Transposition Tricks: Bass Clef

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An old trick for reading concert-pitch bass clef.

Many times at freelance gigs, I am expected to play at sight all sorts of music – including trombone, trumpet, viola and piano parts. Over the course of my 20-something-year career, I have figured out a few tricks that work like a charm for me.

In “Sometimes Up is Down” I wrote about reading the A-horn transposition in Italian operatic repertoire. Many times – especially at church gigs…reading from a hymnal – I am given bass clef parts written in concert pitch. While I do not claim to have originated this bass clef transposition method – there is nothing original about it really – I do claim that it works.

Now as a wee pup I learned music notion and pitch via the French horn. Later in life I discovered that while I have perfect-pitch, it is a bit askew because my engrained point of reference is the F-transposition in which the French horn is rooted. (To this day, I still have to transpose in my head to relate concert-pitch).

Getting started

First, take the bass-clef-notated music in front of you and in your mind, change the clef from bass to treble. So for example:

Second…now this next part is a bit tricky to explain, but the basic concept is actually quite easy. After performing the clef change, read the note names down one line or space lower on the staff. In other words, read the music down one note name. Please do not confuse this with down one whole step (as in two half-steps).

As if this isn’t enough, there is one extra step here. You must also read these notes down one octave to compensate for the clef change displacement.

So, in other words for stage two, read down one note plus one octave.

But wait…there’s more!

The final step is to figure out what your new key signature is – transpose from concert-pitch up a perfect-fifth. So for example, if your concert-pitch key is C like the example above, your new “horn pitch” key would be G (one sharp).

Do not…. I repeat… DO NOT write the notes in the music.

This is a mental exercise and defacing music with scribbles and doodles is never a good idea. Besides, while on the job, you will need to use this skill instantly without any crutches or aids. You might as well get used to it from the beginning and not write note names even in your practice music.

So in a nutshell, the formula is:

1.) Change bass clef to treble clef

+

2.) Read down one note plus one octave

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3.) Apply the new key signature

=
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4.) HAPPY HORN PLAYER…and HAPPY CONTRACTOR!

While at first this may seem complicated, once you get the hang of it, it is actually quite easy. One of the best books in my opinion to learn concert-pitch bass clef is the classic Melodious Etudes for Trombone.

Buy it now and thank me later.