Transposing instruments. WTF.

Discussion in 'music, bands, clubs & festies' started by existentialist, Jan 2, 2018.

  1. existentialist

    existentialist Danced on by a twerking bee

    I come from a musical background where you play what's written. If it says a C, you play a C. If the piece is in G minor, it's in G minor, not F double-flat-half-sharp myxomatosis minor.

    I've been vaguely aware that there are peculiar instruments that don't do this - you only have to run your eye down an orchestral score for a piece in C to see a nice tidy blank space in front of the key signature until you get to the woodwind and brass, where suddenly there's flats vomited all over the place.

    This hasn't troubled me much - brass players are much better piss-takers than string types, so having a pop at them about their dumb transpositions rarely ends up full of win :D, and clarinettists tend to start scraping their reeds with vicious looking knives if you even look at them funny - but my (I used the word advisedly) band would like to do a couple of covers which have big sax solos in them, which they want me to play...and thus I am thrust into the world of Transposing Instruments.

    I guess, if you're used to it, it's not that hard, but...well, it seems a completely unwarranted way of complicating things - you invent a nice simple 5-line stave and notation system, organise some kind of convention whereby the note on the line the clef is written around is the note you play, and fit all the others around it, and then along comes someone who needs welding gear to adjust his instrument who says "Nah, let's make that C a B flat".

    And I've never really encountered any good reason why, or found out what the experience of people who have to play these transpositions is. What's it like, for example, to switch from alto sax (Eb, so transposing down a 6th), to tenor (down just a major 2nd)? I have to keep my brain in gear just switching from violin to viola (non-transposing, but the viola's tuned down a 5th from the violin). I guess it matters less if you're not reading music, but...yeah, what about when your lead guitarist says "let's go back to the A minor bit"? And does that mean all those chord changes I was yelling in the (deaf) sax player's ear in the Other Band were meaningless to him anyway, because I was calling them in non-transposed pitches?

    Transposing at the octave makes a bit more sense - as a recorder player, I'm used to the idea of a recorder that plays an octave higher than written, and as a tenor singer, our music is written an octave higher than sung (apart from those bastards who decide we should use the tenor clef :mad:), but these 6th/2nd transpositions seem to make more trouble than they could possibly save.

    Any sax players/brass band people care to comment? :)
  2. Pickman's model

    Pickman's model Every man and every woman is a star

    [good point not well made] :oops:
    existentialist likes this.
  3. alan_

    alan_ Well-Known Member

    If you play a transposing instrument, the rules of transposition are usually something that has been learned along the way and is done in automatic pilot rather than having to think about it every time.
    My regular instrument is Bb so to play in concert, I know that every note has to be moved a whole tone upwards. The key signature has to be sharpened two degrees because the difference is two steps of the cycle of fifths (Bb -> F -> C)
    Similarly on Eb instruments, there are three steps on the cycle meaning concert C would transpose to A (3#) it is easier I find instead of moving Eb instruments up a major sixth to think of moving down a minor third in the same way you do in order to find the relative minor, only keeping the key major
    Plumdaff likes this.
  4. Crispy

    Crispy The following psytrance is baṉned: All

    I have long thought that the entire standard musical notation system is unnecesarily complicated. I mean get this the fuck off:


    Just have a line for each chromatic step. You can indicate key by making the root note line bold or something.
    Last edited: Jan 2, 2018
    gentlegreen likes this.
  5. existentialist

    existentialist Danced on by a twerking bee

    I understand the technicalities, and I can count semitones with the best of them, and I guess that if that's the way you've learned your music, it's just going to be all a bit "well, that's just how it is, what's all the fuss about?" :)

    I'm just a bit perplexed at a) why it ever had to be this complicated: eg, why not, since we already have F, G and C clefs - two of them, the greedy bastards - just invent new Bb and Eb clefs?, and b) what it's like for transposing instrument players who may play either other transposing instruments, or non-transposing ones.

    I did remember, after I'd made the OP, that some recorder music is (sort of) transposed. There are certain quarters in which it is apparently quite fine to expect treble recorder players to play music written for descant, but at the treble pitch - ie., you finger the notes as if you're playing descant, but they come out a fifth lower. I do not associate with those kinds of people.

