Robert Estrin - piano expert

Why are Instruments in Different Keys?

Learn about transposing instruments and why they are played in different keys

In this video, Robert gives you a very interesting lesson about transposing instruments, such as the clarinet in B flat, the trumpet in B flat, and many other wind and brass instruments.

Released on October 22, 2014

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, welcome to and with a phenomenal viewer question which is, "Why are instruments in different keys?" You've heard of clarinet in B-Flat and saxophone in E-Flat and French horn in F. What's the story? Why would they pitch them in different keys Wouldn't it make more sense to rewrite the music in concert pitch.

Well, believe it or not, it makes more sense to have instruments in different keys. Let me explain why. For example, in the family of saxophones there are different saxophones that are pitched differently. Yet they all have the same fingering patterns, essentially. So a saxophone player going from instrument to instrument, if they had to call notes different things, it would be incredibly confusing to them. So instead, they play E-Flat, and it's what called a transposing instrument, meaning when a saxophone in E-Flat plays their C, it sounds E-Flat on a piano or concert pitch.

This is why a conductor looking at a score has to be able to transpose all the parts because an orchestral score is written in concert pitch. Pardon me, it's not written in concert pitch. If a conductor is looking at a horn in F and there's a B-Flat written, he has to be able to translate that to E-Flat instantly in his head so he knows the pitches of all the different instruments.

But for instrumentalists it's much easier because you just play in the key it's written, and it sounds in the proper pitch for the group. Now these are some instrumentalists who have to transpose. I'm also a French hornist, and French horn parts, because of tradition, are actually found in many different keys. Even though the horn is actually a F instrument, you will come upon parts that are horn in D or horn in C or horn in E-Flat, and you have to transpose.

Now why is this? Well, years ago the horn didn't have valves, so the composers wrote the part in all of the different keys. And the horn player would take a series of crooks. These are additional pipes to pitch the horn into the proper key for that piece or a movement of a piece. And because the parts were written that way by Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms and others, we still as horn players have to transpose the parts even though our horn is in F.

So that's an interesting point, and this is true of some other instruments. But French hornists, in particular, must learn how to transpose. Fortunately, all the parts are written in C, so it's not as difficult as you might think. So that's a great question.

Keep the questions coming in, and I"m so glad to bring you these videos. I'm Robert Estrin here at and Thanks for joining me.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Fulvia * VSM MEMBER * on October 25, 2017 @4:59 pm PST
I know a Swiss man who owns a clarinet in C. Is this a very old instrument or just an oddity? I thought clarinets are usually in B or E flat.
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on October 30, 2017 @2:02 pm PST
Hi Fulvia, I am not a clarinetist, but being a music composer, maybe I can answer here. Well, clarinets are usually in B or E flat (i.e. the "piccolo" clarinet), but there are clarinets in A (often used in orchestra) and some rare clarinets in C, yes, they do exist. I have also heard of clarinets in F and other different keys, but they were more of "experimental" instruments and rarely used nowadays.

So... I am not surprised you reported the existence of a clarinet in C.

Please, feel always free to contact me with any questions or ideas you may have, I will be glad to hear from you.

Thank you again fr your active participation Fulvia, we all appreciate it! Smiley Face
Vartan * VSM MEMBER * on October 27, 2014 @12:04 pm PST
What does it mean when there is an x next to a note in written music?
Robert - host, on October 28, 2014 @2:23 pm PST
That is a double sharp. It raises a note a whole step. We will be making a video on this subject soon!
Tosh * VSM MEMBER * on October 22, 2014 @4:58 pm PST
I would like to thank Fabrizio Ferrari for his kind reply, and add further: Even if professional violists (who have obviously played the viola C clef all their lives) would get upset with such a change, is it not possible and even preferable for music publishers, including Virtual Sheet Music, to publish such an edition of viola music as I have proposed, "in addition to" an edition in the traditional viola C clef? Or failing that, because of logistical difficulties, modifying music writing programs like Finale, so that they are capable of transposing viola music into the new proposed clef? Sure would make it easier for violinists to take up the viola.
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on October 23, 2014 @2:10 pm PST
You are very welcome Tosh!

Answering your question, yes, of course, we could provide that kind of "extra" parts. Keep in mind thought, that for many pieces we offer for viola and piano, they are taken from the version for violin and piano, simply transposed one 5th lower, therefore if you read the original violin part, you should be fine to play it correctly on a viola... does this make sense? Of course you can't find for violin and piano specific viola compositions written originally for viola, but for transcriptions you can easily find the violin and piano related version.

For example, Auld Lang Syne for viola and piano:

has been created from the version for violin and piano:

Which was simply transposed one 5th lower from the violin and piano version, therefore you can just use the violin part of the violin and piano version, to play it on the viola with the viola and piano version (the piano will use the viola and piano version.)

