Transposing means to move all the notes up or down in pitch by the same amount, making the tune higher or lower sounding.

Why transpose?

Transposing is a very useful skill to have.  Here are three good (and one outstanding) reasons to spend some time getting familiar with the subject.

  1. You join in at a new session and find everyone playing a tune you know, but in a different key. Hopefully, you realise that something is wrong and either instantly adjust to playing in the key of everyone else, or sit the tune out.  If the latter is true, work out or ask someone the first note, go home and (armed with the knowledge from this article), work out the tune in the new key.
  2. Transposing will bring a deeper knowledge to the music you play. Playing by ear is the most natural way to learn new tunes, but many students and players are keen to learn something of the theory behind the tunes.  There are many music theory books around that cover the subject, but these are mainly focussed on classical music – folk music unfortunately being avoided in most of these sorts of books.
  3. Transposing will enable you to look at tunes from a new perspective, bringing up new ideas for variations. Old tunes you’ve grown tired of, perhaps because of overplaying, can be rejuvenated with new ideas that crop up as a result of playing in a different key.  Or new tunes that are off-putting because they just don’t quite feel right can be transformed – awkward tunes can be made more fluid.
  4. To confuse the guitarist/guitarists in your band/session. Watch their expressions as you launch into a tune you’ve played together for years, but in a different key.  At least, you hope they look confused.  The time to worry is when they keep bashing away with the old chords!

Here is a simple demonstration of transposing.  Take the beginning of the reel Gravel Walks, which normally starts on A:

And now try it starting on D:

For a fiddle or mandolin player, this example demonstrates the simplest form of transposing, because all the fingering/bowing/fretting/picking will be the same – everything’s just moved over on to the next string.  But, theoretically, something more complicated is happening.  The key has changed and all of the notes in the tune have been altered by the same amount.

See my next post on transposing for some practical advice on this subject.

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