In this blog, you’ll get a full explainer on how to transpose musical score. Transposing basically means shifting the notes of a piece of music up or down by a semitone or more so it can be played in a different pitch. Of course, there’s plenty of software you can use to transpose sheet music, but you learn way more when you do it yourself. And, since you can pull it off in three steps, why wouldn’t you? Is it easy? Well, not at first, but if you take your time and follow these instructions, then you’ll definitely be able to do it. We’ll take a look at transposing with software; with nothing more than pen and paper; and even transposing on the spot while you’re playing. We’ll also look at how to pitch-shift audio files.
- Know the Basics
- Why Transpose Sheet Music?
- Transposing Music with Software
- Transposing Music by Hand
- Why Do it By Hand?
- Step Ⅰ: Adjust the Key Signature
- Step Ⅱ: Shifting Notes up the Stave
- Step Ⅲ: Adding Accidentals
- Transposing Audio Using a Pitch Shifter
- Transposing On the Spot: How’s it Done?
- Just use the transpose function?
- Transposing Chords & Accompaniments While You Play
- Transposing a Single-Line Melody On the Spot
- See also…
Know the Basics
Before you can learn to transpose musical score, it’s worth knowing a few things about how to read music and how score works. So you can get yourself set up with some basic knowledge, here are a few other blogs you can start with:
- Learning to Read Music: The C-Major Scale
- Learning to Read Music: The Minor Scales & Keys
- Music Notation: Sharps, Flats & Naturals
- Major & Minor: Hearing & Understanding the Difference
- Chord: Theory & Chord Symbols (the section about intervals)
Why Transpose Sheet Music?
There are a few reasons why you might need to transpose a piece of music:
- Tuning: Some musical instruments have different tunings, like a clarinet which is in B♭. This means that, when a clarinettist plays the C notated in a piece of music, it’ll sound like a B♭ – a whole note too low – and the same applies for every note in the piece. In sheet music arranged for orchestras, for example, this is already accounted for, so the clarinet part will be notated a whole note up. But what if a clarinettist wants to play the part written for say, the flute (which is tuned in C)? Then you’ll need to be able to transpose the score by a whole note up.
- Range: You might need to adjust a piece to match the vocal range of a singer, for example. So, say you’re accompanying a singer on the piano, but their vocal range can’t reach the highest notes of the piece, then you can play the piece maybe one or a couple of notes lower to meet their natural range.
- Awkward keys: If a piece has been written in a particularly awkward key, you might prefer to transpose it. In general, a key with a lot of sharps and flats can present the biggest challenge for musicians, but this can differ depending on the instrument you’re playing. If you’re playing the guitar, E-major or E-minor is the easiest key to play in, but if you’re playing the piano, then C-major is the most comfortable key to play in.
Transposing Music with Software
The easiest way to transpose music notation is using notation software like, Sibelius, Steinberg Dorico, Finale, Presonus Notion or the free programme MuseScore (available for Windows, Mac and Linux). Of course, the way that the transpose function of these software packages works is explained by their user manuals, but in any case, you can manually input the score and then move the notes up or down by as many semitones or whole notes as you need to. You can also save time by scanning in sheet music, or looking for a PDF file of the piece online and converting it into MIDI notes or a file that your software is able to read.
With Sibelius, you get a copy of Photoscore Lite thrown in as standard, which can scan the score in for you but you can also pick up software separately (see programmes like ScanScore). You could also search online for a good MIDI file of the music you want to work with and simply download and open the file in your notation software to transpose it. In that case, it’s never a bad idea to double check that the notation is 100% correct. The other thing you need to know about working in this way is that MIDI files are designed to trigger sound, not for sight reading and playing music, so you will have to add in any arcs, accents and so on yourself, since what your notation software will give you is a kind of interpretation of the MIDI information you’ve just fed it.
Transposing Music by Hand
You can transpose music by hand either on blank manuscript or using notation software – although you wouldn’t need to do it ‘by hand’ since the software can transpose the piece for you. The manual process is made up of three steps, each of which requires a little thought, so if you’re doing it for the first time, it’s best to just carefully follow the steps without thinking too much about why you need to do it this way. The understanding will come naturally – we promise.
