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#2243553 - 03/09/14 11:34 AM Transposing on the Fly
TromboneAl Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/12/04
Posts: 798
Loc: Northern, Northern California
I've just added a singer to my trio, and you know what that means: Playing songs in different keys.

Being able to transpose while playing is a skill that I've always put on the back burner, but I think I might work on it a little more.

Talking about playing with jazz charts, and being concerned mostly with the chord changes, have any of you worked on this, and if so, how long did it take you to become good at it?


- Al

My Book: Becoming a Great Sight-Reader -- or Not!
My Blog: The Year of Piano Sight-Reading

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#2243565 - 03/09/14 12:21 PM Re: Transposing on the Fly [Re: TromboneAl]
JamesPlaysPiano Offline
Full Member

Registered: 06/16/11
Posts: 125
Yep- adding a singer will do that! I'd say I was "okay" at transposing until I began working more regularly with vocalists. After that, as you say, it couldn't be kept on the back burner!

For me it was more a matter of the amount of application than the amount of time. I'd say a relatively brief time spent working with several tunes could go a long way toward strengthening one's ability to transpose more freely. As you indicated, it's largely a matter of harmony- specifically, I'd say, learning to look at tunes in terms of roman numerals.

I'd love to hear how it goes, and what techniques or "tricks" develop as part of your approach to this. I can share more of mine if you're interested.

Good luck!


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#2243629 - 03/09/14 01:24 PM Re: Transposing on the Fly [Re: TromboneAl]
beeboss Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 07/18/09
Posts: 1354
Loc: uk south
ireal book takes a lot of the pain out of transposition on the gig. Obviously it is still great to be able to play in any key and do instant transposition but it is best to be doing that in the shed and not in front of the audience, until you are an expert at it at least.
And note to singers - if you want to play tunes in weird keys best to bring your own charts to avoid horrible moments on the gig.

#2243938 - 03/09/14 10:16 PM Re: Transposing on the Fly [Re: TromboneAl]
DanS Online   content
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 10/28/12
Posts: 772
It's not as hard as it seems once you start spending some time on it. I spent (and still spend) time transposing down major 2nd and a minor 3rd. From my own experience, I've need to transpose down much more than up.

I've found it more useful to transpose a bunch of tunes the same distance, than to take one tune and learn it in different keys. I mean this only as a way of learning transposition. I indeed think there's a lot of value in learning tunes in many keys...

#2243958 - 03/09/14 11:05 PM Re: Transposing on the Fly [Re: TromboneAl]
JazzPianoOnline Offline
Full Member

Registered: 10/14/07
Posts: 137
Loc: raleigh, nc
as james mentioned learning progressions in terms of roman numerals is the best way to do it although i find that using solfege syllables work best for me.

identifying each chord by its solfege syllable allows you to transpose into any key without having to think of intervals. i learn to play each tune by singing the solfege syllable for each chord change. once i memorize this i can play it in any key. this also works wonders with melodies. just substitute the lyrics for solfege syllables.

this is one of the most valuable things i learned in my berklee ear training classes. thank you suzanna sifter and steve rochinski!
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#2244168 - 03/10/14 10:10 AM Re: Transposing on the Fly [Re: TromboneAl]
jjo Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 04/09/08
Posts: 901
Loc: Chicago
Trombone Al: Will you know in advance which songs your singer wants to do? If you know in advance, why not prepare a lead sheet in the correct key? Or, are you contemplating a scenario where your singer picks a song and you pull out the Real Book, and have to both site read it and transpose it at the same time? There are some tunes I can play in any key, but that's because I know the tune inside our and have learned it as a series of roman numerals and intervallic leaps, as described above. But to be able to site read and transpose on the is a really hard skill.

#2244406 - 03/10/14 06:21 PM Re: Transposing on the Fly [Re: jjo]
TromboneAl Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/12/04
Posts: 798
Loc: Northern, Northern California
In most cases, I would know in advance, and could use BIAB to print out a sheet in the right key. But I've decided that, darn it, I should learn this skill.

For example, at a rehearsal, we could be trying a new tune, and want to experiment in different keys.

I'll just do some every day and see how it goes.

If a tune is going up or down a step, I usually just do the shift (e.g., see a G as an A when going up).

If it's a different amount, I'll think in numerals. For example, when playing from a chart in F and transposing to C, if I saw an A I'd think "OK, that's the third, so in C the third is E..."

