How to transpose music

14.03.2022 Ben Maloney Sheet music

Finding transposition confusing? We’ve all been there. It's often more of a head-scratcher than it should be, and that's precisely why this guide’s been put together. It should answer all the questions you have about this frustrating process. You’ll find out what transposing music is, why it's a thing, and - most importantly - how you can most easily go about doing it yourself.

What is transposition?


Transposition is a process whereby all the notes in a passage of music are raised or lowered in pitch by a particular, consistent interval. 

In most cases, this interval is determined by the number of semitones. This is known as chromatic transposition, and this is the type of transposition you'll be learning about here.

Let’s say we have a short musical phrase comprising three notes played one after the other: C, D and E, as above. If we transpose it up by two semitones, we end up with D, E and F-sharp. If we transpose it down by three semitones, we get A, B and C-sharp.  

That’s transposition. Not so bad, right? 
 

Why do we transpose?


Transposition is used for a range of reasons, but it is probably most commonly required when music is to be played by instruments that transpose.

Transposing instruments read notation that isn’t written at concert pitch. This means that when a player reads and plays a note that indicates a certain pitch on one of these instruments, the pitch of the note that’s actually sounded is different.  

Now that might sound puzzling. But it allows players of instruments that come in a range of shapes and sizes to use the same fingering patterns on the different versions of their instrument - and still sound the right notes. 

Sometimes transposition can also help to make a difficult piece of music easier to play. Let’s go into more detail about instances when transposition is necessary.
 

When to transpose music


As a musician, you might find yourself in a situation that calls for transposition. Above all else, transposition is a tool for performance. So you’ll only really need to transpose when you’re performing, or writing music that’s going to be performed.

If you’re writing music for transposing instruments such as saxophone, trumpet, clarinet, or French horn, and you’re expecting players to read your music and play it, then you’ll need to transpose the parts. 

You might be a player of one of these instruments yourself, looking to play a piece that’s written either in concert pitch, for an instrument that transposes differently, or in a register that isn’t suitable for your instrument. To play the music at the correct or appropriate pitch on your instrument, transposition is required.

Transposition also comes in handy when some music is difficult to play on an instrument for one reason or another. It might make for a less awkward fingering on a guitar, for example, or make certain wind instruments sound more in tune.

Sometimes vocalists find that music is slightly too high or low for them to sing. In these cases, transposition allows them to sing the same music in a register that they’re more comfortable in. 

These are the primary functions of transposition. If any of these situations sound familiar, then you’ll probably need to transpose your music, though you may not necessarily have to go to all that trouble. 
 

What to consider before transposing music


You can avoid the sometimes arduous process of transposing music yourself. If you’re putting together a score that is designed only to be read, then you don’t necessarily need to transpose the parts. In fact, writing them at concert pitch will probably make it easier to read for most individuals. 

But, if you are writing for transposing instruments, you might want to transpose the parts anyway - even if it’s not for performance. Players could then read your work and gauge how playable it is.

Some instruments don’t always demand manual transposition. You don’t always need to transpose for the guitar, for example. A device called a ‘capo’ allows you to shift music up or down in pitch without having to learn new fingering patterns. 

If you’re working with notation software, transposition can be carried out automatically, which will save you the hassle of doing it yourself. Some electronic keyboards have built-in transposition functions as well. It’s also worth checking the nkoda library to see if it has the work you’re looking for transcribed specifically for your instrument.  

If none of these scenarios is applicable to you, you’ll have to transpose the music you’re working with yourself. Most music is tonal and written in a key, so we’re going to run through a simple method that works by manipulating the key signature.
 

How to transpose music


Transposing tonal music is quick and easy. Just determine the transposed key using a transposition chart and rewrite the passage of music in the new key. Check the interval between the home notes of the two keys, and ensure that every note in the transposition is separated by the same interval from its corresponding note in the original passage. 

That’s the process in a nutshell, but we’re going to outline step-by-step it in more detail below. Whatever the reason you’re transposing, whether you’re composing or playing, the process is the same, so don’t worry.
 

Step 1: Determine the transposed key


The first step in transposing tonal music is determining the key to transpose to. If you’re writing music for transposing instruments, this step is easy to carry out.  

When a transposing instrument reads a C, it plays the note that’s in its name - when a clarinet in B♭ reads a C, for example, it plays a B♭. And all the other notes it plays will accordingly sound two semitones lower than written.

This means that by simply shifting the key of a piece of music up by an interval of two semitones and rewriting it as if it were in that different key, when a clarinetist plays the newly transposed music on their instrument in B♭, the original notes will be sounded. This process works with any given key.

To determine the transposed key, take note of the key signature of the music that you’re working with and the degree of transposition of the instrument you’re playing or writing for. Then refer to the chart below to find out the transposed key.

For example, for an instrument pitched in F (top row) music written in the key of D (left column) should be transposed to the key of A. If your music is in a minor key, simply work out what the transposed key of the relative major would be, and use the relative minor of that transposed key.

If you’re working with music that’s already been transposed for an instrument that itself transposes, you’ll need to figure out the concert pitch before transposing for the new instrument. If, on the other hand, you’re transposing music to make it more playable on an instrument, simply select the key that’s most appropriate. 

And if you’re transposing to accommodate a singer’s preferred register, it’s best to think in terms of intervals - does it need to be only a couple of semitones higher or lower, or perhaps a few more? Once you’ve established that, figure out the new key accordingly.

Once you’ve determined the key that you need to transpose to, you’re ready to move on to the next step. If you’re writing out your music, go ahead and fill in the new key signature.
 

