What is a transposing instrument?
It's an instrument for which the pitch of the sounded note is different from the pitch of the notated note.
Common examples are the clarinet (which sounds Bb or A when C is fingered) and trumpet (Bb).
In fact, the classical guitar is a transposing instrument because the sounded note is an octave below the notated note.
Other examples include the descant recorder (which is an octave above notation), which explains why it can apparently play lower than the (non-transposing treble recorder) - it can't!
The piano (possibly the most familiar instrument) isn't a transposing instrument.
Are there other examples?
Yes - a guitar with a capo on is most definitely a transposing instrument!
The notation stays the same, but as the capo is moved, the sounded note changes a semi-tone per fret.
What about the guitar family members?
Yes - these are definitely transposing instruments - we'll come back to that in a moment.
What advantages come with being a transposing instrument?
- In the case of the clarinet, very few, since it plays alongside non-transposing instruments such as the flute and oboe. It's used to promote common Boehm-based fingering across an orchestra's woodwind section. It means that the arranger has some work to do to make things come right.
- In the case of English Brass Band instruments, however, the advantages are massive. From the soprano cornet to the bass tuba, all instruments share a common fingering and common notation. If you can finger one instrument, you can finger any other. Of course, it looks odd playing earth-rumbling bass notes reading from the treble clef, but that's a side-effect not a real disadvantage.
Are all families of instruments transposing instruments?
The brass band is - when C is played, out comes either Bb or Eb, depending on the instrument.
The string quartet isn't - the instruments have different clefs and pitches of strings, but notated C is sounded C.
The recorder consort isn't - the same finger patterns correspond to different printed notes.
The guitar orchestra is. And this is our big payoff - if you can play guitar from notation, you can play any of them - there's nothing to learn.
What transpositions do the guitars undergo?
Here, we get lazy. By rights, we should classify the guitars by what note comes out when C is read. Only then can we compare guitars to other instruments. However, C on most instruments corresponds to "no fingers" or "all fingers", and guitarists tend to classify the guitars by what note comes out when their "no fingers" note - the open top string (always written in the top space of the treble clef) is played.
|Compared to guitar
|Compared to piano
|Soprano, octave, piccolo (E)
|An octave up
|Alto, quint (B)
|A fifth up
|A fourth down
|Treble, requinto, quart (A)
|A fourth up
|A fifth down
|A minor third up
|A major 6th down
|An octave down
|Bass, quart bass (B)
|A fourth down
|An octave + fourth down
|Baritone, quint bass, guitarron in A
|A fifth down
|An octave + fifth down
|Contra, octave bass, guitarron in E
|An octave down
|2 octaves down
As a short-hand we tend to say the Alto is in B and the Requinto is in A, because that's the pitch of their top string.
In terms that other instrumentalists understand, we ought to say that the Alto is in G and the Requinto is in F, because that's what comes out when they play a notated C.
As you can see, the alto plays "one key sharper" than the prime and the requinto plays "one key flatter". To correct for this, the alto score is "one key flatter" than the prime, and the requinto is "one key sharper".
So is transposition "invisible"?
Just about, yes. Playing a transposing guitar is different to a classical in only three respects :
- If you have perfect pitch, you'll feel queasy at first, as the notes you hear aren't what you see on the score.
- When you tune the guitar, you need to know what notes you are actually tuning it to.
- Because of its size, it will feel slightly different under the fingers - but no more so than the change in size that comes with changes of position.
So can guitar family members play together?
Yes and no!
- Yes - but hago's arranger (our Musical Director) has to take account of transposition so that
the correct notes come out for each guitar. For example, alto notes sound 5 notes higher than their notation.
See a small section of a hago score here
- No - an arbitrary mix of guitars can't play from the same score, though alto and bass can, and so can treble and baritone.
This gives rise to two corollaries ...
- Mixing together the E family (prime etc), the A family (requinto etc) and the B family (alto etc) requires a score in 3 keys - a real nightmare to find a set of such keys comfortable for all.
- The large number of different combinations of guitars one might have makes it commercially impossible to produce and sell much guitar orchestra music. Which is why our Musical Director arranges all our material.
The mental gymnastics of transposition are carried out once - when the music is arranged. Once the guitars are tuned, we can forget all about it and simply enjoy the amazing sounds!
See and hear a small piece of hago score