Recorder notation vs. band/orchestral woodwind notation

At the request of a reader, I’m going to try to clarify some things about notation for recorders. (I touched on it previously in an article about woodwind key nomenclature systems.)

Those of us who play modern band/orchestral woodwinds are familiar with a system in which, within a family of instruments, a notated pitch always corresponds to a certain fingering. No matter how large or small the instrument, the same fingering always corresponds to that same written pitch, even though the smaller instruments produce higher sounding pitches and the larger instruments produce lower sounding pitches. For example:

E-flat clarinet B-flat clarinet A clarinet Bass clarinet
Notated pitch
Sounding pitch

This is convenient for clarinetists because, essentially, they only need to learn one set of fingerings to be (in that respect) prepared to play any instrument in the clarinet family. Note also that even the bass clarinet is notated in treble clef, as are its even lower cousins. All the major modern woodwind families (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and saxophones) use this approach: consistent clefs, and consistent correspondence of notated pitch to fingering. The transposition is a function of the instrument’s size.

Because of the prevalence of this system in the Western woodwind tradition, it’s an understandable error to assume that the recorder family is notated in the same way. But recorders typically use a different system, in which each instrument is notated in concert pitch, and the fingerings change depending upon the instrument. Or, to be more precise, each instrument is notated in a sort of “concert pitch class,” since some of the recorders are notated as transposing by one or more octaves, but a notated C always produces a sounding C. Bass recorder and lower are notated in bass clef. Here are the most common ones:

Descant (“soprano”) recorder Treble (“alto”) recorder Tenor recorder Bass recorder
Notated pitch
Sounding pitch

Recorder players must learn two sets of fingerings, one with the instrument’s lowest note being C (for descant and tenor recorders), and one with the instrument’s lowest note being F (for treble and bass recorders), and must be prepared to read in two clefs.

The reader who contacted me described a musical theater situation in which a part for treble recorder had been erroneously notated as if the recorder were a transposing instrument: the copyist treated the treble as a band/orchestral instrument “in F,” so the player had to use C fingerings to produce the correct pitches.

The reader asks:

Is this notation common practice in Broadway shows? It would seem counter-productive to me; it’s both incorrect notation for the alto recorder and also makes it more difficult to play the part on flute if necessary (as is surely often done). The only questionable benefit would be making it slightly easier for someone who had only played soprano recorder to pick up an alto.

I’d love to hear your experience and opinions on the matter!

I have seen it done both ways. My preference is that recorders are notated with the non-transposing system for the sake of consistency with the existing recorder tradition; it doesn’t make sense to me to put the burden of adaptation on those who have actually made the effort to learn to play recorders properly. But for the sake of accessibility, it might be wise to provide some kind of ossia or cue notes, for recorder dabblers who either haven’t researched the instrument enough to know its tradition or haven’t spent the time in the woodshed to learn both sets of fingerings.

I hope that helps!


4 responses to “Recorder notation vs. band/orchestral woodwind notation”

  1. Nice explanation! Just to add a bit, this system is the most visible remnant of an older Western woodwind tradition. Other instruments arranged in consorts – shawms, dulcians, crumhorns, etc. – work the same way. Anything an instrumental ensemble would’ve played in the Renaissance was likely written as vocal music anyway, so the idea of a transposed part wouldn’t have made sense.

    This makes me wonder – what was the first transposing woodwind instrument family (not counting octave displacement)? Clarinets?

    1. I would think that Oboes were the first…D’amore and English horn (Da Caccia) were around before.

      1. Pierre Vyncke Avatar
        Pierre Vyncke

        It’s hard to tell. The ancesters of the oboe and the bassoon (resp. the shawm and the dulcian) were declined in several sizes from soprano to bass. As we know today, only the small versions of the shawms were upgraded to become the oboes we know and only the low version of the dulcian was upgraded to the bassoon we know. I have no idea why it was done that way and not another, but I think we were that close to read oboe litterature in bass clef and playing bassoon in treble clef.

        Now I guess those instruments used the system Bret described in this article so it doesn’t really count as transposing instrument but there’s research to be done about this.

  2. Theresa Koenig Avatar
    Theresa Koenig

    I think some of the confusion may come from variations in the different musical “worlds”. In the Renaissance world, instruments “in C” are instruments for which their lowest is C. Instruments “in F” have their lowest note as F. It would be easy to assume that these are transposing instruments, which is probably what happened with the Broadway score. However, they should be notated at pitch, there isn’t any actual transposition involved.

    (although Renaissance wind players did sometimes transpose in consort settings in order to avoid playing instruments tuned a fifth apart, but this would have simply meant you played C fingerings on F and visa versa)

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