Transposing Instruments and Db major

• Apr 28, 2016 - 14:05

Having an issue with getting my Alto Sax parts into Db major. I am starting from a C major Key and transposing a section to Db major - however, I can only select that key using the concert pitch enharmonic equivalent E major, which produces a C# major key rather than Db major. There needs to be some way of choosing between common enharmonic equivalents. Or, what I think would be even better, a way to select the transposing key signature rather than the concert key.

For instance when music is toggled from concert pitch to written pitch any key signature changes affect the current setting you are on. So if you have toggled 'written pitch' and selected E major - the concert pitch would be changed to G major (for an Eb instrument). This makes more musical sense than say selected Fb major(!) just so you can have a Db major key signature.

Any workarounds would be appreciated but so far I haven't found any.


First, select the section you want to transpose.

transposing step one.png

Second, click NOTES>Transpose>By Key>Db major from the main menu. This will apply accidentals to the notes in that section to make it play in Db major.

transpose step two.png

Third, open the main palette (F9) and click on Key Signatures>Db major, then drag that key sig to the first measure of the transposed section.

transpose step three.png

The key sig will be applied, and it will cancel the accidentals.

In reply to by Recorder485

I'm using a transposing instrument Alto Sax, which is in Eb. Changing the key to Db major just makes it Bb major. I'm not trying to change the concert pitch, I'm trying to change the written pitch of the Alto sax part.

I've attached "alto part" - you can see I've changed the key to C# major. I've done this by selecting Notes and transposing to E major. I've then dragged the E major key signature onto the selected notes.

I've attached "alto part 2" - this is what happens when I drag Db major onto the selected notes. It changes the key to Bb major, again not what I want.

I'd like to change the key to Db major, rather than C# major. Again, I can see no way of doing this.

Attachment Size
alto part.pdf 13.04 KB
alto part2.pdf 13.42 KB

In reply to by muse79

Unless I misunderstand you, you appear to be approaching this from the wrong end.

When composing a new score, it's always best to work in CONCERT PITCH to keep things simple. When you're finished, and want to create an INSTRUMENT PITCH score and parts for printing, you simply click on the 'Concert Pitch' icon in the main toolbar. This will automotically change the key signature and pitch of the staves for all 'transposing' instruments (such as the sax) without affecting the actual key of the piece itself or changing anything on any of the 'concert pitch' staves (such as the flute).

If you composed your piece in C Major and then modulate to Db Major (concert pitch), the Alto sax part will show up in A Major and Bb Major respectively, after you toggle the Concert Pitch icon into 'instrument pitch' mode.

transpose test in instrument pitch.png

In reply to by Recorder485

You are misunderstanding me. My piece is in E major in concert pitch. When I view in written pitch it displays the piece in C# major - and I want the piece in it's enharmonic equivalent Db major. Please reread my original post as this explains all. Basically if I want musescore to display the piece in Db major I have to change the concert pitch key to Fb major which isn't available.

In reply to by muse79

The program is doing the correct transposition to instrument pitch, which is a major sixth. C is a sixth above E; D is a seventh, and while a transposition of a diminished 7th would sound the same notes as that of a major sixth (in today's temperament), the difference in note name implies something completely different musically.

You can, however, 'bully' the program into transposing an E-Major concert piece into Db Major by manually changing the transposition to be played in the staff properties dialogue. Right click on the alto sax staff, then select 'staff properties'. In that dialogue, select diminished seventh as the transposition to play for that instrument, click apply, and you'll see what you want.

staff properties dialogue.png

But it will be musically wrong, and will confuse the conductor and alto sax players.

ETA: In addition, this too will affect the entire piece, so if you later modulate from E-Major concert to, say, D-Major, your alto sax piece will wind up notated in C-flat major--seven flats.

