May. 25, 2016

Transposing, Part I

Transposing is a musical term for moving notes higher or lower to change key.
Choosing the key for a piece is somewhat like choosing a seat in an airplane (photo).
Though all the seats are sort of the same, everyone has preferences, for various reasons.
Whatever the reasons, the more you travel, the more confident you become in your choice of seats, and so it is with music.
Transposition, then, is akin to the act of choosing your seat on a plane, and also, sometimes, switching seats in mid-flight.
When you're choosing a key for a piece, here are some considerations:
Range ... how high and low the primary instrument can play.
Key Signature ... the sharps and flats; it's actually easier to play with a few sharps or flats in the key signature because it gives the fingers some grounding; it comes down to playability; a piece may fall nicely in a range, but if the key signature is in something unusual, it makes the music unnecessarily difficult to play.
Accidentals ... these are notes outside the key.
For an arranger, transposition (changing key) in mid-song is done for dramatic reasons; it's like SUDDENTLY CHANGING TO ALL CAPS TO MAKE A POINT!!
This musical airplane of ours has 24 seats: 12 major and 12 minor.
There are also the old church modes, various so-called modes of limited transposition, plus blues scales, pentatonic scales, chromatic scales, and microtonal scales, but for this blog posting, we've checked all of these into the baggage section, so we can ignore their existence, for now.
If you want to change seats (transpose), there are some easy moves and some difficult moves.
Some will sound awkward as you climb over other passengers, and only if you really want to draw attention to yourself do you choose those.
Transposing every note to the relative key (because the key signature doesn't change, e.g., going from C Major to a minor) is like switching to the seat beside you, pretty easy.
Also, switching to the parallel key (because the notes are on the same lines and spaces, e.g., going from C Major to c minor) is like switching to the seat on the other side of you, pretty easy.
Transposing in the circle of fifths [See blog, Temperaments And Tuning, Part II] is probably the smoothest way and the most common; in circle of fifths transposition the dominant of the scale becomes the tonic of the next scale, and our ears adjust very naturally; it's like switching to a seat in the next row.
Music in a major key can be transposed to any other major key, and music in a minor key can be transposed to any other minor key; the score for a non-transposing instrument like the oboe requires no transposition, since a C is heard at concert pitch every time the instrument plays a C.
A transposing instrument like the trumpet or cornet however sounds a Bb at concert pitch every time a C is played; the score for this instrument therefore is transposed by the composer a major second (M2) higher on the printed page.
Some common situations can arise which require an organist to transpose the key of a piece of music; it may have to be put into the right key for vocalists, in the event the singer or singers are struggling with notes that are too high or low; putting the music into their range will result in a much better performance; instrumentalists may also find that a piece is easier to play with the organist if it is in a different key; woodwind and brass players often find flat keys more comfortable and in tune, whereas players of bowed and plucked strings generally find fingerings and tunings easier in sharp keys.
A good electronic instrument will transpose for you, and if your music is already stored in a computer file, there are programs that will transpose it for you and display and print it in the new key.
If you talk to people who've worked in this field for years, they'll tell you that it creeps them out to use a transpose feature on a keyboard, and they blame the use of it for the lack of this skill in others.
They feel like, "If us Raisins could learn to do this back in the days of Analog, they you smart kids can learn to do this now."
Digital stuff is indeed a miracle, when they think of all of the stuff they had to write by hand, back in the Day ... but there is never any substitute for having this skill in your own brain.
Yes, it can be hard ... but nothing good for you is ever easy.
And if you only have music on paper in front of you, then it may actually be easier to transpose it yourself than to enter it into a music program to have it transposed.
There are 4 separate steps involved, which are 1) choose your transposition, 2) move to and think in the correct new key signature, 3) move all the new notes by the correct intervals, and 4) pay heed to the accidentals.
There's no area of organ playing for which transposing passages of pieces in different keys provides greater benefit than for those organists who wish to develop their improvisational skills [See blog, Improvisation, Parts I, II, III, IV, V].
The practice of playing in all keys forces a player to develop the skills necessary for improvisation; these are the ability to hear the melody through its various manifestations on the keyboard, and the continual effort needed to come up with fingerings "on the fly," much as one does when sight reading or improvising.
Transposing, when not written out, is in fact a type of sight reading [See blog, Sight Reading, Part I,II].
Even though theoretical principles are applied when one transposes, there are aspects of transposition that force players to rely solely on their ear [See blog, Ear Training].
The ear must directly guide the fingers, as many of the intricate twists and turns of a melody do not lend themselves to musical vocabulary or theoretical relationships that are readily apparent.
When players force themselves to play through a melody in all keys without pause, a different kind of thinking and practicing occurs.
This skill is the type that is most directly related to playing one's musical ideas when improvising; it is, perhaps, the most valuable approach to keyboard related ear training.
Because the ability to transpose is one of the most useful and musically valuable skills an organist can have, the American Guild of Organists has made it one of its requirements for professional certification {See blog, American Guild of Organists (AGO)].
The Service Playing examination involves 2 transpositions of one hymn from the hymn booklet chosen in advance as an opening prelude, not more than M2 in either direction, with no play through and not written out; the repertoire, psalm accompaniment, anthem accompaniment, and general hymn playing requirements for this certificate probably will not be found so difficult; but if you want to try for this level of certification, you'll need to spend some time becoming a good sight reader and transposer [See blog, Sight Reading].
The Colleague examination requires transposing a passage not more than M2, with some preparation time allowed; the Associate examination also involves transposing a passage not more than M2, with only one play through allowed; the Fellow examination requires transposing a passage not more than M3, with no play through.
Preparation for any of these examinations develops one's ear and contributes to the understanding and managing of fingering problems that occur with unfamiliar patterns.
It's the essential technique for connecting the eye, ear, mind, and hand, and the best kept secret for teaching instrumental improvisation; it combines sight reading, using the ear, knowledge of theory, technique, fingering, and keyboard relationships in a way that no other practice approach can offer.
(con't in Part II)