Transposition: Useful or Waste of Time?

An interesting blog post from James Boldin tackles one of the more hotly-debated topics in French horn circles: do I need to learn (or teach) how to transpose?

I think there’s a big tendency for teachers to come down very strongly on one side or the other, and I imagine 75% (or more) would say that you absolutely must learn how to transpose, no matter what your future aspirations as a horn player and musician are.

James has a great perspective on this, and I think that there is one question that can should be answered before deciding whether to learn (or teach) transposition.

2 Types of Transposition Knowledge

One thing I think should be made clear, though, is the difference between learning how to transpose in general and learning how to transpose while playing.

Any musician playing a transposing instrument (whether it’s French horn, trumpet, saxophone, etc.) should at least know the basics of how to transpose. Many times conductors will talk in concert pitch, and it’s important to be able to understand what notes or instruments they are talking about.

For horn players, though, when your teachers talk about knowing “how to transpose” they generally mean knowing how to transpose on-the-fly while playing.

Transposing While Playing

Of course, learning the skill of transposing while playing is a level (or two) beyond learning the idea of transposition itself.

In my experience, the best question to ask the student is: “do you want to make money playing your horn”. If the answer is “yes”, then it’s 100% critical to be able to transpose reliably while playing.

There’s a lot of reasons (James covers most of them), but the most basic reason is simply that it is expected of a professional to have this skill, and if you can’t do it, there are 50 other horn players who can. Even if you’re a better player than those 50, they will know what notes to play, while you won’t!

However, if you’re not planning on performing for a living, then I think there’s a little bit more wiggle room in what you spend your (probably limited) practice and study time on.

It still may be important for some professional musicians (a band director can play trumpet, euphonium, and saxophone parts without switching instruments), but you don’t have to spend lots of time for the more difficult transpositions (Horn in H, for example. If you’re not going into music as profession, there’s even less necessity to learn how to transpose, but remember that if you want to earn money (or play in a community orchestra) there are times when you’ll need to have at least a some transposition knowledge.

In any case, it’s worth being aware of these kinds of pros and cons when deciding what your students should spend valuable practice and lesson time on. It would be great if they could (and would) practice everything, but part of teaching is prioritization, and this list makes some very good points!

Transposition Resources

If you’re confused on how to transpose, you can find my transposition chart here. It lists all the common (and not-so-common) transpositions, and can be a useful resource if you’re still learning the ropes of transposition.

If you’re wondering whether to invest the time into transposition, you should also read the pros and cons list over at James Boldin’s website.