Do You Really Need to Know How to Transpose?

I’ve seen this discussion come up frequently among horn players on social media, and have been considering it from a couple of different perspectives.

On the “Yes, you definitely need to know how to transpose” side, here are some thoughts to consider.

  1. The bottom line is that yes, it is a required skill for professionals and aspiring professionals.
  2. It provides a connection to hand-horn playing and music/composers of the past.
  3. For conductors, music educators, etc. transposing is a necessary skill for score reading and analysis.
  4. Many orchestral parts are not available in transposed versions, so if you want to perform in an orchestra you need to be able to read these parts.

And on the “Well, maybe you don’t always have to know how to transpose” side of the coin:

  • For players in community orchestras and other similar ensembles, having to read non-transposed parts can be a barrier to enjoyment and engagement in those groups.
  • Not necessary to be a “good” horn player, meaning, one can be a competent player in terms of range, technique, and musicality without having this particular skill.
  • I have observed  some condescension towards horn players who haven’t yet mastered transposition or who question how necessary it is today. This attitude does not help make the case for transposition.
  • Can be a difficult skill to master once out of school, especially without a private instructor, and a method to learn it.
  • Can be seen as an archaic tradition, without much connection to modern valved horn playing. *I don’t agree with this view, but have seen it expressed.

All this can be confusing to impressionable music students, so if I could offer one piece of advice it would be to go ahead and start learning to transpose now, it will ultimately make your life easier as a horn player. However, if you’ve taken several years off and are returning to horn playing, don’t feel bad about not remembering all the intricacies of transposition. There are some transposed parts available in the orchestral repertoire, and if you can get your hands on them they will probably do just fine. Should you feel motivated to add transposing to your skill set, there are fortunately lots of great resources available today. Here are a few of my favorites:

I also have a Transposition Practice Plan available on this site, feel free to check it out.

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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