And I'm also making the point to memorize new tunes with numerals. But it gets complicated. Right now I'm memorizing Waltz for Debby -- a lot of "interesting" chords there.
- Al

My Book: Becoming a Great Sight-Reader -- or Not!
My Blog: The Year of Piano Sight-Reading

#2244407 - 03/10/14 06:22 PM Re: Transposing on the Fly [Re: TromboneAl]
TromboneAl Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/12/04
Posts: 798
Loc: Northern, Northern California
How particular are vocalists? For example, if one wants to do a song in E, is she likely to accept Eb? I figure that unless she's a prima donna ...
- Al

My Book: Becoming a Great Sight-Reader -- or Not!
My Blog: The Year of Piano Sight-Reading

#2244475 - 03/10/14 09:23 PM Re: Transposing on the Fly [Re: TromboneAl]
jjo Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 04/09/08
Posts: 901
Loc: Chicago
Singers I've worked with never care about a half step. If I was able to move it a half step to an easier key they were fine.

I've found that to be able to transpose (which I can only do slowly by myself) I learn the tune with a combination of roman numerals and intervals. What I means is that if the chord movement is iii vi ii V I or circle of fifths, that's how I remember it. If its anything out of the ordinary, I think of the intervalic movement, such as, a ii V up a minor third.

Here's how I think of Just Friends, for example. This is the first half of the piece:

1. Starts a 4th above the tonic.
2. Major chord turns to minor to start a ii V
3. Go to tonic.
4. ii V up a minor third.
5. Down a half step to ii V of tonic
6. Don't go to I, but do iii vi of tonic.
7. II chord, but its dominant, then changes to minor to start a ii V

The good thing about learning a piece this way is that you start to see patterns you don't otherwise focus on and it helps your ear and your soloing. That said, I cannot transpose when playing with other people. I can only do it if I've seriously worked on a piece to learn it at this level.

The best example of transposing I ever saw was Shelly Berg, a great pianist, although not that well know. He did a gig with Tierney Sutton (one of my favorite jazz singers) where they put the names of about 100 tunes in glasses on the tables in the club. Audience members would then pick a tune from the glass and they would play in. They had no music. On several occasions, Tierney started a piece in one key and asked Berg to move it up or down. Berg would do so without even pausing!!

#2249305 - 03/20/14 06:12 AM Re: Transposing on the Fly [Re: TromboneAl]
compianist1 Offline
Full Member

Registered: 12/13/13
Posts: 121
Loc: Banned
oh I really know a thing or two about transposing.

Na, forget it. I agree.

#2265896 - 04/23/14 03:17 PM Re: Transposing on the Fly [Re: TromboneAl]
RonDrotos Offline
Full Member

Registered: 08/31/13
Posts: 130
Loc: New York City
I think you'll find that transposing will help you see internal connections and relationships in music that you might not notice otherwise. I've always welcomed the 'hard' keys that singers request, even if I didn't play especially well at a particular performance. Over time, every key gets easy.

There's already been good advice given, so I'll add to it and put it in the context I use.
There are 3 ways to transpose tunes:
1. Mentally transpose every chord up or down the given interval. If you're going down a m3rd, for example, you think: OK, it says C, I play A, etc.

2. You identify the harmonic relationships between the chords (ie: I to vi to ii to V) and just play that structure in the new key.

3. Purely by ear. For instance, you know what a I chord sounds like, and a V chord, so you can easily play a simple folk song you've never played before, by ear. I know pianists, even amateurs w/o training, who can play standards by ear this way (and yes, I'm jealous!)

When I'm transposing, especially if on a gig or rehearsal, I find that I use a combination of the 3 methods I've outlined above. For instance, I can start with the harmonic functions, but then use my ear for the easy parts, but then I may have to transpose each chord by interval when it get's really tricky.

BTW, I also used to transpose easy classical pieces, like Bach Minuets, for extra transposing practice.

Good luck!
Ron Drotos

#2266190 - 04/24/14 12:23 AM Re: Transposing on the Fly [Re: TromboneAl]
Brian Lucas Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 09/04/11
Posts: 1139
Loc: Nashville, TN
In Nashville, we use number charts for that very reason. I can usually sight transpose a chord chart if you're not going further than a whole step. But reading in A and playing in say F can really be a challenge to think in intervals. Also, my brain doesn't like to read a chart in flats and play in a sharp key. So even a half step sometimes will mess with your head. Too easy to forget that you're not playing what you see.

Overall, I think it's better to know all the tunes by numbers, or by the relationship of chords. That way no matter what key you need to play the song in, you're ready.
BM in Performance, Berklee College of Music, 23+ year teacher and touring musician
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#2268327 - 04/28/14 07:06 PM Re: Transposing on the Fly [Re: RonDrotos]
Michael Martinez Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/22/12
Posts: 516
Loc: California
Originally Posted By: RonDrotos
I think you'll find that transposing will help you see internal connections and relationships in music that you might not notice otherwise.

This is probably the #1 best reason to transpose and play tunes in different keys.
Music Educator, Computer Engineer, avid reader of literature, enjoyer of the outdoors


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