How to Transpose Music

This is a topic that can seem a little overwhelming to many musicians, including those that even play transposed instruments! The good news is that like most music theory, it’s not as hard as it initially appears. The bad news is that if you play a transposing instrument you are the one that will have to learn this, as a good portion of musicians these days play blissfully unaware in concert pitch. However, that’s not to say all students of music shouldn’t learn the basics of transposing. If you have any interest in composing music, even as a bedroom laptop music producer, knowing how to transpose will make your music sound that much better.

A Little Pitch of History

Learning Pitch and Transposing Music

In modern standard concert pitch, the first A note above middle C (notated C4) is 440 Hz. We say modern because this standard pitch has changed over time. Before the 19th century, there was no coordinated effort to keep pitch at a standard. Just like we have the loudness wars these days in music production, back then artists would see who could play the highest and brightest pitch! Of course, this caused problems, especially with singers as it just put too much strain on their vocal cords.

Over the years the standard pitch used changed drastically, from lows of 415 Hz to highs of 456 Hz. It went back and forth and sometimes quite drastically in short periods. The fact that much of the world has settled on 440 Hz is not exactly of great importance. If you have spent a lot of time on social media, you have likely seen posts about the magic healing powers of standard pitch being 432 Hz. According to these memes and absurd posts, we go about our lives all wrong because 432 Hz isn’t used!! Like most social media, this has zero truth or practicality. Music is all about the intervals between notes, and they are the same intervals despite the standard pitch you choose to use.

And while it’s true we may have neural oscillations at specific frequencies in our brains, there is no magical health benefit from the A note being another standard pitch. We once used 432 Hz and now 440 Hz is simply what we have all collectively decided on in recent history. In fact, like most musical rules, if you break them too much, your playing will sound awful. If you play your own pitch while someone plays 440, it will not sound good. (Unless your musical performance is microtonal atonality!)

Why Do We Transpose?

Learning how to transpose

This idea of all being on the same page pitch-wise it what leads us to transposing instruments. The exact definition of a transposing instrument is one whose staff notation is different than the actual sound. Woodwinds and brass instruments are made of various materials, lengths, reeds, and mouthpieces so it makes sense we will have a huge variety of pitches played. In some cases, the pitch of an instrument may be an octave higher or lower to easily write on a staff ledger, so they transpose it an octave up or down.

However, octave transposing is a little different than the main transposing instruments mentioned below. We mention the octave first as the notes you will be changing often stretch more than an octave or two. One of the main reasons we transpose instruments is we want all members of the same family to have the same fingerings. Once a musician can play one member of an instrument family, you want those fingerings to be the same throughout the rest. This is why soprano and tenor saxes are in Bb and the alto and baritone are in Eb, it makes it so once you can play one, you can play them all.

One of the reasons transposing can get a little difficult is when we stop and realize it’s not the only way to go about it. We are working in a system that has become so ingrained that it is just simply “how it is.” In modern times we have tried to change it, so conductors see everything in concert pitch. However, the players will still have all their music normally transposed as that is how we have been trained. Until some mathematical and musical genius discovers a better method of getting the whole band to fit together, this is what we all are stuck with!

Which Instruments Do We Transpose?

When an instrument is known as a non-transposing instrument that means a C4 sounds exactly like a C4. When we play a C4 on the middle of the piano it better sound like a C4. (If not, you better get a 440 Hz tuning fork and start tuning the first A above the middle C!) Other non-transposing instruments are the flute, oboe, bassoon, the organ, tuba, trombone, and even the female voice all play a C4 as C4.

Above we mentioned octave transposing, which is not the same as a transposable instrument, but technically the same note just in a different octave. For example, guitars, bass guitars, banjo, cello, double bass, and most male voices will play or sing a notated C4, that will sound like a C3. Bass and contrabass saxophones play the C4 as C2 and C1 respectively. The piccolo, celesta, and xylophone all play the C4 as C5 and the glockenspiel plays it as a C6. All of these instruments are considered in concert pitch, it is just helpful to know which octave.

Sometimes the same instruments can be in a variety of keys, some on and off the transposed list. Originally saxophones were made in C and F, they still make C sopranos and of course, some of the crazy huge bass saxophones are in C. In general, these are specially made instruments and not the norm. If you play most any modern alto or baritone saxophone your written C will sound as an Eb. That is the whole point behind transposable instruments; when they play any note, the real sound will be whatever key they are actually in. (It may seem obvious, but it is important to point out that every note changes not just the C we are giving examples of).

Instruments in Bb are the soprano sax, tenor sax, some trumpets, bass clarinets, and baritone horns. Common Eb instruments are the already mentioned alto sax, baritone sax, and the alto clarinet. Some trumpets, French horns, and mellophones come in F. In the key of A, we will find clarinets and trumpets, these two instruments are the ones made in the most keys, they have quite the transposing variety.

