Instrument transposition
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Instrument Transposition. A brief reference and explanation. Basic Info. When writing music for orchestral or band instruments, we must learn to transpose music for various instruments. Terms you MUST know: Written pitch – what you see on the page

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Instrument Transposition

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Instrument Transposition

A brief reference and explanation

Basic Info

  • When writing music for orchestral or band instruments, we must learn to transpose music for various instruments.

  • Terms you MUST know:

    Written pitch – what you see on the page

    Concert pitch – what you hear (also called sounding pitch)

    Concert key – sounding key

Why do instruments transpose?

  • Throughout history, instruments were not manufactured in a uniform manner as they are in today’s music instrument factories. Sometime a Sackbut, the original trombone might be built upon the foundational note of “C” when made in Germany, but in “Eb” when made in France. So, that the instrumentalist did not have to learn a new fingering system for each different pitch for all of the possible foundational notes, they developed a system where the written pitch was modified for the foundational note and thus there was not a separate fingering system for each variation.

The C Instruments

  • C Instrument are non-transposing instruments. That means that they do NOT transpose. For these instruments you will hear the music exactly as you write it.

  • These instruments are mentioned on the following slide with there instrumental range:




















Same: Tenor clef

also used when convenient.




Transposing C Instruments

  • There are a couple of C instruments that do transpose. These transpositions occur at one or two octaves.

  • Examples of these are:

    • Piccolo (sounds 1 octave higher than written)

    • Contrabassoon (sounds 1 octave lower than written)

    • Double Bass (sounds 1 octave lower than written)

    • Xylophone (sounds 1 octave higher than written)

    • Glockenspiel or Orchestra bells (sound 2 octaves higher than written

The Bb instruments

  • To do basic transposition you must remember that the key of the instrument tells you the sounding note when a C is the written note. Instruments in the Key of Bb (Bb Clarinet) will sound a Bb when C is written.

  • So, for the Bb Clarinet, Bb Bass Clarinet, Bb Trumpet, Bb Soprano Sax and Bb Tenor Sax, if we write a C, we will hear a Bb.

  • Now, not all of the above instruments work exactly the same. The Bb Clarinet, Bb Trumpet and Bb Soprano Sax transpose by a Major 2nd.

The M2 Transposition

Melodies compared for Bb instruments

  • Take a look at this melody in C Major:

Now see what happens when we transpose for the Bb Clarinet, Trumpet or Sop. Sax:

  • Notice that the notes are moved up by a M2. Also pay attention to the KEY SIGNATURE. This also moves up by a M2. It is important that you transpose ALL elements, notes and key signatures by the appropriate interval.

  • Sounding Melody:

  • Written Melody

    for Bb Trumpet:

Bass Clarinet and Tenor Sax

  • These instruments transpose at the interval of a M9.

  • You’ll still have to change keys as with the Bb Clarinet or Trumpet but you must remember that all notes will be a M2 PLUS an octave lower.



Bass Clarinet


Soprano Sax




Tenor Sax

Written Sounding

The F Instruments

  • There are several instruments that transpose by a P5. These are the English Horn and the Horn.

English Horn


Horn in F


  • An easy way to remember instruments that transpose by Perfect 5th is that these two instruments have “Horn” in their name. Horn in F (French Horn) and English Horn.

  • Note that the sounding note is a P5 LOWER than the written pitch. This means that when we write for the English Horn or the Horn, we must move everything UP by a P5, including the key signature. Look at our C major melody again:

  • Now here is the melody written for English Horn and Horn:

  • Notice that we are now in G major and that every note has been moved up a P5.

Eb Transpositions

  • There are several instruments that use a transposition to Eb. The Alto Saxophone and the Baritone Saxophone are the most common.

  • In writing for the Alto Sax, the transposition is a M6:

  • The Baritone Sax will transpose by a M6 plus an octave:

Sounded Melody:

Written Melody for Eb Instruments:

Alto Sax


Bari Sax


Final Thoughts:

  • Remember to use the appendix in Tonal Harmony for the correct range for all instruments.

  • Remember to transpose all notes and the key signature by the appropriate interval.

  • There are many web resources, such as that can be of assistance.

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