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Is Euphonium a B-Flat or C Instrument?

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We euphonium players are certainly long suffering! It starts with the very name of our instrument - is it a baritone or a euphonium? (The preceding phrase is linked to an article where I address the question, for those who are confused.)

Beyond that, many amateur and even some non-euphonium-playing professional players are not clear whether a euphonium is pitched in Bb or in C. Most publications that include euphonium parts, which may be called either "Euphonium" or "Baritone Horn," include both a treble clef and bass clef part.

The treble clef part is in transposed treble clef. Because a euphonium's open fundamental note sounds as a B-flat, and because we are in the mid-low octave among brass, the part is transposed up an octave and a whole step to make up for the instrument sounding an octave and a whole step down. A treble clef middle C on the first ledger line below the staff, actually sounds as a Bb on the 2nd bass clef line. We could share a part with tenor sax or bass clarinet and be in total agreement on our notes.

The bass clef part is non-transposed, including the printed octave. A written middle C on the first ledger line above the staff sounds as a C in the middle-C octave. We could share a bass clef part with a trombone or bassoon and be in total agreement on our notes.

Therein lies the confusion. So armed with the description above, you can try to answer the question for anyone who asks (and good luck on that!).

A little more background...

In the typical British brass band you will find transposed treble clef parts for ALL instruments except the bass trombone. Trombones 1 & 2 are in Bb treble clef. And there are separate parts for the Eb and BBb tubas, transposed for each instrument.

USA grade schools might usually start a euphonium player on bass clef. However, many times a trumpet player will be switched to euphonium, in which case treble clef music makes the most sense. Colleges seem to prefer bass clef euphonium parts, perhaps because the instructors there have usually been either tuba or trombone players.

Sometimes in a smaller band a euphonium player may need to play the part for a missing instrument. Bassoon, trombone or even tuba parts could be comfortable for a bass clef player, while bass clarinet or tenor saxophone parts would be comfortable for a treble clef reader.

I have observed that a very few modern publications may have only bass clef parts. That is becoming less common with more music being input on computer, because a couple of clicks can produce the treble/bass parts. In some older publications I've seen only treble clef parts, and brass band music would be only in treble clef unless it has been adapted to fit players of mixed background.

In some French music you may even find Bb BASS CLEF parts! Those can be very tricky for bass clef players from the USA.


What follows is my strongly-held opinion, and many euphonium players (and other musicians) will disagree.

I believe treble is the best clef for euphonium.

First, when a piano reads music in C, it is using the white keys. That same logic would say our scale that starts on our open pitch should be called a C scale, which it is in treble clef. To me, that helps create a logical, and subconscious, relationship with the instrument. A price we pay for that is not "talking" in concert pitch, but we share that burden with many other instruments. Most band/orchestra conductors are used to talking to the general group in concert pitch and it's our job to know that when the boss says "E-flat" we need to think of our treble clef F. (Many conductors talk to a specific instrumental section in written pitch, as in "your 'F' at measure 12.")

Second, in MOST standard euphonium music we play, a treble clef part will need fewer ledger lines. For treble parts, it gets visually intense around E above the staff or F below the staff. Within that range are 99% of the notes we'll play most days. (In bass clef the visuals get intense around G above the staff and pedal A below the staff. So the E in treble I just mentioned would be a D in bass clef, needing 5 ledger lines!)

Third, the treble clef transposition standard is in keeping with many band/orchestra instruments. The entire clarinet and saxophone families follow the transposed standard, for example. And a Db piccolo will get a Db part and an Eb horn will get an Eb part (at least in older music, where these instruments were more common). Trumpets usually use this as well, to accommodate Bb, C, and Eb trumpets. French horns (I know, I know...they are just called "horns" now) are F instruments with an F part; the part is mostly in treble clef, but when it does into bass clef it is still transposed into F. See the chart below for examples of how a concert middle C on the piano is written for various instruments.

More on point 3: if euphoniums should be written in bass clef, why aren't bass clarinets, tenor saxes, baritone saxes, etc.? And why do we not have only C trumpet parts, and teach young students that when they play a C in the staff they use the first valve on their Bb trumpet/cornet?

Those are my thoughts on the best clef for euphonium. Feel free to comment!

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  1. daruby's Avatar
    Dave already knew this comment was coming. I have had time to think about it and fairly strongly held beliefs that, while not at odds with Dave's position entirely, comes from a different point of view.

