Transposition Tricks: Alto Clef


Sight-reading viola music.

violasAt some gigs, you never know what will be put in front of you. Some contractors are either ignorant or care less about what transposition the French horn is pitched in, and will expect you to play from any part handy, regardless of pitch, key or clef.

On rare occasions I am asked to perform music reading from a viola part. Though less common than playing from a trombone or cello part, this does happen from time-to-time and the enterprising horn player should be prepared for this. Not only will you make the contractor happy on the job, but you might also impress fellow colleagues, which in turn may hire you for other jobs in the future.

The trick for transposing alto clef is actually quite easy. It is less complicated than transposing concert-pitch bass clef music.

  1. In your mind, replace the alto clef with a treble clef.
  2. Read the music two notes down, in a quasi “Horn in D” transposition manner. In other words, read the notes down one total, skipped line or space. Do not confuse this method with the actual “Horn in D” transposition.If the note exists for example on the top space of the staff, play the note on the space below that.
  3. Take the original concert-pitch key and transpose it up a perfect fifth. In the example, the concert-pitch key is D Major, so the “horn key” would be A Major.

That’s it!

So next time at a gig if you are handed a viola part, instead of looking wide-eyed and making a scene, quietly take the part, put it on your stand, say nothing and play it without incident. This will make a stronger statement of your professionalism than making a big deal out of something that really is a given for any professional French horn player.

Photo credit:

University of Horn Matters