Concert vs Transposed Pitch

My question has actually nothing to do with Dorico but is just out of general interest:

In an orchestra, quite obviously the individual players want to see the transposed pitch in their reduced score.
But how about the conductor, since he has to see the full score, does he see it in transposed or concert pitch?
And further, how does he communicate then with e.g. the trumpet players when he talks about “the C in bar 114”?

Thanks for educating me.

The full score can be either transposed or in concert pitch. This comes down, as with everything, to conventions set by common practice. Scores up to the twentieth century are almost exclusively transposed. I’m sure there are exceptions, but, off the top of my head, I don’t think anything beyond a composer’s manuscript or a particello was notated in C, and even those were probably written in transposed pitch already. Brass, for example, kept being written without a key signature even when valved instruments were common, in the 18th and 19th centuries. Eventually, as common-pratice tonality expanded, brass (and timpani) started getting key signatures, but stayed notated in the score as it appeared in the parts.

Only in the advent of the 20th century did scores in C become anything close to convention, and even then, I believe it grew out of the Second Viennese School. I can’t assert with all certainty that there’s all there is to it, but I can tell you that the practice was paradigmatic in that tradition. Scores in C almost always have the caveat that octave transposing instrument are in their written, and not sounding, pitch.

A conductor has always been expected to be in firm command of these conventions and to be able to calculate transpositions on the fly. Composers were as well, hence me saying before that a composer’s manuscript would be most likely transposed already if it was anything beyond a sketch or particello. No matter what the type of score, the conductor is expected to address, say, a horn player using his written pitch, even reading off a score in C. Besides, the way the score is notated is a choice made firmly in the camp of the composer. I can hardly imagine a conductor asking the composer to switch things around.

Many thanks for the prompt and comprehensive reply.

I’ll add that, to the best of my knowledge, the reason twelve-tone and serial scores were usually written in C is that it is very difficult to figure out if a note is written correctly, or a misprint, unless you have a pretty deep understanding of the way the system works, and of the piece itself. In a tonal piece, it is often quite possible to figure out if a “strange-sounding” note is a misprint or not.

In English, you would usually say “the written C” or “the sounding C” if there was any doubt. For example the conductor might be talking to the string section about what the trumpets are playing, and the strings are not transposing instruments.

Some types of music have their own conventions. For example in British brass bands, the scores and parts all instruments (except for bass trombone, for some unknown reason!) are written transposed (Bb or Eb) in the treble clef, and the written C in the third space of the staff is called “middle C”, not the note on a leger line below the staff! That is “logical” since the note is written in the middle of the staff and is in the middle of every instrument’s range.

The VSL Academy pages are a good resource for understanding notation standards for different instruments. For instance this page: discusses the sound vs. notation of the Horn in F and also describes the old vs. new transposition standards, key signature/lack thereof etc. There is a similar page for each instrument in the orchestra.

I was once told by a conductor that C scores are useful, when available, for playing the various parts on a piano during his/her preparation.

I play (Bb) cornet in a “British style” brass band (in the States). One of the players is from England and says that treble clef – ie, G clef – is sometimes referred to as “God’s clef”. I happen to sit next to a Bb tuba player and sometimes lean over to play from her part for the fun of it. (3rd cornet parts can be a bit unexciting.)


C scores are “useful” in that sense, if you never bothered to learn how to read anything else. (This is one of the drawbacks of easy access to computer playback, and “composers” who have never interacted with live musicians, IMO!)

In the baroque era, keyboard parts were often written using C clefs (on any of the 5 lines of the both staves, to minimize the number of leger lines), or even in open score for contrapuntal music - and nobody at the time thought that was too hard to read. (And since most people manage to learn the basics of their native spoken language at a very young age with no formal instruction at all, it’s hard to argue that learning music notation is objectively “hard” in comparison!)