Transposing music---common? (for pianists)

Hi SD,

As a pianist, I find that I am able to transpose common lead sheets fairly easily. Songs I know well, such as Somewhere Over The Rainbow, I can transpose to any key when asked. I have been complimented on my proficiency in this skill. But I don’t understand why. It would seem a natural skill of accompanists to be able to transpose, certainly not for classical pieces that require precise notes that may be more difficult, but for lead sheets where harmony and chords are the main tools for success. When accompanying singers, you have to be able to play in their key. So you must have a good ear for harmonic progressions.

My question is this: Is the ability to transpose songs (within the general Great American Songbook context) something more rare or common when it comes to your average accompanist? I’m seriously not fishing for compliments–I’m just asking if your general, everyday, run-of-the mill accompanist/pianist will reach for that transpose button on his keyboard or be able to transpose it in his or her head?

I’m not a pianist, but I had to do a helluva lot of transposing exercises in my music theory classes.

I agree with you that it’s easy once you get the hang of it; the only confounding part is just keeping track of where the accidentals go and making sure you go up or down the same number of steps for every note. I think people who learn to play without a solid understanding of how keys and steps work have the most trouble with it.

There’s no way I could site-transpose a lead-sheet, though. But that’s because I can barely site-read Three Blind Mice. :slight_smile:

I think it’s fairly trivial. Of course, I’m a bassist by training, and we’re taught to think harmonically and to be key independent. But I’ve performed on literally hundreds of sessions and live performances that required transposition. Most of those are, as you say, lead sheet and changes, but with practice it becomes pretty automatic.

I can transpose on demand on bass, guitar, piano and organ. But I’m never thinking of the notation first - it’s all relative motion and tonal centers, along with a big dash of the Nashville number system.

The only instruments I can’t do that with are those which require radical rethinking due to physical, tuning or range limitations - mandolin and violin especially but banjo as well come to mind.

Piano is in fact the easiest after bass, in my mind. Sure, sharp keys and flat keys feel really different, and certain moves are more challenging, but for the most part popular and commercial stuff is generally pretty easy to transpose on the keys. Of course, we also diligently practice in all keys, both chromatically and around the circle of fifths, which helps quite a bit. Looking at you, Hanon. Grumble.

I learned to play primarily by ear; to me it’s the equivalent of moving from the right lane to the middle lane when you’re driving on the turnpike — do the same thing you were doing but one lane over. I don’t consciously think of moving from a D chord to an A chord with a descending D C# B C# B melody so much as I think of moving to a major one fifth up (or fourth down) from where I was and with a descending thatnote down down backup down. So to transpose the whole thing to F# major is no big deal, it’s not like I have to translate something in my head.

Only place it makes a difference is where the actual physical shapes of the notes make a difference to my fingers. “oh that’s an F major scale now, can’t thumb that stupid b flat” EDIT: or where it’s a key I don’t use as often so it just feels awkward to me in general.

Freaked my mom out because she’s a reader and plays what’s written like a faithful player piano and puts her fingers on notes she knows the names of or she wouldn’t know where to put her fingers.

I don’t play the piano, but my 11 year old son has been playing for about three years and often, just for fun, he’ll start playing one of his lessons or a tune he already knows in the “wrong” key. If we say “hey that’s not the right key” - he’ll shift to another, wrong, key. I don’t think he’s sight-reading and mentally transposing in his head; I think he’s just shifting his hands up or down the appropriate number of keys. But as a non-piano player I’m impressed.

I’m trying to learn mandolin, so if I want to transpose it’s easy - I just put the capo here and presto! I went from G to A! :slight_smile:

I suspect it may depend if you’ve primarily been classical or contemporary trained. I’m a medium-incompetent player who had almost entirely classical lessons, and I find transposing anything other than two or four tones up (or maybe two down, on a good day) to be simply hell on earth. I was never taught to think in chords, and trying to do so imposes significant overhead.

I’m trying to teach myself. It’s bloody hard.

I went to Berklee College of Music. I attended one class with a person who had perfect pitch. Our professor turned the piano to make sure even no reflection of the keys was there and played a ten-note chord. He asked him to name the third highest note, the eighth, etc. Nailed all the notes. No mistakes. When our professor asked what instrument he played, he drew the biggest laughs when he said, “drums”. :smiley:

Turns out he started on brass, then saxophone, then couldn’t deal with transposing a damn thing. Especially with some non-ransposing instruments. He simply thought, or knew, what he was playing was “wrong”, as he put it. Transposing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” would just feel and sound wrong, even if it were to appease the vocalist’s range and overall performance.

Long story, (sorry), but I brought it up because of how hard it can be to deal with transposing, even with someone that has relative pitch, like me, and I’m guessing like you do too. :slight_smile: I play guitar, started with piano. I studied Film Scoring at Berklee, but all of my writing for projects was finalized on piano, not guitar.

Why? Ah, hell knows, but TRANSPOSING was the most important for the live recordings and for good grades! We had to write nutty avant-garde like pieces for “unique” trios. I ended up writing one for trombone, flute and viola. (I’m glad I don’t remember how that sounded.) But transposing from a piano to sheet music (especially when we had to make concert and transposed sheet music) is the best way to do it. You can easily map out where most of the pitches lie in the orchestra on a piano in your head, so you don’t accidentally think that a bass trombone can play a Bb two octaves above middle C, put it on a chart and claim that a really good bass trombonist could hit it.


I play ukulele, fairly well, and write most of the songs I play. When I’m writing for myself it’s easy to just start with the key that best fits my limited vocal range. My vocal range isn’t so limited that I can’t deal with a step up or down, though. If I’ve been working on a melody without any accompaniment, then grab my uke and find I’ve been singing in Eb, I’ll either move it up to E or down to D, just because the chording is likely to be easier.
When arranging covers, though, I almost always have to transpose the key to something that works better for my vocal range. As I’ve learned more covers I’ve gotten better at transposing. To top it off, I play both baritone and tenor uke, and they’re in different keys.
And I do this with being barely able to sight read.

I play the keyboard poorly, anything more complicated than chords/melody I have to rely on muscle (tendon?) memory if I am able to play it. So I could transpose chords or a melody fairly easily, but not anything else (though as I said I am a poor player, so that’s perhaps not surprising).

I learnt to sigh-tread on a valve brass instrument, so firstly reading poly-tonal music isn’t that natural to me. Secondly when it comes to transposing on such an instrument you have to translate the notes to the new key, compared to say the bass guitar where it is easy to translate the physical actions.

Wow, I’m in that same boat. People who could transpose music with little or no thought I had always considered to be Touched by the Gods.

I, too, was classically trained, and even thinking about transposition gives me a headache.

I can only transpose to a similar key–switching between sharp and flat key signatures, and then going what is usually a fifth off from those two. If I’m just reading a single clef, I can also switch clefs. In all of these, there is an overhead if at any point I’m not reading intervals.

Now, if you just mean lead sheets, then I usually learn the melody aurally and then transpose it into any key. There’s only an overhead if I’ve played it in the same key often enough that I try to go on autopilot.