From this workbook extract it seems that transposing instruments are always written higher than they sound, is this always true?

EXTRACT: If you compose music for any transposing instrument you have to remember the following.

  • For B flat instruments the music has to be written a major 2nd higher.
  • For F instruments the music has to be written a perfect 5th higher.
  • For E flat instruments the music has to be written a major 6th higher.
  • 1
    No. next question :-) Nov 3, 2016 at 11:17

3 Answers 3


This is not true in general. For example clarinets, cornets, and sopranino saxes, all in E flat, are written a third lower than sounding pitch.

Note: to avoid any confusion, "standard size" clarinets and cornets are both B flat instruments written a second higher than sounding pitch, but the smaller, higher pitched E flat instruments are quite common in wind bands, etc.

Another example, no longer manufactured, was the Piccolo in D flat (written a minor 9th below sounding pitch) - they were made in that key for use in military bands where key signatures with lots of flats (e.g. Ab, Db, Gb major) are easier to play in tune on brass instruments in Bb and Eb than keys with sharps.

  • Another, rare, example is the very occasional printing of transposed parts for the F alto recorder, written a fourth lower than they sound. Nov 3, 2016 at 8:09

This is not always the case. Most of the time but not always the transposing descends but there are some exceptions. THIS link has a really comprehensive list of orchestral instruments and how they transpose.

  1. Piccolo - Sounds one octave higher than written.
  2. Glockenspiel - Sounds two octaves higher than written.
  3. Xylophone - Sounds one octave higher than written.
  4. Celesta - Sounds one octave higher than written

THIS website tells us there is a Clarinet in Eb that also has a minor third ascending transposition and I also remember having to learn about a Trumpet in E that also goes up a Major Third.


A simple counterexample is the Piccolo. Written an octave lower than it sounds. Db Piccolos are pretty rare, but I believe they are written a minor ninth lower than they sound.

Glockenspiels are similar, but they are written two octaves lower than they sound. There are other examples.

  • These are correct, but instruments notated with octave "transpositions" up or down (other examples are contrabass, guitar, and tenor voice) are not usually classified as "transposing instruments".
    – user19146
    Nov 2, 2016 at 21:29
  • There's one often-played piece with a solo for a D flat piccolo - much easier to play it with the fingering for the key of G rather than A flat! youtube.com/watch?v=RzKKg9zv9k4
    – user19146
    Nov 2, 2016 at 21:35
  • I mostly agree, although wiki does say that octave transposers are often grouped under that same heading. Just a technicality, I guess. Stars and Stripes Forever was actually the piece I was thinking of when I added the Db piccolo :-).
    – endorph
    Nov 2, 2016 at 21:40
  • I've often wondered why marching band/military instruments and music have tended toward the flat keys. Building an instrument in Db is rather extreme. Nov 3, 2016 at 17:34

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