ETA2: You can create a custom key signature for F-flat major, if you want to go that way, but playback isn't supported. To create the key signature, follow the instructions here:

In reply to by Recorder485

1. The piece is an exercise to play in different key signatures which includes Db major and C# major. It is not written in E major originally. It is an exercise.
2. I am the alto sax player
4. I am asking how to achieve this using musescore. I am not asking for a music lesson or having a debate on the use of Db major. I have come across the key many times as a player and so have my students.

Thanks for your help anyway. When working solely with transposing instruments it's counter-intuitive to have to work in concert pitch, especially for beginner students who have little understanding of this concept it makes things unnecessarily confusing for them. I would make a suggestion that a solution is considered.

In reply to by muse79

especially for beginner students who have little understanding of this concept it makes things unnecessarily confusing for them.

There is truth in that; but because of historical inertia, we're well and truly stuck with an absurd system, and have to make the best of it. However, my point was that those beginner students you are worried about will be even MORE confused if you start throwing the wrong key at them. I based this on your statement that the piece was in E-Major concert, for which the proper transposed alto sax part MUST be in C# Major. If you tell the kids one thing in the band room and another in the theory class, their heads will explode and they're likely to switch majors to phys ed. Can't have that happening....

But now that you've clarified that the piece isn't in any one concert key, and it's just a series of exercises in all the keys, the solution to your problem is clear enough. Make each exercise a separate score (you can patch them together in a PDF editor later) in the concert key you need to generate the instrument transposition you want them to play. For an alto sax to play in Db Major, the concert pitch is, as you noted, Fb Major (which kind of indicates that alto saxes aren't likely to find themselves playing in five flats very often). But if you want, you CAN create a custom key sig for Fb Major (Bbb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb, Fb), and the program will transpose it perfectly into Db Major. Your flutes and oboes might find that a bit interesting, but the Bb saxes won't care; they'll be in Gb.

In reply to by Recorder485

After hunting around for a while THIS is finally the answer I was looking for. I'm not sure why you say it's "musically wrong" and will confuse the conductor and alto sax players though. Maybe it's arguably "musically wrong" (although I would argue that it's not, and all of this is arbitrary) but, from a practical perspective, it is simpler and more familiar for players to play in a key of 5 flats than 7 sharps. And this is definitely something that comes up in pit orchestra music… which is why I'm dealing with this exact issue.

A practical scenario: I'm trying to transpose a section written for bari sax in 5 flats (Db major for bari; E major concert) to be played on bass clarinet. Having MuseScore do the transpositions for me, I've created a score with both bass clarinet and bari sax. I'm first entering all of the bari music as written, and then copy-pasting it to the bass clarinet to do the transpositions. But setting the concert pitch of the score to E major, the bari part was rendering as C# major instead of Db major (which, again, is how it's actually written in the book… because this is how the pros handle the transposition). Switching the part to use a diminished 7th transposition instead of major 6th does work to get the part rendering as Db. AND, later, when the key changes to F major (concert), it IS correctly rendering the bari part in D major (as opposed to something ridiculous like Ebb major, which would be "musically correct" if I'm transposing by a diminished seventh).

I think ultimately the problem here is that MuseScore is not handling the practical situation of these gnarly keys… I don't think I've ever seen professionally produced sheet music use the key of C# major instead of Db major. Just like I've never seen Cb major instead of B major. MuseScore should reflect this practical reality and switch from flats to sharps, and vice versa, when the transposition for an instrument pushes it into "seven accidentals territory."

In reply to by room34

It’s not wrong indeed, but see my comment below - it might be counterproductive, as many wind players are more accustomed to sharps due to the nature of the transposition they deal with. So do check with the players you intend to play this before assuming they would prefer Db over C#. I’m surprised you haven’t seen C#; it’s actually quite common in this context.

But anyhow, MuseScore gives you both options, and multiple ways of achieving the result (setting an appropriate transposition, or setting the flats/sharps preference).

In reply to by room34

You’re misunderstanding my point. Of course arrangers are more likely to choose flat concert keys when writing for concert or jazz band - specifically because they know it’s going to add sharps for the saxophones and other transposing instruments. So it’s still the case that alto players see three fewer flats / more sharps than flute players etc for the same music. When flute players see two flats, alto players see one sharp. When flute players see one flat, alto players see two sharps. When flute players see one sharp, alto players see four.

