How to become better at clarinet transposition

Clarinet is a pretty cool instrument, if I do say so myself.

However, it would be nice if we didn’t have to transpose all the time! Making matters worse, the abundance of auxiliary clarinets also means an abundance of…transposition!

First things first: What is transposition?

If you asked every member of a band, orchestra, or other ensemble to play a C – their C on each individual instrument, also known as written pitch – the resulting cacophony would make you cover your ears. That’s because different instruments are pitched in different keys. The most common clarinet is pitched in Bb, pianos are pitched in C, and there are a variety of instruments pitched in an assortment of keys. In order for all of these different instruments to play a unison, each instrument will have to transpose the concert pitch to find out what note they need to play in order to match everyone else.

Ok, so why is transposition important?

Simply put, it helps you play well with others. As a clarinetist, you should be familiar with basic transposition so you can quickly match pitch and key signatures. Transposition is especially useful if you enjoy playing arrangements or music that wasn’t originally written for clarinet, because you will most likely have to transpose it to match the key of the musicians you are playing with.

Instead of being jealous of flute and other C instrument (read: non-transposing) instruments, here are a few ways you can become skilled at clarinet transposition:

  • Download my free clarinet transposition chart. I’ve done the hard work for you – here’s a chart with the most common keys of clarinets, including C, Bb, Eb, A, and even F for all you basset horn players reading this.
  • Begin with the basics. The most common transposition is from C to Bb instruments. When your band director mentions “concert pitch,” this is what they mean – the note they say is pitched in C. Since the common soprano clarinet is pitched in Bb, it’s advisable to become familiar with C to Bb transpositions first before attempting others.
  • Start slowly. When you first begin practicing transposition, it can feel like you’re solving complex formulas in your head. Before you even try to play and transpose, why not do some written practice? Find some music for any instrument and pretend it’s for a C instrument (bonus points if it actually is). Write in the transposed clarinet note names below each note and double check your answers.
  • Practice with familiar melodies. Once you’re ready to start playing and transposing at the same time, start off by playing tunes you know well. These can be popular tunes, movie music, holiday tunes, or anything else where you can easily recognize wrong notes.
  • Up the ante by playing with others. Once you’re feeling more confident with your transposition abilities, try playing duets with your friends. My favorite transposition practice is to play vocal pieces (church hymns work really well for this) so I can practice my sight-transposition. Vocal music is particularly good since a lot of vocal solos are more lyrical and expressive and not unnecessarily technically challenging. You can also play duets with your flute, oboe, or other C instrument friends.
  • Keep at it! Transposition is a skill that needs to be consistently utilized in order to stay fresh. Just a few minutes of dedicated transposition practice a day can make a huge difference, so schedule some time during each practice session for maximum improvement.

Happy transposing!

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