4 Easy Steps To Master Any Transposition
Why Should I Learn How To Transpose?
Let’s say we’re a trumpet quintet who was just hired for a Sunday morning church gig (hey, it could happen), and we’ve been told: “No need to come to a rehearsal, you’ll just be sight-reading some 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 do we make sure we’re playing the right notes?
Maybe we’re rehearsing an ensemble and want to know if that odd bit of dissonance between the horns and Eb alto saxophones is actually written into the score or if it’s…something else. We’ll need to transpose the parts to figure out what the intended harmony actually is.
Transposition is a skill on which every musician needs to rely from time to time, but the thought of doing so often comes with a lot of baggage. Memories (or are they nightmares?) of 8am ear-training classes haunt us.
Even if you’ve never had a class like this before, transposition can conjure up ideas of complex musical algorithms and equations. The good news is that transposition can actually be made very simple with the right process!
A Simplified Process
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 in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
My goal was to create a chart so simple and intuitive that the class of middle school students, who had never even heard of transposition before, could transpose written notation with as much ease as the class of high school students.
After completing a worksheet of over 20 exercises that progressed in difficulty and awkwardness, every single student understood the concept well enough to complete the assignment, and only a handful made any mistake whatsoever.
(Of course, transposing a single note with plenty of time to work it out is a much different scenario than sight-transposing at a performance. However, it’s at this stage that we’re building our mental muscles.)
Using the Chart
Inside each circle is a letter that represents the key of an instrument. The circle with the C inside of it represents the piano, voice parts, violin, and other concert pitch instruments, while the circle with the Eb inside represents the Eb alto saxophone and Eb clarinet.
The chart is laid out vertically, making it easy to know whether you’re transposing the music up or down.
The numbers by the brackets represent the number of half steps you need to travel in order to get from one key area to another. For example, to get from the C circle to the D circle, you would need to travel 2 half steps.
4 Easy Steps
To use one of the previous examples, let’s pretend that we have our Bb trumpets but we’ve been asked to perform hymns in concert pitch.
- Start by finding the circle that represents the key of your instrument (ex. Bb for Bb Trumpet)
- 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. (C for piano or voice)
- Identify the direction you traveled between step 1 to step 2.
- Identify how many half-steps you traveled.
For this example, we moved from the Bb circle to the C circle by traveling up a distance of two half steps.
This means we simply play every note on the page 2 half steps higher than what is printed!
That’s it! That’s all transposition is!
Let’s Do One Together
What note does the Piano need to play so that it sounds the same as an F played on the Clarinet in A?
- Find the circle that represents the piano’s key center: C
- Find the circle that represents the target key center: A
- Identify the direction you traveled: Down
- Identify how many half steps you traveled: 3
In order for the piano to make the same pitch as the Clarinet in A, the piano would need to play a D.
Here, try it out!
(The answers are at the bottom!)
Why the Chart Works
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 to practice transposition than using terms like “perfect 5th” or “minor 3rd” right away.
It doesn’t deal with changes to the clef at all – though, of course, this is a very common and valid method of transposing as well! My only issue with teaching it this way is that it assumes the student performing the transposition has a working knowledge of many different clefs, and while one could argue that the student would just learn transposition and clefs concurrently, I prefer taking things one step at a time.
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 so that, when you show up at the church gig, you can lay down the hymns no problem.
Much and more could be said on the subject of transposition, but I’m going to leave it here for today to stress simplicity.
Tell us what transposition method works for you in the comments!