Why Transposing is an Essential Piano Skill (And How To Do It)

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In today’s video, we’re going to talk about transposing, and why transposing is an essential piano skill. We’ll also talk about how to do it, so you can apply it right away.

To accompany this video, I’ll put up a couple graphics that we’ll be using – cheat sheets for major and minor chords. If you’d like to download them and print them, just follow the links below!



(The black and white ones are more printer-friendly)

Major Scale Cheat Sheet Printout

Major Scale Cheat Sheet
Major Scales: Printer-Friendly

Minor Scale Cheat Sheet Printout

Minor Scale Cheat Sheet
Minor Scales: Printer-Friendly

What is Transposing?

So first of all, what is transposing?

Transposing is when you take a piece, or a part of a piece, and shift it up or down to a different key signature.

So maybe you have a little melody in the key of C, like C – D – E – D – C. And then you say to yourself, “I’d like to transpose this up a step to the key of D”.

Now your melody is D – E – F# – E – D.

It still has the same overall tune, it’s just a pitch higher. That’s what transposing is, and how it works.

 

Why Transposing is an Essential Piano Skill

Now let’s take a look at why transposing is an essential piano skill.

There are three main reasons that I consider really important. Tied into one of those points is a story of mine from band class in grade 6 which I’d like to share.

I wasn’t the greatest student. I was forgetful, and often left my music book at home. So when it was time for private lessons with my band instructor, I’d have my flute, but no music. I remember borrowing another kid’s book, but it wasn’t a flute book – it was clarinet or something.

So the little exercises and songs I had to learn were the same – only, the book I borrowed was in a different tuning. Perhaps the notes read something like D – E – F#, but I couldn’t play those exact letters on the flute as they appeared on the page – to make it correct and adjust for my instrument, I had to transpose it.

Since that was basically two decades ago, I don’t remember what I had to transpose to, but I do remember being able to do it on the fly, to the point of impressing my band instructor. I’d been taking piano lessons for years before that, and was comfortable with note reading and the idea of transposing.

Reason #1: It Helps You Play With Others

So this is one important reason transposing is useful – if you have to play in band and you forget your books.

For a more applicable adult scenario, though, say you’re playing in a band. And say your guitarist, instead of being in the standard tuning of E A D G B E, has everything tuned down a half step, to Eb Ab Db Gb Bb Eb.

This is a real-life example as well, since the guitarist of my band does play in this particular tuning.

So say this guitarist is telling you about a song he’s playing. And he says, “I’m playing these chords”:

E minor, G major (it’s a simple song)

But then you play an E minor chord on the keyboard, and it doesn’t match what he plays.

Since he’s a half-step down from standard tuning, you would then have to adjust for that. If he says “E minor”, you adjust it – transpose it – to Eb minor. If he plays what he considers an E minor chord, and you play Eb minor, they will match up and sound the same.

Sometimes the people you jam with will be really knowledgeable about music theory. Maybe if they’re in a non-standard tuning, they’ll be able to tell you the right chords, without making you figure out the transposing yourself.

But if they don’t know what they’re doing, you’re out of luck. Transposing to the rescue!

Reason #2: Transposing Helps You Sing

So that’s one reason that transposing is an essential piano skill. Another reason is this:

If you like to play piano and sing, sometimes the notes are outside of your singing range.

This happens to me all the time. I’ll be learning a song, start to sing it, and realize the notes are way too low because it’s a man singing. But if I shift my pitch an octave higher, I’ll be stuck in this crazy falsetto and it won’t sound good.

The solution is to transpose. Maybe if I shift the entire song up, say, a 4th, it’ll be at a singable pitch for me.

If you’re a male singer and you’re trying to learn a song with female vocals, you can do the same thing in reverse – transpose the notes down a 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, or whatever distance will help you sing it.

Reason #3: Transpose to Make Songs Easier

The third reason that transposing is an essential skill:

Sometimes you’ll print off some sheet music, see 7 sharps in the key signature, and freak out and never play the song. 7 sharps is intimidating. Even 3 or 4 sharps can be intimidating, especially when you’re starting out.

