June 22, 2016

Make a move: Tranposing

One of the skills musicians need (for a whole lot of reasons) is the ability to transpose tunes. Transposing is when you move from playing a tune in one key to playing it in another.  For instance, If you have learned to play Happy Birthday in the key of D but when you go to the party everyone else is playing it in C – you either have to transpose it or you have to sit out. And who wants to do that?  No one, that’s who!

So, it is clear that being able to transpose is fairly important. It is also somewhat intimidating to learn to do it – typically because we wait until we’re at that party to give it a try...and we know that everyone else can hear us either playing in the wrong key or desperately searching for a tune we already know in a key we never even thought to play in!  

But, how do we learn to transpose?  Well, you already know – we practice!  And as usual, I suggest a small steps approach:

  • Play the tune in the key you know.  Might as well build up a little confidence to get started.
  • Next set your levers to the next key down (for instance if you always play a tune in D, with two sharps, you’d move into C with no sharps).  Now play the tune just one string down from where you normally play it.  This is one of those times you’re going to wish you played without looking, because almost every time you make a mistake it will be because your eyes are getting in the way. 
  • I also suggest you just worry about getting the melody.  Give yourself a break and just get the tune down first.  Add the left hand later.
  • PRACTICE doing this – at first, focus on a single tune.  Work on playing it on the new key.  Eventually transpose the left hand too (same thing, move down one, be gentle with yourself).
  • Once you’re comfortable in the new key, work on moving back and forth between the two (yes, this is a little kludgy, but it works to get you confident and solid on both keys!).

Once you feel comfortable going between these two keys, you can practice transposing all the tunes you know (well, you know that might be a little bit of hyperbole – but practicing will make it easier and you will get better at it).  Then you can also move to bigger jumps (for instance moving from G to D) which will strain your brain a little but will be easier if you have practiced the smaller moves.

So, keep practicing your transposing and soon it will be so second nature you can do it on the fly at all the birthday parties!

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