Transposing Music

Question: Hello Albert. Thanks a lot for putting together this helpful website.

My question regards transposing music. Would you say it is best to memorize a piece of music in its original key before attempting transposition? Lately I have been playing Chopin’s Prelude in E minor (Op. 28, No. 4). I haven’t memorized it, but the other day I tried to play the piece in B minor while reading along with the sheet music in E minor. To my surprise, all went well, until I played a wrong note and tried to pick back up on the measure where I had stopped. I would then have to jog my brain a bit to get back on track. I noticed that I was identifying the intervals between notes more than I usually do when reading music, but most of the time I paid no attention to what each note actually was, if you know what I mean. Perhaps I should study the piece in its original key a little more before transposing, although I do feel I am doing some good by reading the intervals and hearing the music in various keys.

Any insight or comments about this would be much appreciated!

– Blake Letney (Lufkin, Texas, USA)

Albert’s reply: Yes, I do believe we should memorize pieces in their original key before attempting to transpose. I recommend transposition of selected passages mostly as a test to determine how thoroughly we have learned the music. Have we learned the passage only with our fingers or do we truly understand the music?

Transposition is a way of abstracting from finger memory, forcing us to hear the inner relationships of the notes (i.e., intervals) and to think each harmony. In my actual repertoire, I tend to save this technique for harmonically unusual passages.

For example, once a passage in the Liszt Sonata gave me an unexpected memory lapse during practice. I discovered that I had failed to analyze the harmonies, and the harmonic progression turned out to be quite an unusual one; that was the reason for the memory lapse. After analyzing the passage, I first transposed only the block chords by ear (i.e., not looking at the score) into all keys to make sure that I understood it harmonically. Then I transposed the whole passage as written. After completing this exercise I could easily play the passage in the original key without difficulty, and I was able to perform it confidently knowing that my mind and ear were properly directing my fingers rather than the reverse.

Chopin’s E minor Prelude may seem simple, but its sinking chromaticism makes it very tricky to memorize. Together with its brevity, this makes it a natural candidate for transposition. Make sure you attempt to transpose by memory – without looking at the sheet music – since you will otherwise start to learn the piece in other keys with your eyes rather than your ears. Successful completion of this exercise will prove that you truly know the music inside and out.

The other application of transposition which I especially recommend is in simple, non-repertoire pieces. By this I mean short pieces (or passages) which you do not intend to perform. Done in this manner, transposition is used purely as a supplementary exercise in itself.

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