Transposition Tricks: Old vs. New Notation


A detailed description of bass clef notation for French horn.

Since posting a blog on concert-pitch bass clef transposition, I have been getting a lot of Google hits on the topic of “old” and “new” bass clef notation. This style of notation – not related to transposing concert-pitch bass clef music – is distinct to the French horn and causes loads of confusion for both players and conductors.

Ever since the French horn was introduced into the orchestra until about the mid-20th century, composers have utilized a unique standard for notating bass clef notes. This style of notation – known as “old notation” – was the practice of transposing bass clef notes in octaves below concert pitch rather than above.

The rationale for this compositional practice is not completely known, but it is a standard that modern-day horn-players must compensate for nonetheless.

The Composer’s Perspective

The exact interval for this down-transposition practice depended on what key the composer decided to pitch the horn in. Remember that prior to circa 1850, most horns used in the professional arena were valveless, using detachable crooks to change keys and right-hand techniques to fill in harmonic series gaps.

For a horn crooked in F (the key that modern horns read and play in), the composer would transpose bass clef notes down a perfect 4th (rather than today’s standard of up a perfect 5th). So for example:

Example 1a:

Another example, for Horn in A illustrates the same principle. Instead of writing Horn in A from concert pitch up a minor 3rd, a composer would write it down a major 6th:

Example 1b:

The Hornist’s Perspective

To compensate for this practice, a modern day horn-player must always play old notation by reading the notes up one octave from where they are written.

If a transposition (other than Horn in F) is involved some forethought to decipher exactly what notes to play may be necessary.

*Example 1c:

[*The notes in red are the pitches to actually be played for a Horn in F.]

As illustrated above, for a transposition other than Horn in F, you must apply the “octave up” rule plus the normal transposition. For the Horn in A example above, the “octave up” rule applies plus the transposition for Horn in A (up a major third).

Fortunately with Classical and early Romantic era compositions, the number of old notation notes is primarily limited to the lowest 3 or 4 notes of the harmonic series. The example 1c above illustrates this – the written* bass clef notes in Classical and early Romantic are primarily C, e, g and c’ (see octave registration chart).

[*Please do not confuse this statement with actual sounding or transposed pitches.]

In late Romantic and early 20th century era however, as valved horns came into vogue, composers produced much more complex old notation parts.

Beyond the Natural Horn

Example 2:

As illustrated in the excerpt above from Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, the old notation standard continued into the late Romantic period, but the writing became much more complex. No longer was old notation bass isolated to 3 or 4 notes.

Example 2 aside, take a look at the famous opening call to Till Eulenspiegel.

Example 3:

The three bass clef notes in this well-known excerpt are written in old notation. Because the passage is written for Horn in F, there is no additional transposition required other than the “octave up” rule. The horn player plays c’, g and C. (see octave registration chart).

However, in the same composition Strauss utilizes “Horn in D” old notation passages in the third horn part.

Example 4a:

The complete transposition then, is “octave up” (compensating for old notation) plus down a major third (compensating for Horn in D).

The passage at 29 in Example 4a, written out for Horn in F, would like like this:

Example 4b:

When to Zig, When to Zag

In the period from the late 19th to early 20th century, old notation began to fall from common usage. In this transitional period, some composers stayed with old notation while others adopted new notation.

Example 5a: Excerpt from Mahler: Symphony No. 1 (old notation)

Example 5b: Excerpt from Mussorgsky/Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition (new notation)

The rule of thumb

There is then, no hard-and-fast rule to determine what is “old” and what is “new” bass clef notation. However –

  • …if the composition was written prior to 1920 and,
  • …if the bass clef note is well below the staff

– chances are that it is old notation.

A quote from Eldon Matlick at sums it up nicely:

Even 20thc composers (even those active today) are not universal in the type of bass clef notation. Thus, there are a few ways you might be able to hazard a guess:

The first rule of thumb is that if the bass clef part has any ledger lines below the staff, especially below E, it probably is in old notation. However, don’t be fooled as the low E in the Shostakovitch 5th Symphony is the real thing!

So, the best thing you can do is to look at the score to see the voicing of the orchestration. This might give you a clue, especially if there are horns in octaves written in bass clef. If this is common piece of music, get a recording and listen to it with your part and score.

If this is a band work, it “probably” is written in new notation. I’m not trying to side step the issue, but this is a problem we as hornists must deal with.