This is just a plain mathematic fact, not a matter of opinion at all - independent of genre, alto players always see three fewer flats / more sharps than players of concert pitch instruments. So this does mean that among very experienced players, many do end up being more comfortable with many sharps than many flats, because they seldom see many flats. Comfort level is often course matter of opinion, and I get that you personally might have a preference for Db over C#. But do realize that other players of transposing instruments have other preferences, often based on the principle I am explaining.

And that’s why today - unlike seven years ago when this thread started - MuseScore provide both options. Just see staff/part properties for both of the methods I mentioned.

In reply to by Marc Sabatella

Ah… well thanks for the continued nudge, as I had missed the "Prefer sharps or flats for transposed key signatures" option until this moment. I still disagree regarding the likelihood of seeing C# major for alto/bari sax parts though… case in point the pit orchestra reed book I am dealing with at this very moment (which is the whole reason I posted anything here at all). But I know it's a futile argument at this point.

In reply to by room34

Like I said, it's a personal preference, but FWIW, in the big band I directed for many years, we have a library of hundreds of scores, and C# is more common than Db in the tranposed parts among the scores we have had in our rotation (I didn't go through all of them). I also have been curious about this for a long time since it does come up often, so I would regularly poll the players in the band, as well as the players in other professional big bands I play in. I found there to be a general preference for the sharps, not overwhelming, but maybe something like 60/40.

In reply to by Marc Sabatella

Hi Marc,

I was one of the “years ago” posters.

to me,
C# Chords are more common
than Db chords.

And B is preferred over Cb.

So when you are soloing over changes, often every 2 beats on quick tempos,
I prefer changes I more easily recognize.

But …

At the time you mentioned
“would you want to” ?

(My answer at the time was yes,
but now it’s no).

When you change C# to Db or vice versa,
it “clouds” the ability to spot what the the chord progressions are doing

(2-5-1’s are the most common, and inverting one of them, makes the pattern difficult to recognize

Same for all standard chord patterns.

Inverting the occasional chord makes it a pain for better jazz players. (This is one of the problems with real books)

Second, (smaller issue)
the head typically is written using either flats or sharps. When you invert the occasional chord to your liking, it may be in opposition to the head’s accidentals.

In reply to by allen49

You make a good point about chord changes. I’d separate that from key signatures though, which was the issue I was raising here. Whether or not you’d write a chord as, say Db7 or C#7 depends entirely on the key the tune is in. If it’s part of a 2-5-1 in B major, I’d absolutely write it as C#min7. If it’s the root, I’d probably write it as Db because I’d want the key signature to have 5 flats instead of 7 sharps. (I’d much rather have the iii chord be Fmin than E#min, for example.)

In reply to by room34

I had to edit that comment to change the 2 chord to C#min7 instead of C#7… which kind of proves my point. C# major rarely comes up as a diatonic chord in any commonly used key. (I guess F# major.) I prefer to say Db major, but C# minor, because that’s how those chords typically appear diatonically.

In reply to by room34

Not as diatonic, but a secondary dominant, it's the V/V in B, the V/ii in E, the V/vi in A, etc - the latter in particular is probably the most common situation where you need this spelling. Of course, you're absolutely right that the key of the piece is a big determinant here, but especially in a jazz context, it gets way more complicated. In the key of G, for instance, you might spell that chords C#7 when used as part of a circle of fifths progression (C#7-F#7-B7-E7-A7-D7-G(, but as Db7 when used as a tritone sub and thus resolving down by half step (Db7-C).

This doesn't really relate to the subject of choosing key signatures, but it's an very interesting and complex topic in itself!

