I'm currently writing my first piece for a full orchestra, to be played by a high school orchestra and band. The piece is in E major, but it is somewhat chromatic and modulates to different keys for short periods of time (short enough to not change the key signature). However, the only clarinets the orchestra has are Bb clarinets, which would put their part in 6 sharps or 6 flats.

Should I write their part keyless and write in all the accidentals? If so, should I make this change on both the entire score and the clarinet part? Or only on the clarinet part?

Or is it better to keep their part in 6 sharps/flats? My concern is that the short sections in F major (as an example) would be cumbersome to read with all the naturals written in, and the sections that are in E major sometimes require double sharps, which make it harder to read.

  • A piece in E major for high school? Expect plenty of intonation and tuning issues. If you use “A” clarinets it would alleviate your problem. My advice: better to choose more familiar keys for student players. Good luck, this will be an excellent learning experience for you. Dec 17, 2018 at 0:48
  • The Grade 12 students might not have issues with E major. The Grade 9 students probably will. With that being said, I've never seen Bb clarinet parts in orchestral or wind ensemble works where their key signatures were blanked out (unlike French horn parts, whose key signatures were often blanked out).
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 17, 2018 at 7:25
  • 1
    If you're worried about the clarinetists not being able to cope with E major, why not just transpose the whole piece up a half step to F major? That's a nice easy key for everyone. Dec 17, 2018 at 10:15
  • When composing, some of the questions to ask oneself is why is this key the best? Which other transposing instruments will it affect adversely? Is it in this key as it's the best place for a solo (etc) instrument?
    – Tim
    Dec 17, 2018 at 13:37
  • this is for the top band/orchestra in a school of roughly 3000, so I’m expecting decent 11th or 12th grade clarinetists. Along the lines of Mr. Witthoft’s answer, typically how common are A clarinets? How much of a problem is intonation in a foreign key?
    – The Turtle
    Dec 18, 2018 at 0:23

2 Answers 2


Clarinets read key signatures. Yes, six sharps is cruel, but it happens! And if it takes a double sharp, write a double sharp. Notes that sound sharpened but are written flattened are harder, not easier to read. A scale should look like a scale, a leading note should look sharpened not flattened.

You'll get opinions about whether players 'prefer' sharps or flats. Your notation software might make the decision for you when the 6#/6b issue arises. My advice is not to go to the trouble of concocting a 'Clarinet in A#' just to force your preference. Bb Saxophone players play in Blues bands. Blues music is often in E. They cope.

  • 2
    I don't think so. The issue only arises with F#/Gb major. F# major is 6 sharps - F, C, G, D, A, E. Gb major is 6 flats. B, E, A, D, G, C. Yes?
    – Laurence
    Dec 17, 2018 at 1:23
  • Don't know why 7b came out. Meant 6b! Typo! Deleted.
    – Tim
    Dec 17, 2018 at 7:23

Look to the future, so to speak. Write the part for A-clarinet, and provide a transcribed part for Bb clarinet to support your local orchestra/band. For that matter, the school might well be willing to rent a couple A-clarinets for the orchestra members to use for your piece.

In reality, a decent high-school clarinetist, at least in the orchestra (which presumably has 4 or fewer clarinets), can transpose from A to Bb by sight.

  • So you're suggesting writing a Clarinet in A part, that Clarinet in Bb players will sight-transpose, in order to avoid a 'hard' key signature in a Clarinet in Bb part? Slightly muddled thinking... :-)
    – Laurence
    Dec 18, 2018 at 17:25
  • @LaurencePayne This long-term clarinetist knows you are wrong. :-) . But what I meant was: write the part in A, and if necessary provide a transposed part in Bb, but that a skilled high-school licorice-stickler can transpose anyway Dec 18, 2018 at 18:42

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