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Jam School Activities

Transpose A Song (Change Keys)

Starting Point #3 in the Series

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What You Need to Know Already:

Things to Help You With This Skill:


Transposing is the act of playing something in a different key from where it was originally written. You might transpose a song from its original key in order to keep its highest and lowest notes within a comfortable range on your instrument, or possibly to accommodate the vocal range of a singer. You might want to put the song in a key where either your horn, or perhaps a string player would have easier notes to play.

You are also transposing when you read music for something in another instrument's key and translate it to your own key. A good example of this would be playing an alto sax part on the tenor sax. If you've ever played a duet in the Rubank Intermediate Method for Saxophone, you have undoubtedly noticed the small notes that are always written above the regular notes in the lower duet part. This is because alto saxes and tenor saxes read the same pitches as different notes. If an alto saxophonist and a tenor saxophonist want to play one of those duets together, the alto player reads the top line, and the tenor player reads the small notes in the second line. These notes are transposed from the regular notes that a second alto player would play. In this kind of transposing you aren't changing the actual key of the song--you're changing the notes on your instrument to sound the same as the notes written for the instrument whose part you're reading.

When flutes are in the key of C (Concert C), the clarinets, trumpets and tenor saxes (B-flat instruments) are in D, the alto and baritone saxes (E-flat instruments) are in A, and the french horns are in G. To see how the different instruments are in different keys, take a look at the Band Instrument Transposition Chart.

The need to transpose, as you can see, is a very important one for band instrument players. Piano and guitar players seldom understand why we have B-flat clarinets and E-flat alto saxophones. These transposing instruments read music like they do so that the same fingerings will go along with the same written notes, no matter what the size/pitch of the instrument. As the players of transposing instruments, we must be able to take responsibility for interfacing with other musicians who read and play in the normal concert key.

The benefits of being able to transpose are many. The 'number method' of transposition that we use in this activity closely mimicks the thought process of musicians who play by ear. There are twelve different major scales (15 keys, but only 12 different sets of pitches) and the notes of those scales each have their own particular sound within the framework of the key. Few players can tell you instantly what exact note you're playing, but people who play by ear can tell you whether you're playing the 1st, 2nd, 3rd note, etc. of the major scale. Jingle Bells, for example, always begins on the third note of the major scale. It ends on the first note. If you're in the key of C, those notes would be E and C respectively. If you're in F, the notes would be A and F. But the numbers are always the same. The chorus of Jingle Bells is always 3-3-3, 3-3-3, 3-5-1-2-3. Just plug those numbers into any major scale, and you'll hear the melody.


In the activity for Writing the Notes to a Song we played a song by ear and recorded the pitches. In this exercise, we'll use My Country 'Tis of Thee, the song that appears on the reference sheet. We'll use Step 5 from that sheet as our starting point for this exercise.

Step 1 - Note that My Country 'Tis of Thee, as it appears on the "writing the notes" reference sheet, is written in the key of F. As written in Step 5, the key signature contains one flat--a B-flat. This is the key signature for the key of F.

Step 2 - Look up the key of F on the Major Scale Transposition Sheet. See how the notes are numbered at the top and bottom of the page. Write in the numbers (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 1) above the notes of your F scale on the transposition sheet.

Step 3 - Having numbered the notes of the F major scale, go through My Country 'Tis of Thee and write in the appropriate numbers above each note of the melody. The sequence, if written correctly, should be 1-1-2-7-1-2-3-3-4-3-2-1-2-1-7-1.

Step 4 - Let's say that My Country 'Tis was written in Concert F, but you play a B-flat instrument such as the trumpet, clarinet or tenor sax. You want to have the music writen correctly so that you can play the same pitches on your instrument. Check the Band Instrument Transposition Chart, and find the key of F under "C Instruments" (concert key). Look just to the right in the same row, but under the "B-flat Instruments" column. You'll see that when C instruments are in the key of F, B-flat instruments are in the key of G.

Step 5 - On your Major Scale Transposition Sheet, find the key of "G" and write the appropriate number above each element of the G scale.

Step 6 - Take a blank piece of staff paper and draw a treble clef with a "G" key signature (1 sharp, which is F#). The time signature will be 3/4.

Step 7 - Take the sequence of numbers that you arrived at in Step 3, and use it to pick the melody notes from the G major scale on your Major Scale Transposition Sheet. Write the notes on the staff paper and double-check your rhythms against Step 5 of the reference sheet.

Step 8 - Play what you've written on your instrument and see if it sounds like the song. If you play a B-flat instrument you should be able to play along with this concert key MIDI of the song.


Make a mental note of the unique sound that each numbered note has in the major scale. C and D are different notes, but each sounds like "5" in the keys of F and G respectively. You can do much more than transpose notes by the number. As you become more and more intimate with your scales, you can play songs 'by the number' off the top of your head. Start with simple ones, but do it every day. Take songs from the first activity, and start playing them in different keys. It's a great way to get to know your keys once you've learned the major scale. Do it all the time. That's how the pros learned it. Now you can, too.

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