Transposing–a Beginning

So we were talking about transposing.  I know it sounds a bit on the technical side and that can seem a little intimidating, but let me just take a moment and set down a couple of things here that I was pointing out there.

So you’ve got a song that has basically four chords in it.  In the order you gave them to me they come out like this;

E-minor / / / (played for 4 beats)

C / / /

G / / /

D / / /

Maybe you can play it fine, but when it comes to singing it feels like it’s not the best place for your voice, it’s either too high, or too low.  Okay, so let’s change it.  Let’s say that you want the melody to start on a different note and maybe make it so the highest note you have to sing is going to be a little lower.  So we’re going to bring the whole thing down a bunch.  One way of figuring that out is to take the first chord and count down a number of tones and semi-tones until you get a chord you don’t mind.  Once you’ve counted down and arrived at a new first chord take the second chord in the original pattern and count down the same number of tones and semi-tones–go the same distance as you did for the first chord–and you’ll arrive at your new second chord.  Do the same thing for all of the chords in the original pattern.  It should all come out something like this;

E-minor–>count down through D, past C, below B to A–so you’re now playing A-minor

that was 3 and a half tones.  Do the same from C

C–>count down though B (a semi-tone), past A, below G to F–so you’re now playing F

the same 3 and a half tones.  Now the same from G

G–>count down through F, past E (a semi-tone), below D, to C

the same 3 and a half tones.  And finally the same starting on a D

D–>count down through C, past B (a semi-tone), below A, to G

So now your new chords are

A-minor / / /

F / / /

C / / /

G / / /

So that’s one way of sorting out what new chords to play.  And it’s a solid method.  But I wanted you to know that there’s another way of transposing that’s maybe worth understanding.  Start like this–when you’re playing the the first series of chords (E-minor, C, G, and D) listen to the chords as they go by.  After a while you will feel that while the pattern may start on an E-minor, the chord that it really revolves around is the G.  Play the whole pattern a few more times, all four chords.  Hear it?  The G is home.  Or to say it a little more officially, “It’s in the key of G”.

So for the sake of argument let’s say that you want the new home chord to be a C-chord because that’s low enough to make the melody easier for you to sing.  Okay, follow this thought–in the original the first chord was an E-minor, it’s in the key of G, and you know there’s a playing relationship between G and E-minor.  You know from playing that a song in the key of G often uses an E-minor chord (happens so much that the relationship has a name–it’s called the ‘relative minor’, but you don’t have to know that).  Okay, question–if you’re playing some song in C is there a minor chord that will often show up?  Right.  The A-minor–you just know that happens from playing a bunch of stuff that uses a C-chord as it’s home place.  So if the home chord in this new version is going to be a C-chord, the first chord in the pattern  is now going to be an A-minor.  So what we’ve got so far is;

A-minor / / / /

unknown chord    / / / /

C-chord / / / /

unknown chord    / / / /

Looking good.  Now let’s fill in the unknowns the same way.  When the original pattern used a G-chord as its home chord, the second chord you played was a C-chord.  And you know that when you’re playing in G there are two chords that will almost always show up, the 4th chord (counting 4 up from G that’s a C-chord) and the 5th chord (counting five notes up from G, that’s a D-chord).  You know that because you’ve played a bunch of songs in G and you’ve noticed that the most common chords in G are the C and D-chords, and also because you’ve heard me say a whole bunch of times that the most common chords in any key are the home chord and the chords built on the 4th and 5th notes of a scale counting up from that home note.  Meaning playing in G commonly also uses C and D-chords, playing in E commonly uses A and B-chords, playing in D often uses G and A-chords, and so on–in every case that’s the 4th and 5th notes up from the home chord.

In the original pattern, which was in G, the 2nd and 4th chords in the pattern were a C and a D-chord.  A C-chord is the 4th when G is the home chord (count from G up through A, past B, to C being the 4th note, build a chord on that C-note).  And a D-chord is the 5th when G is the home chord (count from G up through A, past B, past C and up to D being the 5th note, build a chord on that D-note).  In our new key the clues we have are now;

A-minor / / / /

unknown chord    / / / / (clue: will be the 4th in our new key)

C-chord / / / /

unknown chord    / / / / (clue: will be the 5th in our new key)

Now if you’re playing in C (where you decided you want this new pattern to have its home chord) you know from playing that the most common chords in C are the F and G-chords.  And you know that they’re the chords built on the 4th and 5th notes of the C-scale.  So we can fill in from our clues and the whole pattern in the new key will look like this;

A-minor / / / / (the minor chord associated with the new home chord)

F-chord / / / / (the 4th chord up from the new home chord)

C-chord / / / / (the new home chord)

G-chord / / / / (the 5th chord up from the new home chord)

This second method is how I usually transpose when I’m working.  So I don’t think of moving every chord up or down the same number of steps as every other chord, I only use that method if I get a little lost from working in my head.  Instead what I do when I’m working is I think of what the position the useful chord is in the original key, then reproduce that useful position in my new key.  Of course, it helps to know that some of the useful chords in C are;

C-chord (built on the first note of the scale, called the ‘root‘)

D-minor (built on the 2nd note of the C-scale)

F-chord (built on the 4th note of the C-scale)

G-chord (built on the 5th note of the C-scale)

A-minor (built on the 6th note of the C-scale, called the ‘relative minor‘)

(and yes, there’s another useful minor I’ve thrown in there)

and that some useful chords in G are;

G-chord (built on the first note of the scale, called the ‘root‘)

A-minor (built on the 2nd note of the G-scale)

C-chord (built on the 4th note of the G-scale)

D-chord (built on the 5th note of the G-scale)

E-minor (built on the 6th note of the G-scale, called the ‘relative minor’)

It only takes a little bit of playing in each of the usual keys before you learn what those useful chords are in all those keys.  And once you know those useful chords in even a couple of different keys you’d be amazed at how easy it makes playing a song in a new key–whether it’s your own suggestion or someone else’s bright idea.

So if you wanted a useful musical hobby to undertake for a while, figure out all the useful chords in all the keys you might ever want play in (there are 12 possible keys, maybe pick 7 of them).  Once you’ve got that figured out, find a simple song that uses only the useful chords in one key.  Now move it around and play that simple song in all those keys.  You may stumble a bit at first, but eventually it’ll pay off.  Let me know how it works.