6. Score basics


One of the most ubiquitous pairings of instruments is more than one instrument playing the same melody line as another. The last commentary examined the beginning of the Beethoven Egmont Overture, the first measure of which has the entire orchestra – except timpani – playing a sustained F. (In Example 1 you can see and hear the opening measures of the score. Remember that clicking the small icon in the lower right of the example will make the score easier to read by displaying it full screen.)

Example 1. Beethoven, Egmont Overture, Measures 1 through 5
Rudolph Kempe, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI

In the first measure, the woodwinds cover the range from the great F (also known as F2) in the second bassoon up through the 3-line F (F6) in the first flute. This is a range of five octaves. The strings are centered on the lower end of the sound spectrum. Their range extends from the contra F (F1) in the contrabasses to 1-line F (F4) in both the first and second violins.

Long aside about clefs

In order to read a score, or even to feel comfortable examining one, a knowledge of clefs is important. Most musicians are at least familiar with the treble and bass clefs. These are also known as the G and F clefs, respectively. In the pre-history of music the G clef showed a player what line of the staff was G4, the G a fifth above middle C. Similarly, the F clef showed the musician what line of the staff was F3, the F a fifth below middle C.

Unfortunately, most music students tend to learn solely about their own instruments, rarely getting a background on others. Trombonists, for example, learn bass and tenor clefs. Clarinetists learn treble clef. Violists learn alto and treble clefs. Most instrumentalists are never asked to read clefs other than the ones traditionally used by the instrument. (There are exceptions to every rule, but generally these statements are valid.)

The question might arise: Why do these multiple clefs exist? Is it just to frustrate the student musician? The answer is actually quite pragmatic: They exist to make the music easier to read. To understand this, imagine someone with a soprano part, trying to sing the low C, two ledger lines below the bass staff. This would require a note with eight ledger lines below the treble staff. Granted, a preposterous example, but illuminating nevertheless.

Clefs were used to help keep the normal range of a part relatively constrained within the staff. In fact, at one time there were clefs for each voice: Soprano clef, alto clef, tenor clef, baritone clef, and bass clef.

It may help those familiar only with treble or bass clef, to think of this unfamiliar clef simply as a C clef. As such it points the reader to what line represents middle C. Put it on the top line of the staff and the second line down is A, the next line is F, and so on. In some older scores this clef, known as “baritone clef” was represented by the F clef put on the middle line. So, when the “bass” clef is put on the middle line, it was called “baritone” clef.

And, as long as we’ve mentioned all of the other C clefs (Baritone, Tenor, Alto, and Soprano), the astute reader may ask, what about mezzo-soprano on the only line we’ve omitted? The answer would be: Yes. Put a C clef on the next to the bottom line of the staff and you have mezzo-soprano clef.

Example 2. Beethoven, Missa Solemnis, Kyrie Opening
Rudolph Kempe, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI

Although the soprano clef, mezzo-soprano and baritone clefs are not (or are rarely) used today, they are still found in many older scores in vocal parts. Examples 2, 3 and 4 display the Kyrie of the Missa Solemnis by Beethoven. It’s written for four vocal soloists and choir (both SATB). Example 2 shows the opening of the Kyrie with orchestra alone. The choral parts are using the less frequently used C clefs. Note too that the vocal lines and the organ are placed in the score just above the cellos. Although not a standard, it’s not unheard of to have this placement in a score.

The soprano part is written in soprano clef. And as a reminder: The middle of the clef indicates the line of the staff that is middle C. Hence, middle C is the lowest line of the staff. The next line up is E, the next is G, and so forth. This can be confirmed by looking at the key signature. This part of the mass is in D major. The F-sharp in the key signature is showing that the second space up from the bottom is F and the first space down from the top is C.

Moving down the page to the next vocal parts, the alto and the tenor use C clefs that are commonly used today for certain instruments, but not commonly used for the voice. The standard for the viola is alto clef, where the middle line is middle C. In fact this is so common for the violas and so uncommon in other instrument, it’s frequently called viola clef.

The tenor part is in tenor clef indicating the second line down from the top line is middle C. Although generally written in bass clef, the bassoons, trombones, cellos, and double basses will as needed be written in tenor clef. (Although it wasn’t discussed, there are a variety of low brass instruments that are often pitched as transposing instruments, in both bass and treble clefs.)

