Understanding Clarinet Transposition

The clarinet is one of the most versatile and beautiful instruments in the orchestra, and the repertoire available for clarinetists is hugely rich and varied. Boasting the largest note range of the woodwind family, clarinets can play anything from hushed, sultry tones to bright, piercing passages. 

They also differ from the rest of the orchestral woodwinds in the way their tuning is designed. The clarinet is a transposing instrument, which means that it sounds at a different pitch from the notation that is written.

Understanding Clarinet Transposition

Most standard clarinets are tuned to B flat, so they sound one tone lower than concert pitch (the pitch that non-transposing instruments sound at). For example, a middle C played on the clarinet would sound the same as a B flat just below the stave on a piano.

You can also get clarinets tuned to other keys, such as A, E flat and C, but we will focus mainly on the B flat clarinet in this article.

If you play a transposing instrument, it is important to recognise what key it’s in and how it relates to concert pitch. Many band directors will warm up the band by declaring a scale for them to play, with the key given in concert pitch. It is up to each member of the band to know which scale they have to play on their instrument to match everyone else. Having this knowledge locked in means that you have the basics needed to transpose any music.

Why Is A Clarinet Tuned To B Flat?

To make sense of transposition as a concept, it helps to understand why different instruments are tuned differently in the first place. Wouldn’t it be better to have everything playing in the same key and not have all the extra hassle?

You might think so, but being tuned in this way is actually helpful and makes life easier for the player. The idea dates back to early versions of our modern instruments, which were much more rudimentary and didn’t have nearly as many buttons or mechanisms.

They could only produce a handful of notes, so were tuned to the keys that were most useful at the time, with others manufactured in alternative keys where needed.

Instruments in the same family, e.g. higher/lower-pitched clarinets or saxophones, are transposed into different keys to keep fingerings similar across the board. An E flat sopranino clarinet can reach much higher notes than a regular B flat clarinet, but it is easy for the player to switch between the two because the notes correspond to the same finger patterns on each.

This means that the player does not have to learn a whole new fingering system, saving them time and confusion.

It is also handy to have a clarinet in A for playing orchestral music in certain keys. A key that would be fine for the rest of the ensemble, such as E major, would translate to an awkward key for a B flat clarinet (in this case F sharp major), and the page would be full of accidentals. Using an A clarinet, the clarinetist would be playing in G major, which is much less cumbersome to read.

Other transposing instruments include saxophones, trumpets, French horns, euphoniums and some types of recorder, which have similar reasons to be tuned as such.

How Do I Transpose For Clarinet?

Once you reach a certain standard on the clarinet, it is very likely you will need to know how to transpose at some point. The process can seem confusing at first, but once you get used to it, you should find it quite straightforward to transpose music by yourself.

The main thing to remember is that whatever you play will come out one tone lower than what is written. Therefore, you need to adjust for this discrepancy by raising the note by a tone. Any written D becomes E, B becomes C sharp, F sharp becomes G sharp etc. Transposition works in the same way for trumpet and soprano/tenor saxophone, as they are also B flat instruments. 

With this one vital detail in place, you can proceed in one of three ways. The first is simply to write on the part which note you should play, above each individual notehead.

This can clutter up the score, though, making it messy and difficult to read. You may also struggle to absorb information from the note letter as quickly as the normal notation while you play.

The second option is to rewrite the part completely, so it is the same as the original but with the correct transposed notes. You can do this by hand or by using composition software such as Sibelius or MuseScore – either way will be time-consuming but will allow you to play what is written.

If you already have access to a digital version of the part, some software will helpfully allow you to transpose it with the click of a button.

Transposing At Sight

Alternatively, you can learn to transpose at sight, which means reading the given part and working out each note as you go along, without slowing the music down to do so. This sounds tricky, but is a skill you can pick up over time, giving you the ability to play without any additional preparation.

Most professional players are required to transpose at sight, as they often have a tight schedule and need to manage their time in the most efficient way possible.

The way to learn is simply by practising. Start off with very basic passages, such as exercises you can find in a tuition book. Before you attempt to play, note the key signature and work out what your new key is. For example, if the passage is in E flat, you will be playing in F as it is one tone above. Lock this new key signature in your head for the duration of the piece (or until the key changes).

Next, look at the first note; instead of playing the note that is written, play the next note up, making sure you stay in your new key. Try to visualise the note as sitting in that place rather than where it actually is.

It will take some time to get used to, but go slowly at first and don’t progress to more complicated passages until you can play without disrupting the flow of the music. Eventually, transposing will feel like just another mode of thinking, as if you’re activating a switch in your brain.

Why Is It Useful To Transpose At Sight?

Understanding Clarinet Transpositions

While scores will generally provide a separate part in the proper key for your clarinet, transposing is necessary in a range of different situations. Some examples are:

  • Playing with a small ensemble where you all read from a piano score
  • Playing an orchestral part written for a clarinet in a different key such as E flat
  • Wanting to add a clarinet part to a piece that doesn’t yet have one
  • Losing the clarinet sheet music and having to use the score
  • Wanting to swap clarinets to play in a more manageable key

Being able to transpose at sight will save a lot of time as you won’t have to write out a separate part every time you encounter one of these scenarios. You will just be able to translate the written notation to the relevant notes in your head.

It also keeps things looking neater if you don’t have a load of pencil marks scrawled on your paper telling you the correct notes. 

Above all, you will come across as more professional if you can transpose at sight. It shows you are dedicated to mastering your instrument and ready for anything.

Once you can transpose fluently from C to B flat, you will find it easier to develop the skill for other keys and instruments, opening a whole world of possibilities and making you a valuable asset to the music industry.

David Williams
Latest posts by David Williams (see all)