Does this make sense?
Robert - host, on October 23, 2014 @2:21 pm PST
Viola parts are written with the C clef as well as treble clef depending upon the range of the music. The reason why the viola clef is utilized most of the time is so that violists don't have to read music on ledger lines most of the time which would be the case if the music was all written in the treble clef.
Tosh * VSM MEMBER * on October 23, 2014 @4:59 pm PST
Yes, it does make sense.
Thanks for that and for the link to Auld Lang Syne.
What you say works perfectly when reading a violin score while playing a viola. I have such a viola transcription of the Bach violin solo sonatas and partitas, which was transposed one 5th lower. However that doesn't cover the situation where one is trying to play from an original viola score and one is basically a violinist and not a violist. It is unfortunate that when the viola clef was originally instituted (I suppose hundreds of years ago), more thought wasn't given to the situation.
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on October 23, 2014 @5:21 pm PST
Glad to know that, you are most than welcome. I understand your meaning, but besides what Robert said above, it is also a way to not having to transpose the music by reading in treble clef by using the same fingerings like the violin... in other words, the alto clef avoids to read music on ledger lines as well as keeping the written notes as "real notes" and not "transposed notes" as it would be if music for viola were written in treble clef, one 5th higher (!!). In any case, offering both version would be the best deal for everyone Smiley Face
Eb BrianP on October 22, 2014 @1:00 pm PST
You might have mentioned that tubas come in F, Eb, C, and Bb but when played in the bass clef all play in concert pitch (sound the same note) with different fingerings for each horn. When played in treble clef for British Brass bands most of them are transposing instruments with the same fingering.
Tosh * VSM MEMBER * on October 22, 2014 @12:31 pm PST
I have both a comment,which concerns the traditional viola C clef. As a violinist, who "occasionally" dabbles on the viola, I find it perplexing that when I'm in the first position on the viola I have to pretend I'm playing in the 3rd position on the violin, in order to get the correct fingering of notes. Given that the main differences between a violin and a viola (aside from sheer physical size and tone qualities) is that the viola's lowest string is a C instead of the G string on the violin, and while its highest string is an A instead of the E string on the violin, I'm wondering if it would have made more sense to locate notes on the viola staff only with reference to lowest string (C) to highest string (A), so that the open C string note is simply where the open G string note is for the violin, and the open A string note is simply where the open E string note is on the violin. A new viola clef would of course have to be designed and positioned on the staff to identify this change.
Hope you're following the above. In any case, it's my contention that this system change would allow a violinist to instantly cross over to a viola and finger the notes properly and also get to know and remember all the names of all the notes being played on the viola with less effort, rather than always having to transpose in his/her head a whole step or half step down from what would have been a violin note and pretending to be in the 3rd position while in the first position on the viola.
If I have not explained myself correctly, I apologize. Perhaps, a violinist could deal with the above more easily. If so, would appreciate it if you would forward this to such person. I only posed the above because your discussion of different keys for different wind instruments instantly reminded me of things I had been mulling over for years.
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on October 22, 2014 @4:06 pm PST
Hi Tosh and thank you for your posting. Yes, I agree with you. I am a violinist, and what you propose would work, makes perfect sense. I know violists (usually amateurs) that would like to have violin music "transposed" in such a way that can be read in treble clef like if played on the violin... but, I warn you: professional violists could get upset because of this idea Smiley Face
pete on October 22, 2014 @11:41 am PST
very informative!

Member * VSM MEMBER * on October 22, 2014 @10:01 am PST
Robert. I play the violin with a friend who plays a B flat clarinet. We found a score of Bach Inventions and Mozart duets with the clarinet part transposed by Fabrizzio Ferrari. We would love to play more duets. Is there any other transposed music available ?Also, I have a number of violin duets which I would like one part transposed for clarinet so we can expand our playing. Any help would be appreciated. Thank you
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on October 22, 2014 @11:13 am PST
Hi Bill, I am answering probably before Robert, and I think I can help on that. Most of our music is accessible as "interactive music", via Scorch plug-in or other means, which means that you can transpose the music in real-time, inside your browser, and print it out in a different key, as needed. Most of our music has these "interactive files" available, and you can understand that by the "interactive" icon shown inside any item description, as well as if the note "Scorch Interactive Sheet Music" is included in the same item description.

For example, your mentioned duets by Mozart include interactive files:

And if you click the "Sheet Music" tab, you'll find a sub-tab named "Interactive" which will show you the interactive version of the music.

I hope this helps. Please, let me know if you have any more questions.

Thank you again for your posting!
Robert - host, on October 22, 2014 @12:36 pm PST
This technology offers solutions to your wishes beyond anything previously available - enjoy!
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