Example 3. Beethoven, Missa Solemnis, Kyrie beginning at measure 104
Rudolph Kempe, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI

Example 4. Beethoven, Missa Solemnis, Kyrie beginning at measure 104
With overlay showing vocal parts written with contemporary clefs
Rudolph Kempe, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI

Two final items are about common clefs in use, but often not considered special. First, there are clefs known also Octave clefs. These are usually indicated by an “8” (for octave) attached to the bottom or top of a clef. This tells the performer to sound the note an octave higher or lower than written. This is so common for some instruments that it is usually omitted and the standard clef is used. As some examples, the contrabass (double bass) part is often written so that it looks just like the cello part, but the instrument will sound an octave lower. This is true for the contrabassoon also. And, at the high end of the spectrum, the piccolo, soprano recorder and a few others, will sound an octave higher than written.

The last item about clefs is that unpitched instruments of the percussion family use a clef that helps the composer to tell the performer what instrument to play. For example, the top space might be a cymbal or high hat. The bottom space could indicate bass drum or low tom-tom. In more contemporary music where the composer frequently wants to control the exact sounds of the percussion, he or she may note the specific instrument to be played on a specific line or space. Often, the way of making the sound will be specified too, a quite different practice from two centuries ago.

End of Long aside about clefs

Some readers may find that all of this is common knowledge; for others this may be enlightening. In order to read scores and to compose for orchestral instruments, it’s important to know how these performers read their parts. The better informed an orchestrator is about unfamiliar instruments, the more facile he or she will be in using these instruments to their advantage and to get the sounds desired from an orchestra.

Transposing instruments

One last but important piece of this puzzle has to with transposing instruments. In many scores reviewed here the English horn, clarinet, horn, and trumpet are often written as transposing parts.

To anyone with an electronic keyboard or synthesizer, changing the key of a piece is as simple as dialing in the knob, moving a slider, or typing the name. Historically, though, performing a piece in another key than the sheet music indicated required a degree of skill. Often transposition is required suddenly, right before a performance: The piece is too high or too low for the newly arrived singer or an acoustic instrument (frequently a piano or organ) is pitched too low so the rest of the performers need to accommodate it.

So, you may ask, why are there transposing instruments? Do they always transpose? Do you have to select a different one for each key? These are understandable questions. Reviewing a few instruments will help to answer them. The most common modern clarinet is called a B-flat clarinet. This is because when the performer plays a C it sounds a B-flat. Similarly, an E-flat clarinet playing a C will sound an E-flat and the French horn is an F instrument. When a horn player plays a C the instrument sounds an F.

Before the middle of the eighteenth century horns had no valves. Instead, a horn player might change the length of the circular instrument by replacing one section of pipe with a longer one, thus lowering the pitch. The horn player could also change the pitch in other ways, but these are outside the range of the current presentation.

Returning to the B-flat clarinet you might ask, “What’s the benefit of having differently pitched clarinets?” The main reason is that, simply by changing to a different instrument, the sound and range of the clarinet could change. Among other advantages this meant that a clarinetist, could just put down the B-flat clarinet and pick up an E-flat clarinet and play it without learning a different set of fingerings for the instrument.

This gave the composer a range of sounds wider than just one instrument could provide. The flutist could double on a piccolo. The oboist could double on the English horn. The clarinetist could double on the E-flat clarinet, the A clarinet and the bass clarinet, and so on.

Because these transposing woodwind instruments are pitched differently, they require a different key signature so the notes will sound in proper “concert” pitch. Earlier it was noted that when a B-flat clarinet plays a C, it sounds a B-flat. Therefore, if a piece of music is written in B-flat, the clarinet part will be written in C. Examples will help.

Beethoven: Egmont Overture, measure 1
Example 5. Beethoven, Egmont Overture, Measure 1

At the beginning of this post we examined the opening to the Beethoven Egmont Overture. Let’s look again at it (Example 5). Note the clarinets are in G minor (two flats) and the rest of the woodwinds are in F minor. Two of the horns and the trumpets are pitched in F. Their opening notes are Cs because when a transposing instrument plays a C it will sound the pitch of the instrument, in this case, they will sound Fs. Lastly, note that there is a set of horns in E-flat. Their opening notes are Ds. It is logical that, given the facts, those Ds will sound Fs. Why? Because, if they play a C it will sound an E-flat it. Hence, moving up one whole tone, playing a D sounds an F.

Traditionally the horns and trumpets did not show a key. All the required pitch adjustments were made with accidentals. In most contemporary scores, tonal ones at least, the pitched instruments use key signatures.

