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Transposing instrument

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A transposing instrument is a musical instrument whose music is written at a pitch different from concert pitch. Concert pitch is the pitch as notated for piano (or any other non-transposing instrument) - e.g., the note "C" on piano is a concert C. On a transposing instrument, a concert C is written as another note. On the surface, this may be confusing, but there are several reasons for the existence of transposing instruments. The difference between a transposing instrument and a non-transposing instrument is only in whether or not the music is written at its sounding (concert) pitch.

Transposing harmoniums or electronic keyboards with a transpose function can also play a different set of pitches from what is notated, but these are not usually called transposing instruments. These instruments allow the player to change the instrument's transposition electronically or mechanically. The instruments discussed in this article, on the other hand, have set pitches but merely do not read their music at concert pitch.


[edit] Reasons for transposing

At first sight it might seem awkward to use transposing instruments. The use of the transposing instrument entails more work for the composer or arranger, for example. There are, however, some clear reasons for preferring a transposing instrument:

Families of instruments 
Some instruments belong to a family of instruments of different sizes (and, therefore, sounding at different pitches), such as the clarinet or the saxophone family. Musicians can read the same notes on the page for each instrument in the family without having to learn new fingerings. For example, the note that is written as middle C for the alto saxophone and the tenor saxophone is fingered the same on each instrument, but the alto's sounding pitch (E♭) will be a fourth higher than the tenor's (B♭).
Transposing at the octave 
If an instrument has a range that is too high or too low for their music to be easily written on bass or treble clef, the music may be written either an octave higher or lower than it sounds, in order to reduce the use of ledger lines. Instruments that “transpose at the octave” are not playing in a different key from concert pitch instruments, but sound an octave higher or lower than written. Some instruments with extremely high or low ranges use a two-octave transposition.
Historical reasons 
Historically, some instruments have come to be accepted (and widely manufactured) with a certain transposition as a standard.
Tone and sound quality 
Because of tone quality issues, some C (concert pitch) instruments — the C melody saxophone, C soprano saxophone, and C soprano clarinet, for example — have declined in popularity in favor of the standard versions (B♭ soprano and tenor saxophone; B♭ and A clarinets).

[edit] Families of instruments

Transposing instruments are often members of a family of instruments that are identical in every way but for their size. As a result they have differing ranges, with the larger instruments sounding lower than the smaller ones. It is desirable for these instruments all to have the same fingering for each written pitch, so that a player who wishes to switch between different instruments in a family does not have to learn new fingerings for each one.

Instruments that transpose this way are often referred to as being in a certain key, such as the A clarinet (clarinet in A), or the F horn (horn in F). The "key" an instrument is said to be in tells how far from concert pitch an instrument's music is written. Specifically, the instrument's key tells which pitch will sound when the player plays a note written as "C". A player of a B♭ clarinet who reads a written C will sound a B♭, while the player of an F horn will read the same note and sound an F.

The flute family contains instruments with different transpositions. The standard concert flute is a non-transposing instrument with a range from middle C up about 3 octaves. The alto flute is a very similar instrument, but longer, and hence pitched lower, with a range starting from the G below middle C. The fingering that would produce a C on a standard flute produces the G a fourth lower on the alto flute. Music for the alto flute is transposed so that it is uses the same fingering for the written notes, but the resulting pitches are a fourth lower. A player can switch back and forth between the two (a common requirement in orchestra music) without risking confusion between two different fingering systems. The alto flute is then a 'transposing instrument in G', sounding a fourth lower than written.

The situation is similar in other families of instruments. For example, clarinets come in various sizes and hence pitches (A, B♭, C, E♭), but the music is transposed appropriately for each size of instrument so that the player can maintain the same fingerings for the same written notes. For reasons of timbre or to minimize switching between different instruments, expert clarinet players sometimes use a different instrument than their part calls for — usually substituting the B♭ for the A or vice-versa — transposing the parts at sight instead. Expert trumpet players may do this also, usually with the B♭ and C instruments.

In some families of instruments, the non-transposing C version had fallen into disuse; the clarinet family is one example, where only the B♭ and A members are common, but in recent years, there is a tendency to utilize the C clarinet when called for. Horns are another example.

Some families containing transposing instruments:

Before valves became common about 1800, the horn could play only the notes of the overtone series from a single fundamental pitch. This fundamental could be changed by inserting one of a set of crooks into the instrument, shortening or lengthening the total length of its sounding tube. As a result, all horn music was written as if for a fundamental pitch of C, but the crooks could make a single instrument a transposing instrument into almost any key. Changing the crooks was a time-consuming process, so it took place only between pieces or movements. The introduction of valves made this process unnecessary (although Richard Wagner (1813-1883) wrote horn parts as if crooks were still in use). While an F transposition became standard in the early 19th century, composers differed in whether they expected the instruments to transpose down a fifth or up a fourth, especially when written in treble clef.

