Transposing - It's Easier Than You Think!

November 13, 2015

Faculty Author:

What is transposition?


“Transposition or transposing in music means playing or writing music in a different key. Transposing music means making it sound higher or lower. Transposing is a useful skill for people who play an instrument, especially the piano or organ.”


Thanks Wikipedia, though I disagree on that last part, though perhaps it is true for jazz and pop keyboardists.


I would argue the ability to play the written music higher or lower through transposition is especially important for instruments not in concert pitch, or “in C.” Examples of instruments that aren’t in concert pitch would include trumpet in Bb, horn in F, or alto saxophone in Eb.


When would you need to transpose?


Let’s say we’re trumpeters showing up for a Sunday morning church gig where we’ve been told we’re just playing easy hymns. When we arrive, the director hands us a hymnal and asks us to play from it. The problem is that this music is meant for piano and voices – both written in concert pitch - and we only have our Bb trumpets. How are we going to play the right pitches?




Maybe we’re the conductor and we’re working on the ensemble’s intonation and balance. We’ll need to know if the Eb alto saxes and the horns in F are supposed to be in unison or if that dissonance is written into the score. 


The Dread!


Transposition is a skill on which every brass musician needs to rely from time to time, but it is often accompanied by a feeling of dread as memories (or are they nightmares?) of 8am ear-training class come back to haunt us. Even if you’ve never had a class like this, for some, transposing often conjures up ideas involving complex musical algorithms and equations!


Let's Simplify Everything


Below you will see a chart I created a few summers ago while teaching two different levels of arranging at the Rappahannock Summer Music Camp. My goal was to create a chart so simple and intuitive, even the middle school students, who had never even heard of transposition before, could transpose written notation with ease. After completing a worksheet of over 20 exercises that progressed in difficulty and awkwardness, every single student understood the concept and only a handful made any mistake whatsoever.



Great. So how do you work this thing?


Let's use the previous example where the two trumpeters brought their Bb trumpet to play hymns in concert pitch.


  1. Start by finding the circle that represents the key of your instrument (ex. Bb for Trumpet)

  2. Next, find the circle that represents the key of the instrument for which your part is written. You can usually find this at the top of the page. (ex. Trumpet in C)

  3. What direction did you need to travel to get to the second circle?

  4. How far did you go?


For this example, we had to move up 2 half steps from Bb in order to reach C. We know this becuase of the little "2" connecting the Bb circle and the C circle. This means we simply play every note on the page 2 half steps higher than what is printed on the page!


That's it! That's all it is!


Let's Do One Together



What note does the Piano need to play so that it sounds the same as the A Clarinet's F?


1. Find the C circle

2. Find the A Circle

3. Direction: down

4. How far: 3 half steps


A Piano's D will sound the same as an A Clarinet's F! 


Here try it out:


(The answers are at the bottom!) 


One caveat


Understanding the theory is one thing, but putting it into practice is another thing entirely! Nothing will replace time spent transposing exercises and etudes into different keys to become fluent. 


Why this chart works so well


The chart is laid out vertically, making it is easy to see if you need to transpose the written music up or down, one of the most common issues I’ve come across when teaching transposition.


It includes the number of half steps present between common intervals used when transposing. I’ve found that the use of half steps provides a simpler and more reliable way for beginners to practice transposition. Feel free to use the second chart I created below if you'd like to use interval names instead in combination with half steps. 


It doesn’t deal with changes to the clef at all – though this is a very common and valid method of transposing as well! My issue with learning it this way is that it assumes the student performing the transposition has a mastery of all the different clefs, and while one could argue that the student would just learn transposition and clefs concurrently, I like taking things one step at a time. 



Much and more could be said on the subject of transposition, but I'm going to leave it here for today to stress simplicity. 






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