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 Post subject: Transposing Instruments
PostPosted: 06 Aug 2012, 18:28 

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Posts: 486


02 Aug 2012, 00:49


Zagreb, Croatia



Transposing instruments

by Krešimir Cindrić

A transposing instrument is an instrument for which music is usually notated at a different pitch (called instrument's relative pitch) than it actually sounds (called concert pitch). It is important to note that transposition is not a physical property of an instrument, but a convention of notation, and a way in which a musician who plays it thinks. The same instrument can be transposing and non-transposing, depending on who plays it and how the music is notated.

To recapitulate: concert pitch is what the instrument produces (sounds), relative pitch is the what is notated and what musician reads. When it comes to transposing instruments, concert pitch and relative pitch are not the same.

To understand the concept of transposing instruments, let us begin by examining the first page of an orchestral score, written for a multitude of instruments. For example, let's take Beethoven's Third Symphony, "Eroica", in Eb major:

Click to see.

Let us first note the key of the piece - it is in Eb major (three flats). However, notice that not all instruments are notated in Eb major: clarinets (Clarinetti) are notated in F major (one flat) while horns and trumpets (Corni, Trombe) are notated in C major (zero sharps/flats). However, it would be wrong to think that in this piece, e.g. clarinets sound in a different key than, e.g. violins - that would produce a rather unpleasant clash, at least in this case. Listening to a recording of this piece confirms that all instruments here indeed sound in the same key - Eb major - they are just notated in different keys.

Next, notice the names of the instrument - clarinets are named "Clarinetti in B", i.e. clarinets in Bb (here it is necessary to keep in mind the non-English convention of note names: in languages other than English, note B is called H, and note Bb is called B). This is a convention to denote transposition. Tone C is the centre of a western 12-tone system, by convention (it could have easily been some other tone, and indeed, at different times it was, but people somehow agreed on C). That is why we call a non-transposing instrument an instrument in C.

If an instrument is, for example, in Bb, that means it sounds a major second below what it is notated, because Bb is a major second below C. It is important to keep in mind that one or more octaves may be added or subtracted to that, because we did not say which Bb and which C. Therefore, an instrument in Bb it may sound a minor seventh above, or a major ninth below, etc... than what is notated in the score. Consider this: in which key does the musician have to play the clarinet in Bb, so that the concert pitch is in Eb major? If you said F major, you were correct. The clarinet part will be notated in F major (see the picture above) and the musician will think in F major, but the concert pitch will be a major second below, in Eb major. When the musician plays the note G, the instrument will produce F in concert pitch, when the musician plays A, the instrument will sound G, etc...

What about instruments in Eb, like the horns in the example? They sound a minor third above what it is notated (or a major sixth below, plus or minus any number of octaves). So if the piece is in Eb major, in which key will the horns in Eb be notated? In C major. What if the piece were in D major? Horns in Eb would be notated in B (natural) major, etc.

I mentioned before that a non-transposing instrument is called, by convention, in C. However, there are some instruments that are in C but transpose up or down one or more octaves, so technically speaking, they are transposing instruments. Ocarina no. 3 (Alto C) is a good example of that. While its range is notated from C4 (middle C) to F5, its concert range is actually an octave above, from C5 to F6. The same applies to the piccolo flute. The guitar is similar, but in the opposite direction: it sounds an octave below what is notated. The same is true for a contrabass.

This is, of course, relevant to ocarinas. Here are two examples featuring ocarinas that are transposing instruments:

Click to see.
Second finale from Poliuto by G. Donizetti, arranged for the ocarina septet:

Eucaliptus Valzer by C. Testi, for ocarina in G and guitar:

In the first example, second finale from Poliuto, just like in pretty much any traditional music for the ocarina septet, there are 4 parts for ocarinas in C (no. 1, 3, 5 and 7) and 3 parts for ocarinas in G (no. 2, 4 and 6). The piece is in G minor, so ocarinas in C are notated in G minor. In which key are ocarinas in G notated? In C minor, because ocarinas in G transpose by up by a fifth (plus or minus octaves). Alternatively, instead of in C and in G, ocarinas in Bb and F can be used with the same score and parts, but then the piece will be in F minor.

The second piece, Eucaliptus Valzer, is for an ocarina in G and a guitar. The guitar sounds an octave below what is notated and the ocarina sounds a twelfth higher (fifth, because it is in G, plus an octave, because it is no.2, i.e. Soprano G). Because the guitar is in C, its part is in the same key as the piece (concert pitch), G major. Likewise, since the ocarina is in G, its part is in C major, because when one plays in C major on an ocarina in G, the result is in G major.

I hope this explains the concept of transposing instruments. If there are any questions, feel free to post them here, and I will do my best to reply. For more information about how this is applied to the ocarina, please refer to this article: What Does the Expression "Ocarina in G" mean?.

Copyright © 2012 by Krešimir Cindrić. Please do not repost or use without the permission of the author. Feel free, however, to link to this post.

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