Why Do it By Hand?
Sometimes, for whatever reason, using notation software just isn’t an option. But the best reason for transposing a piece manually is that you can learn so much from the process. Over time, you’ll gain a better understanding of how scales and keys work and connect with one another. And if you like puzzles, then you might even grow to enjoy doing it.
The illustration included below (click to enlarge) is a handy transposing tool. We’ll explain how it works in a bit.
Step Ⅰ: Adjust the Key Signature
- How many notes higher or lower does the piece need to be transposed? Example: you want to transpose up by one note (= so 2 semitones/steps)
- Look at the number of symbols included at the start of the piece (the key signature), just after the clef. Example: the piece notates two sharps.
- Find the key signature with two sharps in the wheel above and then step up or down by the necessary number of semitones. Example: we want to raise the piece by two semitones, so we count two steps up clockwise. So, if we started at two sharps, we land on four sharps, as you can see below:
- Another example: say you want to transpose a piece by a fourth and the piece doesn’t have a key signature. A fourth is five semitones, so if you take five steps up from no key signature then you land on a flat and your transposed piece now has a single flat as the key signature.
Step Ⅱ: Shifting Notes up the Stave
- You can see that the twelve possible keys in the diagram above have been split into seven blocks which are divided by grey lines.
- Count the number of blocks you’ve had to shift up or down. Example: As you can see below, when we count from two to four sharps, we’ve moved up one block.
- Because we’ve moved up by one block, every note within the piece needs to be shifted up the stave by one position. So if a note sits between two lines, it needs to be set on the line above, or if a note sits on a line, it needs to be shifted up to sit between the lines. Here’s an example:
- Here’s another example. This piece has been transposed from no key signature to one flat. That’s three blocks up, so every note has been moved up by three positions on the stave:
- Another example. Say that you step down from three sharps to four flats. This falls within the same block, so you don’t have to do anything to the notes, but you might need to add some accidentals later (see Step III).
Step Ⅲ: Adding Accidentals
Note: From now on, we won’t be moving any notes up or down the lines of the stave. In other words, the note names can no longer change! Now, we’re going to add any accidentals where they’re needed: so the sharps, flats, double sharps, double flats and naturals.
Now that’s clear, check over the original score to find any accidentals. If you find some, then you need to do something – but what? You can’t simply copy them over since the key has been transposed and there’ll be a lot of mistakes in the new score. Here, you need to ask yourself: what does the composer want to say by using accidentals?
What does the composer want to say to the musician with the example on the left? They’re saying, “Hey! Because there’s no key signature at the start of the stave, you’re probably expecting an F, but I actually want you to play the F half a step up, so an F♯.” As such, the G in the transposed score also needs to be raised by half a step, turning the G into a G♯.
Now, you might ask yourself, can’t I turn it into an A♭? G♯ and A♭ are the same note, right? No! Because, as we’ve already mentioned, none of the notes can be shifted up or down the lines of the stave at this point – the note names, so the letters, must remain the same.
What does the composer want to say to the musician with the example on the left? They’re saying, “Hey! Because there are no key signatures at the start of the stave, you’re probably expecting a C, but I actually want you to play the C half a step up, so a C♯.” In the transposed score on the right, we actually need to play a D♭ as indicated by the accidental, but then half a step up – which gives us a D. So, here, you add a natural symbol.
Special Situation 1
In this score, we have a double sharp. So, the composer wants to say: if you look at the key signature, you’ll be expecting a G, but because I’ve added a double sharp to the G, it needs to be played half a step higher. In the transposed score, the A also needs to be played half a step higher, turning it into an A♯.
Special Situation 2
While this is pretty rare, it can still happen sometimes. The composer says: normally, you would play a G, but it needs to be raised by a whole note to a Gx. So, in the transposed score, the note needs to be raised by a whole note as well. Normally, according to the key signature, you would play a B♭, but since it needs to be raised by a whole note, the B♭ becomes a B♯. Yes, you might think: in practice, that’s a C. But again, we’re not moving any notes up or down the stave lines at this point.
