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So I have gotten into writing orchestral works and I have a bit of a problem. You see, I can transpose, but I am not used to adjusting the notation of the transposition.

So if I transpose from C to Bb, I typically just change the key signature to Bb, transpose, and then leave it at that. I don't typically adjust it so that Bb is in the position C is in on most instruments. That looks to me like I would be going forwards with both and than backwards with the notation.

I was thinking that until I get an intuition for the different transpositions and what instruments require it, I should write a chart on a piece of paper where the first column is the concert pitch column for reference and then I transpose the individual notes of the chromatic scale to these keys:

  • Bb for Bb clarinet, euphonium, tuba, saxophone(sopranissimo, soprano, tenor, bass, and subcontrabass) and brass band)

  • Eb for Eb clarinet, saxophone(sopranino, alto, contrabass)

  • F for French horn, English horn, and Basset horn(essentially an F clarinet)

  • G for alto flute

  • A for A clarinet

  • Ab for piccolo clarinet(if I ever write for it)

But how would I get an intuition for it? I mean after years of transposing piano music and after researching transposing instruments, I still have trouble writing for clarinet and especially French horn or alto flute.

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    I find this confusing. If a piece is in C, you would write in D for Bb trumpet, and in A for Eb sax, surely? – Tim Sep 20 '18 at 6:07
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    You "can transpose" but you are "not used to adjusting the notation of the transposition"? What does that mean? There's nothing to learn about notating a Bb clarinet part except writing every tone a note higher. It's annoying at first, especially when dealing with several different transpositions simultaneously, but it's nothing that doesn't come to you by itself with more practice. – Kilian Foth Sep 20 '18 at 6:26
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Your description suggests that you're doing it backwards! A piece in C will need to be written in D for a Bb instrument, in A for an Eb instrument. Has your work been performed?

You can compose using a 'Score in C' or a 'Transposed Score'. There is a growing tendency to use 'Score in C' right through the process, though transposed Parts will be supplied for the individual players. (This is distinct from the modern tendency to eschew key signatures altogether, which can apply to both transposed and non-transposed scores.)

The advantage of a transposed score is that it helps the composer see how the music lies in each instrument's range. Inexperienced composers often make far too much use of the extremes, rather than writing in the comfortable mid-range where the instrument can do its best without struggling technically.

As you're probably composing into a computer notation program, you can have the best of both worlds. It will know the transpositions for all the instruments you're likely to need. Add a 'Trumpet in Bb' to the score, you'll get a stave with the correct transposition built in. And you'll have the choice of switching between Transposed and Untransposed score views. Don't just create generic staves and label them 'Trumpet' etc. USE the facilities of the program!

  • Yes. This is one of the few things where a graphical computer score editor really makes sense. Though I daresay the transposed view doesn't add all that much if you can't play the instrument yourself – knowing the ranges isn't enough to write something that actually lies naturally on the instrument. And for the range alone, the concert pitch view would also be sufficient. – leftaroundabout Sep 20 '18 at 14:40
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    You don't have to PLAY every instrument. But a good composer develops a rapport with them, knowing how they sound in the various registers. Almost as good as actually playing it! – Laurence Payne Sep 20 '18 at 15:16
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So write in concert pitch. Getting out "reverse-transposed" sheet music should be a standard feature of whatever notation software you use, and there rarely is a reason for playing from hand-written scores these days since transcribing has become reasonably simple nowadays.

  • Very much THIS. Or hire a grad student :-) – Carl Witthoft Sep 20 '18 at 13:37

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