Score in C vs Concert Score

In general, I don’t like to nitpick terminology.  For the most part, we make up the terms, so we can decide what they are and what they mean.

That said…  I make an exception for terms that confuse people and lead to mistakes. With that in mind…  One of the most misleading terms in music is “Concert Score”. 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. 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 any instrument “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. For an instrument that is “in Bb”, the concert pitch could be down a major 2nd, down a major 9th, or up a minor 7th.

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 the octave location of that C varies instrument to instrument and we have to memorize it.

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.

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