Yet Another Reason Why You Need to Know How to Transpose

Two words: church gigs.  As a horn player you may often find yourself playing music in churches that was not originally intended for your instrument, and thus you will be required to transpose quickly and accurately to a variety of keys.  One of the most common scenarios is when a brass group is asked to accompany the congregation and/or choir on hymns.  Unless the hymn has been orchestrated specifically with brass instruments in mind, you will simply be handed a copy of the SATB score from the church hymnal.  This is such a standard practice that you will probably not be given the music in advance.  For that kind of playing, your “horn in C” transposition skills (down a P4, or up a P5) need to be ready to go.  Even if you are comfortable with horn in C transposition, be prepared for any number of sharps or flats in the key signature.  Since most transposition exercises and orchestral excerpts aren’t written with a key signature, it can catch you off guard when transposing something that does have one.  Although it makes the most sense to play the alto part on horn in a four-voice setting, make sure you can also competently play the soprano or tenor lines as well.

This brings up another common transposition – trombone parts.  In brass quartet arrangements you may be asked to read a trombone part if there isn’t a “Horn, sub. for Trombone 1” part on hand, or asked to play the tenor line on a four-part hymn.  In this case you have a couple of options.  If you read bass clef well enough, simply transpose everything to horn in C.  However, there is also a trick for reading trombone parts that can work pretty well.  Read the part as if it were in treble clef, and for horn in E-flat.  Then, transpose down one octave.  One thing to be aware of if you go this route is to make sure that when you see a written E in bass clef you play a B-natural on horn and not a B-flat (since what would be a C in treble clef would normally transpose to a B-flat when reading horn in E-flat).  If this sounds overly complicated, then I recommend working on your horn in C, bass clef transposition skills!

If you’re wondering how to improve your transposing abilities, my recommendation would be to adopt a regular practice plan that takes you through at least the more common keys regularly.   The Kopprasch etudes are excellent for transposition practice, and another one that I highly recommend is Ultimate Horn Technique, a new publication by John Ericson.  I’ll write more in the way of a review in an upcoming post, but for now let me say that this is an excellent all around technique book.  One personal testimony to the value of good transposition chops is my regular Easter gig at a large church in southern Louisiana.  I’ve played there for the last three years, and I don’t think I’ve seen a part for horn in F yet.  This year I found myself reading trumpet parts in B-flat and C, as well as SATB hymns.  The services went fine, but one of the most challenging parts for me was deciding – often on the fly – whether to transpose to alto or basso.  In general I tried to read everything in alto when playing a trumpet part as that made the most sense musically.  However, there were times where I needed to drop something into basso because playing it in alto was impractical.  Start working on your transpositions today – it will pay off in the future!

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This is very good advice. Any working brass quintet is going to run to this set of circumstances. Trumpets can always grab their “C’s”, the trombone player and the tuba can fall asleep on their parts, but the horn player has the real ball game. In our quintet our standard split on hymns for church services is tuba and trombone on the bass in octaves, horn on the tenor which means horn in C in the bass clef, or your treble/Eb/ 8va bassa technique. You are very correct in telling horn players to be ready for anything however.


Transpositions are our “special weapon”, like the reeds for the clarinet or bassoon player.
The reason you say is crucial specially because, most of the time, when you have a lot of flats or sharps and transpose, sometimes this becomes on an enharmonic key. With my students I always tell them to practice simple phrases in all keys and change the phrase every day. The idea is to get them used to different keys and transpose by logic of arpeggios, scales and motives and avoid the note by note transposition.
Most of all, no one in the world will say “bravo, you transpose very well” but if you miss, even if it is the worse tranposition possible, every single one will point you as a music killer.


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