Orchestration: Introduction to Woodwinds - Part I

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Justin P. Tokke
This page is a part of the Orchestration Masterclass. For other related articles, see Category:Orchestration masterclass
Woodwind players of the Philharmonia Orchestra

Introduction to the Woodwinds

In contrast to the strings, woodwind instruments produce sound by moving air, or wind. The wind moves against either a reed or chamber that causes it to vibrate making sound. The sound is then manipulated by keys and holes either shortening or lengthening the column of air changing the pitch. This is the most basic understanding of the woodwinds.

The woodwinds are the most diverse group in the orchestra besides the percussion. There are three fundamental types of instruments in the woodwinds: non-reed, single-reed, and double-reed instruments. Each of these types produces very different sounds: the non-reed a pure and focused sound, the single-reed, a pointed but somewhat sweet sound, and the double-reeds, a wooden nasal sound. Because of this great diversity there are dozens of woodwind instruments of all different sizes. We will discuss all the ones commonly (and some not-so-commonly) found in the orchestra and band.

There are four families within the woodwinds: the Flute Family, the Double-Reed Family (sometimes split into the Oboe and Bassoon Families), the Clarinet Family, and the Saxophone Family. All of these families have a full range of instruments that cover the large range from soprano to bass. Like a real family, the various instruments of each family will be of a similar sound and appearance and tend to overlap in range. As a result, each family can act as a cohesive whole on its own. However, it is rare to have an entire family of each woodwind type in an orchestra because that would require a very large woodwind section; note that this is a generalization and not a rule.

The standard woodwind section consists of proportional numbers of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons; each family will contribute to the orchestra. Saxophones are rarely used, usually included only for special purposes. They are, however, always contained in the band. The number of each instrument varies depending on the size of the orchestra. We will discuss the standard woodwind sections in more detail in turn.


We have seen transposition briefly when we were discussing the double bass. Now, we must discuss it in great detail because it is very integral to the woodwinds and brass.

Transposition, in the simplest sense, is the writing of music at a different pitch than sounding pitch. It is used in certain instruments to simplify notation making it easier to read by players. These instruments are called “transposing instruments” who read a part that is transposed to a different interval than the concert pitch (a fancy name for the real sounding pitch). In other words, a written C4 (middle C) on the page will not produce a sounding C4 if the instrument is transposing, it will produce something else depending on the instrument.

Often students will find transposition confusing and unnecessary, especially if they did not grow up playing a transposing instrument such as the Clarinet or Trumpet. While it is more work for the composer and orchestrator, it is a very important concept to understand and can’t be avoided. Any composer who writes for instruments must understand not just how instruments transpose by why they transpose. It is also unfortunate that many teachers and textbooks gloss over this concept and don’t give it due weight. Thus we will spend a great deal of time on this single subject here.

Justification for Transposition

There are several justifications to transposition, some better than others. The most important are as follows:

Extreme ledger lines

The most logical justification of transposition is for the reduction of ledger lines by transposing a part by the octave (or some other large interval) to make the part easily readable on a treble or bass clef staff. Most common are the piccolo, double bass, guitar, and tenor voice which all have octave transpositions either up or down. Extremes of range can also have two-octave transpositions such as the glockenspiel. Just imagine how unwieldy it would be to read C8 without transposition! Consider the following examples; the first is the original part with transposition and the second is the sounding score without transposition:

Octave Transposition Example 1

Octave Example 1a
Octave Example 1b

Octave Transposition Example 2

Octave Example 2a
Octave Example 2b

Octave Transposition Example 3

Octave Example 3a
Octave Example 3b

Note that all of these are generally in their “standard” register for their particular instrument. Imagine if one had to read the non-transposed versions consistently: it would be simply too cumbersome to read as many as ten ledger lines all the time.

