Back in January we did a Happy Birthday practice challenge, and in order to present a real learning opportunity for some of the studio's intermediate and advancing students, I turned this into a chance to work on transposing the traditional melody & accompaniment to a few different keys. It was such a valuable exercise for these students that I'm going to try to incorporate this more frequently into our regular study, but also thought I'd share a blog post for our studio parents about what transposing is and why it is a valuable skill for a musician. 

What is transposing? 
Simply put, transposing is when we take a song that is written in a certain key, and move it to a different key. 

Why would we want to transpose a piece? 
I've found that it most often comes into play when arranging music, or when accompanying a vocalist. For example, sometimes when rehearsing a vocalist may discover that the original key takes the melody out of their comfortable singing range, and can then ask us to move the piece up or down a step or two accordingly. So, as the accompanist, we have to transpose. Or when arranging music for an ensemble you may have to take into account the key of the instrument(s) you are playing along with (for example a trumpet is a Bb instrument, which means that everything they play needs to be written one step higher to match the same tone on the piano). Or when putting together an arrangement, you may discover that the original key is difficult to play on a given instrument or for a beginning musician, sometimes we can transpose to a simpler key, and the piece will immediately be much easier to play.

Transposing as a practical Music Theory exercise . . .
This task of switching a piece of music, or a popular song, from one key to another provides a valuable practical application of music theory knowledge. And when we exercise that music theory knowledge, we solidify our understanding of it. Specifically, transposing reinforces an understanding of Scale Degrees, Intervals, Chord Progressions & Key Signatures.

How do you transpose a piece?  
If a piano kid has never transposed before, start with a simple melody they know well and move it to a different starting note than usual and see if they can get it to sound right in the new place. For more advanced students, I encourage them to start by identifying your chord progression using the scale degree numbers (or Nashville Numbers) to assign each chord an appropriate number. For example in C Major C would be 1, D=2, E=3 etc. Then we can take that number system and play that same chord progression in our new key. For example if we transposed from C Major to G Major, 1 would now be G, 2=A, 3=B etc. The number system gives us a movable paradigm for the song that can literally be dropped into any key. To add the melody, we find the appropriate starting note in the new key (using scale degrees if needed), and relying on our understanding of Intervals & keeping in mind our new Key Signature, we can carry the contour & shape of the melody from the original key to the new one. 

Transposing takes practice, but the more growing musicians do it, the more they'll understand chord progressions, scales and key signatures. AND they'll also start to notice larger stylistic and structural patterns in these pieces of music, which will lead to even greater musical fluency.