1

A recent question on tuning saxophones caused me to wonder on the variety of transposing instruments. Here's some that I already know:


C - Non-transposing or by whole octaves.

At concert pitch - too many to mention.

Octave above - piccolo.

Octave below - double bass and double bassoon. Also guitar and bass guitar.

D♭

Some piccolos. So, an octave and minor second above?

D

It is not the most common but there is trumpet in D.

E♭

E♭ clarinet - minor 3rd above.

Alto sax - major 6th below.

Baritone sax - octave and major 6th below.

F

French horn and cor anglais - Fifth below

I have a tin whistle labeled G but, as explained in A♭, this could be regarded as transposing in F. A fourth above.

A♭

I have a tin whistle which is labeled B♭ but this refers to its lowest note which is D on a standard whistle. So, if treated as a transposing version of the common D whistle, it would be a major 3rd below and hence in A♭.

A

A clarinet and oboe d'amour - minor 3rd below

B♭

Many. This seems to be the most common case.

Trumpet, B♭ clarinet, soprano sax - a major second below.

Bass clarinet and tenor sax - Octave and a major second below.


What others am I missing? I have said little on brass instruments as I don't know them well enough to be confident that I was right. E.g. Wikipedia says of the tenor trombone: "is a non-transposing instrument pitched in B♭". So, where do I enter that?

11
  • @DavidBowling So, if standard notation is used, is guitar music written an octave up in the treble clef?
    – badjohn
    Apr 12 '19 at 15:10
  • Yes. Middle C is written on the third space from the bottom of the staff in guitar sheet music.
    – ex nihilo
    Apr 12 '19 at 15:15
  • @guidot I'll need to learn first how to do that.
    – badjohn
    Apr 12 '19 at 15:40
  • 4
    The specific question on Trombone is well focused, but the general request for “additions and corrections” is not a good match to the SE format.
    – Dave
    Apr 12 '19 at 15:47
  • 1
    @Dave How about guidot's suggestion of a community answer? Would that address your concerns?
    – badjohn
    Apr 12 '19 at 15:48
5

Wikipedia says of the tenor trombone: "is a non-transposing instrument pitched in B♭". So, where do I enter that?

Yes, brass instruments can be a little tricky for this reason.

Although we say that a trombone is "in B♭," it's actually written in C; it's a non-transposing instrument. But the trombone itself is based in B♭, so first position will play the harmonic series on that pitch. The "in B♭" thus relates to the instrument's construction, not to a score transposition.

The same is true for tubas: you can have Tuba in C, Tuba in B♭, Tuba in F, and Tuba in E♭, but they are all non-transposing instruments. Whereas the score transposes for other instruments, the tubist must learn different fingerings depending on the instrument s/he is playing. (If you think that's confusing, try being the tuba player that has to learn four sets of fingerings!)

To add to that confusion, you'll occasionally encounter some European brass band transcriptions where the tuba (or baritone or euphonium) is written in treble clef as a transposing instrument (!). In cases like this, we just have to let context decide.

And there's one final level of confusion: this doesn't apply to all brass instruments. Trumpets, for instance, are written in transposed scores. The most common is probably the Trumpet in B♭ (which is written like the B♭ Clarinet), but there's also Trumpet in C (which is not transposed) and occasionally Trumpet in D.

7
  • 1
    Which families of instruments use transposition and which don't seems a bit arbitrary. E.g. saxophones all use the same fingering for the same written note yet the note produced varies greatly. Similarly, a viola could be considered as a violin in F but it isn't.
    – badjohn
    Apr 12 '19 at 15:17
  • Trombones are indeed tuned to Bb open. However, there are several different 'keys' in which they're played, and possibly also written in different clefs.
    – Tim
    Apr 12 '19 at 16:29
  • @badjohn's comment about viola/violin vs. oboe/English horn could be a question in itself: why does one use a different clef in concert pitch, and the other transpose? Apr 12 '19 at 17:31
  • @wrschneider I'd ask except that I doubt that there is any answer other than: "that's how it turned out". Recorders come in a similar family to saxophones yet their parts are written at concert pitch or out by an octave.
    – badjohn
    Apr 12 '19 at 17:39
  • @badjohn the best I can think of is historical context: a performer often will swap among different transposing instruments during a single performance (clarinet swapping between B-flat and A depending on key of the piece/movement, or trumpet switching crooks in the days before valves), so there's the convention of holding fingering constant. Many violinists also play viola but tend not to switch during the course of a single performance. Apr 12 '19 at 18:03
3

(Copied over from the question for easier editing.)

C - Non-transposing or by whole octaves

  • At concert pitch - too many to mention.

  • Many brass instruments, e.g. the trombone and tuba, may be described as being in B♭, E♭, F, etc. However, their parts are normally written at concert pitch and hence they are not transposing instruments in the sense here. The trumpet however is usually a transposing instrument and is mentioned below. It is not the most common but there is a trumpet in C.

  • Pedal harp also belongs here. (It does not matter, that strings can only be shortened and therefore the unmodified pitch would sound C♭; the notation is non-transposed)

  • Octave above - piccolo.
  • Octave below - double bass and double bassoon. Also guitar and bass guitar.

D♭

Some piccolos. So, an octave and minor second above?

D

It is not the most common but there is trumpet in D.

E♭

  • E♭ clarinet - minor 3rd above.
  • Alto sax - major 6th below.
  • Baritone sax - octave and major 6th below.
  • Alto Clarinet - major 6th below

F

  • French horn and cor anglais - Fifth below
  • I have a tin whistle labeled G but, as explained in A♭, this could be regarded as transposing in F. A fourth above.

G

  • Alto flute

A♭

I have a tin whistle which is labeled B♭ but this refers to its lowest note which is D on a standard whistle. So, if treated as a transposing version of the common D whistle, it would be a major 3rd below and hence in A♭.

A

A clarinet and oboe d'amour - minor 3rd below

B♭

  • Many. This seems to be the most common case.
  • Trumpet, B♭ clarinet, soprano sax - a major second below.
  • Bass clarinet and tenor sax - Octave and a major second below.
0

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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