For example, the piccolo’s lowest note is sounding D5 and would be written on the fourth line of the treble clef staff if written at sounding pitch. This is a waste of space on the staff if the instrument can’t possibly go below D. So the entire part is transposed down an octave to make it easier to read. Granted, the piccolo could have been written two octaves down similar to the glockenspiel, but then the lowest note would be the D five ledger lines below the staff, which looks silly being that it is a very high instrument. Also, being a flute-family instrument, piccolo players will be able to read the upper ledger lines without difficulty since they’re used to it.

A short note should be made about the flute and tuba that regularly have high and low parts respectively with large amounts of ledger lines. The reason for this is because their range is quite large (the tuba’s alone is about 3½ octaves save for pedal tones) and can’t fit comfortably on a single staff with any single transposition (a five-line staff only has about an octave compass available). Thus their peculiar ranges are relegated to non-transposing and left to the player to learn the ledger lines. Luckily, this practice has been accepted by players and regularly able to read ledger lines quickly; most flute parts, on comparison, lie mostly above the staff while tuba parts lie below. There have been some attempts to change this practice (such as the British Bass Tuba in B-flat written in treble clef), but none have become accepted into the mainstream.

Octave transpositions must be memorized by the student since there is no hard-and-fast rule as to which instrument gets which transposition. One can get clues because of the range, but that’s hardly helpful. Consider the piccolo and glockenspiel which have very similar registers with the same upper limit, yet the glockenspiel is written two octaves down while the piccolo only one octave. Likewise, tenor voice is written an octave down in treble clef but other times, when written in tenor or bass clef, it is written in sounding pitch.

Instrument Families

The second justification comes from the concept of “instrument families” or sets of instruments all of a similar design and sound which progressively get lower or higher as one lists them all. (We have already seen such a family with the strings.) Complete sets of instruments, such as the saxophones or clarinets, have exclusive transpositions in specific keys that tend to overlap. For the clarinets and saxophones, the transpositions alternate between E-flat and B-flat transpositions as one goes down the list of either. Consider the following list of “military band” saxophones invented by Adolphie Sax in 1841: (the interval is the amount the transposed part must be transposed to get to sounding pitch)

  • Sopranino Saxophone in E-flat – up m3 (up 8va, down M6)
  • Soprano Saxophone in B-flat – down M2
  • Alto Saxophone in E-flat – down M6
  • Tenor Saxophone in B-flat – down M9 (8va + M2)
  • Baritone Saxophone in E-flat – down 8va + M6
  • Bass Saxophone in B-flat – down 8va + M9 (15ma + M2)
  • Contrabass Saxophone in E-flat – down 15ma + M6

Notice the “keys” for each other instrument are all the same and their transpositions are the same. Added is the octave transposition to make the instruments’ relative registers easily readable within a treble clef staff. This consistency of transposing keys allows players to easily play [i]all[/i] the members of a family since they are designed to have the same fingering with the same notation, only the actual sound would be different.

Doubling of Instruments

Related closely to the families is that transposition allows players to quickly double on similar instruments, known as “auxiliary instruments.” These instruments, such as piccolo, English horn, or bass clarinet, etc., are all extensions of the “main” or “original” instrument (Flute, Oboe, and Clarinet respectively), and as such have very similar constructions other than dimension. To facilitate doubling these auxiliaries often have the same fingerings as the original instrument. As noted above, one can play all of the saxophones in exactly the same way from exactly the same part and there will only be two different sounding parts (disregarding octaves), one in B-flat and E-flat.

This is very useful in situations such as the jazz band or concert band where players can freely jump between instruments with relative ease. In Broadway scores, this concept of doubling is highly used as a means of economy and is facilitated by these transpositions. In high school bands it is also incredibly helpful to the band director to switch students around to auxiliary instruments that don’t often have a native player (such as piccolo, bass clarinet, baritone horn, or baritone saxophone) if they know that instrument’s related instrument. For example, if a player knows how to play the standard B-flat Clarinet, the player can move to bass clarinet or alto clarinet very easily. This is seen in almost every instrument family (violin to viola, trumpet to baritone, baritone to tuba, or flute to piccolo) but has special importance in winds because many of these instruments were designed to be doubled.

