user name, not a suggestion to readers, but thank you, anyway.
    – niggle
    Commented May 8 at 12:31
  • As a compromise, maybe the French spelling:P?
    – Tom
    Commented May 8 at 17:23
  • @guidot Well technically ut, re, mi etc are fragments of Latin words. Though, niggle, maybe it's a fair point that I've encountered "doh ray me" before, and since the original poster of this question seems familiar with the usual spellings, one might as well use them to prevent confusion. Commented May 10 at 17:26

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