Transposing music is at times for convenience, but in other situations, it is a necessity. Therefore you need to know how to transpose music. However, there is one situation when the need for transposition skills is more than a necessity. Without them, you cannot play what is written in front of you. I will go over that soon, but before that…
What is Music Transposition?
Professional musicians use music transposition all the time. Therefore, it is a vital skill to learn if you have aspirations to play at the higher levels.
In its basic form, it is a simple idea. All you do is take a melody line, a sequence of chords, or even the complete score and change it. You only change the pitch of the notes. The intervals that exist between them and the rhythm of the piece are not changed.
The pitch can go up, or it can come down, by as little or as much as you like. But the piece must sound the same at whatever pitch it is played.
Why Do We Have to Do It?
In my opinion, there are three reasons to use transposition in music and not the two that are often cited. Let’s take a look at them so we can appreciate the need for transposition.
To make music easy to read
Sometimes we need to transpose music to allow it to be read more easily. An example of this is with the bass. The Double Bass score is at a pitch, but the notes you play are an octave below that.
This is to avoid using all ledger lines, which makes music a little harder to read. Likewise, the same will apply in the higher registers for instruments playing up there.
Making it easier to play or sing
In some circumstances, it is an advantage with some instruments to change the key. Some instruments are just better in some keys than others.
But the obvious reason is for the vocalist. If a piece is written in a certain key that is too high or low, then a change is essential. Otherwise, the singer will not be able to give their best performance, if they can sing it at all. Transposition allows them to sing it in a key suitable for them.
But, what is the third?
Let’s return to the reason I hinted at in the introduction, where transposition is not a luxury; it is a necessity. We have what we call transposing instruments. Let’s give you a quick example. Most orchestral music is written for us in concert pitch. This is for ‘C’ instruments. The piano or the Flute are good examples. But what about if you play the clarinet? The clarinet is a B flat instrument.
For the Flute, if you play a ‘C,’ it will sound like a ‘C.’ It is a concert pitch instrument. Play the same pitch on your clarinet, and you get a B flat. The clarinet is what is known as a transposing instrument.
For the Flute and the Clarinet to be playing the same note, the Clarinet pitch has to be transposed up by a major second. That is for every note. That’s how good the transposition skills of a clarinetist needs to be!
And that’s not all
The clarinet is not the only one. Other B flat instruments are Soprano saxophone, Trumpet, Cornet, and Flugelhorn. But wait a minute, what about the French Horn? More transposition is needed. That and the Cor Anglais are ‘F’ instruments. Not finished yet. In Low B flat, we have Tenor Saxophone and Bass Clarinet.
Some instruments look like they aren’t transposing instruments but actually are. The Guitar and the Bass guitar are both at the concert pitch but play an octave lower than what is written. But no actual transposition is required, though.
I am not going to dwell on instruments that use transposition in music. Just be aware they exist, and therefore the need to be able to transpose is essential for them.
How Do We Transpose Music?
Any major key can be transposed to any other major key. The same applies to minor keys. That’s the first thing to learn if you want to know the best way to transpose music.
There are many ways to transpose music, but the most used intervals are:
- Down or Up an octave.
- Down or Up a Major 2nd.
- Down or up a Minor 3rd.
- Down or Up a 5th.
I say these are the most common because they take into account how music is read by the transposing instruments we discussed earlier. There are three stages for completing musical transposition.
You will need to transpose the key signature. That is the first requirement. That entails working out the new signature based on the transposition you aim to complete.
As an example, let’s say you want to transpose down from G to E. To do this, you need to go from G, the existing key, down a minor 3rd. That will take you to E major. That is your new key signature. You will now have a key signature with four sharps for E as against one sharp for the previous key of G.
As the only thing that changes is the key, you can write this in along with the time signature beside it. Stage one completed.
This is where you transpose the actual notes of the piece and move to the new key. Remember that the only thing that changes is pitch. Although it is a time-consuming job, it is not over-complicated. You just need to do it when you are awake and not at 3 am after a gig.
Using the same key arrangement of G to E, each note goes down a 3rd. That means you just count back three notes. If the first note is a ‘G,’ you count back through G and F to E, which is the new note. You complete the process for all the notes, so an ‘F’ will go to ‘D’ and a ‘D’ will go to ‘B’ and so on.
This applies to every transposition you need to complete. If you need to go up a 4th, you just count up the four-letter notes. Down a 5th, then count down five letter notes.
One more stage
That is all quite straightforward, but what about when it comes to accidentals? This is not so easy, but you just need to be aware of what was done to the note in the original music.
There are three things you need to look at:
- What was the note in the original key the piece was written in?
- What accidental was applied to it?
- Ensure you use the same accidental to the note after transposition.
Staying with the key of G, there could be an F sharp that has had a “natural” accidental applied, making it an F. The F# changes to F natural by lowering it by a half step or semitone. Likewise, you need to apply the same action to the transposed note.
Staying with the drop of a minor 3rd, the F# becomes a D. But you must lower it by that semitone, making it a Db. The awkward thing about checking for accidentals is that they all have to be checked individually. That’s because the actions for each might not be the same.
Want to Improve Your Music Skills?
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How To Transpose Music – Final Thoughts
If you need a fuller description of transposition, some options are How To Transpose Music, Harmonization-Transposition at the Keyboard, and Range, Transposition, and Tuning. As you will now be aware, transposition is an important skill to master, but it improves your musical skill level.
Until next time, let your music play.