I play E♭ tuba in a wind orchestra, and we always get the notes written in concert pitch, and we have to logically "transpose" to the instrument key on the fly.

How common is this approach? Why is it done?

Additional info to clarify:

When I was first learning to play tuba as a child in the school band, I always got to play sheet music written in G clef transposed for E♭ tuba. This means when the sheet note say C, it is really the tone E♭ in natural concert key.

This site gives a good basic understanding about what this is all about.


Concert pitch:

Example written in F clef (or bass clef) for concert pitch (or C tuba)
These notes read and sound as:

E D♭ C B B

Note that this is using bass-clef (or F-clef), which is below the G-clef - think of the lowest line in a note system for piano.

Transposed for E♭ tuba:

Example written in G clef for E♭ tuba
These notes read as:

C♯ B♭ A G♯ G♯

but sound as:

E D♭ C B B

Note that this is written in the G-clef, because it is transposed to look the same as if you played a transposed sheet for trumpet (or any other instrument).


It is most common to write tuba notation in concert pitch, and not the transposed version.
My question is WHY?


7 Answers 7


The composers/arrangers/publishers of tuba parts and sheet music have no idea what key of instrument you play!

In Europe, the Eb tuba is fairly widespread, but the standard issue tuba in American school bands is actually keyed in Bb!

In a conservatory, you will find tuba players who own multiple instruments for a wide variety of different playing engagements. What's more, these instruments will further vary by size (tuba size, i.e. 3/4, 4/4, 5/4). Tuba players don't want to use their largest equipment for playing in a brass quintet, for example, but they will need the largest instrument they have if they're going to play in an orchestra! Due to the wide variety of instruments out there being played for different reasons, it's impractical for publishers to ship three copies of music written in Bb, C, and Eb for every piece. You also don't want to exclude people who only own one type of tuba from playing your music.

A side note about differences between American and European bands: Most American wind bands include brass, reeds, and percussion. The low brass can be easily grouped together because the trombone, euphonium/baritone, and tubas all read concert pitch music in bass clef despite being pitched in Bb.

In contrast, western Europe has a very popular brass band tradition that excludes reed instruments. The brass instruments are more diverse as a result, and for instruments such as the euphonium, playing technique is taken from the top of the ensemble instead of grouping with the bottom. That is, cornet technique is very similar to euphonium technique, and as a result, euphoniums read treble clef music in Bb just like the cornets do. The same is true for trombones for a similar reason. The tuba is still excluded from this for the reasons mentioned above, but the cultural distinction is very interesting and relevant for all of the other brass instruments that typically don't transpose.

  • My experience in Norway is that in brass bands, it's most common to have tubas pitched in B♭, but in wind bands, it's more common with E♭ tubas. I believe that a reason for this might be that most school bands are wind bands, and it is practical for kids to start with the smaller size E♭ tuba. Brass bands are not so common in school bands for kids. They start with that in young adult age.
    – awe
    Commented Oct 18, 2013 at 7:45
  • 1
    Western European brass bands tend to include both E♭ and B♭ tubas (or "basses", as they are known). Like other brass instruments, learning to play transposed music makes it easier to switch between them.
    – Dan Hulme
    Commented Oct 19, 2013 at 12:20
  • As a counterpoint, as a trumpet player it is quite easy, in most cases, to find Bb, C, and Eb transcriptions of just about anything. Commented Mar 24, 2015 at 4:55
  • 3
    I understand and agree with all of this. But somehow it's still amusing that the reason for treating clarinets as transposing is ultimately "Most players own multiple instruments" and the reason for not treating tubas as transposing is somehow exactly the same... Commented Jun 20, 2018 at 7:57

Here is a plausible explanation paraphrased from a discussion elsewhere.

Trumpets and horn used to be valveless instruments. You could use a "crook" to adjust the pitch.

If you wanted to play trumpet in the key of C you put in the C crook and you could play using the C major triad. To play in D you put in the D crook,and so on.

So, they would write all music for natural trumpet or horn as if in the key of C. The player would link a particular action to a particular stave position.

Trombones have always been fully chromatic, so there was never a need to transpose.

Tuba is a recent invention, and always had the benefit of valves.

This isn't fully convincing because it must be inconvenient if you've learned the fingerings for a C tuba, and move to a Bb tuba. But conventions aren't always fully rational.

Transposed scores for tuba are the exception, but some do exist. It seems Richard Strauss wrote his tenor tuba parts transposed.

