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.

A Transposition Practice Plan

This summer I wrote a post called “Three Things You Should Practice Every Day,” and the three techniques I included were lip trills, stopped horn, and multiple tonguing.  Thinking back on that post, I really should have included transposition as well since, like the three techniques above, it really is something you want to be totally secure on in your playing. Besides, it’s just a part of good overall musicianship. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked to read a church hymn in C, or to read a trombone part in a brass ensemble.  Not to mention that it will also help you in reading orchestral scores.  The real key to getting comfortable in transpositions is to simply practice them regularly.  I recommend using a fairly simple exercise or etude, like No. 1 (excerpt shown below) from Giuseppe Concone’s Lyrical Studies, transcribed by John F. Sawyer (The Brass Press/Editions Bim, 1972/1999).

You don’t have to use the entire exercise – rather you should choose something that you can easily manage playing in a couple of different transpositions every day.  As you become more proficient, change exercises, or include more of your present exercise.  I also recommend using a simple chart like the one shown below to make sure that you cover all of the possible transpositions over a period of a week or so.

This chart includes two transpositions for each day of the week, one high and one low.  For some of the more unusual keys, you may want to shorten your present exercise to just a few lines or so, while for the more common keys you can play for longer periods and practice sight-reading in those keys.  If the alto transpositions go too high, switch to basso for those measures and then continue in alto once the range returns to normal. Feel free to change around the order as you wish – the point is to put in a few minutes everyday so that when you see those transpositions they become more or less automatic.  If you aren’t sure about how to transpose some of these keys, check out this excellent reference and educational game by Ricardo Matosinhos.

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