Special Situation 3
In the first bar on the left, we see a natural symbol. Because the key signature applies to both bars, the flat in the second bar is not actually needed. However, composers will do this a lot anyway, just to give musicians a reminder. In the transposed score, a D can be played instead of a D♭. This is because the flat included in the second bar on the left is not there to lower the note. The composer is just saying: remember to play the normal note as dictated by the key signature. In the score on the right, the same thing is done by adding a natural symbol. Here, we’re also saying: remember, you need to play a normal C and not a C♯.
Transposing Audio Using a Pitch Shifter
If you have no patience for transposing sheet music, but just want to alter the pitch of an audio file, then you’ll need to get hold of an MP3 file of the track.
- If you want to grab the audio from a YouTube video, for example, the easiest route is to simply search ‘convert youtube to mp3’ online, choose a trusted site, fill in the YouTube link of the song, then convert it. Once done, you can download the MP3.
- Now, search ‘mp3 pitch change’ online, select a trusted site, upload your MP3 file and select the number of half-steps you want to go up or down in pitch. Then you can pitch-shift the track and download the edited MP3 file. Note: We can’t guarantee that the results will be amazing. The more extreme the shift in pitch, the worse the audio quality gets.
Transposing On the Spot: How’s it Done?
Maybe you want to get ambitious and learn to transpose music on the spot – in other words – transpose on sight. This means you’re able to play the sheet music or chord progression that’s put in front of you in a different key. You might not think that this is easy to learn, but with a little practice, it definitely is! First, we’ll take a look at transposing chords and accompaniments, then we’ll take a look at single-line melodies.
Just use the transpose function?
If you play an electronic instrument like a digital piano or keyboard, then you’ll probably have access to a transpose function. You can use this function to shift the notes of the keys up or down by a number of half-steps. While it’s tempting for a lot of musicians to use the transpose function and there’s no problem with using it, it’s worth being aware of the pitfalls – and there are two of them. 1) During a performance, it’s very easy to forget that the transpose function is still on, and the musicians you’re playing with will give you dirty looks when you start playing the next song or piece a half-step up thanks to that transpose button. 2) You rid yourself, again and again, of the opportunity to learn to play in all possible keys. This isn’t just a practical skill, but offers a deeper insight and a better feel for the structure of music in general.
Transposing Chords & Accompaniments While You Play
Let’s start with transposing a chord progression and leave transposing score on sight for later.
Transposing Chord Symbols
Before starting, you need to be able to play all common chords and the twenty-four scales (the twelve major and twelve minor scales) automatically. If you need help, see the Know the Basics section above. Basically, if you see a Bm7, you need to be able to play the chord without having to think about it or look it up, and preferably, you can play the chord in every possible way. For a guitarist, that means you can play the different chord-forms of Bm7 and for the pianist, this means that you can quickly reach for the root chord and the different inversions. You also need to be able to do this when you see any common chord (so all of the simple triads, the sevenths and so on). You also need to be able to transition from chord to chord with ease.
The best way to learn all of this is to play songs from an extensive library of different songbooks and do it regularly. Then, you need to drill all of your major and minor scales until you can play them without thinking.
If you have all of this mastered, then comes the next challenge – one that a lot of musicians think is impossible: learning to transpose songs into a different key on sight. However, it is possible and once you know how, it’s an invaluable skill. Why? Well, while it’s nice to be able to play Let it Be in the original key of C, it’s endlessly practical when you can immediately play it D when one of your fellow musicians asks: “Ummm, can we play it a note higher?”
Switching Chord Names for Steps (Numbers)
So, grab your songbook and start swapping chord names for numbers which will represent steps. It’s best to start with a really easy song; one that doesn’t have too many chords and no crazy chords and one that is an easier key, like C-major if you’re playing the piano or E-major if you’re playing the guitar.
