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Transposition (music)

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Transposition or transposing in music means playing or writing music in a different key. Transposing music means making it sound higher or lower.

Transposing is a useful skill for people who play an instrument, especially the piano or organ. If a pianist is accompanying a singer and the song is a little too high for the singer’s voice it is very useful if he is able to transpose it down so that the music sounds in a lower key. For example: if the music is written in the key of C major it could be transposed down a whole tone so that it sounds in B flat major.

It is a good idea for people who play keyboard instruments or transposing instruments to practise transposing. There are three ways to do this:

1) Transpose each note. For example: when transposing from C to B flat each note has to be one tone lower: an A becomes a G, a G becomes an F, an F becomes an E flat etc.

2) By watching the shape of the music and thinking in the new key. For example: when a note leaps up a major third the same needs to happen in the new key. This is a better way of transposing.

3) By hearing what the music should sound like and thinking in the new key.

When people transpose they probably use a mixture of all three of these ways.

There is a fourth possibility which sometimes works: by thinking in a different clef. For example: someone who is good at reading alto clef (viola clef) can transpose up a tone from music written in the treble clef by imagining it was written in the alto clef and playing an octave lower (a note on the middle line in the treble clef is a B, but in the alto clef it is a C, or – imagine the new key signature of 2 sharps – it becomes a C sharp).

It is very important to understand the key system in order to be able to transpose. This is why it is so useful to practise scales.

Most electric keyboards and organs these days have buttons which can be set so that the keyboard will transpose automatically. This can be very useful, although it may be confusing for people with absolute pitch.