How to Transpose Music I: Definition & Types of Transposition; Transposing Chords
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Transposition is a very valuable skill for any musician, and it can make the difference between working well with other musicians and being something of a musical loner or a drag. Not all musicians who play together are required to transpose, but it can help. Some musicians who transpose well may actually prefer to make music alone, but they can still enjoy the process and the extra layer of musicianship that the skill develops.
Simply put, transposing is the process of playing music in a key that is different from the one written. Sometimes this is done for the purpose of accompanying a singer, because the written music is too high or too low for their voice. Sometimes the reason is that the other instrumentalists may not have the skill to play in the written key, presumably because they are less experienced or have not developed very far. Perhaps they need “easier” chords or fingering of notes. But transposing can also be done simply for the fun of it.
Unfortunately, musicians whose training focused strongly on reading music may actually be intimidated or turned off by the thought of transposing. But like any skill, it can be developed with practice, starting with simple transpositions and progressing to greater challenges.
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Factors and Types of Transposition
Part of the process of transposing is mental, and part is physical. Each instrument has unique traits that make some skills, some physical movements or motions, easier and some more difficult; these traits will vary by instrument. Most of the following tips will focus on the mental aspect, since it would be impossible for me to describe physical motions for instruments that I don’t know. Still, there may be some tips that will be helpful for players of any instrument.
There are two types of transpositions, and a good musician would do well to try out both (if both can be accomplished on their specific instrument). The two types are note-for-note and (on some instruments) chord-for-chord. Musicians who have little comfort with improvising or embellishing, whose reading skills dominate their playing, may feel more comfortable at first with note-for-note transposition, even though transposition of harmony (chord-for-chord) is probably easier in the long run.
It can be helpful to choose a few familiar songs and try the following tips and tricks with each one of them in many different keys, rather than trying many different songs with only a few keys. However, at some point, you want to be able to do both. Experiment and find which process helps you the most.
Transposing Harmony: Chord-for-Chord Transposition
To transpose harmony, first analyze the music, using Roman numerals for the chords (or the Nashville Numbering System, if you are familiar with it):
I ii iii IV V (or V7) vi and vii°
(for minor: i ii° III iv v (or V7) VI and VII).
With your analysis, it is simple to transpose to many different keys. For example, if the original chord progression was:
C Am Dm G (“Heart and Soul”)
you would write
I vi ii V.
Then, in moving to a new key, you remind yourself of the appropriate chords. If possible, do this mentally only; but if necessary, write the new chords in pencil, then erase them as you become more proficient. New possibilities for this progression could be any of the following (and more, of course):
F Dm Gm C
Eb Cm Fm Bb
Ab Fm Bb Eb.
Many guitar books, especially chord books, include charts for converting chords by choosing the interval of the transposition. In my opinion it is just as easy to learn a principle which can be applied to any key, as it is to look up the conversion. If you are moving/transposing up a M3, then every chord needs to be a M3 higher (C to E, F# to Bb, E to G#, etc.). If you transpose down P4, then every chord needs to be a P4 lower.
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A Shortcut Tip
Sometimes, as you try this practice of analyzing the music in order to transpose chord-for-chord, you will come across a chord that is more complex than you can recognize at first; in that case, you might substitute an alternate way of describing the chord, to make it more easily and quickly recognizable. For example, an A13 chord uses the notes A-C#-E-G-B-D-F#.Since chords above the seventh series can and often do omit some of the lower tones, an A13 might be present as G-B-D-F# (with A in the bass), and could be expressed as Gmaj.7/A (bVII+7/R);or, if the G is not used, it could be expressed as Bm/A (ii/R). Just keep in mind that this is a shortcut for the purpose of quick reading and perception, and not really an accurate harmonic analysis.
Specifically for Guitar
Transposing chords on guitar involves knowing the interval distance between the original and the target keys, and then maintaining the exact same interval between all of the original chords and new ones, just as described above. On guitar, it is also possible to use barre chords and other movable chords to make transpositions especially easy; and of course there’s always the capo.
Some transpositions of melodies are especially easy on guitar. Up or down a P4 merely involves shifting everything across one string, with adjustment for the interval difference between strings 2 and 3 (these two are a M3 apart, where the other pairs of adjacent strings are a P4 apart). So, if you are picking a melody or riff on the 4th, 5th, and 6th strings, you can use the exact same pattern of frets and intervals on the 3rd, 4th, and 5th strings, and you will have raised the song up a P4.
Even easier may be the process of shifting positions up or down the fretboard (and adjusting originally open strings). For example, to raise a melody a half-step from first position, move your hand to second position (frets 2-3-4-5) and play the exact same pattern as in the original, with previously open strings now being fingered on the first fret. You will need to decide which fingering is better: to use your first finger or your fourth finger to cover two frets; the answer will probably depend on the exact notes being played, as well as on your ability.
This shift can move anywhere on the fretboard, as long as you remember where the originally open strings should be fretted in the new key. In the original key, notice the interval distance between the open string notes and the lowest fretted notes, then in the new key maintain the same spacing (the same number of frets) between the formerly lowest notes and the now-fretted, formerly open notes. Remember that every fret moved equals the interval of a half-step. Away from the tuning pegs and towards the sound hole is a move upward in pitch (along any given string); away from the sound hole and towards the tuning pegs is a move downward in pitch.
If you are aware of the numerous places a single note can be played on the guitar, then you can play the same melody, the same pitches, in several locations (example: the lowest D is the open 4th string, fret 5 on the 5th string, and fret 10 on the 6th string). If you can keep aware of that, then you may be able to find several places to play a melody or riff in its original key and then select the best target location for transposition.