No Magic, No Mystery

A Primer on Transposing Music

For trumpet, clarinet, and French horn players, transposing is a normal part of playing their instrument. For singers, violinists, pianists, and flute players, on the other hand, it may seem like some strange secret code. Instruments that have their notes written differently than they actually sound? Up a step? Down a fifth? What’s that all about?

Don’t panic! If you’re one of those worship directors who is primarily a vocalist or pianist and you must deal with a trumpet player who wants to play on Sunday but says she “can’t transpose”—this article is for you. The answer is you need to provide her with a transposed part. And that’s actually not as complicated as it seems.

Simply put, a transposing instrument is one for which music is notated at a higher or lower pitch than the actual sound. Most of these instruments come from the woodwind and brass families. There are also certain instruments whose parts are written an octave higher (string bass) or an octave lower (piccolo), but these are not “true” transposing instruments—so we won’t worry about them right now.

The reasons for this practice are both traditional and historical. The use of transposing instruments or, more accurately, transposing notation, dates from a time when only natural tones were available—until around 1800—largely before instruments had valves. Each player could only play in one key, using breath and embouchure to play the various overtones naturally occurring within that key. In order to play in different keys, one either used a different instrument altogether, or replaced one piece of the instrument’s tubing with another of a different length, thus changing the foundational (fundamental) pitch of the instrument. French horn players were known to have a rack standing next to them with several “crooks” (pieces of tubing) of different sizes hanging from it. They would pull one out and replace it with another between movements as the key of a piece changed. The player’s part, however, was usually notated in the key of C with instructions like these at the beginning: “Horn in F,” “Trumpet in Bb,” “Horn in Eb,” and so on. The player was expected to insert the correct piece of tubing, thus “transposing” the sounds from the written key of C to whatever actual key was called for.

The Transposing Instruments

The most common transposing instruments likely to appear in church orchestras are the following:



Clarinet/Bb (sometimes in A)

Alto saxophone/Eb

French horn/F

Tenor saxophone/Bb

Baritone saxophone/Eb

Writing the Part

You don’t need to know some dark secret code to do this—just some information about the instrument, some basic knowledge of melodic intervals, and some simple arithmetic.

Each of the different keys (Bb, Eb, F) requires writing the part at a different interval from the actual pitch desired. You will know what that interval is by taking the key of the instrument and calculating the interval from C.

For example, let’s take trumpet in Bb. Bb is a whole tone (major 2nd) lower than C. For Bb trumpet, then, the player plays everything a whole step lower than written. Thus, if I want to hear a C, I must write a D (a whole step higher); if I want to hear an E, I must write an F#, and so on.

Purchase this issue

Now, to avoid adding all those accidentals, we simply add a new key signature. If a hymn is in the key of C (no sharps or flats), then Bb part is written a whole step higher—in D (two sharps). The following chart helps to clarify:


Below are two simple comparison charts showing several different interval and key signature relationships for making Bb and F transpositions:

Purchase this issue

A Few Additional Tips

  • Find a brass-playing friend and have him or her work with you. Try writing a few passages out, then go over them together to make sure they “work.”
  • Find some published transposed parts and look at how they are written. This will give you some cues on how best to prepare the parts.
  • Consider investing in notation software. All computer software for musical notation allows you to make transpositions quickly and easily—usually with a mouse-click. You still need to understand the principles of how it works, but producing the part can be much easier and cleaner with computer software.
  • If you are not used to transposing on your instrument, try it! Try playing the soprano line of a hymn a whole tone lower than written; or a fifth higher. This will get you used to the idea and also help when you have to speak to others who do this all the time.

Remember, there’s no magic, no mystery—all you have to do is apply some basic musical knowledge.


Notation Software

If you’re planning to invest in notation software, here are three packages worth checking out:

Encore Music notation software


199 Rt 18

East Brunswick, NJ 08816


Finale music software

Notation Sales

(Finale, Finale Guitar, Finale Allegro, Finale PrintMusic, Finale Songwriter or Finale NotePad)


Sibelius music software




Robert Nordling ( conducts the Calvin College and Alumni Orchestras and teaches in the music department at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is a resource development specialist for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

Reformed Worship 87 © March 2008, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.