Alternate Key Signatures for Transposing Instruments

One thing we take for granted with music notation programs is that, for transposing instruments in a transposing score, the software automatically displays the correct key signature and transposes by the appropriate interval.

Most of the time, we don’t have to think about it. Both Sibelius and Finale will even, by default, “wrap” the key signature of the transposing instrument to prevent unnecessarily complex or remote key changes, ensuring that, for instance, an Alto Sax playing in the concert key of B major will display the key signature of A flat instead of a very unusual G sharp.

Occasionally, though, we need to display an enharmonic key signature other than the one the program chooses. Consider a B flat Clarinet playing in the concert key of E major. Both Sibelius and Finale will show the transposed key as F sharp (6 sharps), but we may want the key instead to be G flat (6 flats). Here’s how to do it:

In Sibelius:

The idea is to make a new instrument that is effectively an A sharp Clarinet, so that the key transposes a diminished 3rd instead of a major 2nd.

  1. Go to Home>Instruments and open the dialog launcher (the downwards-right pointing arrow) to open the Edit Instruments dialog.
  2. In Ensembles, choose All Instruments. In Families in ensemble, choose Woodwind, in Instruments in family, choose Clarinet in Bb. (A tip: if you select the Clarinet in Bb staff in your existing score before you open the dialog launcher, this instrument will be automatically selected.)
  3. Click “New Instrument”. Click “Yes” when asked if you are sure you want to create a new instrument based on ‘Clarinet in Bb’.
  4. In Transposition>Transposing Score, select “A#” where it says “Written middle C sounds as” (leave everything else alone).

5. It is helpful to name the instrument in the dialog something useful like “Clarinet in Bb (A#)” to distinguish it from the default Clarinet in Bb.

6. Click OK, and close the Edit Instruments dialog.

7. Now, you can either create a new instrument or create an instrument change using your new instrument. To create a new instrument, go to Home>Instruments>Add or Remove and add your new Clarinet in the usual way. To create an instrument change (for instance at the point where the key signature changes to E major), go to Home>Instruments>Change and select your new Clarinet to replace the existing Clarinet at the key change.

You can hide the instrument name change by selecting it and clicking Home>Hide or Show. It will look something like this:

In Finale:

The concept is similar, but because Finale 2012 does not allow you to edit or add to the built-in instruments, we will use Staff Styles instead.

  1. Select the Staff Tool, and select the passage on the Clarinet staff where the enharmonic key will be applied.
  2. Go to Staff>Apply Staff Style To>Score and Parts
  3. Click Define
  4. Click New
  5. Name your Staff Style something useful like “Clarinet in Bb (A#)”
  6. Under Appearance>Transposition click “Select”
  7. Change the Interval to “2” and the Key Alter to “-10”. What this means is that your transposition will be up 2 steps (an interval of a third) and that the key signature will be modified from the concert key by subtracting 10 sharps (or, in the case of E major, subtracting 4 sharps and adding 6 flats). The “Key Signature” menu should automatically change to say “Other”.

8. Click OK twice to exit the dialogs, and click OK again in the Apply Staff Style dialog to apply the change to the selected passage. It will look something like this:

Philip Rothman is a composer, orchestrator, and music preparer based in New York City.  He has orchestrated music for feature films and television programs including The Nanny Diaries, Hollywoodland (Focus Features), Taking Chance, Teddy in His Own Words, You Don’t Know Jack, Too Big to Fail (HBO Films), and the mini-series Faces of America (PBS).

Philip’s company, NYC Music Services, is a New York-based music preparation firm with more than fifteen years of experience preparing quality materials for professional clients in the music industry, including Carnegie Hall, The Metropolitan Opera, Indianapolis Symphony/Symphonic Pops Consortium, and European American Music Corporation, and for hundreds of other projects in the concert, film, television, music theater, jazz, and commercial genres.

6 Replies to “Alternate Key Signatures for Transposing Instruments”

  1. Thanks, Philip. This concept has application for enharmonics in a general sense, not just bound to key signatures and can be applied temporarily. If the music modulates to a remote key (without a key signature change, or where key signatures are not used, as is my practice) one may wish to have temporary enharmonic change in the part only, which normally is not possible. In Sibelius this would be accomplished by highlighting the passage and doing an instrument change to Clarinet in A#, and hiding the resultant instrument change annotations that appear.

  2. That’s great idea, Mark! I hadn’t thought of that. I could see how this would definitely be useful, especially when the score is in concert pitch.

    For Finale users, the concept is similar – you would just apply the Staff Style to the part only.

  3. I’ve searched high and low for how to get to the edit instruments dialog in Sibelius 7.5 on Windows and I can’t see it anywhere. This would be incredibly helpful as I can’t get my alto sax staff to go to 6 flats instead of 6 sharps…any tips please?

  4. I have had this working in the past, but now don’t seem to be able to do it. I create the instrument, but the transposition remains unchanged.

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