In reply to by allen49

Yes, when one starts talking about chord symbols (not what this current discussion was about), it gets a lot cloudier. Especially when dealing with music that doesn't have a clear tonal center at all. You want chords that move by step to look like they are moving by step - so, B-C#, for instance. Or chords that move by fifth to look like they are moving by fifth, like C#7-F#7-B, for instance. And you want chord symbols to be consistent with the melody, like C#7 if the melody note is B, Db7 if it is Cb. And you want your melody to be spelled reasonably - B when resolving up to C, Cb when resolving down to Bb, etc. On the other hand, it's easy to get into situations where these desires are mutually exclusive and something has to give and you have to compromise one or more of these principles. It's an interesting topic for sure!

This subject comes up from time to time. I always ask - are you *sure* you really want Db rather than C#? My experience is that, because they are so accustomed to working in sharp keys (due to the nature of the transposition of the instrument) and so *unaccustomed* to working in flat keys, most saxophonists would actually prefer C# major. No doubt, *some* saxophonists would prefer Db, but I wouldn't simply assume that. It's mostly those of us who play concert pitch instruments who imagine that everyone prefers Db over C# just because we do. I keep hoping to see a discussion of the topic from experienced (or even inexperienced) saxophonists, but it never seems to happen :-). So thanks for weighing in and confirming you are among those who *do* actually prefer Db.

Anyhow, I think the solution long term will be to add an option somewhere to control this. Probably a general style option to specify wheterh you want keys "simplified" when toggling concert pitch, maybe also one to control whether double sharps/flats are used, same as in the transposition dialog. We could also consider making these staff options, or utting the option on the key signature itself, to give finer control, but at the expensse of making it more work for the general case, so I'm not sure that's worth it.

Meanwhile, it occurs to me a workaround in 3.0 will be to use an instrument change to change to a "special" alto sax, one with a non-standard transposition interval that gets the enharmonics "right". This should become possible in 3.0 because unlike currently, instrument changes will include transposition.

In reply to by Marc Sabatella

I would say that a preference for Db or C# is irrelevant. If you look in the Trinity Guildhall Sound at Sight Grades 5 - 8 for saxophone, you can see two examples of Db major on page 18. If I wanted to create further exercises for either myself or my students in Db I would not be able to with musescore - not in a simple way in any case. At higher grades I have seen Db major quite often and to say that I cannot create any exercises in this key because it's not 'common' is strange to me. Cb may be uncommon, but it's still doable in musescore (in concert pitch at least). You can debate about why certain keys should/shouldn't be used forever and a day - but it doesn't change the fact that I need to write exercises in this key for saxophone and it would be good to choose to display enharmonic equivalent keys signatures for B major (Cb), F# major (Gb) and C# major (Db) - let's not forget that they sound the same it only changes the spelling and should only change the spelling on whatever part is selected not for the whole score.

I was under the impression that all scores were written in (sounding) concert pitch but parts were in a written pitch for the instrument to play - so if a piece was written in C# major a part for alto saxophone would be written in Bb major - not A# major! Similarly you wouldn't compose a piece in Fb major just so you could give the alto sax a written part of Db major. You would of course compose it in E major and decide whether the alto would have a written part of C# or Db major. Musescore currently decides for you and it chooses C# - every time. Db is no longer uncommon it just doesn't exist for sax players.

In reply to by muse79

For the record, you *can* do this relatively you just need to do it without using the automatic transposition facility. So writing exercises would be trivially easy - just do it in concert pitch mode. Doing it for a band arrangement somewhat harder though.

But yes, eventually, we should add a feature to allow the autoamtic transposition to do this. I've been soliciting feedback on how this should work - score-wide, staff-wide, or specific to a given key signature. Still hooing for more input before committing to a solution.

In reply to by Marc Sabatella

greetings marc, jazz saxophonist allen49 here ... I'm transposing many charts, and my bassist complains when his part ends up with some weird changes (G# chords, especially,)

My suggestion is either ...
1) click on the Chord, then a toggle key to invert it (for lack of the right word) from G# to Ab.
2) a Default setting, where all my charts avoid G# chords when transcribing. (use Ab instead)

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