  • Most tubaists stick to one kind of tuba, or use one low (Bb or C) and one high (Eb or F) kind. So you seldom need to transition from C to Bb and if you do it's often a one time affair plus it's quicker than you'd think to relearn the music reading. Commented Sep 28, 2012 at 14:09
  • For school bands in Norway (and probably other parts of Europe) it is quite common to see transposed for Eb tuba. In US and generally brass bands, it is common to have Bb tuba transposed.
    – awe
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 7:27

I can't say as to your original education, but in the United States, the tuba is not treated as a transposing instrument. Most students of the tuba learn to read music in concert pitch regardless of how their particular instrument is tuned. So, in the US, you wouldn't have been taught based on transposed music.

This is primarily because the tunings of a tuba are not nearly as standardized as for other instruments. An alto sax is always an Eb instrument, a tenor sax is always a Bb instrument. But the tuba can have partials tuned to Bb, C, Eb, or F, and which is more prevalent depends on region. Tenor tubas and trombones can have similar partial tunings; schools in the US typically have school instruments in Bb partials, but trombones in C are not unheard of, and C euphoniums are even more common. Bb tubas are most common in the US primarily because the sousaphone, which high school and college band students use for at least half the school year, is usually tuned to Bb.

So, to solve your problem, I would suggest you simply "forget" the names of the notes produced by different valve positions as you originally learned them. The fundamental note of your instrument, the lowest note you can play without using any valves, is Eb, the note one leger line below the bass clef. The partial above that should be Bb, and then the partial above that should be the octave Eb. Pressing the second valve from any of these open partials will lower the note by one half-step, the first valve by a whole step, and the first and second, or the third, by a step and a half. Valves 2 and 3 lower the pitch by a major third, 1 and 3 (or 4 if you have a four-valve instrument) by a fourth, and 1,2, and 3 (or 2 and 4) by a tritone.

It'll be rough, but if you are given concert-pitch music, you must play it in concert pitch; transposing on the fly is the very last option for any musician.

  • When I was learning to play in the school band, we got all sheets transposed for E♭ tuba in G clef. See my examples: For the transposed version for E♭ tuba in G clef, the notes has the same positions on the note lines as the concert key in bass clef. The only difference is in the sharps and flats. As a general rule when transposing for E♭ tuba, I am just thinking "remove 3 flats (or add sharps)". This works just fine until we get something like A♯ in concert pitch, which translates to F♯♯ in my head, which is really G.
    – awe
    Commented Oct 21, 2013 at 8:56

In addition to other brilliant answers here, I would also point out another benefit of generally being able to read concert pitch bass clef. From time to time, we have compositions that include parts written for contrabass or string bass, and those are naturally written in C natural. If there are important sections in those parts that are missing in the tuba parts, our conductor would want us to play that (as we are a wind orchestra and thus not have string instruments that those parts were originally written for...).


In the British brass band tradition, Eb and Bb bass (that's what they call a tuba) have specific parts, and follow the system where all valved instruments read transposed treble clef, thus allowing easy movement between instruments - learn the fingerings for one, you've learnt them all. (No need to discuss the bass trombone anomaly now.)

In orchestra, there's a tuba part. Maybe the composer had a particular size instrument in mind. The player MAY own a selection of tubas, to match what was available in different ensembles in different eras. But mostly he'll just bring along whatever he's got. Maybe an Eb instrument or a C one. Maybe even something else. So we tell him the notes we want, he sorts out how to deliver them.


Concert band music always contains two euphonium parts - one bass clef part at true pitch and one treble clef part transposed for a Bb instrument. I assume that this is done because of the large number of euphonium players who started off their musical career by reading treble clef euphonium parts in brass bands or in Salvation Army bands. In 100-year-old music I often see this duplication for trombones and tubas but modern publications always use bass clef true pitch for the trombones and tubas.

Today a lot of sheet music can be purchased through the Internet, downloaded and printed by the buyer. Hopefully the music publishers will consider providing both bass and treble clef parts for the tubas and trombones just as they already to for euphoniums, now that they would not face additional printing costs.


In Australia, following the British Brass Band tradition, all instruments in the band, other than bass trombone and sometimes Bflat Bass, are learned in transposed treble clef. The reasoning behind this is that a player can jump from valved instrument to valved instrument and not be concerned with learning a new scale etc (despite the pitch being different between Eflat and Bflat instruments).

Concert bands and orchestras on the other hand generally have parts in concert pitch bass clef (for lower brass). Orchestras for the reasons given above, concert bands because generally the brass players are doing nothing so have time to think about the transposition :)


  • 1
    "brass players are doing nothing".. well - I play in a wind orchestra, and our conductor does a lot of his own arranging. When we get a peace that he arrange for the orchestra where the original is a pop/rock peace, and the tuba is basically a transcription of what the bass player played around with on a specific recording, it can be somewhat non-trivial for tuba players. Especially when it is a song by Frank Zappa...
    – awe
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 7:30

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.