Music Theory Lesson: Learn How To Transpose Music
Digital sheet music aficionados like yourselves already know how easy it is to transpose your digital files into any key you want with a simple click of your mouse. However, if you’re playing from a non-digital file (gasp!) , it’s great to know the basics of music transposition. Additionally, just as a budding mathematician studies algebraic laws, it’s important for us musicians to have a firm grasp on the theory behind what creates all those emotive, provoking sounds, and learning how to transpose music will help with just that!
Transposition is simply the process of changing the key of a piece of music. Any major key can be transposed into any other major key, and the same goes for minor keys.
Sometimes we’ll need to transpose music so that it can properly be played on different instruments. Because of the physical properties of certain instruments, it’s easier to transpose and read sheet music for them in a different key rather than read them in concert pitch (like a piano). Other times, we’ll decide to transpose the key of a piece to make it simpler to play or sing. The basic process of transposition is the same for either use.
Say you have a piece of sheet music written for a flute (a C instrument /concert pitch instrument) and you need to play it on the clarinet (a B-flat instrument / transposition instrument). A C pitch played on the flute or piano will actually sound like a C because they are concert pitch instruments. Remember the line “if it sees a C, it sounds its key.” However, if you play that same pitch of C on your clarinet, that C actually will sound like a B-flat in concert pitch, because the clarinet is a transposing instrument. In order for that piece to sound the same on a flute and clarinet, we’ll need to transpose each of the notes by the correct interval (the distance between the notes). Find a list of non-transposing and transposing instruments here.
Ok, so we’ve determined that we do, in fact, need to transpose this very important piece of music for one of the reasons above. First, we’ll identify what key signature our original piece is in and what key signature we need to transpose to. Learn more about key signatures here. The Circle of Fifths provides an at-a-glance look at key signatures based on the number of sharps or flats.
Now that we’ve pinpointed our original key signature, we can identify how far up or down in tone we’ll need to transpose for our new instrument to sound the same as our original concert pitch. Below is a handy guide that shows how many steps (or half steps) we must move each note from our original score to our new, transposed score.
As you can see using the chart above, if we’re transposing from a C instrument to a B-flat instrument, we’ll want to move the key up one whole step (or whole tone). Our key of C Major transposes to a key of D Major, Key of G Major transposes to Key of A Major, key of B-flat Major transposes to the the key of C Major, and so on. You may also use this chart as a guide when transposing individual notes on your sheet music. For example, when an F instrument sees a C, it will sound like an F pitch. Or vice-versa, in your concert sheet music when you see an F written, your F instrument should see a C.
Now let’s pretend we need to transpose a melody to alto saxophone (an E-flat instrument). Your concert-pitch melody is scored in the key of A-flat Major. We can see that you’ll need to move down 1.5 steps to transpose your piece for an E-flat instrument, thus your new key is F Major. If you need help counting out the steps, following the whole and half steps on a keyboard can be helpful. Print out our piano guide cheat sheet to visualize whole and half steps between notes.
Note that a pitch may sound an octave lower or higher than the original depending on your instrument and you also may find you’ll need to change clefs. There’s more detailed information on that here. Starting out, however, just focus on transposing in the clef you’re most comfortable reading.
Practice Time: Take a look at our free downloads of the month. Print each arrangement, look at their key signatures and see how they relate to one another. Use the Circle of Fifths to familiarize yourself with the keys and the transposition chart to see how many steps (or half steps) the key moves depending on the instrument.
Now that we have our key signatures determined, the fun really begins! Print your free manuscript paper, and start transcribing your piece moving each note the same interval, or number of steps and half-steps, as your key. Again, you can use the chart above if you get stuck. Don’t forget that accidentals must also be transposed by the same interval. For example, if you see an A-flat in your concert score as an accidental, a B-flat instrument would need to see a B-flat to sound the correct concert pitch.
The easiest way to go about it is fill in your new key signature, your time signature (which will not change at all), and write out every note paying close attention to the interval between your original notes and transposed notes as well as the intervals between the notes in the individual measures. Also remember to update any changes in key signature within the piece (use your handy chart). When you’ve completed your transposition, all that’s left to do is mark in the upper left-hand corner what instrument your transposition is for. In our examples above, we’d write “Clarinet in Bb” or “Alto Saxophone in Eb.”
Are you a vocalist looking to transpose in order to change the range of your piece? Simply follow the same process of determining your original key, deciding on your new key, and moving each note the same number of steps and half steps throughout the piece. (In this situation the notes you read will be the actual concert pitch. Just remember to transpose any accompaniment in the same way.) Take a look at the Singer Pro arrangement of “Let It Go,” as an example. Listen to the original song in the key of A-flat Major (4 flats). Now, choose the C Major transposition available on the right hand side of the product page. Listen to the song in C Major (no sharps or flats) and notice how the pitch of the song in C Major, which is 2 steps higher than A-flat Major, sounds higher when you listen to it. Pretty cool, huh?
Just like with most music theory, the best way to master transposition is to practice it. Check out other free sheet music at Musicnotes.com and try transposing the pieces yourself. A great title to start with is our Beginner Notes arrangement of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” You’ll find that not only with this help you improve your transposition skills, key signature memorization and sight reading abilities will grow by leaps and bounds!