The Soundslice Blog

Transposing instruments

Today we’ve launched some nice features for transposing instruments, such as clarinets and various horn instruments.

What are transposing instruments?

If you’re an amateur musician — say, a guitarist or pianist who just plays for fun — you might not have come across this somewhat-confusing concept. Here’s a quick primer.

A transposing instrument is an instrument whose music is notated at a pitch different from the pitch that actually sounds (source: Wikipedia article).

For example, if a clarinetist performs the following notation...

Screenshot of a C natural note

...then the pitch of the resulting sound will be the same as if a pianist performed this:

Screenshot of a B flat note

In plain English: the clarinet’s C natural sounds exactly like the piano’s B flat. The clarinet thinks of it as a C, the pianist thinks of it as B flat. The audience hears a B flat, which is the “concert pitch.”

The piano is a non-transposing instrument, which means the pitch in the notation is exactly the same as the pitch you hear (the concert pitch). The clarinet is a transposing instrument, which means the pitch in the notation is different than the concert pitch.

Why do transposing instruments exist? Why would musicians invent something so confusing? It’s because, in fact, this system makes things easier for clarinetists. (And others! Wikipedia has a long list of transposing instruments.)

There are many different types of clarinet, and though they use the same fingerings, the resulting pitches are different depending on the instrument. If you played a certain scale on one clarinet, then did the exact same thing (the same movement of your fingers) on another type of clarinet, you’d still get the same type of scale, but it would be in a different key.

That’s because clarinets come in different keys. The most common type of clarinet is in B♭ (the example above assumed the clarinet was in B♭), but they also come in E♭, A, and other keys. If you play a basic scale on a B♭ clarinet, it will sound as a B♭ scale in concert pitch. If you make the same movement of fingers on an E♭ clarinet, you’ll get an E♭ scale in concert pitch.

So to make things easier and more consistent, musicians started using a convention: notation for clarinets represents the fingering, not the concert pitch. When a clarinetist sees a C natural in written music, he or she interprets that as a certain fingering, which may or may not actually result in a sounded C natural note (depending on the key of the clarinet). As a result, clarinetists can rely on notation being consistent when they switch between different-keyed clarinets, rather than needing to learn different fingerings for the same pitches and scales.

This puts the burden on the composer or arranger to make sure the music notation is properly transposed. Which brings us to the new Soundslice features.

Transposition controls

Starting today, if you click a track name to the left of any Soundslice notation, you’ll see a new “Instrument transposition” section:

Screenshot of instrument transposition section

Here, you’ll see two options: key and octave. These specify the key that your instrument is in, if it’s a transposing instrument. In other words, it’s the pitch that the audience would hear if you played a notated C natural note on your instrument.

You can change the key by clicking it, and the notation will instantly be transposed to take it into account. Key signatures, accidentals and note locations will all be updated accordingly, in real time. No need to reload the page, no need to purchase another version of sheet music just for your type of transposing instrument — it transposes automatically.

The octave option lets you shift the notation up and down by octave. For example, guitar music is generally notated an octave higher than sounded.

Let me give you a quick video walkthrough:

Here are three specific use cases for this new feature:

1. You’re a clarinetist who wants to learn to play a melody that’s available on Soundslice but has been notated for guitar or piano. Just use the controls to transpose the notation into the key of your clarinet.

2. You’re a guitarist who wants to learn the clarinet solos from Gonzalo Bergara’s Djangophonic album. Use the controls to transpose the clarinet notation into C, from B♭.

3. You’re a clarinetist who wants to learn the clarinet solos from Djangophonic, but you play a C clarinet instead of a B♭ clarinet. Use the controls to transpose.

Finally, it’s important to note that these transposition controls are not the same as transposing the pitch of the music into a different key. This merely lets you change notation for the benefit of transposing instruments. Pitch transposition — say, if you wanted to perform a tune in a different key for the benefit of a singer — is on our to-do list. Expect that soon!