Wednesday, June 20, 2012

I'm using my F tuba, and no, I'm not transposing.

Most professional American tubists own 2 tubas, a CC contrabass tuba and an F bass tuba.  But until college, American tuba players normally play a BBb contrabass tuba.  So naturally, I often get the question, "Do you transpose?"  I always say, "No, I just learn different fingerings for each instrument."  The retort is usually something like, "Isn't that the same as transposing?"  To this, I reply, "No, because no matter which tuba I'm playing, if I see an F on a piece of music, that's the note that is coming out of my bell."  Understandably, this may still seem confusing.  Let me explain.


Let's talk about the main families of transposing instruments: the clarinet family, the saxophone family, certain parts of the oboe family (oboe d'amore and English horn), trumpet, and horn. The flute family also has some members that transpose, like the alto flute, but when most people think about flutes, they think about the standard concert pitch C flute.  We'll just stick with the more standard instruments for now.  There are many instruments that only sound 1 or 2 octaves higher or lower than written, but let's focus on the instrument families already listed.

The different families contain instruments that vary in size and timbre (quality of the sound).  The title of the instrument indicates what note it will play when it sees a C on a piece of music.  For instance, if a Bb clarinet player sees the note C on his part, he will play that note, and a concert Bb will come out of the instrument.  If a trumpet player with an Eb trumpet sees the note C on her part, she will use the fingering for C, but an Eb will come out.  Here's another way to think about it.  Let's say you have a C trumpet, and you learn your C major scale.  Now you decide to switch to Bb trumpet, but you use the same fingerings as you did on C trumpet to play a C major scale.  Guess what comes out?  A Bb major scale.

Let's look at an example.  Here is the C major scale, written in concert pitch (what you hear):

Now, take a look at how this same scale is written for 3 different members of the saxophone family: 

Believe it or not, all 3 lines of the saxophone example sound just like the top example - same octave and everything!  Yes, to someone that plays a concert pitch instrument (like the C flute), the saxophone examples do not look anything like a C major scale, but when these are played on the correct instruments with the right fingerings, they sound a C major scale.

But why?

So that someone that plays one saxophone can play all of the saxophones.  Even though all the saxophone examples look different, the fingerings are exactly the same!  You just have to make sure your instrument matches with the name of the instrument on the part.  

You may be wondering, "Why does the bari sax part 'look' higher?  Isn't the bari sax lower than the alto sax?  And how come bari sax is in treble clef?"  Yes, it is a lower-sounding instrument, and yes, there's a reason it's written like that.  Clarinets and bass clarinets see this in their music too.  Let's use the C major scale again as an example.

The following example is written in concert pitch, no transposition.  Notice that I wrote the alto and bari sax sounding 1 octave apart, because normally the bari sax is playing quite a bit lower in pitch than the alto sax.  You can play this on piano to remind you of the difference in sound.

But write this same scale out, transposed for the instruments, and....

Holy smokes, the 2 parts look exactly the same, but they sound an octave apart!  The transposition here takes care of the octave displacement too.  Bb bass clarinet parts are also written in treble clef, but sound an octave lower than their Bb clarinet counterparts.  Their parts will look exactly the same and will use the same fingerings, but sound an octave apart.  This makes it easy for a player to switch between instruments without having to worry about the fingering or learning a new clef.  We should also mention that transposed parts will usually make for having to write way less ledger lines (below or above the staff), which makes music easier to read.  This is why the piccolo sounds 1 octave higher than written.  Who wants to read all those ledger lines (except tubists)?  


Phew.  OK, I get that.  But how come Bb trombone, CC contrabass tuba, F bass tuba, and Bb euphonium are all concert pitch instruments (read: they don't transpose)?

The difference is in the history of the instruments.  Before brass instruments had valves, they were limited to the notes in the overtone series based on the fundamental note of that instrument.  For instance, a C trumpet was limited to the notes in the C overtone series.  But certainly, brass instruments had to play in keys other than C.  So to change keys, a player would change out a piece of piping in the instrument called the "crook" to make it longer or shorter, and thus change the fundamental pitch and the key.  A horn player could change the crook in a horn in F to make it a horn in D.  On a side note, horn players could also manipulate their hands inside their bells to mimic the effect of what valves would do later (play pitches in between the notes in the give overtone series), but the natural, most resonant pitches on the instrument were in the overtone series.  Essentially, the changing of the crook would make it a different instrument.  When valves were invented, the tradition of "switching instruments" continued.  Instead of changing your C crook to a D crook, you'd just change your C trumpet to a D trumpet.  Great for instrument manufacturers, huh? 

Still with me? I hope so!

OK, so what happened with the low brass instruments?  Well, tuba and euphonium pretty much came into being because of the invention of the valve.  Read a little about the history of the tuba to understand why.  So the tuba and euphonium came around after the tradition of transposing instruments had been established.  The trombone has long been a concert pitch instrument (it reads what it sounds), but now the standard trombone is in Bb, as is the standard euphonium.  CC, BBb, F, and Eb tubas are all standard tubas as well.  Sometimes euphoniums play in treble clef and transposed, but this comes from the time when military bands were very popular, and trumpet players often doubled on euphonium, and this prevented them having to learn new fingerings.  It is still common to see treble clef euphonium parts for young students - band directors often change a student from trumpet to euphonium if playing high is an issue.


