Transposition – a necessary skill

Sooner or later, all Church musicians will have cause to transpose a particular hymn. There are a number of options available, depending on your level of expertise – and whether or not you have a digital piano!

• Use the transpose functionality
Many Churches now use digital pianos and, whatever your opinion about them, one great advantage is the inbuilt transpose functionality.

On some instruments this involves a switch directly on the control panel and on others you have to find it, usually under a Functions or Settings menu. Whatever functionality you choose to use, the transpose function is particularly useful and it’s well worth becoming familiar with it so you can transpose whenever you need to. Obviously, this only works if you’re the sole musician!

• Use music notation software
I use Finale for all my music. Like most music notation software, it offers the option to transpose to a different key. This is particularly useful if I’ve prepared music for vocalists and musicians. The entire score is transposed accordingly and it’s very quick.

If you buy music online for download, you frequently have the option to select your required key. Some sites also display the range so you can see at first glance whether or not you need to transpose. You need to be aware that this is a one-time option only. Once you’ve selected your key, that’s what you get!

• Learn to transpose
This is, by far, the preferred option! There are lots of online resources that are available to teach you how to do this. Please believe me, this is a really important skill and well worth the effort. Normally, you only have to transpose by two or three semitones and it’s actually quite rare that you’d have to do more.

While it’s outside the remit of this site to teach music theory, such as transposition, here are a few pointers:

– Pitch is more important than key…
If the pitch is too high or too low, it will adversely affect the quality of singing and, in this case, it simply doesn’t matter what key you’re using. It’s always worth checking out the range (upper and lower) before you transpose.

– But key is still important!
Be kind to your fellow musicians. My first love is piano but I play guitar and flute as well. For the guitar,  I really want a key where I can play full open chords. Even when the key can be achieved using a capo, if it’s placed too far up the fretboard, your guitarists risk losing full resonant sound. There are, of course, implications for transposing instruments too.