Transposing Instruments

Many wind instruments transpose, which means that a written C for one of those instruments will not be the same as a C for the guitar or piano. Writing for these transposing instruments, or discussing parts with the musicians who play them, requires special care.

Have you ever been in a band with, say, a saxophonist, and had trouble communicating what note the sax was supposed to play? Instruments like the piano and the flute are non-transposing instruments, which means that when you play an Eb on the piano, an Eb is what comes out. It seems like that should be true for every instrument, but it’s not. When a saxophonist, or a clarinetist, plays an Eb on their instrument, what comes out isn’t an actual Eb, but rather a different note.

(The guitar, which many readers likely play, is actually a transposing instrument. However, it transposes at the octave, which means that when we play an Eb on the guitar, it will still sound as an Eb, just an octave lower than written. The electric bass and contrabass work the same way.)

Fortunately, we can use intervals to figure out what to do when confronted with transposing instruments. Here are some common ones.

Bb clarinet, Bb trumpet, soprano saxophone: Sound major second lower than written
French horn: Sounds perfect fifth lower than written
Alto saxophone: Sounds major sixth lower than written
Tenor saxophone, bass clarinet: Sound major ninth (major second + octave) lower than written
Baritone saxophone: Sounds major sixth plus octave lower than written

If you regularly work with wind instruments, you might consider memorizing this list.

Say you’re working with an alto saxophone player, and you want them to play a middle C (the C in the middle of the piano, just below the treble clef staff). The alto saxophone sounds a major sixth lower than written. So in order to hear that C, you would need to write a note a major sixth higher, which is A.

What you want to hear 


What you should write for alto saxophone


You may be able to avoid this confusion by simply telling the saxophonist to play a “concert” C, which tells the saxophonist what pitch you want and lets them do the transposing themselves. But if you’re tasked with writing a chart (or trying to interpret one), things start to get tricky.

One way to think through transposed pieces of music is to use solfege (“do, re, mi,” etc.) or scale degrees (1, 2, 3, etc.). For example, let’s say you see the following in an alto saxophone part. (That is, this is what is written.)


We’re in the key of D major, and an alto saxophone sounds a major sixth lower than written. So what will we actually hear?

A major sixth below D is F. So the excerpt above will sound in the key of F. Here’s how we’ll make sure we transpose the excerpt correctly. First, let’s look at the original example and write in scale degrees in the key of D for each note (D = 1; E = 2; F# = 3; and so on).


Now let’s begin a major sixth lower and use the same scale degrees in the key of F, rather than the key of D. (Make sure to change the key signature.) We’ll also make sure the melodic line we’re writing has the same trajectory as the one above.


Keep in mind, also, that all saxophones read in treble clef, even though treble clef does not reflect the sounding range of those instruments. If you were to compose for tenor or baritone saxophone using their actual sounding pitches, you would probably write in bass clef. But when you give them parts to read, they should be in treble clef.

That actually turns out to be convenient for baritone saxophone, which reads on the same lines and spaces it would be playing from if it were written in concert pitch. So let’s say we are writing for baritone saxophone, and we want to hear this.


Here’s what we would write in the part. It’s now in treble clef, and the key has changed from Bb major to G major, because we’re moving everything up an octave plus a major sixth. (An octave higher than Bb is still Bb, and a major sixth above that is G.)


Despite the change of key and clef, the sounding and written versions are on exactly the same lines and spaces.

Anyway, the result of all these transpositions is that a collection of wind instruments will often play in several notated keys at once. For example, here are a couple measures for flute (which doesn’t transpose), clarinet, French horn, and various saxophones, all playing roughly the same materials. (I’ve moved the alto saxophone, tenor saxophone and horn down one octave and the baritone saxophone down two octaves to accommodate the ranges of those instruments, but every instrument’s first note is a concert Ab.)


Since the flute doesn’t transpose, the Ab major key signature in the flute part represents the actual concert key of the piece. The clarinet is in Bb because it sounds a major second lower than written, and a major second below the written key of Bb is Ab. The tenor saxophone is also in Bb as well. The alto sax is in F because it sounds a major sixth lower than written, and Ab is a major sixth below F. The baritone sax is an octave below the alto sax, and it’s also in F. Finally, the horn is in Eb because it sounds a perfect fifth lower than written, and Ab is a perfect fifth lower than Eb.

When transposing, it’s crucial to consider whether we are going from sounding (what we want to hear) to written (what we should see in the part) or vice versa. It’s easy to get mixed up and transpose in the wrong direction. It’s also important that we transpose using the correct intervals – for example, we must make sure to transpose an alto saxophone part at a major sixth, not a minor sixth. A good rule of thumb is that wind parts (that is, what is written) should be more sharp or less flat than they actually sound.

Quick Quiz 9.1

Suppose you want to hear the following:


What should you write for Bb clarinet? How about alto saxophone?

Quick Quiz 9.2

Imagine you’re working on an arrangement of Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love.”

You want to write a trumpet part for the opening melody, which is in D minor and sounds like this.


What should you write in the part?

Next Chapter: Writing Melodies

Quick Quiz Answers

Bb clarinet sounds a major second lower than written, and an alto saxophone sounds a major sixth lower than written. Since both instruments sound lower, we’ll have to write them higher to achieve the results we want.

For Bb clarinet:


The clarinet sounds a major second lower than written, so we’ll have to write the exercise a major second up. The key will therefore change from G to A.

For alto saxophone:


The alto saxophone sounds a major sixth lower than written, so we’ll write a major sixth up. The key will therefore be E, a major sixth above G.

If we want to hear the trumpet play this …


… we’ll need to write the part up a major second, since a trumpet sounds a major second lower than written. A major second above D minor is E minor, so the part will look like this.