If you’re looking at a song in C-major, like Let it Be, then the C chord becomes ‘1’ and the G chord becomes ‘5’ (why? Because G is the fifth note of the C-major scale). In this way, a G7 becomes 57. There’s actually a ready-made system you can use called the Nashville Numbering System and the easiest approach is simply to copy it. But, since we’re not doing this to communicate with other musicians (which the Nashville system is designed for) you can also come up with your own variation, so you can teach yourself to transpose in a way that you understand.
Playing By Numbers
Now that you’ve converted all of the chords of a song into numbers, you can put the original chord names to one side and try playing the song in a different, not-too-hard key, like D-major. The beauty of this system is that there’s no need to think: “How the heck do I play this song in a different key?” Instead, you need to know: “This song is in D-major,” then look at the numbers. The first number is ‘1’ – great! The first step of the D-major scale is D, so that’s a D-major chord. The next number is ‘5’: the fifth step of the D-major scale which is an A, so the A-major chord is next. As we’ve already mentioned, you really need to have really good knowledge of your scales to do this, so you can quickly remember which note comes at which step. Otherwise you’ll have to do a lot of thinking and run the risk of quickly losing interest.
Remove the Stabilisers?
Again, the handiest way to do this is not to ‘actively’ transpose, since it’s not necessary when playing a song in a different key with the help of a numbering system. Now comes the big question: “Will I always have to write numbers next to the chords? Or one day, will I be able to just play a song in a different key, on the spot and without having to use numbers?” The answer is: if you fully commit and use the numbers method often enough, then the numbers will get less and less important and you’ll get quicker at looking past the chord names of a progression and instead think: “Aha! The first step to the fifth step.” Rather than: “D, then A and so on.”
Transposing Sheet Music On the Spot
Now, with enough patience and practice, you can learn to transpose sheet music on sight. But first, you need to nail transposing chords. So if you’ve already mastered that, you’re ready for the next step: learning to recognise the specific group of notes that make up a chord in sheet music.
Tip: Broken chords appear in a lot of scored accompaniment. So if you see a pattern of a few repeated notes, you can be sure you’re looking at a chord, so you can simply transpose the chord rather than transposing each note in the score.
You could start by learning to recognise the chords in the score and writing the chord names above the staves. Once you’ve mastered this, you can take a stab at transposing the score on the spot using the numbering method we’ve just covered. Again, we’re only looking at accompaniment pieces at the moment, so not pieces packed with complex melodies – that’s the next step.
If you’re a classically trained musician, then you may have learned, or will learn, a really useful yet complex system using Roman numerals, but we won’t venture any further into this here.
Don’t Be Scared of Simplifying Things
Don’t be afraid of simplifying things for yourself – especially if you’re still learning. So, if you can see a ‘1’ chord in E-major in the score, then it’s important to just play an E-chord. You can ignore the specific chord placement or extra notes or frills in the sheet music, they’re not important just now. Instead, concentrate on playing the right chords so you can play along with the other musicians. The more often you do this, the more experience you’ll gain and the quicker you’ll get at transposing on the spot, so over time, you’ll naturally start including all of the little extras in the score. To really simplify things, it can help to leave out any additions and bring the chords back to straightforward triads. For example, if you’re looking at an E7, then just play an E.
Tip: Stick to one key for a while
One final tip is to spend some time converting a stack of songs or pieces into numbers then spend a few hours or a couple of days playing each song in a specific key – like D-major (provided the songs are in the major key, of course). As soon as you feel like you’ve nailed every song in D-major, then repeat the process in another key – say A-major. It can also be smart to begin with a key that you find relatively easy to play in. The beauty of doing this is that you’ll get really familiar with the steps within the key, so after playing the umpteenth song in D-major, you’ll start seeing the fourth step – the G-chord – in your dreams! It can take a long time before you can easily find your way through every key – so all twelve major keys and all twelve minor keys, but it’s so worth it and the process is actually anything but frustrating as long as you give yourself enough time to get to grips with one key at a time. It really works.
