Musicians - a question about Transposing Music

I took music theory my senior year of high school. A big part of the class was learning the various instruments, their range, and then the final project was transposing a piano score for full band. I choose Wichita Lineman by Glen Campbell. It was a fun class. Our teacher was the high school band director. He brought in students to demo their instruments for us.

I do recall how tedious transposing was. I think we spent 6 weeks on that final project. The band played a few minutes of everyones project. Boy, you could sure hear where we screwed up. :smiley: We did it all by hand. Using staff paper and a pencil.

I’ve always wondered. Almost thirty years later. How much of this is done automatically by computer software? I recall there was definitely a procedure we followed for transposing. You had to know the instrument and it’s range. Shift the notes etc. But, there was also some creative work. Deciding which instrument gets the melody. Solos. etc. That’s something unique a computer can’t do.

So, if I wanted to transpose a piano score, perhaps by Greenday. How much help is the computer? How much do you still do with a pencil? Is the computer able to play what you’ve transposed?

I always wished I’d majored in music in college. But, I just didn’t have the talent. I knew a few people with amazing creativity and musical talent. I knew I better plan on something else to make a living. :wink:

Transposing, the simple process of writing notes written in one key to another, is easily accomplished by a computer. Software can even shift pitch of a song without even referring to written music (the success of this can vary depending on the type of music).

Taking a piece written for, say, piano, and rewriting it for a concert band (or what have you) is referred to as “arranging”. Software can greatly assist in this process, and probably there are automated attempts that do a tolerably listenable job (e.g. something like “Songsmith” which automatically plays accompaniment), but as you said this is a creative process, and a good arrangement is a much more involved task than a simple transposition.

I use Finale for making charts. Just highlight the staff/staves you want to transpose, tell the program what interval you want to change to (plus or minus octaves if needed), and it’s done. Same thing with changing keys…highlight which measures you want to change and it will do it. As far as transposing for different instruments (Bb trumpet or Eb sax for example), just create a new staff for that instrument (the correct key signature will be there automatically), highlight what you want to be copied from the original staff, drag it to the new staff, and the transposition will be automatic. You may have to transpose up or down an octave to put it in the correct range.

Lookie here!

I use this all the time for my band’s charts. It won’t work on sheet music, but if you have simple charts with chords it will work.

I see you mean piano scores. Nope, the Tabulator won’t work on those. As you can see, though, people are working on this problem.

Since you have Finale, I-VI-ii-V, how well does band-in-a-box work for the other part of what the OP is describing? I never got it to work with my 2002 version, and I’ve since lost it.

(I’ve been using Finale Notepad 2008, the last free version)

I don’t use Band in a Box very much (though the PG Text font is very nice looking). I’ve got a friend who used to use it for lead sheets (which she could transpose easily in the program), but Finale is far superior. I’ve never used it, but Sibelius (another music notation program) has a lot of loyal users.

Very interesting. Sure beats a pencil and staff paper. Removing some of the tedious handwork means there’s more time to get creative. Kids in today’s music theory classes probably learn more and do more projects.

I was a second violinist in junior and senior high. I found music composition much more interesting than performing. I was lucky that a music theory class was offered at our high school. There were several kids in the band that were incredible musicians and planning on majoring in college. The band director put together this theory class to help them. It was restricted to members of the band or school orchestra.

Yeah, what you’re really asking about is more the process of arranging, rather than transposition. Transposition itself is (more or less) a trivial task. Arranging a piano score into something that sounds good for, say, a string quartet is a whole 'nother can of worms. You can’t just take all the notes in a score and rearrange the lowest ones for your basses, your second lowest for cellos, etc. First of all, you may not have enough/have too many notes to deal with. Second of all, what sounds good on a piano may not sound good on a cello.

Heck, even as a keyboardist, I play parts differently depending on whether they’re played on an organ (or organ-type sound) vs a piano. Taking organ parts to piano usually requires adding “thickness” to the tones–lushing up the harmonies and such. Organ parts generally need more space in them–too many notes and it sounds muddy. And there are other things: on a piano, you have a damper pedal which sustains notes. On an organ you don’t. But on an organ, you have vibrato, percussion, Leslie speaker, drawbar, etc., effects, so when you go from an organ piece back to the piano, you have think of ways of musically translating those sorts of expressions into a piano context. Same basic sorts of ideas and decisions apply when taking a piano score and transforming it into a band context.

How good are computer programs at arranging? I don’t know. I imagine you can get a pretty decent (although formulaic) arrangement for instruments with the approach of giving the computer a melody line and the chords. (Which is what Band-in-the-Box does.) But beyond that, I would think you’d need a lot of human input and creative decisions to make something musically interesting.

I am not that familiar with modern music printing software, but 35 years ago someone challenged me to write a transposing program for a computer, and I did it in a few minutes.

If you have a note represented by a number, all you have to do is add or subract a number to get a new number, or pitch, using a half-step scale.

