When you first start playing the piano you will probably think that you have no need to acquire this particular skill of transposing music from one key to another.
As you progress with your studies however, you may find a time when you want to play the same music with another musician whose instrument isn’t in the same key as yours (such as a B flat clarinet or even a guitar), in which case you will need to transpose the music so that the harmonies work when you play together. It’s also possible that you wish to accompany a singer who has a vocal range that doesn’t fit the key in which the music is composed. Or it could also simply be that you want to improvise a little and therefore need an understanding of how chords and keys work together in order to create great harmony.
Each musical key is like a color all it’s own – each key has it’s own personality and feel.
The first thing you need to do when transposing from one key to another is to identify the key in which the original music is set. Is it a major or minor key? You will be transposing the music note for note so this doesn’t really matter for anything other than for key identification purposes.
Next decide which key you are transposing the music into. Are you taking it up to the key of D from the key of C for example? Place the new key signature at the beginning of your manuscript line. In practical terms for this particular transposition you will simply move each note up one tone – your tonal note being D. So C becomes D, D becomes E, E becomes F sharp/G flat and so on up the scale. You can do this in your head as you become more proficient but at first you might find it helpful to write out the transposed manuscript, or at least put it into a musical software program where you manually make the changes and can see the transposition taking place.
Having made most of the changes, you need to check for any accidentals that appear in the music. For example if you have some additional sharps or flats. What is the intent of the accidental – to raise or lower the tone? Use the right accidental to raise/lower the appropriate notes in your transposed composition.
If you are transposing the entire piece of music from one key to another then once you’ve reached the end, you’re done. If you are transposing only part of the music for improvisation purposes or to create a vocal effect, then you need to listen to the entire piece of music original into transposition and back to the original again to see if you need to add any kind of additional linking harmony or passing tones. It could be that the transposing creates a musical bump that with a few additional notes can be made to flow fluently again. This process of flowing naturally from one key to the next is known as modulation.
Transposing is a skill that can be used to create dramatic effects, make you look as though you really understand the music theory business, and yet takes very little effort to learn. Really all you need is a good understanding of key signatures and a little patience, and you’ll be able to transpose anything to any key you choose!
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