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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?

  • Guitar is an octave-below transposing instrument – David Bowling Apr 12 at 14:59
  • @DavidBowling Thanks. I don't often see guitar music written in standard notation so I did not know. How about the bass guitar? I think that I have seen that written in bass clef as you would for a double bass. – badjohn Apr 12 at 15:03
  • That's right, bass guitar too – David Bowling Apr 12 at 15:07
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    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 at 15:47
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    @Dave How about guidot's suggestion of a community answer? Would that address your concerns? – badjohn Apr 12 at 15:48
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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.

  • Thanks. So, most of them are covered by my "too many to mention" comment in C. How about the trumpet, have I entered it correctly? E.g. could a trumpet play a clarinet part? – badjohn Apr 12 at 15:12
  • @badjohn Yes, a B♭ Trumpet can play a B♭ Clarinet part. I've addressed this a bit in my edit. – Richard Apr 12 at 15:16
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    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 at 15:17
  • Thanks for the trumpet in D. I'll add that. – badjohn Apr 12 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 at 16:29
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(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.
  • Thanks. So, should people edit this to add further information? – badjohn Apr 12 at 16:34
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    I'd say yes. Actually, you c(sh)ould just remove the list from your question; it's irrelevant now. – user45266 Apr 13 at 6:23
  • This list says Harp (in c#). What type of harp are you talking about? A concert harp is a non-transposing instrument. – Lars Peter Schultz Apr 15 at 19:23
  • @LarsPeterSchultz: harp moved with a bit of explanation. – guidot Apr 16 at 6:57
  • @guidot, great. – Lars Peter Schultz Apr 16 at 7:59

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