Transposition – is it really so tricky?

Transposition – why is this important?

what-brass-players-want-transpositionTransposition is a really useful skill for every brass player. Skill with transposition is really useful whether this is because you are an Eb bass player in a brass band needing to play a Bb part, or you may be a cornet player on trumpet in an orchestra with a part written in concert pitch.

Initially transposition may seem like a tricky thing to have to try to do, but after following some simple basic principles and some practice you will find that your skill will develop fairly quickly. It will be very useful to understand how your major and minor scales work, as well as being aware of your key signatures. For a quick refresher on this, click here or here.

Beginning Transposition

There are a few things to work out first when you look at this short melody.


  1. Check out the key signature and whether it is in a major or minor mode.
  2. Work out the degrees of the scale each note starts on.
  3. Look at the intervals between each note, looking carefully for stepwise movement and leaps.

It is very common to need to transpose up a tone. Bb instruments may be required to play music that is originally written in concert pitch. This will mean that all of the written notes will be a tone lower than the notes you will need to play.

In order to do this, if we look at the above piece we can see that it is in the key of C major. If we need to transpose this up a tone we will need to put the music into the key of D major. D major has two sharps (F sharp and C Sharp).

The scale of C has the following degree numbers:


The scale of D Major has the following degree numbers:


Here is the melody in the key of C with the degree numbers written underneath each of the notes.


Using the degree numbers in the key of D major, we can transpose the melody into the key of D Major.


The same principle can be applied to any melody, and any key. Please see below the melody shown above transposed into the key of F major and G major.

what-brass-players-want-transposition what-brass-players-want-transposition

Transposition on the fly

The method given above shows the theory behind transposition and how to do it, but the disadvantage with this is that it can be fairly time consuming. The next step is to be able to take this knowledge and read the note instantly in the transposed pitch as you play.

There are a number of things that will help you get this more accurate over time.

  1. Check the original key signature carefully – you need to know if you are in a major or minor key.
  2. Check you have the correct transpose key.
  3. Get the first note right and then work with the intervals in between each note as you play.
  4. If you are transposing up a 5th, as you read the music you can think of all of the notes being two lines or two spaces higher than written. (E becomes B, F becomes C etc.)
  5. Be careful with accidentals and remember that a tone higher from E is F Sharp and a tone up from B is C sharp

Work on the simple melodies given below and try to transpose them in the following ways:

  1. Up a tone.
  2. Down a tone.
  3. Up a 5th.
  4. Down a 4th.
  5. Up and/or down an octave.

what-brass-players-want-transpositionPersevere and aim to work on some more complex melodies in different keys. With practice this skill can improve a great deal.

Good luck with this.  Do you have any ideas or tips that may help to work on this skill?  Add your thoughts by clicking in the Add Comment box below.

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