Guest post: Transposing – a dying art?

by Madelaine Jones

We all know the feeling – you’re sat on the stool, anxious before a first rehearsal with a singer. Doubtless you’ll have practised the piece, sorted the fingerings, and on meeting the culprit of your hours of toil, you’ll find them to be a perfectly human, ordinary musical being with whom you can get on splendidly, and the rehearsal will go swimmingly. That is, before the seven words that would send a shiver of dread down any aspiring pianist’s spine: “Can you put that down a tone?”

Indeed, transposition is rapidly becoming the Atlantis of pianism, with seemingly very few pianists left in the musical stratosphere that have a grip on the elusive art – and to those who think I am preaching, I am most certainly not one of the few. Last summer, I decided to sit a diploma in accompaniment in which one of the requirements was sight-transposition, and I can honestly say I have never been so thoroughly vexed over such a small component of an exam before. On the day, after preparing for months with a hymn book at the recommendation of a teacher (six hymns up and down a tone every day – healthy work but proved to be a winner in the end), I found it was nowhere near as bad as I’d dreaded. I’m certainly no master transposer, and I wouldn’t dream of doing so in front of another human being again, but with significant practice and preparation, it was no more difficult to learn than any other piano skill I’ve acquired.

So why on earth are we so scared of it?

It seems to me that there is an obvious answer, staring us in the face: unfamiliarity. How many of our teachers drilled scales into us as a child? I’m guessing practically all of them. Sight-reading? The vast majority (and how thankful we are, even if we hated it at the time!). Transposition? I expect not a single hand in the room will have gone up.

I am not launching a tirade against teachers, since they already bear the blame for far too many things as it is; given such a small amount of contact time, teachers simply cannot cover all the bases, and something which does not feature on exam syllabuses or even yet exist to a young learner given its ‘advanced skill’ status is understandably going to be swept under the rug. But why is this considered such a niche skill in the first place, and why are exam boards not bringing this in at a far earlier stage than diploma level?  Why are we not encouraging young children to go away and try to transpose fragments of music? It improves knowledge of keys  – if you don’t know the scales and chords for the keys you’ve played in properly, you can’t possibly transpose into them. It improves memory – if you understand the relationship of the chords inside out, you’re far less likely to forget the notes than a learn-by-rote ‘A B C’ approach. It improves aural skills – transposition is, to a very high degree, dependent on aural awareness and the ability to hear and anticipate what is coming next.

To those of you who think I’m asking too much of young learners, try it. Give a young pupil a small fragment of melody, and then ask them to play it on a different note. Talk about the differences, any ‘black notes’ that may have appeared, and you will find they pick it up a lot more quickly and less painfully than you expect. What you’ve just taught someone is how to transpose on a very basic level. In fact, you do it all the time when you teach children to play scales. The problem, it seems to me, is that we’ve mystified transposition so much that people think it impossibly difficult, learners and teachers alike. Just as with any other skill, you have to start somewhere. If you pick a Chopin Etude you can barely play in the correct key and try to put it up or down a tritone, of course you’re going to struggle. If you take a simple hymn and move it to a related key, you’re going to find you make far better progress.

Naturally, with every other skill under the sun to practise, I doubt we (or our pupils) will now all fall to religiously practising our hymns in every key every day. But next time you’re frustrated with a piece and can’t understand the ins-and-outs of it properly, why not try popping it up or down a tone? If nothing else, it could become a neat party trick…

Madelaine Jones is currently a student at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, studying piano and harpsichord with Penelope Roskell and James Johnstone respectively. She was the winner of the Gladys Puttick Improvisation Competition 2012 with duo partner and dancer, Adam Russell. Her ensemble experience as a pianist has included working alongside the BBC Singers, the Medway Singers and the Walderslade Primary School Choir, and she has performed as a harpsichordist and chamber organist in the Greenwich International Early Music Festival alongside Trinity Laban’s various Early Music Ensembles. Madelaine is a previous recipient of an LCM London Music Schools and Teachers Award, and is also a keen writer in her spare time, reviewing for Bachtrack and posting on The Cross-Eyed Pianist blog. For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/madelaineclarajones

2 thoughts on “Guest post: Transposing – a dying art?”

  1. I first encountered “proper” transposition aged 16 when I took my Grade 6 General Musicianship AB exam. It stood me in good stead for my Music Degree when keyboard harmony et al were an integral part of my studies. It really came into its own when I married a French Horn player (who, of course, “lives” transposition & who has now done so for over 51 years professionally).
    When teaching, I always introduce scales according to the cycle of 5ths with all the “relations” including arpeggios & cadences in different inversions. Once students have grasped a sequence in one key, they can usually find it more quickly in the next key.
    When accompanying church services as a stand-in organist, occasionally I come across a hymn in a ridiculously high setting. The congregation sometimes comment afterwards, “why do we find it easier to sing with you playing?”. When I say that I simply transposed it down a 3rd or whatever I deem appropriate, the few “in the know” nod sagely.

  2. The interesting thing is that transposition is not unusual in the folk music world on other instruments. I’ve heard southern German brass bands doing it *in public* as a game. I would also be very nervous about exam transposition, and yet as you say, it’s a skill to be learned, not some mystic art.

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