Thomas Stevens

Why Trumpeters Transpose

  • For Trumpeters Only

A Mini-Primer for Very Young Trumpeters and Non Trumpet-Playing Observers of the Musical Art.

Recently, while speaking with some high school age trumpet students, the question arose as to why, at this time in history, trumpeters need transposition skills. Good question, since many contemporary composers, arrangers, orchestrators, and copyists let computer programs do this for them. What’s so different about trumpeters?

Symphony, opera, and other classically-oriented trumpeters routinely perform repertoire that covers nearly three centuries of musical works, including specific historical periods and national/regional/ compositional/orchestration styles and practices. The specific pitches of the trumpets for which the music was notated was usually determined by one or a number of these factors and could also include the keys of works, movements/episodes thereof, the instruments of record or available (historical/regional) at the time, or in some instances, simple choices of convenience (graphics?) made by editors/publishers.


Contemporary orchestral trumpeters of any era have always been required to have a working ability to resolve any existing pitch differences between the trumpet part(s) as written and the trumpet(s) they are actually playing*, and it has been the responsibility of the individual performers to make the necessary pitch adjustments when playing such (original) parts. The prevailing conventional wisdom, at least as it has been expressed by those outside of the trumpet community, is that the reasons for this have been more related to business considerations than musical/technical ones. Until very recently, the requisite time and expense incurred in the (re) engraving of musical scores and/or individual instrumental parts to update those materials would not have been cost-effective, since the publishers would never sell enough copies of the revised "product” to recoup their investment.Today, with readily available computer notation programs constituting an increasingly necessary and important component of every musician’s arsenal, it would be relatively easy to create and print new individual orchestral parts, in the case of the trumpet, ones transposed to be read “as-is” on virtually any pitch of instrument. Copyright issues not withstanding, current circumstances, in the opinion of many members of the current generation of players, have rendered "real-time" transposing ability to a less important position in the trumpeter’s required technical skill-set than previously has been the case. As one of my colleagues, an orchestral musician, has opined, offered here as an unattributed Quotable: "Transposing [at sight] makes about as much sense as using paper and pencil to add and subtract in the world of pocket calculators.

to be continued.............

* An example intended strictly for the uninitiated, using the first trumpet part of the Beethoven Eroica Symphony (below): The part is written for trumpet in “Eb,” which is the key of the symphony. The pitch is notated as “C,” sounding “Eb.” If played on a modern “C” trumpet, the player would play “Eb” (The trumpet in “C” sounds a minor third lower than the “Eb” trumpet; therefore, one must play a minor third higher than written to produce the correct pitch). If performed on a modern “Bb” trumpet, the player would play “F” because the “Bb” trumpet sounds a perfect fourth lower than the “Eb” trumpet; so, similarly, the trumpeter must play a perfect fourth higher to produce the proper pitch), and on the “A” piccolo trumpet, one would play (lower) “F# because the “A” piccolo sounds a tritone higher than the “Eb” instrument; so, one must play a tritone lower to sound the correct pitch.)