How to Transpose Music

Basic Music Transposition

OK… as we discussed in our recent posts (basic music theory, guitar power chords, et.al.) it was suggested that we visit the subject matter of… Music Transposition.

To transpose music simply means… to change the pitch of each note without changing the relationships between the notes. Now, relationship between notes is one thing, another topic we’ll touch on is, how it actually changes the ‘feel’ of the original composition. But, first let’s take a look at the basic fundamentals.

So… why Transpose?…

If you as a singer, or if your vocalist’s is struggling with notes that are too high or low, changing the key to put the music in a range that would result in a much better performance, by adjusting for the right key for ones vocal delivery, is one reason to transpose.

Of course, instrumentalists may also find that a piece is easier to play if it is in a different key. Players of both bowed and plucked strings generally find fingerings and tuning to be easier in sharp keys, while woodwind and brass players often find flat keys more comfortable and in tune.

Instrumentalists with transposing instruments will usually need any part they play to be properly transposed before they can play it. Band instruments like: Clarinet, French horn, saxophone, trumpet, and cornet are the most common transposing instruments. Sometimes musical scores must be transposed in order for different instruments to play the same pitch. In order for a clarinet tuned to B flat to accompany a piano tuned to C natural, one of their scores must be transposed.

If you see ‘C’ in the original score, then perform ‘D’ with exactly the same relationship between notes. Sometimes when you transpose on sight, it helps to develop muscle memory of the proper notes in each key. If the song’s original key is C and you need to transpose it to D in order to accommodate guitarists, then consider the D note as your new tonic. Everything else is based around D as your new starting and stopping point.

In general, a composers may simply just want to transpose the key of a song for dramatic effect or variety. Now, this is where variety is interesting, because it beckons our mention above of how transposing a musical piece actually changes its ‘original’ feel.

You see, when a composition was written, it incorporated the owners “frequency” (hertz) of the song, which was an integral part of the original composition sound. When you move a pitch (transpose) of someone’s original work, you’re actually creating a different feel through frequency changes, and in some cases the final transposed piece may not contain the original ‘intent’ of intensity prescribed by its originator. Especially, if the movements (score) are changed from Major to Minor model keys (vice-vrs.)… Keep these considerations in mind with your transposition.

Now, How Might One Avoid Transposition?…

In some situations, you can avoid transposition, or at least avoid doing the work yourself. Some stringed instruments – guitar for example – can use a capo to play in higher keys. A good electronic keyboard will transpose for you. If your music is already stored as a computer file, there are programs that will transpose it for you and display and print it in the new key.

However, if you only have the music on paper, it may be easier to transpose it yourself than to enter it into a music program to have it transposed. So if none of these situations apply to you, it’s time to learn to transpose.

Note: If you play a chordal instrument (guitar, for example), you may not need to write down the transposed music. There are instructions below for transposing just the names of the chords.

Here are the most common situations that may require you to change the key of a piece of music:

How to Transpose Music?…

There are four steps to transposition:
1. Choose your transposition.
2. Use the correct key signature.
3. Move all the notes the correct interval.
4. Take care with your accidental(s).

Step 1: Choose Your Transposition. In many ways, this is the most important step, and the least straightforward. The transposition you choose will depend on why you are transposing.

If you already know what transposition you need, you can go to step two. Are you rewriting the music for a transposing instrument? Are you looking for a key that is in the range of your vocalist? Are you looking for a key that is more playable on your instrument?

Step 2: Write the New Key Signature

If you have chosen the transposition because you want a particular key, then you should already know what key signature to use. (If you don’t, see Key Signature.) If you have chosen the transposition because you wanted a particular interval (say, a whole step lower or a perfect fifth higher), then the key changes by the same interval. For example, if you want to transpose a piece in D major up one whole step, the key also moves up one whole step, to E major. Transposing a piece in B minor down a major third will move the key signature down a major third to G minor. For more information on and practice identifying intervals, see Interval. For further information on how moving music up or down changes the key signature, see The Circle of Fifths.

I’ve essentially presented this information as a primarily conduit… as much has already been written about music transposition… and most have been put in complete forms where it best that I simply pass it on to you… as such,

Steps 3 & 4 can further be reviewed and explored at (and credit given to) Connexions, which is an outstanding environment for collaboratively developing, freely sharing, and rapidly publishing scholarly content on the Web.

Transposing music is not the most difficult element of basic music theory, but it does require a mastery of the various key signatures and modes to be done correctly. However, using reference tools, such as the Music Dial in order to assist in music transposition just might be your easiest way of applying these transposition requirements.

Have a Great Musical Day!
Ron Greene
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