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July 2022

John Luther Adams Houses of the Wind
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To the non-musical person the written symbols for musical sounds have always presented a barrier to comprehension: Hand-written or printed music is just as much a lucid language, capable of being read and understood by musicians and by those who "read music", as a language based on words supported by a system of visual symbols printed or written on paper: the letters of the alphabet However, for experienced musicians who have, as it were, learnt to understand music from their earliest years alongside their mother-tongue, some problems still remain. This is rather like saying that, whilst all normal people are fluent in their everyday use of English (or indeed any other mother-tongue, depending on where they happen to have been born), some more advanced uses of English are generally only understood by the specialist in some field or other: the law, medicine, nuclear physics, economics or whatever.

A particular field of mis-apprehension or general unfamiliarity concerns how musical pitch is properly represented. In the simplest terms all musicians learn the basic way the absolutes, (that is, the real and unalterable basic height or depth of a musical sound) can be represented on the five lines of a piece of music paper. We say that the fundamental sound, from which all others, both lower and higher in pitch radiate is called "Middle C". This is found just about the centre of the piano keyboard. It is sometimes called "the open key" because it is the simplest to represent in written or printed symbols. For various, and sometimes quite complicated reasons connected with the way, historically some musical instruments have evolved, the notion that the simplest key of C should be the one to represent the simplest method of manipulating - that is using a fingering system to produce the simplest sounds - has not always worked out in practice. On the universal piano keyboard, the simplest scale of "C" certainly does begin and end on white notes; both of which look exactly alike but are separated by an octave - all the other simple notes are within that scale..

"Transposition" however is a situation where, on some instruments the nominal written symbol of "C" does not produce the real pitch of a true "C" but sounds some other note. The reasons for this can be quite complex, and sometimes absurd and seemingly without good reason. The explanation for such apparent anomalies is bound up with sometimes obscure facets of musical history.

For the most part, although by no means exclusively, such quirks of "transposition" concern how some wind instruments have evolved. A simple historical example will illustrate how transposition worked:

In Bach's time it was customary for the two basic timpani always to be notated (ie - written) as if they were in the simple, fundamental key of C; so that the two principal notes of the piece - the tonic and dominant as they were called in the catalogue of harmony - were always notated in this simplest way of the key of C. But often the real pitch of the piece would be some other pitch - maybe D or E-flat, or any other key the composer chose for the piece he had conceived. The music was still written as if it were in C; but in order that the two timpani sounded the real notes required, the player's printed copy would be marked: "in D and A", in other words, the nominal "C" drum would have to be tuned up a tone to "D" and the nominal "G" drum would have to be tuned up to "A". So that in effect - whilst the copy of the music looked as if the required notes were C and G, they would in fact have to be "transposed" up a whole tone to D and A. This is the very simplest case of transposition.

However, with regard to various wind instruments it came about that the simplest and most basic fingering of some of these instruments - more generally the trumpet, horn, clarinet, but also from time to time several others as well - did not equate to the simple scale of "C" but more conveniently with some other pitch. So the plan adopted was only to 'pretend' that the simplest fingering sounded the written note "C", whereas in reality the simplest fingering would produce another pitch. In the case of the trumpet this basic fingering - because of the most usually favoured and convenient size of the instrument, chanced to equate not to the pitch of "C" but with "B-flat" So, to make things look easier, the plan was adopted of writing the music (for the trumpet basically built with its fundamental or easiest note sounding B-flat) as if it this sounding note B-flat, were represented by a written "C".

A general rule-of-thumb thus came about in which it was recognised that the designation of the pitch of an instrument (in other words its "transposition" status) was to describe what the artificially written "C" really produced. In the case of the ordinary trumpet, it is described as a "B-flat" trumpet because its written note - "C" - really sounds "B-flat". In a similar way the horn, which is now almost universally built so that its basic or fundamental sound produces the note "F", but this true pitch of "F" is actually written in horn music as if it were "C".

All these different transpositions mean that the difference between the written note ("C") and the real note that is sounded has to be taken into account when transcribing music for a 'transposing' instrument. As "B-flat" is a whole tone lower than real "C" it follows that everything written down for the "B-flat" instrument must be written a tone higher than the absolute or true pitch of a piece of music in order to redress the balance of being a whole tone too flat. Similarly, as the horn is written in "F" it follows that because "F" really sounds a perfect 5th lower than actual "C" everything for the F-horn must be written a perfect 5th higher than the actual concert-pitch of the piece of music in question. This then off-sets the horn's notes actually sounding a perfect 5th lower than written.

One of the misconceptions that many young composers have is to write all the parts, (including the transposing instruments), in their full scores in the basic key of the piece, in other words at the real pitch. This is intended to make it easier for the inexpert score-reader, or conductor - but at the same time describing the various transposing instruments' parts as if they were transposed! Now this is utterly confusing - one cannot have it both ways: One has either to write all the score at true pitch, or to separate the various transposition instruments and write them in the appropriate transposed key .

To write at the head of the score: "Trumpet in Bb (actual sounds)" is contradictory, D, does it mean that the trumpet part should be read as if it were actually to be played according to the notes as they appear on paper, in other words that the printed notes are those actually to be understood - and thus accordingly and correctly fingered - or, since it has the injunction "actual notes" - does this contradict the designation of the label "in Bb" and mean that the printed notes are not the notes to be played but the real notes to be sounded, with a diffferent fingering ? It is far more logical to write or print scores in their correct transpositions; conductors prefer to see the notes on the page in exactly the same way as they appear to the player. In this way he gets a better appreciation of what the player actually has to deal with. If it is essential - for whatever reason - to choose to write a score wholly in basic pitch, do NOT then describe transposing instruments as being "in Bb" "in F" or whatever. They are not then in a transposed pitch, they are simply notated "at concert-pitch". To describe them so is to contradict what has already been stated: "sounds at concert pitch". It must be remembered that describing the pitch of an instrument is not akin to describing the make or type of instrument to be used ; on the contrary it merely refers to the way the music is written; it has nothing at all to do with the instrument itself. The designated pitch - (the size) - of instrument is solely a matter for the player to choose according to his preference. Transposing at sight is part of almost all wind-playing technique.

Considered logically, there is really no such thing as a "transposing instrument" - for all instruments are chromatic and capable of playing in every key - transposition resides only in the relation of fingering to the written note; In some instances instruments which are said to be "in Bb" are regarded differently in other situations: In the brass band the euphonium reads the part in treble clef and is said to be in "in Bb" but in the military band or orchestra the very same instrument is not regarded as being "in Bb" at all , but with a different pattern of fingering, and using the bass clef is simply regarded as being "in C".

Arthur Butterworth - October 2009

Arthur Butterworth Writes - a regular column



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