• The “Mental” vs “Electronic” Approach to Transposition

    in Experienced players,Piano,Theory,Transposing Keys

    transposition image

    It’s very obvious that electronic transposition is now a term associated with incompetence.

    In certain music circles (especially in the church), there’s a fine line between those that transpose and those who don’t. Those who don’t are accorded some respect while those who do are stigmatized. Comments like “That guy is good on keys… but…he transposes” are heard in these circles.

    When asked, “Do you transpose?” so many musicians are quick to say “No!” Others may even consider it as insolence.

    In this article, you will discover that we all are involved in the art of transposition. If transposition is bad, then we all are guilty of this sin.


    95% of those who use the word transposition reduce it to the process of electronically altering the pitches on a piano using the +12 and -12 functionality of a keyboard or device. However, that’s not what it truly means. Let’s get back to the meaning of transposition.

    Transposition means TRANSfer of position. Trans + position = Transposition

    It is actually something that we all are actively involved in. If you can transfer the position of a note, scale, interval, chord, chord progression, song, etc. from one key to another, then you are actually transposing. So transposition is not bad after all; it’s a musical term.


    If there’s no need to transfer ideas from one position to another, the concept of transposition wouldn’t exist in music. It actually takes a great deal of musicality to transpose.

    Transposition is applicable in the following situations:

    Application #1

    Certain instruments produce pitches that are transposed from concert key. E.g. – the Alto saxophone is three semitones lower than concert key. Therefore, in a situation where the Alto saxophone is playing G as the fifth tone in the key of C…
    transposition G

    …will require the pianist to transfer the position of that G (the fifth tone) to the concert key (E). The fifth tone of E is B.
    B flat
    Above is a transposition of G from the Major scale of C to the Major scale of E.

    Application #2

    Imagine a scenario where you’ve rehearsed for a performance with an artist in E Major only to have the artist whisper to you ten minutes before the performance, “My voice has gone bad. Can you take the key down?”. After a little debate, you guys finally decide it’ll be in D.

    In this scenario, everything that was intended to be played in E Major will be transposed to D. All the chords, chord progressions, licks, runs etc. Of course, using mental transposition and the ability to relate everything from one key to the next key. Not by using the simple “transpose” button on the keyboard.

    Application #3

    For jazz musicians who read lead sheets and chord symbols, it’s common for someone to give you a piece of music written in B and request for it to be performed in C. In such situations, a transfer of position from Bto C is inevitable.

    Let’s consider two processes of transposition:

    #1. Mental Transposition

    #2. Electronic Transposition

    Mental Transposition

    This refers to the mental process of moving things around on the keyboard. A great deal of theory and good sense of association of colors and shapes is needed in mental transposition.

    There are twelve notes on the keyboard. Transposition is the art of transferring an idea from where it is to where it should be. It becomes easier when one is acquainted with scales and intervals.

    Scale Knowledge

    Without scale knowledge, transposition will move from being difficult to being impossible. It takes knowledge of the Major scale in ALL the keys to properly move things around.

    G B flat D
    Given the chord above in C major, how will it be played in G major?

    There are two things to do here.

    1) Determine the scale degree of the chord. In the above case, the chord was played on the fifth degree of the Major scale – G.

    2) Transfer the chord and its quality to its new position. The new position of this chord is on the fifth degree of G Major scale – D. Since the previous chord quality was minor, the new chord quality should be minor. The chord quality should not change.
    D F A

    Transposition of a G minor chord in the key of C major to the key of G Major will yield D minor.

    Interval Knowledge

    This is another method of transposition.

    “Interval” has to do with distance. Therefore, intervallic transposition can be an effective tool when you need to move something from one key to another. In this method, things are moved around using a certain interval.
    C D E F G A B C

    The scale above is the C Major scale. How can it be transposed to D?

    Determine the interval between the key youre in and the key you are transposing to. The interval between C and D is a minor 2nd.

    Transfer all scale tones to the new key by raising them by a minor 2nd.

    C will be transposed to D

    D will be transposed to E

    E will be transposed to F

    F will be transposed to G

    G will be transposed to A

    A will be transposed to B

    B will be transposed to C

    C will be transposed to D

    The process of transposition will yield exactly the same scale, in the key of D.

    D E F G A B C D
    D flat E flat F G flat A flat B flat C D flat

    Mental transposition involves a bit of calculation, relationship and strategic thinking. However, it will become a natural process over time.

    Electronic Transposition

    Electronically transposing is an alternative way of transposition. In this system, the 12 pitch-classes plus the octave are represented from 0-12. Transposition here is done by the number of semitones from a given key to the destination key. This convenience was introduced as a functionality on electric keyboards.
    f major F G A B flat C D E F

    The scale above is the F Major scale. How can it be transposed to G?

    Determine the interval between the key you’re in and the key you are transposing to. From F to G is a melodic progression of two semitones.

    Transfer all scale tones to the new key by registering ‘+2’ on the transpose function.

    You don’t need to bother yourself anymore. F Major scale will sound exactly like G (2 semitones higher). Electronic transposition is easy to do and was considered a breakthrough initially. However, it’s a challenge because a vast majority of musicians no longer do mental transposition. There’s someone out there asking:

    Psssshhh, why should I transfer the position of an idea mentally when I can do it electronically on my keyboard?”

    Mental vs Electronic Transposition

    I won’t say electronic transposition is innately bad. Inasmuch as it has its abuses, it also has its uses.

    Electronic transposition can prove helpful in the following situations:

    Situation #1

    When a note or two is bad on a keyboard and those notes are vital in the key that you are in. Imagine a situation where all the Fs on the keyboard are bad and you are playing blues in the key of G. F is a vital tone of G dom7 that must not be omitted. The only way to save this situation is to electronically transposing to a different key. Transposing so that you can play in E, F, A or B will help but the song will still come out in the key of G.

    Situation #2

    Certain keys have mechanical difficulties that when something is learned in one key, it may be difficult to execute on the stage in another key. In such situations, one may transpose to the key that feels more comfortable. This is not because of a lack of knowledge in the original key but a legit difficulty.

    However, these situations may come up twice in four or five years – you can’t possibly be in these situations all the time. Therefore, electronic transposition should be done sparingly – as the situation demands.

    Situation #3

    To challenge yourself. Let’s turn electronic transposition on its head and use it to perfect unfamiliar keys. If you know all your songs will be in the familiar keys of Db, Eb, or Ab and you’ve mastered those keys, why not press “-1” on the keyboard and force yourself to play in D, E, or A natural.

    In this situation, you’re using the transpose button to improve your skills and abilities — not in the lazy way it’s normally relied upon.

    Final Words

    If you are limited to electronic transposition, endeavor to learn how to do it mentally. There are relationships between keys, modulations, cadences and reharmonization approaches you will never understand if you are limited by the “transpose” button on your keyboard.

    See you next time.

    The following two tabs change content below.
    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.



    { 5 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 tyson

    If u transposing using a button not keys,I think that person can not play grand piano,
    I think learning one key its done by lazy people find out a person been playing for 10years with one key no no no.


    2 Nwichi Joshua

    Thank you very much Sir


    3 David Brakes



    4 K3NZO

    I bet, when the gun was invented, archers called rifle-men ‘lazy’ too.


    5 Daniel Sunday

    in a music performance. if the keyboard is on the concert key of C major which key would the following be played Alto saxophone,Trumpet , and the recorder


    Leave a Comment

    Previous post:

    Next post: