Score in C

Apr 07 2014

The term “Concert Score” is one of the most misleading terms in music. In this blog, I’d simply like to propose that we forget that term and use “Score in C” instead.

Often, students hear the term “Concert Score” and conclude that all pitches should be written in concert pitch. Likely, they occasionally hear the term “Concert Pitch Score” as well. Every so often a publication or website will define a concert score as a score in which “all parts are written in concert pitch”.

There’s only one problem… Not all parts in a concert score are written in concert pitch.

For instance, the bass part is written in transposed pitch. Bass sounds an octave below the written pitch and is written in the transposed octave in a concert score. Piccolo is also written in transposed pitch. It sounds an octave above written pitch and is written in the transposed octave in a concert score. In fact, all instruments that transpose by octaves—bass, piccolo, contrabassoon, glockenspiel, etc—are written in transposed pitch in a “Concert Score”. The practical result of the term “Concert Score” is that beginning orchestrators end up making mistakes like writing a glockenspiel part in concert pitch.

So… If the term “Concert Score” is misleading, why is the term “Score in C” better?

The first reason is that it leads to fewer mistakes. The word concert is not used, so students are less likely to write glockenspiel in concert pitch.

The second reason is that the term “Score in C” is consistent with the terminology used for transposing instruments, such as Clarinet in Bb.

For instance…

For Clarinet in Bb, when a C is written, the concert pitch will be a Bb. A useful reminder is that the pitch in the name of the instrument answers the question, “What will be the sounding pitch when the written pitch is a C?” So with Clarinet in Bb… Write a C, hear a Bb.

That’s very helpful, but it tells us nothing about the octave of the sounding pitch. An example of this is comparing Clarinet in Bb and Bass Clarinet in Bb.

Clarinet in Bb sounds down a major 2nd. Write a C, hear a Bb—the Bb a major 2nd below the written C.

The Bass Clarinet in Bb sounds down a major 9th. Write a C, hear a Bb—the Bb a major 9th below the written C.

This difference–the octave switch–is not indicated in the terminology “…in Bb.” We just have to memorize it.

The same is true with the term Score in C. In the case of a Score in C, the term simply implies that when a C is written, the concert pitch will be a C—but we have to memorize the octave location of that C.

Guidelines for a Score in C:

  1. Non-transposing instruments (violin, viola, trombone, etc) are written in concert pitch.
  2. Instruments that transpose by octaves (bass, piccolo, contrabassoon, etc) are written in the *transposed* octave.
  3. Instruments that transpose by other intervals (clarinets, horns, etc) are written in concert pitch.

This creates a score where the letter name of the pitch will sound as written, but not necessarily in the octave written. In other words, it creates a “Score in C” … not a concert score, concert pitch score or score in concert pitch.

You can see all blogs in the Notation category here:

Happy writing everyone!

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    Wow, awesome article Prof. Ben! Always inspiring!

    thanks Ben (always had me confused….)

    Great Explanation of the term “Score in C”… now is clear!

    So Ben, I’m a little confused are you saying that when looking at a “C score” and let’s say the key of this piece is in “Concert G minor”, are all the instruments, in a “C score” going to have two flats in their key signature? The difference being that certain instruments will sound in different octaves than where they are written in this “C Score” or a transposed score.
    In a transposing score you are seeing exactly what the instrumentalist’s are seeing on their individual parts, yes?
    I would think that this would be a huge advantage when rehearsing and when writing individual parts.
    Also, most of the full scores that I’ve studied are transposing.

    Agree! It is more correct and clearer for beginners.

    Hi David,

    Yes, in a Score in C where the concert key is G minor, then all instruments would have two flats (assuming you chose to use a key signature). But… Certain instruments like bass and piccolo will sound in different octaves. This score can be considered easier to work with when composing and orchestrating (and possibly when finding typos in a rehearsal should they exist), as it’s typically easier to figure out harmonies. For instance, a G minor triad will immediately look like a G minor triad without having to transpose horns, clarinets, etc.

    And yes, in a transposing score the conductor and players are looking at the same pitches. That’s often an advantage in a rehearsal.

    Hope this helps…

    All the best,

    Hi everyone.

    I’m new to this and finding it very confusing. If a Bb clarinet player sees a C on a C Score do they play a C, but a Bb sounds? If so, what do they see and play on a transposed score?


    Hi Ben, thanks for the clarifications. I have a question: what about an instrument that normally written in treble clef, transposed by an octave + another interval, such as bass clarinet or tenor saxophone?

    Brian– In a Score in C, write bass clarinet in bass clef at concert pitch. In the part, write it in transposed pitch using treble clef. I would treat tenor sax the same. But to be honest, tenor sax is most common in “band” scores where Scores in C are much less common, so it’s very rarely not part of a transposed score. Hope this helps…

    Adam– The players always see transposed pitch. The parts given to the players are always written in transposed pitch. This question of whether to make a Transposed Score or a Score in C… That’s a question only for the conductor’s score. Hope this helps…

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