For example, the key of F# major has 6 sharps, but if I transpose it up just a half-step, to G major, suddenly you just have 1 sharp to worry about, and it’s much easier to play.

I don’t do this with Classical pieces. I’ll only do this with pop pieces where I’m learning the chords and melody.

Bonus Reason #4: Understand Key Signatures Better

A fourth and bonus reason to transpose, is that it tends to get you comfortable playing in a variety of keys. Maybe you’re learning a lot of pieces in C major. Maybe you’d like to play around with different keys without having to learn a whole bunch of new songs.

Transpose them to different keys – F major, D major, and so on – and you’ll start developing an internal understanding of various key signatures.

It’s one thing to memorize various key signatures – G major has 1 sharp, D major has 2 sharps, and so on – but it’s another thing entirely to live that key signature by playing around with it.

How Transpose on the Piano

So how do you transpose?

Here’s where the cheat sheets I made (at the top of this post) will come in handy. They include all 12 major scales, and show the various sharps and flats contained in them.

Knowing what notes are in each key/scale is important when you’re transposing, especially when you’re spontaneously transposing.

Say you start out in the key of C major, with no sharps or flats. But you want to transpose to G major, which has one sharp.

That would mean:

C = G

D = A

E = B

F = C

And so on. Eventually, you’d get to this point:

B = F#

Say you had a melody in the key of C that went like this:

C – D – E

To transpose that to the key of G, you would instead play:

G – A – B.

Transposing in Minor Keys

I also made a minor key cheat sheet, for those songs you learn that are in minor keys (also at the beginning of this post).

We won’t be doing any minor key transposing today, but it works the same as transposing in major keys. Both are super useful to have!

Transpose the Yellow Rose of Texas

Let’s use the Yellow Rose of Texas for our first experiment in transposing, since it’s nice and simple. If you missed the video tutorial for this one, you can check it out here.

First of all, we have to figure out what key it’s in. It has one sharp in the key signature (F#), and starts on a G major chord. Therefore, we know it’s in the key of G major.

Now we’re going to transpose it up a 4th. What’s a 4th?

Quick Review of Intervals

A 4th is the distance between two notes that totals 4 notes. So a 4th up from G would be C.

Other intervals – note distances – can be found the same way. For example, a 2nd from G would be A, a 5th from G would be D, and so on.

Transposing from the Key of G to C

So a 4th up from G would be C. That means we start in a song based on G major scale, and now we’re trying to move it to a song in C major scale.

So every time a G chord is played now, you’ll be playing a C chord instead. Every time a D7 chord is played, you’ll be playing a G7 instead.

As for the melody, it starts like this:

D-C-B – D – D – – D-E-D

To transpose it to the key of C major, we just shift all of those notes up a 4th. When we do that, we end up with this:

G-F-E – G – G – – G-A-G

The biggest thing to remember with transposing is that you maintain the sharps or flats from whatever scale you move it to. For example, if you were transposing this song to B major, up a 3rd instead of a 4th, the transposed version would look more like this:

F#-E-D# – F# – F# – F#-G#-F#

Because B major has 5 sharps, you need to make sure that when you’re transposing, you’re remembering to include all of those sharps.

Another Transposing Example

Let’s do one more example. Let’s say our guitar player is in a weird tuning, and he’s playing the chords for I’ll Always Love You by Whitney Houston, and you’re both using the same chord sheet to play it. And you’re trying to play the chorus at the end, with the big dramatic key change.

Your chord sheet says:

B – G#m – E – F#

Since your guitarist is in a tuning that is a half-step down, when he plays those chords, it’s going to sound instead like this:

Bb – Gm – Eb – F

Every single chord will be played a half step lower, so you’ll have to play the second chord pattern to match what he’s playing. Alternately he could transpose up to meet you, but I think it’s best to be prepared.

Conclusion

Hopefully that gives you some insight as to why transposing is an essential piano skill. Thanks for tuning in today, and enjoy the printables – we’ll definitely be seeing more of them in the future.

xo,
Allysia

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.