    ETA: mind you, I dunno what I'm complaining about. I sing a lot of baroque music, usually at original pitch (A=415Hz), which is roughly a semitone flatter than concert pitch (A=440Hz). And yes, actually, it fucks with my head - unless I know the piece quite well, I can end up in all kinds of knots. But not as bad as the time I was bumping for a choir that were doing a bit of Renaissance music with a period wind band. The music was in Ab (almost certainly transposed, because no Renaissance composer ever wrote in A bloody flat), but the band couldn't play in Ab, so we had to transpose down a semitone. So there's muggins, virtually sight-reading a piece, transposing down a semitone as he goes, AND singing a semitone flatter than written. It wasn't good. I broke a sweat by the sixteenth bar. I found a new admiration for trumpet players that day.
    Last edited: Jan 2, 2018
  6. danny la rouge

    danny la rouge Warning: posts may cause vasovagal presyncope

    I play a transposing instrument: guitar. It's only mildly transposing, being written an octave higher than it sounds. And many guitarists manage to play their whole lives without even knowing this. It is done to make the stave tidier.

    And I had understood it is a convention of written music rather than of the instrument itself that this was done.

    With brass/woodwind instruments, i understood it was because the same fingerings were used despite the size of the instrument. (Eg soprano, alto, tenor, baritone sax can all be played with the same fingerings, but doing so gives you different parts of the stave, so you have to learn to transpose).

    But I don't actually play any of these instruments, so maybe that's an oversimplification.
  7. alan_

    alan_ Well-Known Member

    I don't think that example is over complicated.Each note in the right hand moves up a semitone and down a semitone in the left. they use a double sharp in order to save inserting an extra accidental (G natural then G sharp) but counter to that, spell out the A# in the left hand although it is in the key signature
  8. Crispy

    Crispy The following psytrance is baṉned: All

    Listen to yourself! :D This sort of explanation shouldn't even be needed,
  9. prunus

    prunus Gone

    As a player (clarinet) most of the time it doesn't make any difference to me - I see a C#, I play a C#, and the fact that it comes out sounding B (or Bb if I'm playing on my A clarinet...) doesn't bother me, because I don't have perfect pitch and so can't tell the difference between the notes in isolation anyway. This is because one will usually be given music that has been transposed (as you note in the score example above) so it just happens. I can imagine that with perfect pitch it might well be disconcerting - although I'd also imagine that it just becomes second nature, in the same way that one can get used to the same black blob on the same stave line sounding different depending on whether the clef is treble, bass, or alto, or tenor, or whatever.

    Of course, reasonably often I'll have to play off a C part (because lazy composers!*), and then have to transpose on the fly - I can do that OK on the Bb clarinet (up a whole tone), but transposing on the fly on the A does my head in - up a minor 3rd seems to be something my brain can't do fast enough to be able to keep up with the music!

    * Although there's a special place in music hell for composers who just hit the 'transpose' button on Sibelius to make Bb parts without going through and checking the spellings afterwards - C flats and E double sharps and the like scattered liberally about the place do not an easy sight read make.
  10. SpookyFrank

    SpookyFrank Ridin' a Stutz Bearcat, Jim

    I'd be happy if the bass and treble staves represented the same notes tbh. I can just about parse music in the treble clef but I get to the bass clef and have to start from level zero again. And for no good reason at all, you'd only have to move one fucking line to make treble and bass match up.
  11. existentialist

    existentialist Danced on by a twerking bee

    The problem there is that, in most (Western) musical styles, the music is written around a scale that conforms to various conventions. So it makes sense to be able to write the music out according to the scale - eg, C major can be written on a staff with no key signatures, and each note is unadorned by flats, sharps, etc. Back in the day, all music would have been written like that. To write in another (major) key, you simply slap a key signature on (your example uses F# major or its relative minor), and then only the notes which vary from that scale will receive accidentals - in your (pathological :) ) example, there are a LOT of accidentals. It serves as a warning to the performer that the notes they are being asked to play vary from the notes of the scale for the key in which the piece is written.

    If music were written on a chromatic staff, as you are suggesting, a lot of the sense of the music would be lost - the staff would be, essentially, a brain-dead representation of just what notes were to be played, without any hints as to their melodic relationship to the underlying tonality. This matters less for, eg, piano music, where, thanks to the evils of equal temperament ;), every note on the thing is out of tune for some key or another, but would matter to, say, a violinist, who will know, for example, that the leading note in a harmonic minor scale is usually played slightly sharper than written, or that the minor 3rd sounds nicer played slightly flatter. And don't even get me started on the difference between an F double sharp (third quaver, top stave, second note up) and a G :D

    To be fair, most people who learn to read music aren't really taught this beyond being told "those are the rules", but when you start to look at the rules, they do make sense. Especially the difference between F double sharp and G ;).
    beesonthewhatnow likes this.
  12. xenon

    xenon Radical efficiencies

    I'm not that good on music theory. Frigin's and the whatnow... But on guitar at least, I can transpose fine. Knowing the relative majors, minors and scales, I can just slide the same shape around or use open strings if they fit. Piano I'm still stumbling around and don't quite have those sort of images in my mind yet.