    I agree that Euphonium is a Bb instrument in that its open harmonics are those of a Bb instrument. When one presses the 4th valve on a compensating euphonium, it equally becomes a small bore 3 valve F tuba, but we do not consider it to actually be a Bb/F instrument in the same sense as a double French Horn. So the question of Bb or C to me is not a question of what kind of instrument it is, but a two part question based on the answers to the following:

    1. First Issue - What background does the performer come from?

    This comes from childhood. I began on piano at age 5 and took lessons through age 7. I was also a boy soprano with accurate relative pitch who sang in a number of choirs. I hated piano and the fact that my parents made me walk a mile to lessons, but I knew and read treble and bass clef (left hand) and to this day visualize the white and black keys when reading concert pitch parts. I started playing "baritone" at age 9, and at almost the same time, I also was taking lessons on cello. Needless to say, I became a bass clef "concert pitch" reader. OTOH, I would say that many of my American euphonium seatmates and virtually ALL of my Salvation Army and British colleagues began as cornet/trumpet players in childhood and switched to baritone/euphonium fairly early in their musical development. Of course, most of these performers grew up in the transposed treble clef Bb thought process.

    Updated 11-17-2019 at 06:18 PM by daruby
  2. daruby's Avatar
    (continued from previous post)

    2. Second Issue
    - What kind of literature was used in the development process?

    Since I grew up in American wind bands and started in concert pitch, my ensemble playing was always using bass clef C parts. This was reinforced by other factors. Other than "Theme and Variation" pieces from the Sousa era, there was very little good euphonium specific solo literature available to me. From age 9 on I performed bassoon, cello, and trombone literature or vocal transcriptions. By age 17, I had performed Morceau Symphonique (bass/tenor), Rimsky-Korsakov Trombone Concerto (bass/tenor), Mozart Bassoon Concerto (bass/tenor), several cello sonatas, movements from the six Bach Unaccompanied Suites, all either in competitions or public performance. While I also performed pieces by H.L. Clark, etc, this was not the majority of my study. As a cello player and performer of trombone literature, I was fluent in both bass clef and tenor clef. All of my baritone method books (largely Rubank and Arban's Mantia baritone edition) were bass clef as were my cello books at a beginner and intermediate level. Thus ALL of the study I did from age 9 through the end of my sophomore year in college was in concert pitch (bass and tenor). I became fluent as a treble clef Bb reader when I started playing trumpet in my senior year in university (age 21).

    Updated 11-17-2019 at 06:21 PM by daruby
  3. daruby's Avatar
    (Continued from previous post)

    So where does this leave us...?

    For me, the question of whether the euphonium is a Bb or C instrument and how we treat it is irrelevant. For the last 10 years I have been performing almost exclusively with Bb treble transposed parts in the British brass band world. Even though I am comfortable reading treble clef, my underlying thought process is concert pitch. I "see" the written C in my Bb baritone or Euphonium part, I know it is a written C, but my inner ear "hears" a Bb and that is what I play. I even visualize the piano keyboard when necessary as I think about the pitch.

    I believe every accomplished euphonium performer should be fluent in both bass clef C and treble clef Bb parts. This should be mandatory for anyone graduating as a euphonium performer at the Bachelor's level. Anyone performing trombone, bassoon, or cello literature needs to know tenor clef. Finally, I think that C treble (in order to read piano, choral, and some "fake book" parts) is a pretty strong requirement.

    I argue for all of the reasons that Dave outlined regarding reading ledger lines above and below the staff, that the concert pitch bass clef/tenor clef combination used by trombone, cello, and bassoon is the ideal!

    Updated 11-18-2019 at 11:47 AM by daruby
  4. hyperbolica's Avatar
    As a trombone player starting to play euphonium, I'm glad I don't have to wrestle with transposition on top of getting the hang of the valves. Trombone players deal with the whole ledger lines thing by using clefs. I think this is the most efficient method, because everyone stays in the same key. The movable C clef is highly practical. Tenor clef, alto clef. String players avoid the whole issue of transposition by using C clefs, especially cello and viola. When I read trumpet or clarinet music, I just read it as tenor clef and add two flats. Clefs are a great mental trick for transposition. Why should a trumpet player interpret the music differently from a piano player? The need for writing bass instruments on treble clef seems obtuse and distracting. A big ol' bari sax playing in treble clef seems like an unnecessary abstraction.

    Tuba is an example of an instrument that is written in actual pitch regardless of the fundamental pitch of the instrument playing the part. This makes sense to me.

