Orchestration: Why Transpose Your Score?

By • February 24, 2009

To transpose or not to transpose? In the Hollywood of fabled yore, it was not such a tough question, and transposed scores were far more common than today. The journeyman musicians of yesteryear were comfortable composing, orchestrating, or conducting on or from scores whose perspective matched that of the players. While demanding a more acute and enlightened level of awareness from those on your team who must work with them, transposed scores offer several distinct advantages. Let’s briefly look at how transposed scores might have fallen out of favor, and why you should consider using them.

Before music notation software, a concert, or “C” (untransposed) pencil score had the chief advantage, for industrial composers under severe time constraints, of the shorthand one could employ to avoid writing out multiple iterations of note figures. Remember the terms “come sopra” and “col?” As these tricks could only be employed on literal repetitions, their use was somewhat limited with transposed scores. Then came the influx of scoring professionals from nontraditional arenas of experience and training who found it easier to produce and/or read untransposed notes when the heat was on. I also suspect, and without wanting to sound elitist, that notation software (with its potential for speedier, but not instant, transposition,) and sequencers (with their severely limited notation options) have made it possible for these professionals to produce and compete on some level without developing the aptitudes needed for dealing with transposed scores.

On the other hand, let’s look at their advantages, ranging from the strictly practical to the esoteric. From a mechanical standpoint, they can save you time and/or money, owing to our current state of marginally-aware notation software. With their reduced use of ledger lines, they allow for tighter formatting, hence more or larger staves on a given page. If you format and generate your own parts, a transposed score can save the time normally associated with the numerous necessary adjustments to enharmonic spellings, context-sensitive courtesy accidentals, and note-dynamic-articulation-cue-chord collisions or idiosyncrasies. If you don’t, you save the extra money your copyist necessarily charges you for providing the same effort. At present, even the savvyest of users can reduce but not entirely eliminate this step. With a transposed score, virtually all such custom tweaks can be done on score input, and retained on part generation.

However, the most profound advantage of a transposed score isn’t so much practical as conceptual and orchestrational. The most elusive (and subtle) elements of good orchestration involve the effective blending of multiple instruments, cooperatively voiced to achieve the precise weight, color, and controlled exposure demanded by the composer’s vision. Key to this is where within an instrument’s range to assign its part of a voicing.

Along with the invention and placement of clefs, today’s accepted transpositions evolved from attempts to roughly center an instrument’s bread-and-butter range on the staff with a minimum of ledger lines. With a transposed score, the same collection of pitch symbols and clefs can mean different things, so deciphering them at a glance is a bit more complicated, much like trying to skim through a script whose characters all do their dialog in different languages. However, to the experienced eye, having the note data presented with these offsets in place acts as a rough notational WYSIWIG (“What you see is what you get”) and it allows for quick and efficient visual assessment of the weight and timbre relationships (i.e., the blend) between the instruments. Without the necessity of referring to the clef on the other side of the page, if the brass section’s transposed pitches fall within a similar region of each staff, then they are roughly playing in similar parts of their ranges, and good blend is a safer bet. For those of you who have attended a Steven Scott Smalley orchestration seminar, this is the derivation of his “Zed” clef concept–a theoretical mindset to quickly and accurately assess the blend of a voicing.

Remember our notational mantra of making things look the way they’re supposed to sound? Perhaps the fundamental step in that direction is to transpose your score. If you make the investment in learning to deal with their look and feel, and seek out team members who do likewise, the payoff could be savings of time and money, and better orchestration to boot.

Comments

By Graham Metcalfe on February 24th, 2009 at 9:57 am

Agreed. I have written for large wind ensembles where a transposed score is a must. “In C” scores, as presented by software, are very disconcerting when you are looking Contrabass Clarinet and Bari Sax parts! It may not always be that easy to track 30 staves when more than half of them are transposing, but the ability to see the melodic lines throughout the various instrument families is invaluable.

By Jesse Hopkins on February 24th, 2009 at 12:29 pm

The transpositions do help marginally with assessing the blending of a passage. I have always done transposed scores, but I rarely ever conducted my own music. Most of what I have written came out balanced as I had imagined it, so perhaps this was a help.

By Matt Dunkley on February 27th, 2009 at 3:47 am

Ron certainly has a point – as an experienced movie orchestrator myself, who learnt the old way, there is something much more pleasing at looking at a transposed score. BUT – the score isn’t
just produced for the orchestrator’s benefit. On a recording session you might well be dealing
with a composer who doesn’t have the schooling to transpose horns at sight when note chasing –
or for that matter programmers or music editors or engineers or even studio music execs!
For ease and speed of use for everyone involved in a scoring team (whatever their musical ability)
I have always found that C scores – though esthetically less pleasing – save time and ultimately money on the stage.

By Matt Dunkley on February 27th, 2009 at 3:47 am

Ron certainly has a point – as an experienced movie orchestrator myself, who learnt the old way, there is something much more pleasing at looking at a transposed score. BUT – the score isn’t
just produced for the orchestrator’s benefit. On a recording session you might well be dealing
with a composer who doesn’t have the schooling to transpose horns at sight when note chasing –
or for that matter programmers or music editors or engineers or even studio music execs!
For ease and speed of use for everyone involved in a scoring team (whatever their musical ability)
I have always found that C scores – though esthetically less pleasing – save time and ultimately money on the stage.

By Nicholas Varley on March 3rd, 2009 at 10:26 am

And what, pray, is wrong with being elitist in the field of music ?

By Diego RIvera on January 2nd, 2012 at 8:17 pm

I really do not understand is the zed clef, if someone took the patience to explain I would appreciate very much.

By Simon Hale on March 11th, 2013 at 5:35 am

I always write a concert score because I have perfect pitch and I like to see exactly what I am hearing in my head. If you hear things internally then I don’t feel the need to get an overall judge from the physical position/layout of notes on the stave in a score in terms of blend, for me it’s about the specific resulting sound of the note on the instrument. You should always be considering your colours and textures at all time of course. I use exceptions for octaves (contrabass, xylophone, piccolo etc) but I particularly like to see Bass Clarinet and Baritone Sax in the bass clef at sounding pitch! Having said that, knowledge of transposition is essential and I would always communicate to a player at their written pitch out of courtesy if nothing else. It’s true that a score layout may cause impact on transposing parts with potential clef adjustments etc but I still prefer to look at a note and hear it internally without any transposition. WYSIWYG.

By Nick on March 24th, 2014 at 12:25 am

Our school teaches us writing in transposed pitch because it’s more simply to see the score this way. Of course You can’t see the pitch, but it’s more simply to know if the note is played by the instrument or isn’t. It’s a historical question WHY is the instrument writted definitely this way, but not in C.

Conductors don’t read scores directing. They watch overall situation, count measures but not reading or “online transposing” parts.

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