Transposing Instruments

Many folks are confused by the concept of transposing instruments. The concept usually appears when one or more instruments in a group requires music to be written out specially for that instrument in a different key to the rest of the group.  A common example is the clarinet – the most popular clarinet in use today is the clarinet in Bb and the music for this instrument is traditionally written out one tone higher than the music for violin, flute etc.  Alternatively you can consider that the instrument sounds a tone lower than the note that is being read from the page. If the note on the page is a C, the sound produced is Bb (that’s the best way to understand the name).


Nowadays it is quite easy to transpose music using the same software that is used to store and print it and it could be argued that we should regard the the fact that we do it this way as simply a convention and tradition associated with classical music.  To an extent this is true because if a newcomer to the Bb clarinet decided to ignore the convention they could. He or she would learn the fingerings for the notes by reference to other (non-transposing) instruments and could easily learn to read from standard untransposed music. The only problem would be that the fingering charts available for the instrument would need “correcting”, for example the fingering for the D above middle C in the fingering chart would have to be labelled as the fingering for middle C.

However it is the intention of this short article to explain why transposing for instruments is more than just a tradition, and that it does have a role in folk music today.

It is helpful to consider why transposition developed in the first place. Nowadays most modern instruments are fully chromatic, have equal temperament tuning (see the music theory basics note) and can play in a wide range of keys. In the past this was not true, and a musician (for example a player of traditional wooden flute without modern keywork) would need a number of instruments, of different sizes to play in a range of keys. Probably the fingerings for each would be similar, but with a change in pitch for a given fingering. There was no need to learn the individual instruments, just learn to play one and then pick the one which has the right range/best sound or easiest fingering for a given tune. If the music was learn aurally the concept of transposing would not appear.

However, if this set of instruments is to be used to play from written music the problem is clear. Without the transposing concept, each instrument has a different fingering for the same written note. The player has to learn the mapping of each written note to the fingering separately for each instrument. This is obviously challenging and very confusing.

In practice, it is easier to learn to read music using just one instrument. Let’s say for consistency with modern flute playing, that we choose the instrument for which covering 6 holes produces the note D, this would be the fingering chart.

The D Whistle Finger Scale

The next biggest instrument may well play a note (two semitones) below.  The six finger note would be C.  If we want to read and write music played with this instrument, we can “pretend” it is a D whistle and use the fingering chart shown above, but re-write the music so when a C sound is required, a D is written. Then the player will cover all 6 holes according to the chart above, and the required C will be produced.   Similarly, there could be a bigger instrument still, in which all 6 holes covered produces the a low G sound. To use the chart above the music must be written out seven semitones higher that the required pitch. When a low G is required, a D is written.

In the case of the modern clarinet, where Bb is common, and the A clarinet used in orchestras it is clearly the C clarinet (now rare in classical music but still played in folk and jazz styles) that gives rise to the fingering that all clarinetists are taught, and the all other clarinets are by convention transposing instruments.

The same principle still applies in the folk world. A keen bagpiper may have many sets of pipes in different keys, and many hurdy gurdy players find it valuable to have one instrument in the D/G (Bourbonnaise) tuning and one in the G/C (Auvergnat or classical) tuning.   The player can decide whether to learn to read music from untransposed scores (with the price of having to remember different fingerings for each instrument) or decide to learn the fingering / written note relationship for just one, and to transpose the music for all the others.

It remains only to consider which instrument of a family is to be considered as the non-transposing one. For folk musicians this may often be the one they acquired first and learned to read with. However this is not always the best choice and it is worth considering the relationships between the fingering of different families of instruments.  The modern flute and the D whistle share the fact that the six finger note is D. Not all the fingerings are the same, but enough match to suggest that one you have learnt to read music on one you will easily adapt to reading with the other. The common descant recorder also has a d six finger note. If we now look at the range of clarinets, the one that sounds a D with six fingers down (in the middle register) is the C clarinet.  To me this validates the fact that the C clarinet is the one that doesn’t transpose, whereas the more common Bb does. The relationships between families of instruments guide me to think that the best way to write out bagpipe music is following the same convention, so that the “non-transposing bagpipes” are those in D.   Encouragingly, music for the Galician gaita is written in this way, despite the fact that the most common Gaita plays a note lower in C.

I hope this short discussion is helpful, please let me know through the contact form if you have any suggestions or comments.