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Transcribing Instruments

Discussion in 'Miscellaneous [BG]' started by Davidoc, Oct 24, 2002.

  1. Does anyone know why wind instruments transpose? And why most do, while the low brass doesn't have to? What makes the low end special?

    It seems that if the low guys can do it in C, the others should too.

    Why is this?
  2. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    It's kind of a long story, but the bottom line is that when brass instruments were invented, they didn't have valves, so an instrument could only play the notes in the harmonic series of the key it was built in. The harmonic series above any fundamental pitch goes like this:

    ("F" stands for fundamental)


    So if you wanted to play a piece in the key of BbMa, you had to have a horn built in that key (i.e. - made of a certain length of tubing and having a certain bore, etc.) Wind players would actually have to bring multiple horns to the "gig" to handle playing in multiple keys, or composers would have to write parts in other keys that only contained notes that could be played on a certain horn. Later, "crooks" (extended lengths of tubing that could be added to a horn, thus altering the fundamental) were invented to help each instrument be more versatile, but it wasn't until the invention of valved instruments that most brass instruments could even play a chromatic scale. The transposing brass exist because instruments of a certain size and length became standard, and this standard was kept even after the invention of valves.

    There's more, but I have to work now. Perhaps someone else can pick the story up and fill in the details?
  3. Certain instruments (clarinet, saxophone) come in different sizes (soprano/alto/tenor/baritone/bass-sax, Bb/A/bass/contra-bass-clarinet) - so, in order to avoid having to learn a new fingering system for each different sized instrument, a saxophonist (say) only has to learn ONE system of fingering, and then use music written in the key for that particular instrument. So, for a tenor saxophone in Bb, when the player sees the note "C" they finger what they read as "C", but what is heard is the note "Bb". When they play music written for alto-sax (in Eb), they will finger what they see as "C" (same fingering for tenor-sax), but what comes out is the note Eb.

    Instruments which are already in "C" don't have to transpose (obviously... :rolleyes: )

    Here's how it works:

    For instance: the piece to be played is in the key of "C". The pianist's music is in "C"; the (Bb) trumpet player's music is in D; the tenor-sax (Bb) player's music is also in D; the alto-sax music is in A.

    - Wil
  4. I haven't read up on this in a while, but I think in addition to what Mr. Fitzgerald has stated, or possibly as an extension of, by having instruments in the same family in different keys, you get a wider range and tonal options. The reason they transpose is probably partially so that a player can switch from one to the other easily. You play a C on your tenor sax and then a C on your baritone sax, and it's basically the same fingering, but different pitches.

    This may have made more of a difference many many years ago when a town might not have had enough people for all the instruments.

    As for why lower instruments don't do this as much, I don't think there's as much need for a wide range of different keys down low. You put that many people on different low parts, it starts to get muddy. Tubas rarely play full chords unless they're in some kind of tuba ensemble. (Split parts in fifths or octaves sometimes, though.)
  5. As an exception, for whatever reason, there are both BB-flat and E-flat tubas in traditional British-style brass bands. (There's the euphonium too, an octave above the BB-flat, but they generally play much different parts, so even though they're part of the tuba family...don't worry about that).

    If someone wants to fill me in on the need for both E-flat and BB-flat tubas, however, I'd love to hear it. Seems a bit like insisting you have two bassists for a band, one tuned EADG and the other ADGC.
  6. jaybo

    jaybo Guest

    Sep 5, 2001
    Richmond, KY
    And in our case, as bass players, our instrument transposes to avoid having to read on tons of ledger lines.
  7. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    All Tubas are non transposing, and the key designations refer only to the range, fundamentals, and pedal tones. Most symphonic tubists play the C and BBb instruments, as they cover the entire range most commonly called for in the repertoire. As to why they are not "transposing instruments", my best guess is that they are relatively new instruments, being introduced into the symphony orchestra only around 1875 or so (the time of Wagner, Bruckner, and Strauss). Perhaps it was felt that since no large body of transposed music already existed for these instruments, it would be best to write for them at pitch, thus leaving the choice of which instrument to play for a given part up to the performer.

    The Eb tuba is a smaller instrument, and if bands commonly use both these and the BBb types, I can only guess that the Eb tuba is playing more of a baritone role to the BBb tuba's bass role.
  8. Ah yes, I forgot about tubas being non-transposing- tubists generally have to learn fingerings for BB-flat, C, F and possibly E-flat instruments. I think I was getting confused about the question- the existence of different keyed horns vs. why they transpose.
    There was one guy in symphonic band with me last semester (I was playing trombone) who owned an E-flatter for some reason. I think he got it off eBay for cheap. Silly little thing.

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