Transposing Repertoire

Any key, instantly?

Transposing chords and melodies could be considered a party trick since it's rarely something that you need to be able to do on the spot... even in advance, so you may wonder why I am dedicating an article to acquiring this ability?  Two reasons: major scale mastery combined with away-from-the-piano, internal piano mastery.  These two skills anyway, in other ways, are paramount to the Water Pianist and fluency in playing so being able to transpose, as you will hopefully try yourself and find out to be true, is not something you necessary practise directly in order to be able to do but something you can probably already do pretty well... and if you can't, well, it's a good exercise in benefiting your major scales and internal piano skills anyway!  I hope that's good enough an introduction to encourage you to read on!?

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In the above video, I use the Charlie Chaplin song, 'Smile', to demonstrate how one might go about transposing a piece.  As always, the song must be on your internal jukebox; if you don't know something in your mind, you can't play it at the piano and since most know this, or it's very easy to acquire if not, I thought it would be a good example: common, easy melody with a very common chord progression which doesn't necessarily need to be enhanced with fancy chords... and it isn't long: it's just a repeat of Section A.  The perfect demo piece, I'd say!

Assuming you've got the song on your internal jukebox and assuming you can read music at least a little, look at the score to the left (or go to the piano and find the melody by ear in C major to start with), note how it starts on the root, goes up two more notes, comes back down over the C and goes down two more notes then repeats exactly the same melody starting on the B, the 7th note of the major scale, then two notes higher and back down to two notes lower, just as it did the first time.  This, we would dissect as D1 (dissected part 1).

How about D2?  Well, we'll discuss that in a moment but I'd like to highlight what we just did:  We identified a pattern.  Patterns are the key to dissecting compositions.  Patterns often repeat (as happens here) and they are often the basis for small modifications which mean instead of learning a whole section, you can see it instead as a modified pattern that you already know.  Patterns, patterns, patterns.  Get this philosophy into your mind.  Secondly, we identified not only a pattern but the note values.  These are so important, I can't even express it in words.  All melodies sound as they do, make you feel as they do because of note values.  The composer knows that this note/these notes will make you feel happy, sad, scared, worried... that's how film music is composed!  And this, ta-da! - is how you will master melodies and then transpose them: by knowing note values, combined with major scale mastery (because you know 1-7 in 12 keys so the key doesn't matter when it comes to playing the melody... or chords for that matter).

The chords to D2 are very easy: C / / / | CM7 / / / - so this is easy to apply to any key, is it not?

The melody, however, goes, numerically speaking:  6, 7, 8 / 6, 7, 8 | (next octave) 2, 3, 4 | b2, 2, 3 | - how easy is that thanks to the pattern?  What about the chords with these two bars?  Numerically:  I / / / | b3dim / / / (or in the key of C:  C / / / | Ebdim (Eb, Gb, A, C).

You can continue with the rest of the piece yourself or watch the video above but do you see?  We've identified patterns in the melody, numerically, so can now understand a bit of how the composer came up with the melody and have see the chords.  Now, this is a very, very simply piece but the same applies when dissecting complex pieces.  Consider the four articles and video of my Chopin tutorial, for example.

Let's do the above in a random key... Ab.  So, orientate yourself in this key (Ab, Bb, C, Db, Eb, F, G, Ab) and let's find the melody.  Of course, this is all only possible if you've reinforced it away from the piano on your internal piano so please don't just wing it! It starts on the root:  Ab, then goes two up and back down to two below the Ab:  Ab, Bb, C, Bb, Ab, G, F... then it starts on the M7:  G... and does the same pattern:  G, Ab, Bb, Ab, G, F, Eb... can you do the next part?

Recently, at the time of writing, I enjoyed analysing Satie's Gnossiennes No 3. I encourage anybody to identify the patterns in this unusual yet enjoyable piece!  We discovered the left hand always plays a bass then a minim/crotchet accompaniment, 99% of the time using a first inversion chord shape... nice to know.  The pulse, despite no bar lines, is very clearly 1 and 2 and 1 and 2 and... also nice to know to help sew it together.  The chord is often A to E, so a 5th interval which is very predominant throughout.  Try it away from the piano; see what you find and try to play it in another key at the piano!

To conclude, don't see transposition as a burden or unnecessary ability but something you can inherently do, relatively on the spot or at least away from the piano on your internal piano thanks to a combination, as a Water Pianist, of major scale mastery and the dissection philosophy, plus a touch of internal jukebox and piano skill going on in there.  Of course, by all means create your own melodies and chord progressions just to practise transposing but it's quite fun, and sometimes even useful, especially if singing or accompanying someone, to be able to play a piece in a different key.

In closing, please consider my Water Pianist's Progress Playlist, to which you can add your own videos of your progress, either in technical exercises or repertoire.  Your post will receive a personalised comment from me and be seen by more and more people as it grows, inspiring and encouraging them on their own piano journey!