Ask Leon: How does notation for transposing instruments work?

Burningwood asked,

Hi Leon, I wanted to know something about transposition. I understand intervals already but how do I know whether to transpose up or transpose down when writing music for transposing instruments like the english horn?

This is a great questions and one that stumps many composers even after they have learned how to figure it out.

The part you and many other people are getting confused on is written pitch (the pitch notated on the page) versus the sounding pitch (also known as concert pitch).

Every instrument that is a transposing instrument, has a sounding pitch that is different from its written pitch.

On the english horn the sounding pitch is a fifth below the written pitch, therefore the written pitch is a fifth above the sounding pitch.

The easy way to remember how to write for any of the transposing instruments is to think the sounding name of the instrument equals written C. Use the phrase: "I hear (insert name of transposition), when I see C"

For example: The english horn is an F transposing instrument. F sounding equals C written. Therefore: "I hear F, when I see C". So an english horn has a written C it sounds a fifth below as an F.

To go the other way or "I want to hear X, so I need to add (written pitch interval) to get the correct written note" you need to decide the pitch you want first.

Let's say you want to hear an E-flat as the sounding pitch. So "I want to hear Eb, so I need to add a perfect fifth up to get the correct written note".

The best tool you can get at this point is a good orchestration book, such as Samuel Adler's The Study of Orchestration or the equally good Alfred Blatter's Instrumentation and Orchestration which are great references for this exact type of question.

I hope this answers your question Burningwood. If you need any more help email me at

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Thanks for the question, and keep up the good practice,

Leon Harrell