    Never been able to read music though and breath instruments, know bloody idea. :)

    In the studio, bludgers can cheat of course. Just play it in C on the midi keyboard, transpose and use a convincing sounding patch.
  13. Crispy

    Crispy The following psytrance is baṉned: All

    Oh yeah.
    Guess what instruments I know how to play :D
  14. existentialist

    existentialist Danced on by a twerking bee

    Anyway, if anyone wants a transcribed, untransposed copy of the sax solos for "Will You" and "Baker Street" (including the guitar solo), I've nearly finished writing them out.
  15. existentialist

    existentialist Danced on by a twerking bee

    I had singing lessons with someone for a while who used to get around the psychological block some people have of singing high notes ("I can't sing a top C") by doing exactly that with his clockwork piano, and getting them to sing what they thought was an A or a B. It doesn't work on people who know what a C sounds like, though :cool:.
  16. existentialist

    existentialist Danced on by a twerking bee

    *ahem* :D

    ETA: it is a big regret of mine that I never troubled myself to learn piano as well as strings. But, even before I knew why, I always thought it sounded slightly out of tune, so I didn't like it, precious little bastard that I was.
  17. Plumdaff

    Plumdaff joy in people

    I learnt to play a Bb instrument in brass bands, where you never have an issue with transposition until you play in those daft up themselves orchestras. Much better to just get a brass band to play everything.

    That said, once you learn to transpose on sight I imagine it's rather like asking someone bilingual how they speak two languages. They just.... do.
    existentialist likes this.
  18. alan_

    alan_ Well-Known Member

    The treble and bass staff/stave are actually one continuum separated by the middle C ledger line and are split into two discreet units to aid your reading of it
    existentialist likes this.
  19. SpookyFrank

    SpookyFrank Ridin' a Stutz Bearcat, Jim

    Would still make a fuckload more sense to use two ledger lines and two G clefs.
  20. existentialist

    existentialist Danced on by a twerking bee

    As a lifelong viola player (shaddap at the back, ViolentPanda :D), I have 3 clefs to contend with.

    I don't recall being taught it, but I did notice that (apart from the clefs being very stylised versions of the letters they represent - G, F, C) they all indicate the line on the staff that they correspond to - the treble - G - clef has its curl around the second-from-bottom line, the bass - F - clef has its two little dots either side of the second-from-top line, while the C clef keeps it nice and simple for the viola players :cool:, by marking the very centre line of the staff. Which isn't, admittedly, much help when sight reading in an unfamiliar clef, but helps a bit when you're trying to figure it out "offline".

    Occasionally, it dawns on me just how incomprehensible a page of music must look to someone who doesn't read music, but I guess I've been doing it so long that conscious thought doesn't get involved so much.
  21. alan_

    alan_ Well-Known Member

    why two ledger lines?
  22. SpookyFrank

    SpookyFrank Ridin' a Stutz Bearcat, Jim

    One middle C line, then an A line below that and then the top line of the bass clef would be an F.
    existentialist likes this.
  23. existentialist

    existentialist Danced on by a twerking bee

    Tradition, innit? :)

    I do agree - there are aspects to musical notation that are "just the way they are" but make the whole thing more complicated. There have been various attempts to simplify it (eg Simplified Music Notation - Home), but nothing has ever really gained traction. I suppose it's the equivalent of the whole QWERTY keyboard thing.
  24. alan_

    alan_ Well-Known Member

    But, in the Grand Staff, the next line down from middle C is A (G,B,D,F,A, ascending)
  25. alan_

    alan_ Well-Known Member

    This is the Pythagorean comma
    existentialist likes this.
  26. existentialist

    existentialist Danced on by a twerking bee

    I didn't know it was called that!
  27. alan_

    alan_ Well-Known Member

    As you said, its more relevant to string players rather than fixed pitch instruments. Also it is one reason that electronic tuning devices are, or can be less accurate than your ears.
    Plumdaff and existentialist like this.
  28. gentlegreen

    gentlegreen sproutarian

    Randomly choosing a clarinet aged 11 probably contributed significantly to my abandonment of music making - or it may have been the hours of practice - a factor that also ended my academic progress earlier than expected ...
    On a B flat instrument, the simplest of keys translates into crazy numbers of sharps and flats - and why do sharps and flats make it so damn difficult ?
  29. existentialist

    existentialist Danced on by a twerking bee

    Yes, if I'm playing solo, I'll generally tune by ear, but it's easier all round if playing with guitar to tune electronically (assuming they have, too).
  30. existentialist

    existentialist Danced on by a twerking bee

    Not that it matters much with my band - they tend to play quite a lot with capo on the second fret. Blues in F# doesn't need a lot of open strings... :eek:

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