Tone color considerations

A more subtle reason for transposition is color tendencies between instruments. Sometimes, a part perfectly playable on one instrument might sound better on another. The best example of this is the Clarinet in B-flat and the Clarinet in A. They have almost the exact same range but the Clarinet in A has a slightly deeper and richer tone than the B-flat. Say if a written B4 is played on a B-flat Clarinet, it would fall into the pale-sounding “throat tones” sub-range (more on that later). On the A Clarinet, it would be a Bb4 making it part of the lower and richer “chalumeau” register. If that note was important in a melody the composer or player might chose to use the A Clarinet over the B-flat Clarinet. Other examples of this are using the Bassoon over Contrabassoon, Clarinet over Bass Clarinet, Oboe over English Horn, Piccolo over Flute, Soprano Sax over Alto Sax, Violin over Viola etc. etc. etc. In all these cases, the ranges overlap and different subtle variations on color are available for each situation. The sounding pitch will often be the same but a different transposition will be necessary for the different instruments.

Historical Development

Instruments didn’t just “happen”, they developed over time. All of the families have a “common ancestor” of which the entire family came from. For the clarinets that would be the Clarinet in B-flat, for the double-reeds, the oboe etc. The standard transpositions for each of these instruments tended to guide instrument makers to design instruments around those existing instruments. So the clarinet family’s base transposition of B-flat is because the Clarinet in B-flat came first. Obviously some discrepancies existed (how do we account for the Clarinet in A or Clarinet in C?) but generally, the “superior” instrument was chosen for expansion. (The B-flat Clarinet was consider superior to the C Clarinet; the Oboe superior to the lower Oboe da caccia.)

A completely unrelated historical reason was the development of brass instrument transpositions. The brasses were designed to be “in C” then various crooks were used to change the transpositions to allow more notes to composers because of the instruments’ limited available pitches. We won’t discuss this further until we get to the natural brasses.

Transposition Nomenclature and Procedure

You may notice that a lot of the instruments mentioned above are “in” a key. This nomenclature comes from the instrument’s fundamental tone as relative to C. If instrument x is in B-flat, that means that when it plays a written C on the page, that note that will sound a B-flat. Notice this interval is a major 2nd (M2) descending. Using the same principle in reverse, if one wants a C to be sounded, one would write a D, a major 2nd ascending. We use this concept of an instrument’s “intervallic difference from the sounding pitch” when referring to a transposition, or, to put it plainly, how far away the written pitch is from the sounding pitch.

To visually illustrate this concept, the following diagram shows this basic but fundamental principle of transposition:


  • Going from right to left (from transposing to concert), one transposes down towards the key of the instrument from C. Note the interval: that interval is the amount the part must be transposed down. For a B-flat instrument, transpose down a M2, because the distance between C and B-flat is a M2 descending; for an F instrument, down a P5, because the distance between C and F is a P5 descending.
  • Going from left to right (from concert to transposing) one transposes up away from the key of the instrument towards C. Note the interval: that interval is the amount the part must be transposed up. For a B-flat instrument, transpose up a M2, because the distance between B-flat and C is a M2 ascending; for an F instrument, up a P5, because the distance between F and C is a P5 ascending.

Notice that the intervals are the same in either case, it is just the direction that changes.

Keys and Instruments

Transpositions can (theoretically) occur in any key and interval though certain transpositions have become standardized because of the standardization of instruments over time. In theory, therefore, any interval can be obtained by a key’s relativity to C. A G instrument would be a P4 down, a E instrument would be a m6 down, a F-sharp instrument would be an Aug4 down, and so on and so forth.

