Robert Estrin - piano expert

How to Transpose Music to Any Key

Is that something any musician can do easily?

In this video, Robert gives you step-by-step instructions on how to transpose music to any key. Of course, music theory basics are essential for this.

Released on June 3, 2020

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Video Transcription

Welcome to I'm Robert Estrin. The question today, and I've gotten this question from so many people, is how to transpose music to any key. Wouldn't it be great if you could instantly play in any key? Well if you play jazz or other popular types of music, play country music, play in a band, a lot of times a singer will come in and go, oh yeah, I want to do this, but can we take this in E flat instead of F? And if you're like most people, you'll probably break into a cold sweat and figure how do you do that? It's not easy, is it? Well certainly some types of music are harder to transpose than others. For example, if somebody gave you a Tchaikovsky concerto and said, "Transpose this," it might be really hard because there's so many notes to play.

Naturally when you're working from lead sheets, which is the skeleton of a composition that are used when bands play together typically, it's a lot easier because you just change the chords, but how do you even go about that? What is the secret to transposition? Is there a quickie shortcut? Not really, but there are some keys that can help you literally. So let's talk about that. If you know your Key Signatures, when I say know your keys initially, I mean you can think them through, you don't just memorize them, but you know the sharps and the flats associated with every single major scale, it makes transposition so much easier because otherwise on the piano you could just go up or down and it would be the simplest thing in the world, like a simple chord progression in C major.

If you could just go up one key and do the same thing, it would sound different because the black keys are not in the same place. Here's what would happen if I started on D playing the same progression. It doesn't sound quite right, does it? But if you know your key signature of D major as an F sharp and a C sharp, you just move your hands up over those keys and voila. So how do you go about learning your key signatures? Well, first of all, if you haven't already, you should practice all your major and minor scales and Arpeggios. That's a first step just so you have the technique to physically play them.

Then you'll know what the notes are, but the other thing is for example, this progression I just played, if you could play that progression in all keys, those are your basic chords. You're 14, 164, 571, that is going to go a long way for helping you when you're transposing music because you're going to encounter these chords all the time. So you could even start with something simpler than that and take it into several different keys. Now, how I transpose is a little bit different and I'm going to mention it but it will have value for those of you who are willing to put the time in. I was so fortunate to grow up in a musical household, study with my father Morton Estrin who not only was a great concert pianist, but what a teacher, and I used to go to his theory classes even years after I'd gone through them because I'd always learned something. And one of the things I learned from the time I was a little boy and my sister did too and all his students was learning Solfeggio.

The syllables Doe, Ray, Mi, Far, Sew, La, Tea, Doe, Tea, La, Sew, Far, Mi, Ray, Doe. And if you know the syllables, you can hear them, you can put them into any key. So the combination of being able to hear your music and put them into the syllables and then knowing your key signatures, voila! Instant transposition. However, it's not so instant being able to master Solfeggio. But for those of you who are younger students or people who are serious and want to really master transposition as well as composition, improvisation and being able to play by ear, there's no substitute for sight singing whether you use syllables or not, it's going to help you immeasurably making the connection between what you hear and what you play.

Because here's the thing about piano. You can push a key down and produce a pitch without hearing it. This isn't true in the human voice, is it? It's not true in a lot of instruments. I'm also a French horniest. On French horn you can get so many different notes on the open horn that you better hear what you are about to produce or it's going to be very difficult to get the right note. So I recommend singing. Sight singing If you could put the time in and months or years of study to really get fluent with sight singing, learn your Key Signatures and you can put music into any key and it's a process. There's no instant. Now, there are some little tricks though. For example, I remember when I was 13 years old, I went to a music camp one summer and it was a whole arts camp, Camp Tomoka in the Berkshire mountains right near the summer home of the Boston Symphony of Tanglewood, which years later I attended Tanglewood and that's a whole other story.

But this Camp Tomoka, I was just a kid and I was intrigued with it because they had all the arts and I was really big into photography. I love photography. I was able to take photography courses and my father actually ended up teaching some classes there, just some masterclasses. He wasn't at the center, at the camp, but he came in for a couple of sessions. Anyway, I get to the first session, and it's a mishmash of instruments there. I thought it was going to be a band, orchestra, chorus all this stuff, I get there and it's a room full of varied instruments, all different instruments and they're only about, I don't know, less than a dozen of us. And so, there weren't any French horn parts. And so, I had to transpose and of course French horn is a transposing instrument and you must learn how to transpose but I was only 13 years old, I really was in its infancy.

But I did find that, for example, if I had something in E-flat horn, which would be a whole step lower, I would just pretend I was in the bass clef. I mean there were all kinds of crazy little tricks I would use. And that is another valuable technique for transposition that I'm going to close this video with, which is if you learn your clefs, not just treble and bass clef but learn your sea clefs, this is a way you could instantly transpose your music as long as you know your Key Signatures once again, because the C clef can make middle C any line, any lighter space.

So if you get comfortable with all your clefs, transposition is a breeze. So these are just some ways learn to transpose. I wish it was like a silver bullet I could just share with you, but I can tell you this, master your Key Signatures. Get familiar with all your major and minor scales and Arpeggios, and you are halfway there. So that's our lesson for today. I hope this is helpful for you. Again, I'm Robert Estrin, this is your online piano store, and please subscribe if you haven't already, so you're sure to get all the fresh videos. See you next time.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Elo * VSM MEMBER * on June 10, 2020 @5:46 am PST
Thank you for sharing the 'bass clef trick'. As a recorder player I use that from time to time: C recorders and F recorders and making believe I'm doing a set of fingerings while in a different clef which allows me to "get by" until I might put a piece into music writing software and fix it for real.
Robert - host, on June 10, 2020 @12:17 pm PST
With transposition, you have to do whatever works!
Elo * VSM MEMBER * on June 10, 2020 @4:20 pm PST
Back in 1985 I was hired to play Brandenburgs IV and II in celebration of Bach's 300th birthday. For one of the concerts the trumpet player couldn't make it...we were playing Brandenburg II for a couple hundred school kids. I told the head teacher "I can play the trumpet part on alto recorder by making believe the alto is a soprano and using those fingerings." (As I played the trumpet part, another flute player covered the recorder part.) It worked fine..of course there was a bit of volume lost, but the notes were all ok. It was a hoot..You do what needs doing (and hopefully succeed!)
Fulvia * VSM MEMBER * on June 3, 2020 @5:49 pm PST
This lecture put a grin on my face, because of a specific memory when a was a teenager. I bought the piano version of the "Va Pensiero" from Nabucco. When I got home to my horror I found that it was written in F sharp. Not my favorite key. Simple solution. I instantly transcribed it in F Major. Mother, the pianist, must have heard the difference from the kitchen, came in the living room, looked at the music, then looked at my hands and I won't repeat what she said! To this day I still play it in F Major.
Robert - host, on June 3, 2020 @7:37 pm PST
That's a great story. I think most people would be safe unless they have mother's with perfect pitch!
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