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victoria Williams Music Theory

Victoria Williams

LmusTCL BA Mus (Hons) MISM

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C2b. Transposing, Reed & String Instruments

Grade Six Music Theory General Knowledge, Lesson 2b.
Musical Instruments – Transposing, Reeds & Strings


Here's an extract on Woodwind Instruments from my Grade 6 Complete Video Course:

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c. Transposing Instruments. The clarinet, cor Anglais, trumpet and French horn are transposing instruments. The note which actually sounds at concert pitch when the player reads/plays the note C determines what pitch the instrument is “in”. For each of these instruments, the concert pitch note is lower than the written note.

  • Clarinets are usually in Bb or A.
  • The cor Anglais is in F.
  • The trumpet is usually in Bb.
  • The French horn is usually in F.

In addition, you should note the following:

  • The bass clarinet is in Bb and sounds a major 9th lower than written (one octave lower than the Bb clarinet).
  • There is a smaller version of the clarinet in Eb, which sounds a minor 3rd higher than written. The French horn is also sometimes found in Eb, sounding a minor 3rd higher than written.
  • Trumpets can be found in other keys, such as C (non-transposing), or D (sounding a major second higher than written).
  • The piccolo sounds one octave higher than written.
  • The double bassoon sounds one octave lower than written.
  • The most commonly used size of trombone is the “tenor trombone”, which is sometimes called the Bb trombone. However, it is not treated as a transposing instrument in orchestral scores, and its notes sound as written.
  • The double bass sounds one octave lower than written.

You also need to know that the letter names we use for the notes (A-G), and the names “sharp” and “flat”, are translated in different ways. 









Si bemolle/bemol


Mi bemolle/bemol









  • The English note B is called H in German. (J. S. Bach used to “sign” his manuscripts with the notes B-A-C-H, which would be Bb-A-C-B in English!)
  • You may see “Klarinette in B” on a score – don’t forget that it means “clarinet in Bb”!
  • You may find it useful to learn the sol-fa names for the notes C-B: Do, re, mi, fa, so(l) la, ti (or si). Learn the Do-Re-Mi song!


d. Reeds. The oboe, cor Anglais, clarinet and bassoon are reed instruments (as are the larger/smaller versions of these instruments). The clarinet uses a single reed, whereas the other instruments all use a double reed. 

e. Open Strings. When a string player plays a note without pressing a finger down anywhere on the string, this is called an “open note”. If the player touches the string, the vibrating length of the string is shortened and the note produced is higher.

The note produced by the open string is the lowest note possible on that string, and it is the note which the string is tuned to.

You need to know what notes are produced on the open string for each of the four string instruments. You might be asked, for example, to circle in a score a note which could be played on an open string. So, you need to know not only the letter name, but also which octave the note is in.

Here are the notes which the string instrument strings are tuned to:

open string tunings 

  • Notice that the viola and cello are tuned to the same notes, except the cello is an octave lower.
  • Notice that the violin, viola and cello are tuned in 5ths, whereas the double bass is tuned in 4ths.
  • Don’t forget that the double bass sounds an octave lower than written (which is why we’ve put a little 8 on the clef here).
  • It might help you to remember these tunings if you notice that the double bass strings are the same as the violin’s in reverse order!

Often an exam question will ask you whether a string instrument must play on an open string or not. A player must use an open string if any of these conditions is true:

  • The music includes the lowest playable note on the instrument (see tunings above)
  • A note is marked "sul" (on) plus the name of a string, and these two are the same pitch. For example, the note A marked "sul A" must be played on an open string.
  • A note is marked with a small circle above the stave °. This symbol is an instruction to use an open string.


f. Bowing Indications. String instruments can produce many different kinds of sound, depending on the exact method of making the strings vibrate. You need to learn some of the more common bowing directions.

  • Arco is the normal bowing method. This word is only used after a different method has been indicated beforehand, and is the "default" method.
  • Pizzicato means "plucked". The player plucks the string with his/her finger. Usually this is abbreviated to "pizz." The effect is short, pingy notes.
  • Sul ponticello means "on the bridge". The player bows the part of the string on the other side of the instrument's bridge. The effect is a shimmery, squeaky sound. Sometimes this is abbreviated to "sul pont."
  • Spiccato means "bouncing". The bow is bounced off the strings.
  • Tremolo is a rapid up and down movement of the bow, to create a mysterious or eerie effect. The notes are unmeasured, not played rhythmically. This is often abbreviated to "trem."
  • Col legno means "with the wood" and is an instruction for the player to turn the bow upside down and play with the wooden side instead of the hair side.
  • Double corde means “two strings” and is a direction to use “double stopping”. This means the player has to use two strings at the same time. Triple stopping is also possible.

 Watch some of these techniques in action below!





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