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Victoria Williams

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4. Score Reading: Instruments & Transposition


Grade 8 Score Reading - Instruments and Transposition

At grade 8, you should be familiar with all the instruments that are commonly seen in the Symphony Orchestra, including the over- and under-sized versions of the standard orchestral instruments.

It’s important to learn about the transpositions of these non-standard instruments, because if you are asked to work out an interval or chord, you will need to know the precise pitch (including octave) in order to find the correct answer. In particular, when deciphering chords, you need to know what the lowest sounding note is in order to work out an inversion – if you forget that some instruments transpose down an octave into concert pitch, you will likely end up with the wrong inversion of the chord!

See for a full list of instruments that may appear at grade 8.



In the flute family, the piccolo is very frequently seen. Despite its small size, piccolo notes can be heard above every other orchestral instrument, no matter how loudly they are playing. This is due to its penetrating high pitch. Music for the piccolo is written an octave lower than it sounds, to prevent unreadable ledger lines above the stave.

The bass flute is much more rarely seen, and in contrast to the piccolo is one of the quietest instruments there is. It has a very woody, mellow sound. Bass flute music is usually written in the treble clef, but sounds an octave lower than written.


In the oboe family, the cor Anglais should already be familiar to you. The cor Anglais always transposes down a perfect 5th into concert pitch. Oboes and cors Anglais use the treble clef.

The contrabassoon (also known as the double bassoon) is the lowest sounding woodwind instrument. Its music is written in the bass clef and sounds an octave lower than written.


In the clarinet family you should already know that the standard sized instrument comes in two types – the A and the Bb. Beginning clarinet players always start on a Bb instrument, and this is considered to be the “default” version.

Clarinets in A are used mostly in order to avoid the player playing in keys with lots of sharps, as the key design on the clarinet makes these awkward. Some composers deliberately choose the clarinet in A even when the key is not sharp, because they prefer its slightly darker tone. (Most people can’t tell the difference between the two instruments, however!)

In some pieces of music, the player needs to swap between the two instruments during the piece. This is often notated with the words “muta in” plus the key of the instrument, eg. “muta in A” means “switch to the A clarinet”.

The clarinet in Bb transposes down a major 2nd into concert pitch, and the clarinet in A transposes down a minor 3rd. Also in the clarinet family you can often find the smaller-sized Eb clarinet, which transposes up a minor 3rd into concert pitch. This is one of the few instruments which transposes up into concert pitch, rather than down. The bass clarinet is pitched in Bb, but transposes down a compound major 2nd into concert pitch.

All the clarinets are single-reed instruments (unlike the oboe and bassoon which use a double-reed), and they all use the treble clef.



Brass instruments are some of the oldest instruments still in use today. Originally, all brass instruments were made of a conical metal tube of varying lengths. Longer instruments were coiled up to make them manageable. A brass tube with no openings/holes/valves/pistons can produce all the notes in the harmonic series, except the lowest note (the “fundamental”), which is usually too difficult to sound. The player changes pitch simply by changing their lip pressure as they blow into the mouthpiece.

This is the harmonic series produced on the note C:

harmonic series

As you can see, a “natural” horn (or trumpet etc.) has a limited number of notes. However, it is pretty good at playing arpeggios based on its fundamental note e.g C-E-G here (which is why they are excellent for fanfares!)


For many hundreds of years, the only way to play a different series of notes would be to use a different sized instrument. A horn in D will produce a harmonic series as above, but with each note a major 2nd higher. For this reason, it was usual practice not to add a key signature into a brass part, since there was no need to use one. Instead, the player was instructed to use a horn of a particular pitch.

Over time technological advances were made to brass instruments. Pistons, slides and valves were added, which in effect shorten or increase the basic overall length of tubing, allowing a different version of the harmonic series to be accessed quickly. Notation methods did not quickly follow this change however, and the practice of notating brass parts with no key signature lasted until even the 20th century!

What this all means for you as a music theory exam candidate is that:

  • The absence of a key signature in a brass part does not signify anything special, it simply means they didn’t write it in.
  • To find out what key a score is in, look at an instrument such as the flute, oboe, violin or piano. Do not use a brass part for this purpose!
  • You may come across brass instrument parts for instruments pitched in a wide variety of keys. The modern trumpet is pitched in Bb, but parts in orchestral scores might feature instruments pitched in A, D or C, for example. French horn parts in Bb, E or C may also be seen.
  • To know which direction (up or down) you should transpose into concert pitch, consider the pitch of the instrument in relation to C. Instruments generally transpose down into concert pitch, but those which are up to a major third above C transpose upwards, i.e. those pitched in D, E or Eb.


Tips for Transposing

Although you are likely to be an old-hand at transposition questions if you are coming from the earlier ABRSM grades, you will find that the questions in the grade 8 paper have been made slightly more complicated in some way. Apart from involving some of the less common instruments, you may be asked to do a transposition which:

  • is into the “wrong” clef e.g. put a clarinet part into the bass clef, or a cor Anglais part into the alto clef.
  • uses the “wrong” key signature e.g. the key signature is an enharmonic equivalent (Gb instead of F#, for example), or simply different (common in atonal music)
  • is out of instead of into concert pitch (read the question carefully!) This scenario happens for example, if a natural (C) trumpet part should be rewritten for a modern (Bb) instrument.
  • asks you to also work out the new key signature
  • uses notes tied over the bar, or requires stem direction changes


Always look at the information given – for clarinets and brass instruments, the transposing pitch of the instrument will always be written on the score (although it may be in any language e.g. “Es” is “Eb” in German.) Cors Anglais are always pitched in F.

Look at the key signatures (original and transposed). Don’t use them to make assumptions about the key, or the transposing interval of the instrument – they might not match up! But, do make sure that the notes you write take the key signature into account – don’t add unnecessary accidentals which are already taken care of by the key signature. (“Courtesy” accidentals are fine, and are used when a note has previously been chromatically altered, for clarification only). If you have been given a flat key signature to transpose into (e.g. Gb major), don’t write in a sharp key (e.g. F#) – use the enharmonic equivalents if necessary.

Here’s an example transposition question. The bar is taken from Busoni’s “Symphonisches Tongedicht”, Op.32a and is for two Bb clarinets. How would you transpose it into concert pitch, using the key signature provided?

busoni transposition


First of all, don’t be confused by the E major key signature. We are transposing Bb clarinet parts, so the original music needs to go down a major 2nd, no matter what. Work out each note in turn, then decide whether an accidental is needed, on the basis of the new key signature.

C# → B : no accidental

A# → G# : no accidental

D# → C# : no accidental

A → G : natural symbol

E → D : natural symbol

G# → F# : no accidental


Write in the notes, adjusting the stem directions where necessary. Don’t forget to copy over the ties, and, if necessary, make sure the notes are all aligned correctly across the parts.

Here is the finished transposition:

busoni transposition completed


The stems have been changed on each pair of notes, because it is the note furthest from the middle line which dictates the stem direction of a chord.



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