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Victoria Williams

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8. Transposing

Grade Five Music Theory - Lesson 8: Transposing


Transposing Instruments

What note do you hear when you play this note  on the piano?


You hear a middle C, of course. But if you play the same note on a clarinet, horn or trumpet you will hear a different note.

Clarinets, horns, trumpets and a few other instruments are “transposing” instruments, which means that the note the player reads is different from the note which their instrument produces.


For example, if a trumpeter reads and plays the following:

Notes read by trumpet player 

the notes you actually hear are

Notes you actually hear


Most clarinettists start off learning on a “B flat” clarinet. Trumpets are also in B flat. This means that when the player reads a note which looks like a C, the note produced by their instrument is actually a B flat. Every note that the player reads actually sounds a tone (whole step) lower.


Some instruments tranpose at the octave, which means that this note


 would sound as a C, but not middle C. It could be an octave higher (for the piccolo, for example), or lower (e.g. for the double bass).


Why are there transposing instruments?

There are many different reasons why we have transposing instruments, and most of them are very interesting. However, you don’t need to know why for Grade 5 Theory! If you’re interested and would like to find out, read about them here:


Common Transposing Instruments

These are the transposing instruments you need to know about for grade 5 theory:

  • Clarinet- in B flat and A
  • Trumpet- in B flat
  • Horn and cor Anglais - in F

In each case, the key of the instrument is the note which is produced when the player reads a C.


Grade 5 Theory Question Types

As well as having to transpose extracts of music (see below), you might also need to know a bit of general knowledge about all the common orchestral instruments and which octaves they play in. Often you are asked to choose one instrument (from four) which could play a given extract, so that it sounds at the same pitch

So, you need to learn which instruments can play each other’s music because the clef is the same and there is no change in pitch. Try to memorise the following groups of instruments, which might appear in the grade 5 theory exam:




Non-transposing, treble clef.

Flute, Oboe, Violin

Non-transposing, bass clef.

Bassoon, Cello, Trombone, Tuba

Octave-down transposing, bass clef.

Double Bass

In B flat, treble clef

Clarinet, Trumpet

In F, treble clef


Non-transposing, in alto clef



Sometimes you will see drum-type instruments included in the choices, “timpani”, for example. Drums are only tuned to one note, which means they can’t play a melody - they will never be the right answer to the question!


What is “concert pitch”?

The term “concert pitch” means the real sound of a note, as you would get on the piano. (On the piano if you read/play a C, you hear a C, if you read/play an F sharp you hear an F sharp, and so on). 

Players of transposing instruments look at notes in two ways - the name they give to a note is not the same as the way it sounds. A trumpet player reads/fingers/plays a C, but the note he plays is a concert pitch B flat, because that note corresponds to a B flat on the piano (or any other non-transposing instrument). 

When an orchestra tunes up, all the players play concert pitch A. This means that clarinettists and trumpet players finger a B, and horn players finger an E.


Transposing a Melody for a Transposing Instrument

You might have to transpose a melody into (or out of) concert pitch. In Grade 5 Theory, you will always be told which direction you have to transpose in (up or down), and by what interval (major 2nd, perfect 4th etc.) (You don’t have to work out from scratch how to write out a piece of clarinet music so that it sounds at concert pitch, for example!) 

You will need to understand intervals properly before you can begin. (Have a look at “Lesson 7 – Intervals” if you need to). Sometimes you are asked to use a key signature, and sometimes not. Read the question carefully!


Transposing with a Key Signature

If you have been asked to include a key signature, start by carefully transposing it and writing the new key signature on the stave.

For example, if the key signature is A major (3 sharps) and you have been asked to transpose down a major 2nd, you will need to write the key signature for G major (1 sharp), because G is a major 2nd lower than A. 

(You don't need to work out whether the piece is in a major or minor key - just assume it is in a major one, then transpose the key signature. If the piece below, with 3 sharps in the key signature, was actually in F# minor, then to transpose the key signature you would bring it down by a major 2nd to E minor. E minor also has one sharp, the same as G major  - so it makes no difference!)

Don’t forget to add the time signature (this doesn’t change, of course).

Let's transpose this melody down a major 2nd, using a key signature.


transpose down 2nd

It starts off as: 

Begin with the new key signature 

Next, transpose each note in turn. Be careful when you come across accidentals - in the above extract the first accidental is E sharp. Transpose E sharp down a major second, and you get D sharp

(If you think that E sharp on a piano keyboard is the same as F, you might think the correct transposition would be E flat - but you would be wrong: E sharp - E flat is actually an interval of a double-augmented unison!)


Here is the finished transposition:

transposition down 2nd

When you transpose with a key signature, the accidentals always fall in the same place as in the original melody. There were three accidentals in the above melody, and there are three in the transposition. (In this case, the natural is a “courtesy” accidental and is there as a reminder). They might, however, be different accidentals, for example a sharp might change into a natural.

For example, if you had a C# written as an accidental in G major, and you transposed everything down a major 2nd, the new key would be F major, and the C# would become B natural. Sketch out a piano keyboard to help you, if necessary.



Transposing Without a Key Signature

If you are asked to transpose without using a key signature, you will need to be very careful. Check each note as you write it, making sure that the intervals are exactly correct.

Here is a melody which needs to be transposed upwards by a minor 3rd, without using a key signature.


First, write in all the notes, one third higher. Concentrate on putting the notes in the correct spaces/lines. We will add the accidentals in a moment. You might need to change the stem direction of some notes.


Which note stems had to change direction?  lightbulbette

Next, check each note in turn. Keep an eye on the key signature and any accidentals in the original. Sketch out a mini-piano keyboard, if it helps!

The first note is F. Put that up a minor third, and you get Ab, so put a flat on the left-hand side of the first A.



Use the keyboard sketch to make sure that you have the same number of semitones (half steps) between each original and transposed note (3 semitones, in this case).

Continue in the same way, adding all necessary accidentals. Don't forget: when an accidental is placed in bar, it also affects all other notes of the same pitch in that bar.


Here is the rest of the transposition. 




Avoiding Mistakes

Lightly pencil (in the margin of your exam paper) a list of the letter names from the extract and what they will become. When you’ve finished, carefully double check each note. (You can also make sure you've transposed to the right key signature using this list). Your list could look something like this:






F #

G #



B #

C #




D #


F #



A #



Erase the list before you hand in your exam paper!

If you are told that the melody was written, for example, for "clarinet in Bb", don't fall into the trap of thinking the key of music is Bb - you need to check the key signature to work out the key. "Clarinet in Bb" simply means that the instrument plays concert pitch Bb when the note C is read.



Neat Notation

Does it matter how neatly you write your answers? Yes! Here are some tips:

  • Try to space out your notes as they are in the original extract.
  • Don’t draw in the stems and beams of quavers or smaller notes until you’ve placed the whole group - you might have to put the stems the other way up.
  • Write accidentals before you draw the note-head, to make sure you have enough space. Remember that accidentals are always placed on the left side of the note they affect.
  • Make sure you have copied all the barlines, phrasing, articulation and tempo marks, ties, dynamics, ornaments, dots, rests and anything else which is written in the original.
  • Check out “Lesson 1 – Good Notation” for more ideas.


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