Transposing a Single-Line Melody On the Spot
For a clarinettist, for example, it can be useful to be able to play a part a whole note higher. A simple way to do this is using the numbers system, just like we did earlier for chords. As with chords, you need to know every essential scale without having to think about it, so in the least, you should know all twelve major and all twelve minor scales. If you need help, see the Know the Basics section above.
Once you’ve mastered the scales, the principle is actually fairly simple. Each note is replaced with a step represented by a number that you write in above each note along the stave. So, if we’re looking at the C-major scale: C, D, E, F, G, A, B → 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
Converting the Score
The melody scored above is in C-major and can be converted to 1, 2, 3, 1. But that last 1 might be confusing when you start playing – do you need to play the low or high C? Every time that something possibly confusing like this pops up, just use a little arrow. So: 1, 2, 3, 1↑. The arrow simply lets you know that you need to play the next C up. Of course, you can come up with your own system as long as it’s clear to you. You’ll also need to add any random sharps and flats, and the best way to do this is by adding a + and – rather than a sharp or flat symbol etc, since in one key a note might be a sharp, but in another key it might be a natural. By using a plus and minus symbol, things are kept more universal.
Transposing On the Spot
Now we’ve done the ‘theory’, let’s dig into the practical. If we want to play the melody above in D-major, we take a look at the numbers and quickly see that the second note is a ‘2’, so the second step of the D-major scale, which is an E (this is why you need to know your scales inside and out so you don’t have to waste any time having to think about transposing while you play). By following the numbers and the steps that they represent you can simply play the piece in another key, and then another key, and so on. Do this often enough and it’ll only get easier. You’ll even start seeing a melody as a series of steps rather than a series of fixed notes. And eventually, you’ll need the numbers less and less.
Other Transposition Methods
Over time – since the Middle Ages – various different methods have been developed to help musicians transpose music. The numbering method explained above keeps things as simple as possible and offers a quick route to transposing pieces. However, this system might not be adequate when working with more complex pieces. While we won’t dive into other methods here (search ‘sight transposition’ online if you want to know more), it is worth including one last tool: the solmization system. It’s not just a useful way to learn to transpose quickly, but gives you a deeper understanding and feel for how music is built. Basically, you learn to sing (yes, sing not play) the notes of the score using the well-known syllables: do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti. This system actually doesn’t stray that far from the numbering system, but is much more singable (since when you hit seven in the numbering system, the two syllables can confuse things) and is more universal. A second, really important benefit of this system is that you can indicate sharps and flats simply by changing the vowel, which works like this:
Good to Know
- The ‘i’ is pronounced ‘ee’ and the ‘e’ is pronounced ‘a’.
- In a major key, Do is the first step, so: Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti.
- In a minor key, La is the first step, so: La Ti Do Re Mi Fa Sol.
- There are many variations of this system.
- In other systems, like the French system, things work differently. Rather than standing for the first step of the scale, the Do always stands for C. In the same way, the Re is D, the Mi is E, and so on. Therefore, each syllable represents a specific note. So the handy ‘moveable’ system we just talked about above is actually quite confusing to French musicians who are used to the ‘fixed Do’ system.
By sight reading and singing melodies (preferably on a daily basis) using the syllable system, you’ll get confident with the steps and this will make transposing them that much easier. Note: everything is hard when you’re doing it for the first time, so try not to overthink it. Just try it out for maybe half an hour every day. Or even better: take some lessons from someone who can teach you how it’s done.
» Time Signatures, Bar Lines and Repeat Signs Explained
» The Church Modes for Beginners
» The Blues Scale: Nail it in Every Key
» The Pentatonic Scale: Easy to Learn
» Better, Faster, Stronger: Learn to Read Music at Speed
» Sheet Music Apps: Yay or Nay?
» Tips to Help You Memorise Sheet Music
» Major & Minor: Hearing and Understanding the Difference
» Music Notation: Sharps, Flats and Naturals
» How to play basic piano chords
» Chords: Theory and Chord Symbols
» Reading Music: Rhythm, Tempo & Measure
» Learning to Read Music: The Minor Scale and Keys
» Learning to Read Music: The C-Major Scale
» Learning to Read Guitar Tabs