“What is Transposition?
I don’t know anything about it.”
Transposition lets you modify music written for another instrument so that
you and your instrument sound the tones of the other instrument. Here’s an example.

A flutist (playing a C flute) wants to play E soprano clarinet music.

The flutist’s goal is to sound the same tones as the E Soprano Clarinet. But because the instruments are built in different keys the flutist cannot read and sound the tones as written on the E Clarinet music.

If the flutist reads the notes as shown, the flute will sound those tones as on a Piano. But when the E clarinetist reads those same notes, the Clarinet actually sounds tones a Minor Third higher as seen.

This happens because the E Soprano Clarinet is a TRANSPOSING instrument.
This means that the notes the clarinetist READS from the music do not SOUND those notes. Instead, the Clarinet sounds tones a Minor Third higher as seen.

Interval of Transposition

The interval that sounds between the note a musician reads and the tone that the instrument sounds is called the:

For an E Soprano Clarinet, the Interval of Transposition is a Minor Third higher than what is written on the Clarinet’s music. Transposing instruments include Clarinet, Trumpet, Saxophone, and Horn. All have different Intervals of Transposition that sound higher or lower than what is written.

The Flute is a NON-TRANSPOSING instrument. A non-transposing instrument sounds the tones that its player reads from the music. Non-transposing instruments are also known as “concert-pitch” instruments. They include Flute, Oboe, Bassoon, Piano, Strings, and Low Brass. They SOUND what they READ.

In this example, the flutist’s goal is to SOUND the tones the E Clarinet makes as seen above.

The Interval of Transposition for the flute SOUNDS a Minor Third LOWER than what is written on the clarinet music. This means that to sound the same tones as the Clarinet, the flutist transposes the E Clarinet music by RAISING the key signature and each note of the Clarinet music a Minor Third higher.

At this point, the flutist has two options.

The flutist reads each note, calculates a new transposed note and a new key signature a Minor Third higher, and then plays every transposed note in the new key signature. As you imagine, calculating new notes as you play gets stressful very quickly.

Option 2 Note READING

The flutist notes the Interval of Transposition and modifies the key signature. But then, instead of calculating an appropriate interval for each note, the flutist applies a different clef and changes the note names on the staff. The flutist then plays using the new note names in the new key signature. In this example, the flutist reads the Clarinet music in BASS CLEF.

“What do you mean when you say apply a different clef? How does a clef help?”

If the flutist can read Bass Clef, the flutist simply replaces the Treble clef with the Bass clef, raises the key a Minor Third, and reads the music with those changes. Compare the above with the following.

Using a clef builds the Interval of Transposition into the staff. This lets the flutist  read the Clarinet music with new note names. The flutist’s goal is accomplished.

“Wait. Bass clef music is too low for a flute.”

 A new clef will only change the names of the lines and spaces on the staff. A clef never forces a musician to play out of an instrument’s range.

“I play B Trumpet in a pit band backing up singers. How does transposition help me?”

What does your band do if a new singer asks you to play the band’s feature tune in a different key than the band’s usual arrangement? For example, the vocalist asks the band to play the tune a Minor Third higher. What will you do?
Just like the flutist in the above example, the Trumpet player does the same thing.

  • Raise the key a Minor Third
  • Substitute the Bass clef for the Treble clef in the music
  • Read the arrangement with those changes

Do you see the possibilities of learning to transpose?
Maybe transposition is not as difficult as you thought? 
If you want to learn how to transpose, Noyes Notes…on Transposition will help you understand and acquire the skill.

Randal C. Noyes

Buy the Book


What is it?

How do you do it?

Why and when does a musician need it?

How do you get started learning it?

Get in Touch

This site offers a little taste of what transposition can do for you. The complete instruction guide is found in ”Noyes Notes…on Transposition”. It can be purchased at Friesen.

Trusted Hands Behind Us

Our Great Sponsors