Unlike their high brass and woodwind counterparts, low brass instruments are named for their fundamental pitch.  So, a CC contrabass tuba works around the C harmonic series (with pedal C being the "fundamental"), so a CC contrabass tuba can play all the notes in the C harmonic series with no valves depressed.  Tuba players must learn different fingerings for each instrument.  Our parts are always written in concert pitch. 

OK, so why do you have so many tubas then?  Here are some of the reasons:

1) Timbre.  Contrabass tubas (BBb and CC) are larger and have a darker sound, while bass tubas (F or Eb) tend to sound brighter.  For instance, contrabasses are used in most orchestral playing because they have to support an entire orchestra, and the contrabass tends to be more homogeneous with the basses.  On the other hand, bass tubas are frequently used in brass quintets because they brighter tone is more homogeneous with the higher brass instruments.  However, both can be (and are regularly) used in both large and chamber ensembles.  It depends on the need of the music.

2) Range.  That's an easy one. Contrabass = bigger = easier to play low on.  The opposite is true for F tuba.  While pro tubists can play high or low on either horn, we still have to be practical.  The F tuba is naturally more agile in the high register, and would be the ideal choice for a 15-minute long concerto that sits in the high register for most of the piece.  But if I'm playing below the staff oom-pahs in a polka band for 3 hours at an Oktoberfest gig, I'm going to use my CC.

3) Composer's intent.  Some composers (like Vaughan Williams and John Stevens) specifically request bass or contrabass tuba.  If it's not written on the page, you have to use your judgment.  Some things end up becoming "common knowledge" - for instance, one should play Berlioz on a bass tuba because he originally wrote the parts for ophicleide, the predecessor to the tuba, which had a very bright, compact sound, which is more easily attained on F tuba (not to mention the parts tend to be in the higher register).

There are many cases in which you are going to have to use your musical intuition on the decision of tuba.  For instance, I know many people that will bring an F tuba on stage for Stravinsky's Petrushka just to play the infamous "Bear solo."  I personally like the grittiness and angst of the CC tuba in the register - I really feel like I can "roar," and that my F is too "pretty" up there for what I want in that solo.  That, and I'm way too lazy to carry 2 tubas onstage (except for Bydlo).

I've still had people try to tell me that I transpose because I play instruments in C and F.  But for tuba, that's simply not true. With the exception of brass band music (a whole 'nother thing!), nobody that knows what he/she is doing writes a "CC tuba part" or an "F tuba part" (but remember, composer can specify bass or contrabass, but that's for sound quality, not key).  The bottom line is that if I see the note F on a page, an F is what's going to come out of my tuba. We. Do. Not. Transpose.  We choose our "axe" based on the needs of the gig at hand.  But...


A trumpet player might show up to a gig with his Bb trumpet, but when he is handed a C trumpet part, he's going to have to transpose on the spot.  A horn player might show up to a church gig and be handed the SATB choir part, which is written in concert pitch.  I remember that once I had a church gig where there was one piece that didn't have a tuba part, so the choir director asked me to play the horn part down 1 octave - so I was transposing and reading treble clef.  Regardless of instrument, you should practice transposition.  It will make you a better, more well-rounded musician, plus it's a great brain exercise!

Thanks for reading - I hope this helps make more sense of transposition and transposing instruments!


  1. Great post Rachel.

    I think the thing that most people don't realize is that bass clef low brass instruments just DON'T transpose. We read the pitches that we are playing, depending on the horn, however there are different fingers being played to get them out of the horn. The whole point of "in BBb" or "in CC" is mostly demonstrative of the fundamental.

    Don't even get started talking about brass band and BBb and EEb bass and treble clef, though. Then heads start exploding.

  2. Why can't there just be one versatile tuba!? I'll be learning CC tuba soon with Hunsberger...the idea of relearning fingerings has always scared me.

    1. All of the tubas are special in what they can offer in sound quality. Learning new fingerings is kind of hard at first, but it gets easier the more you do it! I think the best time to learn new fingerings is over the summer. Start by playing things you know how to play on your first tuba, so you know what it's supposed to sound like (for instance, a few Bordogni etudes you really like).

  3. Are there any actual timbre differences between two types of contrabass tubas (B flat and CC) and between bass tubas (F and E flat)?

    1. The BBb is slightly larger than a CC, and Eb is slightly larger than an F, so I find that often the larger tubas are slightly darker. That depends a lot on the model of horn though!

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.


    After learning in the Tuba world you ask yourself "why would you transpose?" I love playing everything in concert pitch.

    I once asked a friend of mine who teaches Tuba at a university in my area why use BBb for brass ensemble and CC for orchestra. He told me something like "different colors for different occasions"

    I also discovered that some orchestras in Germany like to use F Tuba because it blends better (in their opinion) with the Trombones.

    This is an excellent article Rachel. Great job!

  5. Also, why am I writing my dumb blog when yours is so much better? :)

    1. That's a sweet thing to say! I love reading your blog. I love learning about old horns, repairs, and the music articles are great too! PS - I think there are 2 ads currently on TV featuring sousaphones.

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