The following list contains the complete list of all major orchestral and band instruments and their transpositions. Only current and standardized instruments are listed. Instruments such as Banjo, Bass Flute, old Horn keys, and Quint Bassoon, though they exist, are not listed because of their rarity and for brevity. Written middle C (C4) is indicated along with the sounding note that the written middle C will produce.

List of Transpositions and their respective instruments

By far the most popular transposition are the B-flat, E-flat, and F transpositions. All have heavy usage in both woodwind and brass. The following list is a complete list of the transpositions we will be using in this course. The labeled intervals are in from C score to transposed score. Be sure to memorize which instruments go with which transpositions because they will have to become second nature to you.

Practical examples

Let us examine this concept of transposition with actual score examples. Say we have the following concert part, the theme from Beethoven's 9th Symphony:

Transposition Example - Sounding

Ode to Joy

How would we write this part for Clarinet in B-flat? Since the instrument is in B-flat, then we must transpose it by a M2. Since we are going from the concert score to the transposed part, we need to transpose the part up. Put these two together: we must re-write the concert score a M2 up. Thus we have the following:

Transposition Example - Transposed

Ode to Joy

But we’re not done. Notice only the notes were transposed, but not the key signature. All woodwinds utilize transposed key signatures as well as notes. We must therefore transpose the key signature as well. We use the same interval that we used to transpose the notes: a M2 up. Our new key signature would therefore be E major from D major. The final part would look like this:

Transposition Example - Transposed With Key Signature

Ode to Joy

A second approach to key signatures is to use the circle of fifths. See the diagram of the circle below.

Circle of Fifths

Here we have the blue and red arrows pointing in each direction from the home key of C major marked by the black dot. The blue arrow would be going from concert score to a transposed part; the red arrow from a transposed score to sounding pitch. For a B-flat instrument, when a C note is written in the part, a B-flat will sound; the same principle applies to keys. This would be like the red arrow above. The "concert key" would thus be B-flat, or two flats with the transposing key of C, or no sharps or flats. Now, let's we go in the opposite direction. Suppose we have a concert part in C, the opposite amount of movement in the circle is necessary. Thus, the new transposing key signature would be D, or two sharps.

Notice in both these cases that the transposing key is exactly two sharps more than the concert key. Notice also that the key of the instrument has two flats, a mathematical coincidence. This is a common rule that one can apply to every transposition: for every flat in the instrument key, one must add a sharp to the concert key; the resulting key is the transposing key. Using our example above, if the concert key of a B-flat instrument is C major (no sharps or flats), then the transposing key is D major.

The vice versa of the rule is also true. If an instrument in A, or 3 sharps, has a concert key of C major, then the transposing key would be E-flat major, or 3 flats. A more complex example: An instrument in E-flat (3 flats) with a concert key signature of D-flat major (5 flats) would have a transposing key signature of B-flat (2 flats) by adding three sharps. All of these situations would be a shifting of the arrows around the circle by placing the dot on the concert key and lengthening them according to the key of the instrument.

Extreme cases of key signatures (where enharmonic key signatures are possible) are where transpositions get muddy and key signatures will often be enharmonically transposed at the whims of the composer or player for the simplest notation.

Saxophone Family

Let us look back at the "List of Transpositions" above. You'll notice that there are several different versions of the C, B-flat, and E-flat keys. Each of them has the transposition placed in a different octave. This stems from doubling where large families of instruments will have transpositions that have their written ranges either identical or very closely overlapping. The best example of this is the Saxophone family which all have exactly the same range on paper but have radically different sounding ranges. Compare the ranges of all the saxophones below.

Saxophone Ranges

As said above, every saxophone has the same fingering for each written note on the page which allows any sax player to play any saxophone with ease. This would not be possible without the extra octave transpositions.

Conclusion to Part I

That concludes our discussion on transposition. The student must be able to completely understand this concept. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask!

Introduction to Woodwinds Part II will discuss the woodwinds in general including tone production, reed type, the air column, articulations, tonguing, tone color, and woodwind ensembles.

Next Article: Part II