I've read this term many times. However, I'm not quite sure of what it exactly is. What is a transposing instrument? What would be an example of one?

2 Answers 2


A transposing instrument is one for which the standard practice is to write music in a key different from the sounding pitch of that instrument.

For example, a non-transposing instrument is something like a piano (anything with a keyboard, really)--when you read a C on the staff, you play a C and it sounds a concert pitch C. Most pitched percussion instruments fall into this category, as do traditional C transverse flute, oboe, harp, tuba, and most string instruments (like violin, viola, cello).

A transposing instrument is one where the player reads a C, plays a C, and what sounds is the name of the key of the instrument. Most instruments are often referred to with the key in their name, for example Bb trumpet, Bb clarinet, Horn in F, Eb alto saxophone, and Bb tenor saxophone. Thus for (e.g.) a Horn in F, when the hornist plays what is written as a C in their music, the instrument will sound the same pitch as a piano playing a written F, a perfect 5th below.

There is a third case, where instruments sound an octave displaced from the written notes (to avoid the player having to read too many ledger lines). These aren't usually grouped with keyed instruments, but they are technically transposing (for example: crotales, guitar, string bass, piccolo).

Players of transposing instruments will have trouble reading music written for other instruments in different keys, unless they are experienced at transposing written music on the fly (regardless of transposition, this is also true for instruments written in different clefs.) The reason for transposing instruments has to do with the fact that many of these instruments come in different sizes that are all playable by someone who knows the technique and fingerings for one of these instruments. There are also historical reasons owing to the fact that brass instruments (before the invention of valves) could only play in the harmonic series native to their current instrument.

Anyway, when a saxophone player picks up a saxophone, regardless of whether it's keyed in Bb or Eb, the player will use the same fingering for written C on each instrument. The music needs to be transposed into the correct key for this to work, but the result is that the player can play any size saxophone with the same set of fingerings. If the music was not transposed, the player would have to have a different set of fingerings for each saxophone that they played.

The above applies as well to the various sizes of clarinet, and the various keys of trumpet.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule left and right--french horn is a particular beast, as professional horn players will see music written in a HUGE range of keys, and be expected to transpose at sight to, typically, an F/Bb double horn.

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    It should be pointed out that, in some cases, the individual parts may be written in transposed form, but in the conductor's score, they won't show as transposed instruments: they will all be written "in C."
    – aeismail
    Feb 5, 2012 at 8:19
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    "the result is that the player can play any size saxophone with the same set of fingerings" - this is where perfect pitch can be a drawback. I do not have it, but picking up a C trumpet after playing only Bb trumpet is a weird experience none the less. I expect a tone to have one pitch and feel, and get something else.
    – Gauthier
    Feb 8, 2012 at 9:29
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    @Gauthier - AP = (perfect) absolute pitch. Relative pitch can be taught and learned pretty easily by ear training; the ability to identify a note by pitch, and to sing or at least hum that pitch in perfect tune, takes either a born talent or a lifetime of practice.
    – KeithS
    Sep 28, 2012 at 19:33
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    Additional octave-transposing instruments include the electric and double bass (sound one octave lower) and handbells (sound one octave higher). And one more reason to transpose; many wind instruments have a "natural" key (their "C") that's played using the main pads/fingerholes. The further you get from that key around the Circle of Fifths, the more of the add-on chromatic keys need to be used, making the keys harder to play in. Hence, Bb and A clarinets, with basically the same range, but one is easier to use in "flat" keys while the other is easier to use with sharps.
    – KeithS
    Sep 28, 2012 at 19:40
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    Bass-clef orchestral tuba or tenor trombone play as non-transposing instruments. But if you play the exact same physical instrument in a UK brass band you read transposed treble-clef parts. So the instrument stays the same, but the musical context you're playing in determines whether you consider it a transposing instrument or not. Feb 3, 2020 at 13:06

Transposing instruments are ones you can transpose . For example you can transpose down a major 2nd or up a perfect 5th.

  • Check the previous answer.
    – ghellquist
    Feb 5, 2020 at 17:33

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