Below is a table of some of the most common transposing instruments. We kept the exact octaves available even though it doesn’t change how we transpose the notes. The C to Eb change is the same in both the alto and baritone despite the technicality of it an octave apart.

Instrument Written NoteReal Note Transposition
Alto Saxophone Eb C4
「C note」の画像検索結果
Eb3

Major 6th

Descending

Baritone Saxophone Eb

C4

「C note」の画像検索結果
Eb2

Major 6th (Plus an Octave) Descending

Clarinet A

C4

「C note」の画像検索結果
A3

Minor 3rd

Descending

Clarinet Bb

C4

「C note」の画像検索結果
Bb3

Major 2nd Descending

Soprano Saxophone Bb

C4

「C note」の画像検索結果
Bb3

Major 2nd Descending

Tenor Saxophone Bb

C4

「C note」の画像検索結果
Bb2

Major 9th (Major 2nd Plus Octave)

Descending

Trumpet Bb

C4

「C note」の画像検索結果
Bb3

Major 2nd Descending

French Horn F

C4

「C note」の画像検索結果
F4

Perfect Fifth

Ascending

Alto Flute G

C4

「C note」の画像検索結果
G4

Perfect Fourth

Ascending

How to Transpose

If you worked on your musical intervals in the past you may already have a good idea of how the transposing will work. First off make sure you don’t let the octave differences factor in, whether the instrument is in C3, C4, C5, or any C note the key will always be C. It is important to know how instruments relate to one another in the same key but different octave, but it won’t change your transposing formula. Which if you stop and think about makes sense, after all an octave above or below is still going to be the same essential note.

As far as transposing goes you shouldn’t have to worry about complete memorization. Yes, some musicians can do it at the moment of sight-reading, just like some people can do complicated math in their heads. Transposing isn’t necessarily complicated; it is just awkward for first-time students. Most of us will have to write it down and do it ahead of practicing or performing. When studying most music theory it helps to have a piano or keyboard in front of you. As it is simply easier to see note spaces and relationships than on a woodwind or brass instrument. After you have the general idea of how it works, it is fine if you use a transposing chart for quick reference. If practiced enough eventually it will become second nature and no big deal.

Transposing with Tenor Saxophone

If we look at the chart above a tenor saxophone is in Bb and it transposes to a descending major second. Remember a major second is two semitones or one whole step and we are moving backward. If we see a written note of C on our staff, then it will sound like a Bb. Voila! It is that way for every other note. Make sure not to get confused and go the wrong way. If you want to play a C sounding note on your tenor sax, then you would play a D, as C is a minor second below D. That is essentially the problem with transposing, and frankly a good portion of music theory. It’s never really that hard, but it’s always really easy to mix up. If it is not a skill you use often, it can require some doublechecking and doubt.

Transposing with Alto Saxophone

Transposing with Alto Saxophone

Now take the alto sax as an example, it is in Eb, when we play a written C note on the clef it will sound like an Eb. As the table shows above (or the keyboard in front of you), that is a major sixth difference. A major sixth is nine semitones if you want to play a note that sounds like C, count nine steps up. You will arrive at the A note, and again each note will work the same way. The table below will be a quick reference guide to the main instruments that most readers of this article will be using. Of course, if some other key pops up, then use the same principles to write the notes out.

C instrument

Bb Instrument

Eb instrument

F instrument

C

D

A

G

B

Db (C#)

Ab (G#)

Gb (F#)

Bb (A#)

C

G

F

A

B

Gb (F#)

E

Ab (G#)

Bb (A#)

F

Eb (D#)

G

A

E

D

Gb (F#)

Ab (G#)

Eb (D#)

Db (C#)

F

G

D

C

E

Gb (F#)

Db (C#)

B

Eb (D#)

F

C

Bb (A#)

D

E

B

A

Db (C#)

Eb (D#)

Bb (A#)

Ab (G#)

It would be a good exercise to pick an instrument in another key, like a clarinet in A, and write the notes yourself. Try not to depend upon the chart until you have a pretty solid understanding of what you are doing. Once you know your intervals, the key, and the octave it will be pretty easy to transpose to the proper notes. At that point, your biggest mistake is not doing the ol’ switcheroo in your head and going the wrong way.

Conclusion

Hopefully, now you have a better understanding of why we transpose music and how we do it. Honestly not many people in the music world have to learn it. Many bands use instruments all in C so there is never a use for it. Even if you are a home composer chances are technology will do it for you. It is still a skill worth learning, the more you learn about music theory the more it all comes together. There are occasional “Eureka!” moments when it just all fits and you get it! Plus, if you have the skill to put a horn section in your garage band, that’s talent. So don’t let transposing intimidate you, embrace it and you will see its really no big deal!

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