Weekly Workout lessons usually involve techniques that are physically challenging on the guitar. However, this month’s exercises are more conceptual than technical. You’ll focus on transposition—the act of moving music from one key to another while keeping its basic structure intact.
Being able to transpose is a valuable skill to have up your sleeve. Among other applications, you might be hired to accompany a vocalist who can’t sing a tune in its original key; you might like to make a guitar-friendly arrangement of a piano composition that’s in a tricky key; or, you might simply want to explore the way a melody sounds in different keys.
No matter the style or application, learning to transpose will undoubtedly make you a better guitarist, while improving your overall musicianship.
Beginners’ Tip #1
A capo allows you to easily play a song in a different key. However, don’t shortchange yourself by relying on it exclusively and not investigating and understanding the theory behind transposing.
The art of transposing requires a grasp on theory fundamentals. If needed, begin your workout by refreshing yourself on key signatures, minor and major, sharp and flat; basic intervals; and the Roman numerals used to describe the functions of chords in progression.
A relatively effortless method of transposing involves the use of a capo, which can be placed at different regions of the neck, allowing common grips to sound as new chords. Try a I–IV–V–I progression in the key of C major, as shown in Example 1. Next, place a capo at the first fret and use the same grips (relative to the capo). This yields a I–IV–V–I in the key of C# (C#–F#–C#–G#). Move the capo to the second fret and you’re playing in the key of D. In fact, you can move the capo farther up the neck to play the same chord grips in all 12 keys.
A technique unique to the guitar involves transposing by retuning the instrument. For instance, try the i–iv-i–v progression as shown in Example 2. If you’d like to play it in D# minor without using barre chords, just tune each string down by a half step (low to high: Eb Ab Db Gb Bb Eb) and you’ll automatically sound in Eb.
Now begins the real mental work. In transposing, as with anything else in music, there’s often more than one way to conceive of what you’re doing. This week try a vertical approach—that is, transpose a melody by relocating each note by a given interval.
Take a simple phrase in the key of C (Example 3a). Let’s say you want to transpose it to the key of D major. First, determine the intervallic distance between these two keys. D major is a major second above C major. So, to play Ex. 3a in D major, move each note up a major second (remember, the equivalent of two frets), as in Example 3b. To transpose it down to the key of D major, lower each note by a minor seventh (Example 3c). Try transposing Ex. 3a—and all of the subsequent exercises—to other keys as well.
Beginners’ Tip #2
When learning to transpose, use traditional songs like “Amazing Grace” and “Down in the Valley,” as they tend to be both melodically and harmonically concise. They’re also familiar-sounding, so your ear will help guide you.
Instead of conceiving of things vertically, you could take a horizontal approach when transposing. Begin by identifying the interval between each pair of notes in a melody, as demonstrated in Example 4a, which is in the key of G major. (Remember, P = perfect, M = major, and m = minor.) Next, apply the same sequence of intervals to a different starting note (Example 4b). You’ve now re-created the same melody in a different key—namely, B major.
Because of the layout of the fretboard, you can take a melody and transpose it simply by moving it up or down a given number of frets—unlike on other instruments, such as piano or saxophone, which require a new position for each new key.
Try Example 5a, which is derived from the A natural minor scale. Take the same fingerings, on the same string set, and move the melody up a major second to play it in the key of B minor, as in Example 5b. And because of the symmetry of standard tuning—the bottom four are arranged in perfect fourths—you can transpose the same melody down a fourth, to the key of F# minor, by moving it one string set over (Example 5c).
Beginners’ Tip #3
A great way to begin the process of transposing with numbers in relation to keys is to practice basic major scales, counting each note as you progress.
This week you’ll work with melodies with chords. Take the bluegrass classic “Sandy River Belle,” notated in the key of G major in Example 6a, and play it in D. It’s easy to transpose between these two keys if you think of each note as a number in relation to the scale. The song begins with the note D, which is the fifth note of the G major scale. Find the fifth note of a D major scale—A—and you can build the rest of the melody in relation to the new key (Example 6b).
To transpose the chords, relate them to the Roman numeral system. The first chord, G, is the I and the other chord, Em, is the vi. Swap each chord for the exact Roman numeral in the new key—D and Bm are the I and vi chords in D major—and repeat this process for the next examples.
Your next exercise might be a bit trickier, as you transpose a passage from the traditional Irish tune “Rosin the Bow” from the key of Ab major to the key of A major (Examples 7a–b). But don’t be intimidated by that first key signature, with all its flats. Approach the task at hand systematically, like you did with the previous examples, and you’ll be right on track.
Beginners’ Tip #4
Take one basic song and transpose it up a minor third using all of the methods covered in this Weekly Workout.
This week you’ll put everything together in exploring transpositions on the traditional song “House of the Rising Sun.” At first glance, this tune might seem pretty straightforward, but it’s less so than the previous examples. Though it’s written in the key of A minor in Example 8a, you’ll see the note G#, which falls outside of the key. Likewise, the diatonic v chord in A minor is E minor, but here it’s played as major. And, though the iv chord in a minor key is normally minor, here it’s major (D).
Remember to consider these sharp notes as you prepare to transpose “House of the Rising Sun” to a new key. I’ve done the work for you in Example 8b, writing the tune in D minor, but with your newfound skills, try transposing it to other keys as well. Do the same with some of your favorite songs, and you’ll be a better musician for it.
TAKE IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL
The task of transposing complex passages and long compositions can be daunting, but with notation software like Finale or Sibelius, it can be a painless, educational, and even enjoyable experience. These and other programs allow music to be input in one key and changed to any other key with the click of a mouse.
Transposing with notation software can be exceptionally beneficial when composing and arranging, checking previously transposed pieces for errors, and much more. Although there’s often a bit of a learning curve upfront, the rewards of mastering the extensive capabilities of such programs can save you time, frustration, and countless revisions.
Tim Bertsch is a Seattle-based guitarist, composer, and educator, as well as the founder of Sound Academy of Music. www.timbertsch.com
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This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.