Is there any best practice? Or perhaps how should you do it. To keep the original key or not, while playing a solo piece.

I have several pieces by Bach which I would like to perform and possibly also record. If I do record two versions and the one in one octave lower sound better my feeling is that I should keep this. Since it sounds better, right? My instrument, the clarinet was not invented until around 1750.

If I would play "bach chromatic fantasy" for keyboard am I free to

  1. Change key to another key, better suited for my instrument.

  2. Change octave (if I would perform on a "bass clarinet" this would obviously be an octave down). But in that case, can I keep this octave as long as my instrument can handle it. Lets say Bach wrote a piece for flute. But then the upper notes are hard to play. Can I change the octave.

I realize that changing octave and key is going to make an unprofessional impression, perhaps. But then again should I go with conventions - even if it sounds worse - I think not. I am leaning towards keeping the original key but one octave lower. But then again. If only a fifth (or a third) would perhaps be the best of all. But Then I perhaps have passed the line conventions puts on me.

A practical example. I am a trained clarinetist and a trained flute player.

  1. Let's say I play Bach's solo flute sonata. If I chose the octave one octave down, I can play all notes except one, the very bottom note. I really have to practice very hard to make it sound good in the original octave. - How much "artistic freedom" - do I have?
  • So I could call it "arrrangement" then, and change the bottom key - or more likely , the note I cant play will be another note, possibly keeping the harmonics.
    – r4.
    Oct 16, 2015 at 11:57
  • @Todd I would very much want to beleve you but! What kind of musician background do you have. Or some other claim to back it up. Are you self tought? (No offence).
    – r4.
    Oct 16, 2015 at 11:59
  • You got it. That's exactly the kind of thing that people do frequently. Oct 16, 2015 at 11:59
  • 2
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrangement en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transcription_(music) and famously en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asturias_(Leyenda). I guess this might be more likely called a transcription. if only the key and a few notes are changed. Oct 16, 2015 at 12:02
  • @r4. Todd's answer is not controversial at all. Your question makes it sound like you think this is a strange and vexing issue, but slight changes (such as a key change, or a note here or there) in a transcription of a piece for a new instrument are absolutely standard and have been for centuries. I will say that if you're given the choice between doing it in the same key but having to change a bottom note, or changing the key so that the intervallic relationships stay the same, key change is probably better. In the context of a complete piece, there's no significant difference between keys. Oct 16, 2015 at 12:24

2 Answers 2


When playing any piece on an instrument different from the one(s) it was originally written for, it is extremely common to make minor changes in the peice, including transposing it. Usually those changes are called a transcription. In your case, you could just play a "flute sonata transcribed for clarinet", or a "keyboard fantasy transcribed for clarinet". No big deal.

Regarding transcription versus arrangement for this practice, the Wikipedia page for transcription has:

Transcription in this sense is sometimes called arrangement, although strictly speaking transcriptions are faithful adaptations, whereas arrangements change significant aspects of the original piece.

  • I will wait some time before accepting this - Perhaps someone else is of another oppinion. - Or perhaps If we argue - playing devils avocate in this is wrong - then the resulting clarification would be more obvious.
    – r4.
    Oct 16, 2015 at 12:03
  • 2
    @r4. Sorry, but Todd, Pat, and others are correct on this one. It is very common to see arrangements / transcriptions of well-known works - especially ones in the public domain. You probably wouldn't believe how many percussionists arrange Bach for marimba, vibraphone, and other instruments. I myself have performed published arrangements of JSBach cello and violin sonatas and RVWilliams cello sonatas arranged for tuba. As long as you tell the truth, no one really cares. Oct 16, 2015 at 13:46

As Todd says, it's no big deal. Purists may disagree, but are they going to suffer playing it? If it was a vocal, that someone wanted to sing, but their tessitura didn't allow it, then a key change would be inevitable. If a particular instrument doesn't have the appropriate range, then again, a key change should happen. I doubt if many listeners would say 'that's not in the original key', and if they did, so what?

If one wanted to play a piece and keep the original key, but inevitably had to change some of the high or low notes to fit the register, well, that's often done too, and it's quite acceptable. It's not being exactly faithful to the original, obviously, but again, so what? Actually, to be faithful to the original, shouldn't it only be performed on as close to the original instrument for which it was written?...

Another thought - if it's a solo piece, with the almost inevitable accompaniment - changing key may well have a detrimental effect on the other players' parts, with someone maybe having to re-write them, which could be prohibitive in itself, let alone making them difficult to play for some of the above reasons.

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