Let’s look at some examples from Ravel’s Bolero. This is scored for a large orchestra of more than 25 winds, percussion, harp, and strings. The opening melody is played by the flute in the key of C (Example 6).

Example 6. Ravel, Bolero, flute solo
Charles Dutoit, Montreal Symphony Orchestra, London

One could see this Ravel piece as one large orchestral crescendo. The piece certainly builds from a place where less is more. The violas and cellos are providing the three beats in each bar with solid downbeats, the cellos alternating in two-measure patterns between a third beat consisting of a quarter-note in octaves and two eight-notes emphasizing the octave. The snare drum is also emphasizing the downbeats, but adding sixteenth-note triplets on the off-beats. Every part is marked pianissimo.

After four bars the beat is established. With even a small amount of noise, it may seem that the conductor is beating time, but no one is playing. Once, possibly, some of those in the back of the auditorium have stopped fidgeting or whispering, the audience will undoubtedly begin to pay attention to the orchestra.

Ravel introduces the melody in the lowest register of the solo flute. Normally, it is difficult for the flute to project in this register, but with the minimal rhythmic accompaniment and no sustained notes from the rest of the orchestra, the flute sings.

The discussion is about transposing instruments and the next example (Example 7) is just a little later in the piece when the solo B-flat clarinet has the melody, playing the exact same tones as the flute did. Because it’s a transposing instrument it will be written in D so that it sounds in the key of C. Note that Ravel has added a flute to the snare drum as a rhythm instrument.

Example 7. Ravel, Bolero, B-flat clarinet solo
Charles Dutoit, Montreal Symphony Orchestra, London

Compare this to the solo flute in Example 6. Simply by listening you know it’s playing the melody in the key of C, just as the flute did.

The next example (Example 8) has the second, but similar tune of the piece, played by the bassoon in tenor clef. It’s a perfect example of why the bassoon uses the tenor clef. If this were in bass clef, the high D-flats would have five ledger lines making the part difficult to read. From an orchestration viewpoint, we see that Ravel has now added a the harp (playing those seconds as harmonics) to the mix adding to the emphasis on the second and third beats of the bar, supporting the rhythm in the cellos and violas.

Example 8. Ravel, Bolero, bassoon solo
Charles Dutoit, Montreal Symphony Orchestra, London

In Example 9, the second melody is shifted to the E-flat clarinet. It looks like a smaller version of the B-flat clarinet. Thanks to its design as a transposing instrument, the E-flat clarinet is played just like a B-flat clarinet, but it’s pitched a fourth higher than the more common clarinet. So the part is in the key of A to compensate for its being an E-flat transposing instrument. (Try this for another way to think about transposing instruments: They are pitched, for example, a minor third or a perfect fourth above concert, therefore, it must be played a minor third or perfect fourth below.)

Example 9. Ravel, Bolero, E-flat clarinet solo
Charles Dutoit, Montreal Symphony Orchestra, London

Note here also that Ravel has been slowly adding to the orchestration throughout. We now have the harp playing three-note clusters on two and three and the cellos and violas adding additional notes to their pizzicatos.

The final example has the melody played by the tenor saxophone. This instrument is pitched in B-flat so the key will, just as with the B-flat clarinet, be in D. Bolero is scored for some instruments that are relatively uncommon today. It’s rare to find a piece written for the oboe d’amore (in A) and the sopranino saxophone (in F). At one time there were two families of saxophones, those tuned in F and C and those tuned in B-flat and E-flat. Those in F and C are not found today.

Example 10. Ravel, Bolero, tenor saxophone solo
Neville Mariner, Academy of St. Martin of the Field Orchestra, Philips

Interestingly in Example 10, as he’s added more parts, Ravel has temporarily removed the harp and its clusters. He’s replaced them with clusters from the flutes, second violins and violas. Also, a muted trumpet is now “doubling” the snare drum’s rhythmic pattern, formerly played by the flute.

The orchestration has also added the double basses on the beats played by the cellos. Ravel has included many inventive orchestral techniques in the winds and strings. Bolero will be revisited here.

Score basics Take-away

This commentary has discussed most of the variety of clefs a student of scores may find. It’s important to know the common clefs: treble, bass, alto, and tenor. Being familiar with the others can be of value in studying older scores. An understanding and familiarity with transposing instruments in integral to reading scores. It’s not uncommon to find them in the flute, oboe, and clarinet sections in the woodwinds and the horn, trumpet, and cornet sections in the brass. Armed with the knowledge presented here, a student will understand these parts when encountered.


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