    If I had the whole written music system to reinvent for all musical instruments, I'd definitely write for every instrument in concert pitch. It is unnecessary mental gymnastics to have a French horn part up against an alto sax, trumpet and trombone. And while I was at reinventing things, I think I'd make the "all white key" scale be called A, and I'd find a note that the orchestra can tune to that trombones can play in 1st position.;o)

    If we were all in concert pitch, there would be no argument whether euphonium is in C or Bb.
  5. davewerden's Avatar
    Thanks for the comments and your perspective! There is a valid concept on your side.

    But there is another practical side. Sax players often move to different instruments in their family, especially studio players. If you are told at the last minute to cover the soprano instead of the alto you've been using more, there may be some disagreement with "A big ol' bari sax playing in treble clef seems like an unnecessary abstraction." Clarinet players sometimes face this, but not as often unless they are also studio players. (Tuba players are not usually asked to play a particular key of tuba, so they have a little more control, and most times trumpet players do as well.)

    You may find an inconvenience in euphonium bass clef music. I have found that many (probably most?) euphonium players don't read tenor clef, so I seldom see a euphonium part that uses it for high range writing.
  6. Liuto's Avatar
    Being a novice euph player with a strong background of singing bass in a choir, bass clef is the obvious choice for me. Feels completely natural to me.
    I also can easily play untransposed treble clef without too much of trouble (very useful to play Lieder).
    Finally, I sort of learned to play in Bb treble clef because my teacher is a trumpet player and has lots of his stuff in Bb treble clef. I am a lot slower reading TC, but I would like to play it fluently. Main advantage: it is just like tenor clef with a few different accidentals which opens access to lots of trombone parts.
  7. notaverygoodname's Avatar
    Well, it's not a C instrument because it's in 9' Bb, not 8' C. Unless you have a Euphonium in 8' C. That's a thing.

    Ok, I don't actually want to type out a long and pedantic rant because a lot has already been said, but seriously. Brass instruments are historically based around the idea of reading transposed treble clef. Good luck reading concert pitch music on a natural instrument with key changes. If you can't hum every note with perfect pitch off the page, forget playing it. Another historically common thing...transposing on the fly. It's so easy, even I can do a little bit of it. Can't read anything but treble clef to save my life, but I can read C music on a Bb instrument with some practice. On the Trombone side of things, you have an alto instrument with a 25mm cup diameter and more ledger lines above the scale than the scale has lines. Really not selling me on this multiple C clefs idea.

    The way an instrument reads music can be treated as arbitrary. What we have now is what we'll have tomorrow and it works quite fine as is.
  8. anadmai's Avatar
    My daughter started playing Baritone(a real British Baritone) and I told the school to teach her Treble Clef. As a euphonium player, she’ll have more opportunities playing treble as compared to bass.

    She does get bass clef exposure via Cello and both via piano playing.

    A bass clef only euph player is a dead end.

    That’s my two cents. Do I get any change back? Lol.
  9. daruby's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by anadmai
    As a euphonium player, she’ll have more opportunities playing treble as compared to bass.

    She does get bass clef exposure via Cello and both via piano playing.

    A bass clef only euph player is a dead end.

    That’s my two cents. Do I get any change back? Lol.
    I think that your point of view is greatly influenced by your SA brass band background.

    Here in the US, the vast majority of performance opportunities are in wind bands, marching bands, and in doubling on either trombone or tuba. EXCEPT for brass band, those other opportunities are largely focused around bass clef and generally "think" concert pitch.

    I also grew up playing baritone and cello, as well a smattering of piano from age 7. I became fluent in bass clef and tenor clef and performed euphonium, trombone, cello, and bassoon literature on my euphonium for 50 years. I became fluent in transposed treble when I picked up a trumpet during my senior year of university.

    Unless there is certainty around playing in the brass band genre, either in the SA or outside of the US, I would encourage starting on bass clef, then becoming fluent in tenor and transposed treble.

  10. dsurkin's Avatar
    My preference is to have high passages noted in tenor clef and low passages noted in bass clef. This makes the easiest reading for elderly eyes like mine (i.e., not too many ledger lines either above or below the staff). I opt for tenor clef instead of transposing treble clef so the key signature stays the same upon changing to bass clef.

    This is the way the notation appears for a number of the first trombone parts for the community orchestra I'm in.
  11. anadmai's Avatar
    My views have an Army background but also rated for sensibility. Why is the euphonium/baritone one of the only parts in both clefs?

    There is a reason.

    I rather have her play Treble for wind related instruments. Better options as she grows older.