TRANSPOSITION & THE WRITTEN SYMBOLS OF MUSICAL PITCH
To the non-musical person the written symbols for musical sounds
have always presented a barrier to comprehension: Hand-written
or printed music is just as much a lucid language, capable of
being read and understood by musicians and by those who "read
music", as a language based on words supported by a system
of visual symbols printed or written on paper: the letters of
the alphabet However, for experienced musicians who have, as
it were, learnt to understand music from their earliest years
alongside their mother-tongue, some problems still remain. This
is rather like saying that, whilst all normal people are fluent
in their everyday use of English (or indeed any other mother-tongue,
depending on where they happen to have been born), some more
advanced uses of English are generally only understood by the
specialist in some field or other: the law, medicine, nuclear
physics, economics or whatever.
A particular field of mis-apprehension or general unfamiliarity
concerns how musical pitch is properly represented. In the simplest
terms all musicians learn the basic way the absolutes, (that
is, the real and unalterable basic height or depth of a musical
sound) can be represented on the five lines of a piece of music
paper. We say that the fundamental sound, from which all others,
both lower and higher in pitch radiate is called "Middle
C". This is found just about the centre of the piano keyboard.
It is sometimes called "the open key" because it is
the simplest to represent in written or printed symbols. For
various, and sometimes quite complicated reasons connected with
the way, historically some musical instruments have evolved,
the notion that the simplest key of C should be the one to represent
the simplest method of manipulating - that is using a fingering
system to produce the simplest sounds - has not always worked
out in practice. On the universal piano keyboard, the simplest
scale of "C" certainly does begin and end on white
notes; both of which look exactly alike but are separated by
an octave - all the other simple notes are within that scale..
"Transposition" however is a situation where, on
some instruments the nominal written symbol of "C"
does not produce the real pitch of a true "C" but
sounds some other note. The reasons for this can be quite complex,
and sometimes absurd and seemingly without good reason. The
explanation for such apparent anomalies is bound up with sometimes
obscure facets of musical history.
For the most part, although by no means exclusively, such quirks
of "transposition" concern how some wind instruments
have evolved. A simple historical example will illustrate how
In Bach's time it was customary for the two basic timpani always
to be notated (ie - written) as if they were in the simple,
fundamental key of C; so that the two principal notes of the
piece - the tonic and dominant as they were called in the catalogue
of harmony - were always notated in this simplest way of the
key of C. But often the real pitch of the piece would be some
other pitch - maybe D or E-flat, or any other key the composer
chose for the piece he had conceived. The music was still written
as if it were in C; but in order that the two timpani sounded
the real notes required, the player's printed copy would be
marked: "in D and A", in other words, the nominal
"C" drum would have to be tuned up a tone to "D"
and the nominal "G" drum would have to be tuned up
to "A". So that in effect - whilst the copy of the
music looked as if the required notes were C and G, they would
in fact have to be "transposed" up a whole tone to
D and A. This is the very simplest case of transposition.
However, with regard to various wind instruments it came about
that the simplest and most basic fingering of some of these
instruments - more generally the trumpet, horn, clarinet, but
also from time to time several others as well - did not equate
to the simple scale of "C" but more conveniently with
some other pitch. So the plan adopted was only to 'pretend'
that the simplest fingering sounded the written note "C",
whereas in reality the simplest fingering would produce another
pitch. In the case of the trumpet this basic fingering - because
of the most usually favoured and convenient size of the instrument,
chanced to equate not to the pitch of "C" but with
"B-flat" So, to make things look easier, the plan
was adopted of writing the music (for the trumpet basically
built with its fundamental or easiest note sounding B-flat)
as if it this sounding note B-flat, were represented by a written
A general rule-of-thumb thus came about in which it was recognised
that the designation of the pitch of an instrument (in other
words its "transposition" status) was to describe
what the artificially written "C" really produced.
In the case of the ordinary trumpet, it is described as a "B-flat"
trumpet because its written note - "C" - really sounds
"B-flat". In a similar way the horn, which is now
almost universally built so that its basic or fundamental sound
produces the note "F", but this true pitch of "F"
is actually written in horn music as if it were "C".
All these different transpositions mean that the difference
between the written note ("C") and the real note that
is sounded has to be taken into account when transcribing music
for a 'transposing' instrument. As "B-flat" is a whole
tone lower than real "C" it follows that everything
written down for the "B-flat" instrument must be written
a tone higher than the absolute or true pitch of a piece of
music in order to redress the balance of being a whole tone
too flat. Similarly, as the horn is written in "F"
it follows that because "F" really sounds a perfect
5th lower than actual "C" everything for the F-horn
must be written a perfect 5th higher than the actual concert-pitch
of the piece of music in question. This then off-sets the horn's
notes actually sounding a perfect 5th lower than written.
One of the misconceptions that many young composers have is
to write all the parts, (including the transposing instruments),
in their full scores in the basic key of the piece, in other
words at the real pitch. This is intended to make it easier
for the inexpert score-reader, or conductor - but at the same
time describing the various transposing instruments' parts as
if they were transposed! Now this is utterly confusing - one
cannot have it both ways: One has either to write all the score
at true pitch, or to separate the various transposition instruments
and write them in the appropriate transposed key .
To write at the head of the score: "Trumpet in Bb (actual
sounds)" is contradictory, D, does it mean that the trumpet
part should be read as if it were actually to be played according
to the notes as they appear on paper, in other words that the
printed notes are those actually to be understood - and thus
accordingly and correctly fingered - or, since it has the injunction
"actual notes" - does this contradict the designation
of the label "in Bb" and mean that the printed notes
are not the notes to be played but the real notes to be sounded,
with a diffferent fingering ? It is far more logical to write
or print scores in their correct transpositions; conductors
prefer to see the notes on the page in exactly the same way
as they appear to the player. In this way he gets a better appreciation
of what the player actually has to deal with. If it is essential
- for whatever reason - to choose to write a score wholly in
basic pitch, do NOT then describe transposing instruments as
being "in Bb" "in F" or whatever. They are
not then in a transposed pitch, they are simply notated "at
concert-pitch". To describe them so is to contradict what
has already been stated: "sounds at concert pitch".
It must be remembered that describing the pitch of an instrument
is not akin to describing the make or type of instrument to
be used ; on the contrary it merely refers to the way the music
is written; it has nothing at all to do with the instrument
itself. The designated pitch - (the size) - of instrument is
solely a matter for the player to choose according to his preference.
Transposing at sight is part of almost all wind-playing technique.
Considered logically, there is really no such thing as a "transposing
instrument" - for all instruments are chromatic and capable
of playing in every key - transposition resides only in the
relation of fingering to the written note; In some instances
instruments which are said to be "in Bb" are regarded
differently in other situations: In the brass band the euphonium
reads the part in treble clef and is said to be in "in
Bb" but in the military band or orchestra the very same
instrument is not regarded as being "in Bb" at all
, but with a different pattern of fingering, and using the bass
clef is simply regarded as being "in C".
Arthur Butterworth - October 2009
Butterworth Writes - a regular column