September 2018
Which Octave Should I Play?
Clefs and Transposition
by ARS Board Member James Chaudoir
We as recorder players invariably find ourselves working with clefs and transpositions on a daily basis. In most cases, this is not a problem, but at other times it can cause a dilemma when making the decision as to the proper octave for performance. Solving this can easily be accomplished with a little bit of understanding about transposition in regards to both clefs and instruments. To keep this discussion simple, let's focus on the two more common clefs that we find in modern recorder music, the G clef and the F clef as found in the basic SATB quartet musical score.

The purpose of clefs is to provide a means to identify the notes on a staff.  The placement of the G clef identifies which line of the staff represents the pitch G above middle C. When this clef is placed on the second line from the bottom of the staff, it is commonly called the Treble Clef (see Figure 1 , click to enlarge ). Similarly, the placement of the F clef identifies which line of the staff represents the pitch F below middle C. When this clef is placed on the second line from the top of the staff, it is commonly called the Bass Clef (see fig. 1 ).

But, what about those little 8s I’ve seen notated above and below clef signs? The short answer is they turn the clefs into transposing clefs, meaning that any note played as notated will sound either an octave higher, or an octave lower (see fig. 1 ). They also have an important role in designating octave displacement in scores (see Figure 2 , below right - click to enlarge ). For example, if you see a Transposing (down) G Clef used below a staff that has a Treble Clef, then you will automatically know that clef will sound an octave below the one above it.

This is where knowing about transposing recorders becomes important. Both the soprano and bass recorders, as well as the sopranino and great bass, sound an octave above the pitches that are written, while the alto and tenor, as well as the contra bass, sound the pitch written. There are times, however, when this is not the case, particularly with the alto, where we find it necessary to read that line an octave higher, or “alto-up.”

Such a situation would occur with the formatting explained in fig. 2 , example 2. Knowing the transpositions of the instruments and the clefs will clearly help us know the proper octave to play. This example would be a format where we’d either play the alto up an octave, or perhaps the range would be such that a second soprano would be desirable. 

The examples in fig. 2 have the instruments identified, but there are many publications on the market, and in our libraries, where this is not the case. In some editions, the alto line being written well below the instrument’s range is an accurate indicator that it would need to be played an octave higher, rather than given to an instrument of lower pitch. 

There is no standard format of clefs for the SATB recorder quartet. One particular oddity I’ve seen is the bass recorder written at pitch in the Treble Clef; unusual, but it actually works quite well.  Example 1 of fig. 2 is an illustration of what I would consider the preferred format, and this is fairly recent in concept. As you can see, the use of transposing clefs removes any ambiguity as far as pitch is concerned.

Because there is no universal standard, the formatting of clefs can, and does, vary with composers, arrangers, publishers, and dates of publication. Formatting may also differ in music from one period to another, especially when reading scores arranged for instruments other than recorders. Our understanding of clefs and transposition can help us select the ideal instrumentation to play any musical composition with pitch accuracy.

-- contributed by ARS Board member, composer and educator James Chaudoir of Oshkosh, WI

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