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Transposition in music: What is it and how do we use it in music?

What is transposition?
Music transposition is a vital skill for any musician. Not only is it a requirement for the ABRSM Music Theory exams but it will also give you a much better awareness of all the instruments around you! In this blog post we will learn about the importance of being able to transpose music and also how to do it!
Transposition, put simply, is changing the key of a piece of music. Transposition allows us to re-write a piece of music up or down in pitch whilst keeping the effect of the piece the same. The rhythm and the intervals between the notes will sound exactly the same but the pitch will be higher or lower depending on how we transpose it!
 

We sometimes see instruments referred to as 'in the key of'. When an instrument is in the key of Bb or Eb this simply means that when the relevant instrument plays a C, the sounding pitch will be a Bb or an Eb!

Any instrument that has a different sounding pitch to written pitch is a transposing instrument!

Instruments that do not have a different sounding pitch to written pitch are referred to as being in concert pitch!

What does concert pitch mean?

Concert pitch simply refers to the real sound of the note. An instrument in concert pitch will play the note on the music and that is also the note we will hear. Think about the piano, when the piano plays a C that is exactly what you will hear!

When an orchestra tunes they will all tune to a concert pitch A! Meaning that regardless of what key the instrument is in you must make it sound like a concert pitch A. Typically, the oboe will tune the whole orchestra.

Common instruments that are in concert pitch are:

  • Piano
  • Flute
  • Oboe
  • Bassoon
  • Violin
  • Viola
  • Cello
  • Trombone

By contrast, transposing instruments look at a note in two different ways:

  • The note they see on the music
  • The note that they hear
Why learn how to transpose?

It is important to learn how to transpose so that you can understand the instruments and musicians around you. You will also know how to correctly notate and compose music for these instruments. If we do not cater for these transposing instruments then these instruments will simply be playing in a different key to the other instruments around them!

Transposition can also offer you an option to make a piece easier to play for a performer. If your vocalist needs to sing a piece slightly lower then being able to transpose will offer you this option. Same goes for instrumentalists, you will know how to change the key of the piece of music so the instrumentalist can play the piece of music more effectively. This is particularly useful if you are a music teacher! I will frequently use this skill when in charge of an ensemble that has musicians of different levels in it.

Music can also allow you to make music easier to read. Let's look at two common examples of this!

The piccolo will often read music that is one octave lower than what it actually sounds. Take a look at the example below and you will see why. Make note of how many ledger lines you need to read if we were to write piccolo music at its sounding pitch.

The double bass is similar but instead of hearing the notes an octave higher we hear them an octave lower. Again, in the example below, you will see why it is important that we make the music easier for the double bass to read!
Wow that is a lot of ledger lines!
 

Music is also easier to play for certain instruments in different keys. Some instruments sound better naturally in certain keys due to the constraints of the instruments or the fingerings!

What exactly do we mean by transposition?
Transposition simply means that when an instrument plays a C written on their stave, what we will actually hear is the note of the key that instrument is written in.
 

So for example, let's take the clarinet in B flat. When the Clarinet sees a middle C, what we will actually hear is the B flat a major 2nd lower than the written pitch! The same goes for the trumpet in B flat.

When learning how to transpose it is extremely important that you have a good knowledge of intervals. If you feel uncertain with this then please make sure to check out our blog on intervals.
 

When we are transposing it is important to note that if your are in a major key then the key you transpose to must also be a major key. If you are in a minor key, then the key you transpose to must also be a minor key!

Let's try transposing the short melody below, in the of C major. This is the clarinets written pitch , we would like to transpose it so we can see what the sounding pitch is! Remember transposing is the same as changing the key.

As discussed before, moving from written pitch to sounding pitch in the clarinet, requires us to move the melody down by a major 2nd. A Major 2nd is also known as a whole step. The first place to start is to address the key of the music. Before you can tackle any of the notes in the piece you first need to write down the new key signature. So what is a major 2nd (whole step) below C?

B flat major!

If you have a good understanding of your circle of fifths it will be very easy to know what your new key signature will be. If you do not then please make sure to check out our free resources for the circle of fifths and if you want to get even more in detail with his subject then make sure to check out our course!

B flat major has two flats. These should now be placed at the start of the melody. Once this is done we can now simply bring all the notes down by a second. If you have changed the key signature, simply bringing every note down by a second will mean you have done it correctly! Unless you have an accidental (sharp, flat and natural signs that are not in the key signature), in which case this needs to be tackled separately - very much how you would an interval.

Tips for transposing effectively

There are a few steps which can make transposing easy and effective.

Choose the correct transposition
  • Make sure you know what instrument you are writing for, it is also important to check whether you are moving from written pitch to sounding pitch or vice versa!
  • If you are writing for a vocalist in order to put the music more into their range, then make sure you know what their range is in order to write the music correctly.
Apply the correct key signature
  • Now you must write in the correct key signature. If you already know the specific key you are wanting to move to then you will already know this. However, if you do not know then make sure to work this out before you go any further.
  • Remember, the key signature will move the same interval as all the notes.
Transpose the notes
  • Now you simply need to move all the notes the same interval distance. For this you do not need to worry about the descriptive word as the key signature will take care of this.
Accidentals
  • Are there any accidentals in your melody? If so these must be treated separately! Remember, if you are unsure about your intervals then make sure to check out our blog on how to work out intervals here!
The most common transpositions you will see
Octave Transposition

This is for instruments such as the piccolo and double bass.

Major Second Transposition

This is for instruments in the key of Bb such as the clarinet and trumpet.

Perfect Fifth Transposition

This is for instruments in the key of F such as the French horn.

Minor Third Transposition

This is for instruments in the key of A such as the clarinet in A.

Three key steps to perfect transposition

1. Work out your new key and key signature

2. Write all the notes in your melody up or down the specified interval

3. Check for any accidentals in our melody

If you follow these steps then you will be transposing like a pro! Make sure to check out our individual posts on the four main transpositions:

  • Octave Transposition
  • Major Second Transposition 
  • Perfect Fifth Transposition
  • Minor Third Transposition 
Author: Jade Bultitude
Jade is an experienced musician and teacher as well as being the founder of Music Theory Foundations.

She has been helping people learn music theory for more than 10 years from pre school children all the way to degree level studies.
Get Your Free Revision Guide for Grade 5 Music Theory!
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Lay your foundations for Grade 5 Music Theory with this summary of each topic.
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