Example, if C is represented by the number 41, then 42 is C# or D flat.

The charm of the program I wrote was to represent enharmonic equivalents like C# and D flat as a single number such as 42. Then, after transposing the raw numbers, you run the pitches thru the display routine which decides how to display it – sharp or flat, stem up or down, with or without accidentals, etc. according to the factors in play like clefs and key sigs.

The display routine was difficult and took a long time to write (no microcomputer graphics programs then!). The actual transposing was the easy part.

Ah, yes, but you were amateurs. :slight_smile: In Hollywood music copy dens, we routinely transposed works using pen & ink with few errors and very fast. However, the union scale for copying transposed was 50% more than straight copying or part extracting. That’s why arrangers were encouraged by producers to write transposed scores rather than concert ones as it kept the copying cost down, and we copyists didn’t mind transposing since we got paid more yet it took no more time for an experienced copyist.

Speaking of arranging, once you’ve extracted the notes into separate parts for different instruments, it’s very easy in a music notation program to create harmonies. For example, select the cello line and raise all notes by a fifth (or whatever interval you want). What about counter melodies? I don’t think you can change those with the push of a button. You’ll either have to play them in with a midi keyboard or point and click the notes you want.

Musicat, what’s the secret to straight stems? Do you use a straightedge for every stem or do you just have a study hand? What about the length of the stems? Eyeballed or measured? I’ve never taken a copyist class…I’ve been “cheating” with music notation programs for a long time (I’ll often do a handwritten rough draft but it is not fit for human consumption).

pulykamell, as a keyboardist, what is your “mental” process for transposing? As a bass player, it’s very easy - all of the strings are tuned in fourths, so you only have to memorize patterns for different intervals (1 string higher, 2 frets higher is a P5, for example). Even without a bass in my hand I can picture the fingerboard and transpose notes in my head quickly. How do you do it? Any horn players out there? What’s your mental process?

I’m not terribly good at transposing a piece of written music on sight. Chord progressions and simple melody lines are easy enough (I just try to think of the notation as relative rather than fixed), but more complex pieces of music that have a lot of horizontal and vertical (chords) sight righting I’m terrible at. Some are very talented at this sort of thing, but it does take a lot of practice.

Are you talking creating a harmony line that is just a copy of the cellos transposed a fifth up (i.e. parallel fifths)? That’s not going to work in a lot of contexts. I mean, it’ll create a harmony, but a very modern one, and not a very interesting one. (Paralell fifths were pretty much forbidden in classical music harmony.)

Now, sure, you hear it in rock, jazz, and some other places, but it’s a very particular sound and often inappropriate.

What I meant was “Hey, pulykamell, here’s a chart (lead sheet from the Real Book, for instance) of “Autumn Leaves” in C…can you transpose it to F for the next rehearsal, please?” As a piano player, how do think about transposing the chords and notes? I guess it’s a meta question.

The parallel fifths was just an example of an interval in which to raise part of a melody. Yeah, I’m not a classical guy…rock and jazz is what I usually play. And clearly not much of a composer or arranger :slight_smile:

I take into account the key of the song, and then think of the chords in terms of their relation to the tonic. So, if it’s in Cminor and I see Cm7, F7, Bb7 or whatever, I think i7, IV7, bVII7, etc. Then it’s not so hard for me to change into any other key.

If I were doing written music today – other than quickie sketches, where appearance isn’t important – I would use one of many computer notation programs now available.

But if you are asking from an historical viewpoint, how it was done way back when, we used a straightedge in the left hand for anything that should be straight – stems and beams, mostly. The same straightedge was used under short text to keep the bottom part of the text straight, and a longer one for lyrics or titles.

You get pretty adept at positioning the straightedge. Some copyists didn’t even hold it down on the paper, so their lines weren’t perfectly straight, but straighter than you can do freehand.

My favorite tool was a 2" wide, thin plastic ruler (“C-Thru” brand) that I cut off to a 4" length. I then beveled all 4 edges, sanded and polished them down so that ink wouldn’t run under.

Engravers have rules for the lengths of stems and the slant of beams. A single stem for a single note that is “properly” placed on the staff – that is, the stem is in the normal direction – should be exactly one octave long (cf. Reomer, The Art of Music Copying.) However, many Hollywood copyists used a 6th interval for their length, so there were some stylistic differences. The stem is lengthened if necessary for every flag more than 2 on the stem (16th notes get 2 flags). The stem may have to be lengthened to prevent beams from slanting more than a 4th, and beams are horizontal in some cases even if the notes are not the same pitch under them.

There are lot of rules, but the intention is to emulate engraving while taking into account speed, practicality and modern developments, like using beams for vocal music just like instrumental, a rather recent (ca. 1950+) practice.

I find it sad that all the computer notation programs today that I have seen reveal little or no evidence that an engraver or even a copyist was involved with the development. Uniformity and readability suffers.