Step 2: Shift the notes


Now you need to write out the same music transposed to the new key, ensuring that every single note has been shifted up or down by the same interval.

As we already explained, the same interval that separates the base notes of the original and transposed keys, will separate each note in the original version and its transposed counterpart.

Following the example of the clarinet in B♭ above, all the notes in the transposition need to be raised by two semitones. The chart covers you for that too - it indicates not only the transposed key but also each transposed pitch in that new key, relative to the original pitches.

So, carefully shift each pitch by the correct interval and write out the transposed music. You can double-check that you’ve got it right by ensuring that the horizontal intervals between notes are the same in the transposition as they are in the original.

If the music you’re working with isn’t tonal and there’s no key, simply start off with this step and ensure that all the notes have been shifted one way or the other by the same interval.
 

Step 3: Mind the accidentals 


Things can get a little more complicated when it comes to accidentals - a note that’s sharpened pre-transposition won’t necessarily be sharpened post-transposition. The same goes for flats and naturals.

You can avoid making mistakes here by carefully counting the semitones that make up the interval between a concert-pitch note and its transposed counterpart. 

Or you can think in terms of raised and lowered scale degrees. For instance, an E♮ in the key of G minor raises the sixth scale degree (the sixth note in the key’s scale, in this case G minor). Transposed to the key of A minor, this note would become an F♯ - the raised sixth scale degree.

Don’t forget that time signature and rhythm remain completely unchanged - transposition affects pitch only.

Music transposition chart


Below you’ll find the transposition chart indicating the relationship between concert keys and pitches, and the various degrees of transposition that you’re likely to come across.

There are a wide range of transposing instruments that do not necessarily transpose in the same direction. For instance, some instruments pitched in F sound a perfect fifth lower than written, while some sound a perfect fourth higher.

Because of this inconsistency, this chart shows only the key and not the direction of transposition. To ensure you’re transposing in the right direction for your instrument, consult this list of transposing instruments.

Some keys might be more suitable than their enharmonic equivalent. In other words, it might be more appropriate to transpose to G♯ than to A♭. There’s no one-size-fits-all method - you’ll have to treat each transposition on a case-by-case basis.

If you want to know more about transposition…


This is a straightforward, practical guide to transposition that should cover all bases. But if you’re interested in the theory behind it, there’s more to learn. 

You can explore transposition in greater depth by checking out this page on Wikipedia. We’ve only addressed chromatic transposition in this article, but there are other types as well.

It can all seem overwhelming at first, but if you consider each step carefully and let it sink in, it’ll become second nature in no time. Happy transposing.

Share this article

Related Articles

5 best digital sheet music subscription services in 2022

5 best digital sheet music subscription services in 2022

Thinking about securing your sheet music digitally? This article offers a countdown of your best options on the market.

Sheet music
By Ben Maloney

How to transpose music

How to transpose music

Finding transposition confusing? We’ve all been there. This guide should put an end to the head-scratching.

Sheet music
By Ben Maloney

Music theory & sheet music cheat sheet

Music theory & sheet music cheat sheet

Musicians need something that will answer all the basic questions, quickly and reliably, anywhere and anytime. Enter the cheat sheet.

Sheet music
By Ben Maloney

The history of sheet music and music notation

The history of sheet music and music notation

The iconic symbols. Where did they come from? What do they mean? And how did they come to articulate an unspoken language understood by millions around the world?

Sheet music
By Ben Maloney

How to memorise music (10 quick tips)

How to memorise music (10 quick tips)

Here are a few things that will help you to memorise music more effectively and bring your musical goals within reach.

Sheet music
By Ben Maloney

How to practise reading sheet music

How to practise reading sheet music

This article is designed to help you to structure your sheet music practice. It’s intended for players who are relatively new to this territory, and are trying to develop some fluency in interpreting notes on the page...

Sheet music
By Ben Maloney

How long does it take to learn to read music?

How long does it take to learn to read music?

Reading sheet music is something that you can absolutely teach yourself to do. You don’t need to receive tuition, whether at school or in private. There’s a world of information out there that’ll tell you everything you need to know, every step of the way. But how long does it take?

Sheet music
By Ben Maloney

How to read music faster and improve sight reading

How to read music faster and improve sight reading

This article takes a look at the craft of reading sheet music quickly and effectively, which is the foundation of good sight reading. Soon you’ll be able to read through a whole opera in the blink of an eye...

Sheet music
By Ben Maloney

How to publish sheet music

How to publish sheet music

If you’re thinking about publishing sheet music, then you can find out more below about these options available to you. But whichever route you decide to pursue, there’s one thing that you're encouraged to keep in mind…

Sheet music
By Ben Maloney

How to store sheet music and organise it

How to store sheet music and organise it

Sheet music can be stored on shelves, in filing cabinets, and even digitally. It's important to organise your collection effectively, in a way that makes sense to you, minimises the risk of damage, maximises space, and facilitates easy access. “How do I store sheet music?” It might seem like a simple question, but any musician who has even the most modest collection will know the horror of an unsightly stack of papers on a piano stool...

Sheet music
By Ben Maloney

Best places to find and buy sheet music

Best places to find and buy sheet music

Anyone who uses sheet music has to first get hold of it, but that isn’t always easy. And the fact that there are more sources of sheet music out there than ever hasn’t necessarily made things simpler. Different musicians have different needs, so there are no straightforward, general answers to this question. It all comes down to what sheet music you’re after and how you use it...

Sheet music
By Ben Maloney