Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Learning how to play transposed parts

If you play professionally, or even if you play in an amateur way in a community orchestra,you are going to come across horn parts in keys other than F. When you do so, you have essentially two choices. Either you write every such part out for horn in F, or you learn to transpose at sight.

But it might be that sight reading even in F is a bit forbidding - it is for quite a lot of people. So to be able to read parts in other keys may require that you improve and combine two separate skills - transposition and sight reading.

Sight reading frightens a lot of people - many think that it is a black art only mastered by professionals and not to be vouchsafed to mere mortals in the amateur world. Certainly professionals have to have a high degree of mastery of it, but decent sightreading skills are not beyond amateur players. I have described before how to go about learning sightreading.

Now, for transposition. Writing out transposed parts in F is a good idea in terms of understanding how transposition works. Different people have different ways of thinking about it, but I favour the simple interval method.

Consider for example horn in D. D is down a minor third from F. Most transposing parts are written without key signature, effectively in C major. So down a minor third from C is A. You're now in A major instead of C major. In the part written out in F, write in the A major key signature (three sharps), and then write out all the notes a third down. All the sharps and flats will organise themselves automatically as a result of the new key signature, except for where there are accidentals in the original part, which you have to deal with by hand.

For accidentals you look at the newly-written transposed note before the accidental is applied. If it is a natural, all is simple, just write in the same accidental as in the original. If it is a sharp or flat as a result of the key signature, then what you need to do is change the note by a semitone in the same direction as in the original part. So for instance, if you have an Ab in the original part, moving down a third changes it to F-something. Because of the key signature, A natural goes to F#. Ab is a semitone lower than A natural, so the transposed note must also be lowered a semitone, from F# to F natural. So you write a natural in front of the F.

If you do all that right, you now have a part correctly written out in F. The same principle applies to all the other different keys. The only thing different is the interval and therefore the key signature. These are the most common transpositions.

A - up a third, add 4 sharps to the key signature (to E major)
G - up a second, add 2 sharps to the key signature (to D major)
Eb - down a second, add 2 flats to the key signature (to Bb major)
D - down a third, add three sharps (to A major)
C - down a fourth, add one sharp (to G major)
Bb basso - down a fifth, add one flat (to F major)
Bb alto - up a fourth, add one flat (to F major)

I've left out of that list transposition from horn in E. There are two possible ways of thinking about E transposition. One is to just flatten every written note, the other is to go down a second and add five sharps to the key signature. Both methods work perfectly well, and have the effect of lowering pitch by a semitone.

Of course, notation software such as Sibelius or Finale can do all this automatically, with you typing in the part as written, and then having the software perform the transposition for you. But if you are ever going to transpose at sight, you need to work out how to do it for yourself by hand with pencil and paper.

Now, if you're going to progress from transposing on paper to transposing at sight, three things are necessary. One is that you have got your sight-reading good enough that you don't panic about it. Second, you have to be familiar with your scales and arpeggios and key signatures, and third, you need to have understood thoroughly how to do the transposition on paper.

Then what you do is practice slowly sightreading orchestral parts that have been written for horn pitched in various keys. You'll notice that, particularly for 2nd & 4th horn parts, often almost all the notes are in the C major arpeggio. So if you know your A major arpeggio, transposition at sight from D becomes much easier - you just play the equivalent notes of the A major arpeggio. Give or take an octave, that is only 3 notes that you need to learn!

As the parts go higher, you get more notes of the harmonic series, but again you will relatively rarely see written notes that aren't part of the C major scale. So if you know your A major scale, you're still in good shape. Again, the same principle applies to the other keys. So, transposing at sight is much easier if you know the relevant scales and arpeggios.

As for where to go to get horn parts to practice transposition, I can recommend the IMSLP website. Perhaps start with some of the Mozart symphonies. IMSLP has horn parts available online for some of them, I'd recommend you start with the most famous ones, symphonies 38-41. Then try the Beethoven symphonies.


  1. Thanks again Jonathan. Looks like something good came of that little post after all.

  2. Even in an amateur orchestra, I was playing in in the key of Bb, C, D, Eb, and etc. the nice thing for horn is that a majority of pieces written in a different key that were composed by someone who never really write 'something' for horn can be playing in the natural style.

    This article is very helpful though :)

  3. Thank You!!!!!!

  4. I need some help with "transposing instruments". I've found a horn part of Beethoven's 9th written "B basso". The solo passage in this part with the note G and it is written in C major (at least just until the lowest note). If I read it like a B flat clarinet player, wouldn't the fisrt note be F? How come the horn sounds in this passage still a fifth below (B flat)? Thanks for any help with this...

  5. If a part is written in B basso (remember that in German, B means Bb and H means B), a written middle C sounds a Bb a ninth below. A written G will come out as an F a ninth below. (i.e. like a Bb clarinet but an octave lower)

    For horn in F, a written G sounds the C a fifth below. So as a horn player playing a part in B basso, you need to make a written G sound a fifth lower than that C so that it actually comes out as an F. So you have to play the C below the G, and it then comes out as the F below that.

    So as a horn player, playing a part in Bb basso, if you see a scale in C major, you play it as a scale in F major starting a fifth below, and it will sound as a scale of Bb major an octave and a 2nd below.

    The principle of a transposing part is that the key of the transposition is the key of the scale that actually sounds if the player plays a written scale of C major.