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The best practice for transposing is to transpose a piece you know well into a new key.

Play the part you have transposed; your own ears will tell you where you have made mistakes.

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Choosing your new key

Before you can begin transposing, you must decide what your new key will be. This will depend on why you are transposing, and what kinds of vocalists and instrumentalists you are working with.

Working with vocalists

If you are trying to accomodate singers, your main concern in choosing a key is finding their range . Is the music you are working with too high or too low? Is it only a step too high, or does it need to be changed by a third or a fifth? Once you determine the interval needed, check to make certain this will be a comfortable key for your instrumentalists.

A church choir director wants to encourage the congregation to join in on a particular hymn. It is written in four parts with the melody in the soprano part, in a range slightly too high for untrained singers. The hymn is written in the key of E flat. Lowering it by a minor third (one and a half steps) will allow the congregation to sing with gusto.

The hymn is originally in E flat. The melody that goes up to an F is too high for most untrained vocalists (male and female).
The same hymn in C is more easily singable by a congregation.
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An alto vocalist would like to perform a blues standard originally sung by a soprano or tenor in B flat. She needs the song to be at least a whole step lower. Lowering it by a whole step would put it in the key of A flat. The guitar, bass, and harmonica players don't like to play in A flat, however, and the vocalist wouldn't mind singing even lower. So the best solution is to lower it by a minor third , and play in the key of G.

The key of this blues standard is comfortable for a soprano or tenor, as shown in this excerpt.
An alto or baritone can deliver a more powerful performance if the music is transposed down a minor third.
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You're accompanying a soprano who feels that this folk tune in C minor is too low for her voice. The guitar player would prefer a key with no flats and not too many sharps.

Tune in C minor too low for some sopranos voices.

Transposing up a major third , to E minor, puts the song in a better range for a soprano, with a key signature that is easy for guitars.

Moving tune up to E minor puts it in a better key for sopranos.
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Transposing instruments

Transposing instruments are instruments for which standard parts are written higher or lower than they sound. A very accomplished player of one of these instruments may be able to transpose at sight, saving you the trouble of writing out a transposed part, but most players of these instruments will need a transposed part written out for them. Here is a short list of the most common transposing instruments. For a more complete list and more information, see Transposing Instruments .

    Transposing instruments

  • Clarinet is usually (but not always) a B flat instrument. Transpose C parts up one whole step for B flat instruments. (In other words, write a B flat part one whole step higher than you want it to sound.)
  • Trumpet and Cornet parts can be found in both B flat and C, but players with B flat instruments will probably want a B flat (transposed) part.
  • French Horn parts are usually in F these days. However, because of the instrument's history, older orchestral parts may be in any conceivable transposition, even changing transpositions in the middle of the piece. Because of this, some horn players learn to transpose at sight. Transpose C parts up a perfect fifth to be read in F.
  • Alto and Baritone Saxophone are E flat instruments. Transpose parts up a major sixth for alto sax, and up an octave plus a major sixth for bari sax.
  • Soprano and Tenor Saxophone are B flat instruments. Tenor sax parts are written an octave plus one step higher.
Why are there transposing instruments? Sometimes this makes things easier on instrumentalists; they may not have to learn different fingerings when they switch from one kind of saxophone to another, for example. Sometimes, as with piccolo, transposition centers the music in the staff (rather than above or below the staff). But often transposing instruments are a result of the history of the instrument. See the history of the French horn to find out more.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, Understanding your french horn. OpenStax CNX. Apr 03, 2006 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10219/1.4
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