Transposing Songs

By Marty Jourard

 

Songs are truly flexible creations. They can be performed in arrangements and styles quite different from the original while still retaining the song's core identity.Three such examples areEric Clapton's Unplugged version of "Layla,"Joe Cocker's versions of the Beatles' "A Little Help From My Friends" and the Boxtops' hit "The Letter." England's UB40 built their entire career with reggae arrangements of pop tunes, including "Red Red Wine," originally written and performed by Neil Diamond!

But the most obvious example of a song's flexible nature is the ability to be transposed into different keys, creating subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle changes in "feel."

††††††††††† Learning how to transpose a song into a new keys is an essential skill for every musician and songwriter.

As a working musician you've probably encountered many situations where the song's original key is inappropriate due to the singer's vocal range or to a particular instrumental lineup.

†††††††††††† As a songwriter you may favor certain keys based on your vocal range or ability on your instrument. Your own compositions may in fact sound better in a key different than the one in which it was originally written. We're going to look at a variety of musical situations that call for an awareness of a song's key.

††††††††††† Recently, a guitarist friend of mine was hired by a theatre group to be in an onstage glitter-rock band that performed throughout the playbacking upthe the main character, a transvestite rock singer. The musical score was originally written in keys appropriate for the original-cast lead singer's vocal range. The actor/singer starring in the current production had a much lower vocal range. Five tunes needed to be transposed to lower keys. Four songs were easy to transpose for guitar by simply determining the new chord names, but the fifth song's key was lowered a whole-step from D major to C major, and this new and boring key effectively eliminating all of the song's cool-sounding open guitar chords (D, G, A). For this one particular song the guitarist used a guitar tuned down a whole-step (D-G-C-F-A-D). The guitarist played the original chords, but they sounded a whole-step lower, so the singer could hit the notes and the open chord voicings were retained.

††††††††††† How do keyboard players transpose? Acoustic pianists have no choice but to learn a new set of chords for a new key, but electronic keyboard players can simply use the pitch transpose, a feature that raises or lowers the pitch of the entire keyboard. As a keyboard player I've used this trick but found that large transpositions can be a bit disorienting. You must also remember to save the transposed preset with a name that reminds you of the pitch change, such as PIANO+3 for a transposition of three half-steps up or PIANO-2 for a shift down of a whole-step.

††††††††††† Singers in cover bands that perform current hits by Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and other full-range divas are often challenged by the original too-high keys of the songs. To lower the key, find the highest note in the original arrangement and make it match the highest note the singer can hit. Count the difference in half-steps and locate this number on the transposition chart.The letter-names in the column beneath the particular number are the new chord names. For example, a blues song in the key of D major contains the chords D7-G7-A7. Lowering the song three half-steps(-3) to the key of B major leads us to the -3 column of the chart. Locate the D, G and Ain the middle column; the new chord letter-names are shown in the -3 column (B, E and F#). The chords of the blues song when transposed to the key of B major are B7-E7-F#7.

††††††††††† Sometimes a song is in a great key for a singer but a lousy key for the guitarist.The chorus to Shania Twain's "Man! I Feel Like A Woman!" is in the key of F and uses F, Dm, Bb and Gm chords.. A bright jangley open-chord guitar sound on the chorus would be great, but there is only one open chord in the bunch óDm. We need to capo the guitar in a way that lets us play as many open chords as possible. With the capo on the third fret (Capo III),open chords will sound three half-steps higher, because the capo shortens all the string lengths by that amount. For this reason, to stay in the same key as the rest of the band we must play chords that are three half-steps lower. And how do we find these chords? By looking at the column of the chart that shows chord letter-names that are three half-steps lower (-3). The resulting guitar chords are D, Bm, G and Em. The guitarist plays an open D but the combination of capo position and chord choice produces an F chord. The G and Em chords are also jangley open chords. Success!

††††††††††† Most folk guitarists are quite familiar with the use of the capo when composing and playing songs . The usual open chords of C, E, Em, A, Am D, Dm and G sound great on an acoustic but place obvious limits on where you can go musically. Using a capo in various positions not only gives you new chord sounds but allows the singer to use different areas of their vocal range.

James Taylor's 1976 album Greatest Hits contains many songs that illustrate the usefulness of the capo in creating variety in key and vocal range. Something in the way she moves is in C, but by using Capo III Taylor plays the open chords A, D, G and Em7 as if he were in the key of A. Carolina in my mind is in E, but with Capo II he can play as if the song is in D, with open chords in the chorus (D-G-Em-A) that permit his famous hammer-on picking style. Fire and Rain is in C, but with Capo III the song can be played as if it were in the key of A. By using the capo James Taylor can vary his vocal approach to a song by placing the melody in a particular vocal register.

The bottom line? Changing the key of a song can have a profound effect on the performance. Use the transposing chart to try songs in different keys and listen to the result. The song will quickly let you know what works and what doesn't.

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† TRANSPOSING CHART

half-steps lower†† ††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††half-steps higher

 

-6

-5

-4

-3

-2

-1

chord

letter

+1

+2

+3

+4

+5

+6

F#

G

Ab

A

Bb

B

C

C#

D

Eb

E

F

F#

G

Ab

A

Bb

B

C

C#

D

Eb

E

F

F#

G

Ab

A

Bb

B

C

C#

D

Eb

E

F

F#

G

Ab

A

Bb

B

C

C#

D

Eb

E

F

F#

G

Ab

A

Bb

B

C

C#

D

Eb

E

F

F#

G

Ab

A

Bb

B

C

C#

D

Eb

E

F

F#

G

Ab

A

Bb

B

C

C#

D

Eb

E

F

F#

G

Ab

A

Bb

B

C

C#

D

Eb

E

F

F#

G

Ab

A

Bb

B

C

C#

D

Eb

E

F

F#

G

Ab

A

Bb

B

C

C#

D

Eb

E

F

F#

G

Ab

A

Bb

B

C

C#

D

Eb

E

F

F#

G

Ab

A

Bb

B

C

C#

D

Eb

E

F

F#

G

Ab

A

Bb

B

C

C#

D

Eb

E

F

 

 

†††††††††††