How to transpose: A crash-course for trumpet and horn players (and other musicians too!)


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If you have aspirations of playing in an orchestra, playing from a Real Book, or simply playing hymns along with an organist at a church service, you’ll need to know how to transpose.

At first, transposition can seem daunting, but it’s really not all that difficult once you get used to it.

Here are some tips to help you get started:

#1 Know what key your instrument is pitched in!

Ok, it sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s fundamental in understanding transposition. All tuned instruments are pitched. That is to say, that a piano is pitched in C, a French Horn (most often) in F. Trumpets can be pitched in a variety of keys, Bb being one of the most common. You get the idea. So, what pitch is your instrument?

#2 Learn your scales and arpeggios

Having your scales and arpeggios under the fingers can really help your reading and transposition abilties.You’ll see how in #7 below…

Get “SCALES AND ARPEGGIOS FOR TRUMPET AND CORNET”

#3 Check a few things…

What pitch of instrument is the music notated for? Is it a part written for Bb trumpet, or for voice or piano (C), a part for C flute, a part for Eb alto saxophone, or for F horn, or something else?

If you play a Bb trumpet, and you are reading a part written for Bb trumpet, you DON’T have to transpose. Likewise if you play an F horn, and you are reading a part for horn in F, you DON’T transpose.

#4 …and then carry on.
An example: Transposition up a tone

Let’s say you play a Bb trumpet. You have been asked to play a simple hymn, where the notated music is written for voice (in C).

What is the relationship between C and Bb?
C is A WHOLE TONE higher than Bb (or 2 semitones).

That means, that you need to play every note 1 WHOLE TONE higher than written.

eg. If the notated pitches are: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C.
You play: D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D

#5 Another example

Let’s say you play a horn in F, and you will also be playing a simple hymn, where the notated music is written for voice (in C).

What is the relationship between C and F?
C is a PERFECT FIFTH higher than F (or 7 semitones).

That means, that you need to play every note a PERFECT FIFTH higher than written.

eg. If the notated pitches are: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C.
You play: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G

Makes sense?

#6 Here’s one more example

You play a trumpet in Bb, and you will be playing a piece where the notated music is written for trumpet in D.

What is the relationship between D and Bb?
D is a MAJOR THIRD higher than Bb (or 4 semitones).

That means, that you need to play every note a MAJOR THIRD higher than written.

eg. If the notated pitches are: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C.
You play: E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D#, E

#7 To further simplify (or complicate!) the situation…

You play a trumpet in Bb, and you will be playing a piece where the notated music is written for trumpet in C.

You know how to do this now, right? C is a WHOLE TONE higher than Bb, so you play every note 1 WHOLE TONE higher than written.
Imagine for a second, that the KEY SIGNATURE of the piece you are playing has 4 sharps…
This means, the piece (written for a C instrument) is written in concert E major (or C# minor).

How does this affect your transposition?

It doesn’t!

However, you may choose to think like this:

“Ok, 4 sharps in the original C notated music. So, it’s written in concert E major (or C# minor). I’m going to *think* a whole tone higher than E major (C# minor), which gives me F# major (D# minor… but Eb minor may be more convenient…). So thinking now in F# major (D# minor), we go from 4 sharps to 6. And if you have your scales and arpeggios under your fingers, this is no problem at all! :)

An example:

Original music written in concert E major (4 sharps)
Original music written for instrument in C (eg. voice, or flute, or piano)
You are playing a Bb trumpet.
C is a WHOLE TONE higher than Bb, right?*
So, you think in F# major (6 sharps) and everything’s peachy :) (If you know your scales! :) )

Get “SCALES AND ARPEGGIOS FOR TRUMPET AND CORNET”

Conclusion: How to get started

Transposition really isn’t rocket science. It’s more simply a matter of familiarity – getting used to transposing. To help you get started, take a simple melody such as “Happy Birthday”, or “Baa Baa Blacksheep”, any simple psalm or hymn, or perhaps first studies from the Arban or similar method books.

Using the advice above, transpose the melody up a WHOLE TONE. Once you get used to whole tone transposition, experiment with different intervals, such as up a MAJOR THIRD, down a SEMI-TONE, up a PERFECT FOURTH, up a PERFECT FIFTH, up (or down) a TRI-TONE etc.

Practise a little at a time. First in your mind, then on your instrument.

Transposition is a MIND SKILL, so make sure you rest your brain often!

Good luck!

5 Responses to “How to transpose: A crash-course for trumpet and horn players (and other musicians too!)”

  1. Kyle Hayes says:

    I had a student working on a piece called “romance” so naturally he wrote in “bad” to copy the Lady GaGa song. This, of course, caused me to play the chorus from the song and he got really excited and begged me to teach it to him. “It starts on the 2nd scale degree. Go.”

    That’s a fun way to teach transposition =]

  2. lkillian says:

    A tip that I was given by Arthur Butterworth (a master of transposition!) helped me immeasurably when transposing from BB trumpet to trumpet in E.

    Most trumpeters seem to be approaching this as an augmented 4th – Arthur taught me the following:

    UP A FIFTH, DOWN A SEMI-TONE (Trp. In F, then Trp in A)

    Accidentals:
    Sharps – become natural at a fifth, Flats – play the note lower (natural) at a fifth, F and C – play as for flats.

  3. Andrew Corbett says:

    RE: transposing for Fench horn. There are limits to the principle of transposing up a fifth. When the concert pitch notes get high up on the staff – above 3rd space C, the notes begin to be too high for all but the best players, so loweringthe pitch a perfect forth would be appropriate. A current Beethoven piece I’m working on would require a descant horn to pay all the notes up a fifth, and I don’t think it was Betthoven’s intent to have the horns playing upt a high c as part of an accompaniment. The lower C is the more appropriate note. Other articles covering this topic seem to indicate lowering the concert pitch a perfect forth is the appropriae method for transposition

    • orlandus says:

      Besides which, down a fourth is the transposition for the “horn in C” crook in classical and romantic orchestral parts, so hornists will want to be quite fluent in this transposition (and about a dozen others!)

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