There are a few families of instruments which have instruments of various sizes and ranges, but whose music is rarely or never transposed. The recorder family is one of these. The higher members of the family (soprano and above) transpose at the octave, as do the bass instruments (bass and great bass). However, they are referred to as "C-fingered" or "F-fingered" depending on the lowest note, which is fingered the same on all sizes. A player may go from one C-fingered instrument to another easily, and from one F-fingered instrument to another easily, but switching between the two requires learning a new set of fingerings or the ability to transpose the music at sight.

[edit] Transposition at the octave

Some instruments transpose at the octave in order to make their music easier to read. These constitute a special case among transposing instruments since their written C, for example, still sounds as a concert C, just an octave away from the written pitch. They are therefore in the same key as concert pitch instruments, but their music is notated an octave higher or lower than concert pitch.

Music for the contrabassoon and the double bass is written on the bass clef, one octave higher than concert pitch. Music for the guitar and the tenor voice is written on the treble clef, one octave higher than concert pitch. Music for the piccolo is written on the treble clef, one octave lower than concert pitch. If these instruments did not transpose at the octave, many of their pitches would have to be written with ledger lines above or below the staff, making reading comparatively cumbersome.

[edit] Tone and sound quality

It was found that sometimes instruments sounded better when built in certain keys. For instance, the C clarinet was not a very pleasant sounding instrument, nor was the D or the E♭ clarinet; it was generally agreed that the B♭ clarinet was the most pleasant sounding, and for this reason was the one which remained in dominant use in the present day. This is also true of the B♭ trumpet, as well as several other instruments, such as the French horn and the trombone (which, outside the United Kingdom Brass band tradition, is not treated as a transposing instrument, although its basic overtone series is B♭ or E♭).

[edit] Mechanical and physical considerations

On woodwind instruments there is one major scale whose execution involves (more or less) simply picking up each finger sequentially from the bottom to top. This is usually the scale which reads as a C scale (the major scale with no sharps or flats) on that instrument. If it is a transposing instrument, the note written as C sounds as the note of the instrument's transposition - on an E♭ alto saxophone, that note sounds as a concert E♭, on an A clarinet, that note sounds as a concert A. The bassoon is an exception; it is not a transposing instrument, yet its "home" scale is F.

Brass instruments, when played with no valves engaged (or, for trombones, with the slide all the way in) play a series of notes which form the overtone series based on some fundamental pitch. e.g., the B♭ trumpet, when played with no valves being pressed, can play the overtones based on B♭. Usually, that pitch is the note which indicates the transposition of that brass instrument. Trombones are an exception - they do not transpose, instead reading at concert pitch, although tenor and bass trombones are pitched in B♭, alto trombone in E♭.

In the cases above, there is some reason to consider a certain pitch the "home" note of an instrument, and that pitch is usually written as C for that instrument. The concert pitch of that note is what determines the how we refer to the transposition of that instrument.

It is interesting to note that, with the exception of the bass trombone, all of the instruments in United Kingdom brass band music (including cornet, flugelhorn, tenor horn, euphonium, baritone horn, tenor trombone, and even the bass tuba) are notated in treble clef as transposing instruments in either B♭ or E♭.

[edit] On the conductor's score

In conductors' scores, most often the music for transposing instruments is written in transposed form, just as in the players' parts; but a few publishers, especially of modern music, provide conductors with music which is all at concert pitch. The advantage of the latter practice is that it makes the pitch relationships of the entire score easier for the conductor to see. The advantage of traditional practice is that it facilitates spoken communication in rehearsal since conductor and player are looking at the same notation.

[edit] List of instruments by transposition

  • Instruments in D♭ (high) — sounds a minor ninth above what is written

[edit] Timpani

In the 17th and early 18th century, timpani were often treated as transposing instruments, as they were almost always tuned to the tonic and dominant notes. These were notated as C and G, and the actual tuning was indicated at the top of the score (for example, Timpani in A–D). This notation style was not universal: Bach, Mozart, and Schubert (in his early works) used it, but their respective contemporaries Handel, Haydn, and Beethoven wrote for the timpani at concert pitch.

[edit] References

  • Kennan, Kent Wheeler. The Technique of Orchestration, Second Edition. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970, 1952; ISBN 0-13-900316-9

This article was started using a Wikipedia instrument article
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