• Ask Dr. Pokey: “What Is Transposition?”

    in Beginners,Experienced players,Piano,Theory,Transposing Keys

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    In the past, so many people have asked me “Dr. Pokey, what is transposition?”.

    In my usual manner, I’ll either give a brief definition or I promise them a response. Recently, I’ve seen the need to write this blog on the concept of transposition for two reasons:

    1. To help a lot of people understand what transposition is.

    2. To also help them understand what transposition isn’t.

    This blog is dedicated to the definition of transposition and if you give me your undivided attention, we’ll be done in the next 7 minutes or so.

    Before we define transposition, let’s refresh our minds on how most people usually come across the term transposition.

    A Short Note On The Transpose Function

    If you own or have access to a keyboard, chances are there that you must have come across the term transpose on the keyboard. The transpose function helps you shift the pitch of notes using + and – buttons.

    Pitch is the degree of lowness or highness of a note.

    So, the level or lowness or highness (aka – “pitch”) of the notes on the keyboard can be raised or lowered in half-steps using the + or – buttons.

    “Here’s How It Works…”

    -2   –   Pitches are lowered by 2 half-steps

    -1   –   Pitches are lowered by 1 half-step

    00   –   Pitches are at default level

    +1   –   Pitches are raised by 1 half-step

    +2   –   Pitches are raised by 2 half-steps

    The Misconception Of Transposition

    Although, the transpose function in keyboards can give you an idea of how transposition works, it is very misleading to define the term transposition using this keyboard function.

    So many people who have defined the concept of transposition using the keyboard function they’re familiar with have ended up using the term transposition as a bad label that describes the inability to play in all the keys on the piano.

    When you hear musicians say stuff like “He/she still transposes” or “That keyboardist is still struggling with transposition” they are simply making reference to a particular musician who uses the transpose function.

    “Treat As Important…”

    The term transposition is very important in music theory and is also an important skill that every serious musician must have. One of the reasons behind the wrong perception of transposition is because most people only limit it to the transpose function on the keyboard.

    But today, we’ll be defining the concept of transposition and I’ll want you to get ready to unlearn and relearn.

    The Concept Of Transposition — Defined

    Approaches To Transposition

    There are two known ways transposition can be approached: mentally and electronically. Therefore, let’s cover the mental and electronic approaches to transposition.

    The Mental Approach To Transposition

    In the mental approach to transposition, musical ideas are transferred mentally from one position to the other and this is done using mental links.

    The C major triad:

    …can be transposed mentally to any position on the keyboard and this is possible if there are mental links and here’s how it works:

    Associating the tones of the C major triad (which are C, E, and G):

    …with the first, third, and fifth tones of the C major scale:

    …which are also C, E, and G:

    …creates a mental link between the C major triad and any other major triad on the keyboard.

    “So, What’s The Link?”

    The major scale becomes a mental link in the transposition of the major triad because using the first, third, and fifth tone of any major scale, the major triad can be formed.

    Using the E major scale:

    …the E major triad can be derived by playing the first, third, and fifth tones together.

    The first, third, and fifth tones of the E major scale are E, G#, and B:

    …and that’s the E major triad.

    Once you are able to understand the mental links between a musical idea (be it a note, scale, interval, chord, chord progression, or song), you’re practicing mental transposition.

    The Electronic Approach To Transposition

    Musical ideas can also be transferred electronically from one position to the other using shift buttons like we reviewed earlier.

    The transpose function on the keyboard is used in electronic transposition.

    In the electronic transposition of a given idea, instead of using mental links to move an idea, you either raise or lower the pitch level of that idea by a given number of half-steps using the + and –  buttons.

    “Here’s How It Works…”

    The C major triad:

    …can be transposed to (transferred to the position of) the E major triad:

    …if the number of half-steps between  C and E is determined. From C to E:

    …consists of four half-steps:

    C to C#:

    …the first half-step.

    C# to D:

    …the second half-step.

    D to D#:

    …the third half-step.

    D# to E:

    …the first half-step.

    To electronically transpose the C major triad to E to produce the E major triad, shifting the pitch level from 00 to +4 produces the E major triad.

    So, the C major triad is physically played but because of the shift in pitch level to (+4), it sounds like the E major triad.

    Once you’re able to master the half-step relationship between the notes and keys on the keyboard, you can electronically transpose any music idea conveniently.

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The “Official Guide To Piano Playing.” Click here for more information.

    Final Words

    Now that you’ve seen what transposition is and also seen the common misconception of transposition, I hope you have also understood that there is nothing wrong with the concept of transposition.

    Truth be told, the foundation to playing in all the keys is transposition and this is because you cannot play in all the keys without transferring notes, scales, intervals, chords, progressions, songs, and any other musical idea from one position to the other.

    Although the electronic approach to transposition is usually seen as a wrong approach to transposition by a vast majority of people, it doesn’t make it an invalid approach to transposition.

    Electronic transposition has passed the test of acceptance and dependence and that’s why it can no longer be dismissed with a wave of hand.

    While it is possible for musicians to abuse it, it is not also good to deny that it is there for certain performance occasions and for all who would want to play in all the keys but can’t do it mentally.

    Attention: In another lesson, I’ll explain to you why all musicians need to learn and practice the mental approach to transposition.

    All the best and see you in the next lesson.

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    Hello, I'm Chuku Onyemachi (aka - "Dr. Pokey") - a musicologist, pianist, author, clinician and Nigerian. Inspired by my role model Jermaine Griggs, I started teaching musicians in my neighborhood in April 2005. Today, I'm privileged to work as the head of education, music consultant, and chief content creator with HearandPlay Music Group sharing my wealth of knowledge with hundreds of thousands of musicians across the world.

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.




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