Transposition Made Easy

Transposition is a skill that all musicians will need at some point in their careers. Whether you play a transposing instrument or an instrument in concert pitch, there are inevitably going to be times that call for reading music or soloing from chord changes that are not in your key.

Trumpet players, saxophone players, and other transposing instruments are frequently asked to read from lead sheets that are in concert pitch, especially in small group settings. Even if you do happen to play a C instrument, the ability to transpose is a skill that will serve you well.

Whatever the case, transposing is a skill that must be developed in the practice room and refined on the band stand. Just like any other technique that you cultivate on your instrument, you must have a methodical and dedicated approach to see improvement.

Transposing intervals

Bb Instruments to C

Trumpet players, tenor players, and other Bb instruments transpose up a whole step to play written music in C. Let’s say you have an F major scale:

When you are transposing, you should see the notes a whole step above the written music as shown below:

Get in the habit of seeing a note and being able to think of the note a whole step up automatically. A good way to practice this is to take a piece of music that you are working on to the piano. Play the written notes at the same time as the note you are transposing to.

If you were transposing an F major scale up a whole step, the exercise would look exactly like the example above, with both the original note and transposed note sounding simultaneously. As you get better at seeing both notes, switch to just playing the transposed note as you look at the original music.

Eb Instruments to C

Alto players transpose up a major sixth to play music written in concert pitch:

The interval of a major 6th is more difficult to figure out quickly than a whole step, so this will require a little more practice. Another way to quickly see this interval is to go down a minor 3rd from the written note and then transpose it up an octave.

The goal is to get as quick as possible at transposing these intervals. Remember, when you’re performing, time is going by quickly, and if the transposition isn’t automatic, it will slow you down.

Transposing larger intervals

For non-transposing instruments like piano, guitar and bass, it is common to be asked to play tunes in other keys. When you do this, say if you are transposing for a vocalist, you may encounter some intervals that may be challenging. The process is the same for getting familiar with these intervals as well:

Transposing up a 5th:

Transposing up a tri-tone:

Transposing up a minor 7th:

Even though you don’t have to transpose in this way often, it’s a great skill to have.

Transposing key signatures

An important part of transposing is remembering the key signature. The reason you want to focus on the key signature is because the sharps and flats that carry on throughout the music affect the notes that you’re transposing.

Also, if you’re transposing a melody that is mostly diatonic, you can figure out the new key signature, then transpose using just the shape and direction of the line. For example take the first few bars of the Parker head Ornithology. The melody is diatonic in G major and then moves to G minor:

To transpose up a whole step, think A Major with three sharps in the key signature (F#, C# and G#) and then follow the contour of the line. You begin on the 5th, move to the root and play diatonically. In the next phrase, you begin on the 5th again, but this time it is in minor.

Transposing in this way can be very effective because you’re focusing the entire line rather than the individual notes. But, you must have your scales and key signatures down for it to work.

So how do you find out what the new transposed key signature is?  It’s surprisingly simple to figure out if you follow this formula:

For Bb instruments:

Add two sharps if you are transposing up to a sharp key signature:                                  

(G major up a whole step to A major)

(C major up a whole step to D major)

Subtract two flats if you are transposing up from a flat key signature:

(Bb major up a whole step to C major)

(Eb major up a whole step to F major)

For Eb instruments:

Add three sharps when transposing to sharp key signatures:

(G major up a sixth to E major)

(C major up a sixth to A major)

When transposing in flat key signatures subtract three flats:

(Ab major up a 6th to F major)

(Eb major up a 6th to C major)

Transposing too much?

A reader recently wrote:

My question is: I play alto and am almost more fluent reading a chart that’s in C than in Eb. The problem is when I have a chart that’s in alto’s key. Sometimes, I will accidentally transpose in my head when I should be playing what the page tells me. Do you think its more practical to just maintain my ability to read in C or just bring my own charts everywhere? Or do the work and be able to read fluently in both keys?

I’ve encountered this same problem while I was beginning to transpose more frequently on gigs; transposing so much, that I would often unconsciously transpose everything I read. Ideally, you need to be able to read equally well in your own key as you do from music in concert pitch.

It may take a little more work, but you’ll be more versatile and you won’t have to drag around extra charts everywhere. Luckily, you’ve already done the hard part, developing the ability to transpose to another key, so now the trick is to know how to turn off that transposition when you need to.

When I was having trouble with this, I would start playing and realize I was transposing by mistake when I started to hear wrong notes coming out of my horn. Way too late. The key is to get your mind set before you start playing.

If you ‘re playing a chart in Eb, consciously say to yourself “Don’t transpose, this is my key.” If you are transposing to concert, mentally note to yourself “I have to transpose this part” and figure out what the new key signature will be.

This sounds like a very simple thing to do, but it actually works. Making a conscious mental note before you begin the piece will make you remember to play in the correct key when you start playing. I do the same thing when I read a key signature of a tune that I am about to play. I might say “Ok F#, C#, G# and D#, I’m in E major.” Practicing this small exercise will save you the embarrassment of playing in the wrong key.

The solution may be as simple as reading more music in your own key. From your description, it sounds like you’re transposing a lot more than reading music in Eb. You’ve obviously got the transposing part down, so when you practice try switching back and forth between reading the written music and transposing.

Remember that transposing and reading music is a skill like any other that you practice. If you don’t do it for awhile, it will get rusty and require some attention to get back up to speed.