Hornmasters on Transposition

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For younger students of the present day who are handed a copy of The Art of French Horn Playing to help them get a better start on the horn, perhaps the most confusing section is the section on transposition. It is certainly a topic for the advancing horn student to understand well, and it was explained thoroughly. But looking at it now, it is in an historic sense great to know that Farkas conceived of C basso by reading the music in baritone clef, but today in the United States few teachers recommend any method other than transposition by interval.

Farkas does note clearly which keys are the most common and how to transpose them. As a part of this he definitely recommends thinking the key that would be implied by the transposition. For example, if you are reading horn in Eb and it is in the key of C major, you read the part down a step in F and the key will become Bb, exactly a step lower. How to transpose could be summarized as follows:

Horn in E (very common) down a half step
Horn in Eb (very common) down a step
Horn in D (fairly common) down a minor third
Horn in Db (very rare) down a major third
Horn in C (common) basso down a perfect fourth, alto up a perfect fifth
Horn in B (seldom) down an augmented fourth
Horn in Bb (fairly common) basso down a perfect fifth, alto up a perfect fourth
Horn in F# (almost never) up a half step
Horn in G (fairly common) up a step
Horn in Ab (rare) up a minor third
Horn in A (fairly common) up a major third

For an easy and popular online reference on transposition, please refer to the French Horn Transposition Chart by Bruce Hembd.

One suggestion made by Farkas that is easy to pass by is that he suggests working on transpositions away from the horn.

Carry a little book of music—any music. Songs are excellent for the purpose. Wherever you have a few spare minutes, perhaps on the bus, train, or just while resting, look at this music. Determine which transposition you are going to practice. Recall which interval or clef is used, determine the mental key signature, and then, proceeding slowly, say the name of each transposed note silently to yourself. You might even depress the correct fingers on some imaginary keys to further link the mental processes of transposition to the physical work of playing the instrument. …some practice on the horn is required to gain adequate coordination and fluency. Some editions of the Kopprasch books have recommended transpositions for each etude, and these are excellent practice material.

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Milan Yancich related in A Practical Guide to French Horn Playing how many players of his generation learned to transpose first from reading Eb alto horn parts in band music.

I myself learned more by fingerings and rote than by thinking one step down. Subsequently, my transposing ability went through several stages: first, I learned the correct sound of the notes; second, I began to transpose up or down by the interval system; and finally, I graduated to the use of clefs. For example, my E-flat transposing began by learning the fingering of the notes. I then progressed to the interval system by thinking down one whole step, and finally I discovered and learned how to use the tenor clef.

Also Yancich notes that for many horn players in effect the world is in F.

The majority of French horn players today think in terms of their horn pitch rather than concert pitch, and I am one of those. Although I have made the effort to think in terms of concert pitch, my ear seems to be tuned to the horn pitches. When I play in C on the horn I know that it is a concert F, but I hear it as C. There are hornists who think in concert pitch, and I believe that this is an advantage, for C (the sound) is always C.

Harry Berv in A Creative Approach to the French Horn suggests transposition by interval.

There are two methods of doing horn transposition. One is the clef method. The other is the interval method. Whichever one your choose is fine, as long as the end result is correct.

The one I advocate—and one that is used by the majority of students and professionals because of its simplicity and ease—is the interval method.

He recommends practice of transpositions every day to build facility. He also makes a special note about Bb transpositions. Normally the part will indicate if the transposition is to be read as alto or basso.

However, in the absence of such indication it should be presumed that the part is “Basso,” since the low pitch was used more frequently than the higher. There may be further confusion with a few other keys that are sometimes encountered without register indications. In operatic literature under these circumstances, part in A and Ab are usually transposed down; in orchestral literature, parts in A are transposed up, and in B down. If you are in doubt, hopefully your musicianship and experience will help you arrive at the correct solution.

This topic is an important one not addressed in other classic methods and actually a potential minefield for the experienced and inexperienced hornist. I would offer first these two supplemental links:

And I would repeat that Berv is correct, in terms of alto or basso; “in the absence of such indication it should be presumed that the part is ‘Basso,’” and “If you are in doubt, hopefully your musicianship and experience will help you arrive at the correct solution.”

Our final notes on transposition are from Barry Tuckwell. In Playing the Horn he recommends reading some transpositions by interval (E, Eb, G), some by clef (A, Ab, and as alternate approaches to G and Eb) and the rest (D, Db, C, B, and Bb) “can only be learned by familiarization.” This speaks to the idea that with practice transpositions do become somewhat automatic.

When we return the topic is lip trills.

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