TIPS FOR WHEN YOU’RE CHANGING KEYS
In this tutorial, we’ll cover transposition and modulation, two essential topics often mixed up. Although these terms are used interchangeably at times, they are a little bit different, so today we’ll be looking at what it means to transpose a piece of music compared to modulating it, as well as discovering some quick techniques which can be used to transpose and modulate any song easily.
Transposition vs. Modulation
Transposition means moving a song from one key to another. It could be lower; it could be higher; it could be by a half step, a whole step, or more. When we talk about transposing a song to this key or that, we’re talking about the entire song, not just a snippet of it.
However, if we’re already playing in one key, and then we change to another key within the same song, that is called modulation.
Know Your Keys
Before we get started, you have to know your keys to modulate or transpose. This includes major keys, minor keys, and everything. When changing to different keys during transposition and modulation, it’s vital to have already good knowledge and experience playing in that key whilst being familiar with the different degrees of each scale. If there’s a particular key you’re not familiar with or struggle to play, transposing or modulating to that key will be a little tricky.
As a side note: if you have a keyboard with a transpose button, ignore it. Do not touch that button! Suppose you’re a beginner and can only play in two keys, for example, C and F, and you want to transpose or modulate your song from the key of F to the key of F#. In that case, it can be very tempting to use that transpose button on the keyboard to get the effect automatically without learning the theoretical aspects of your actions. However, I’ve seen countless pianists who became dependent on the transpose button, and nearly ten years later, they’re still using it and still haven’t learned to play authentically in all 12 keys. It’s a slippery slope, but my advice is to ignore the transpose button if you have it on your keyboard; take your time and learn to play properly and organically.
Using Scale Degrees
When you’re transposing, you’ll want to think about your chosen song in terms of intervals and scale degrees, specifically the relationship of the chord or the note within the given key. As a refresher, the scale degrees are just the scale’s notes but are represented with numbers rather than letters. For example, in the key of C, C is the 1st degree of the scale, D is the 2nd degree, E is 3, F is 4, and so on.
In this example, we’ll be working with the song To God Be The Glory, which is in the key of Bb. Please take a minute and quickly listen to the track before we go further. [**go to the video above**]
If I wanted to take the original chorus of this song in Bb and transpose it one-half step higher to the key of B – how would I begin to figure that out?
The very first section of the original Bb chorus melody begins on the 5th degree (the note F), jumps to the 1st degree (Bb), then to the 7 (A), back up to 1, 7, then 6 (G). Using the scale degrees, you can quickly transpose a melody to any key you like.
This melody can be summarised as the numbers 5 – 1 – 7 – 1 – 7 – 6, played with the following notes: F – Bb – A – Bb – A – G.
All we have to do is play those same scale degrees but in the key of B instead, and we’ve transposed the melody.
B, the root, will be the 1st degree. By counting the scale, you’ll find that the 5th degree of B is Gb, 7 in Bb, and 6 is Ab.
The melody 5 – 1 – 7 – 1 – 7 – 6, therefore, becomes Gb – B – Bb – B – Bb – A when transposed into the key of B.
When transposing, I find it easiest to stick using the scale degrees. You don’t want to get too attached to using the common letter names of the keys and notes like A, B, and C because it’s nowhere near as straightforward when transposing compared to the numbers of the scale degrees, which naturally transfer across all 12 keys.
You can do the same thing with chords. Here are the chords to To God Be The Glory, in the key of Bb, with their scale degrees listed in brackets:
Bb9 (1) – Dm7 (3) – G7 (6) – Cm (2) – Fsus (5) – F7 (5) – Dsus (3) – D7 (3) – Gm7 (6) – C7 (2) – Ebadd9 (4) – Fsus4 (5) – Bb9 (1)
Once you get that basic skeleton outline of what chords are being used in the song, you can start looking at it in more detail. Ask yourself: what is the quality of each chord? Is it a major chord, a minor, and so on.
By looking at our progression above, we can go through each chord and determine the following:
Bb9 (1) = add9
Dm7 (3) = minor 7th
G7 (6) = dominant 7th
Cm (2) = minor
Fsus (5) = sus
F7 (5) = dominant 7th
Dsus (3) = sus
D7 (3) = 7th
Gm7 (6) = minor 7th
C7 (2) = dominant 7th
Ebadd9 (4) = add9
Fsus4 (5) = sus4
Bb9 (1) = add9
Now you have this breakdown, you can transfer the scale degrees and the chord quality straight over to the new key, just like we did with the melody.
Again, let’s try taking this song out of its original key of Bb and putting it into the new key of B.
The first scale degree becomes B, and we add the 9th to create the add9, thus transposing the chord to Badd9 or B9.
Next, we have the 3rd scale degree. The third degree of our new key B is Eb, and if we add the chord’s quality, we form our transposed chord, Ebm7. We can do this along each of the chords until we have the following completed transposition:
B9 (1) – Ebm7 (3) – Ab7 (6) – Dbm (2) – Gbsus (5) – Gb7 (5) – Ebsus (3) – Eb7 (3) – Abm7 (6) – Db7 (2) – Eadd9 (4) – Gbsus4 (5) – B9 (1)
To transpose, all you need to do is work out the scale degrees and the qualities of the chords, and you can transpose a song into any key you like.
If you’re doing this for the first time, I’d recommend writing out the chords so you can follow them along more quickly. You should also write the chords in their original key using Roman numerals (I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii). This gets you used to use scale degrees rather than letter names for chords such as Bb and Gm. Remember to use lower case roman numerals for minor chords and upper case for major. After you’ve transposed your piece to the new key, you can insert the actual chord names in place of the Roman numerals, so you can read them clearly when playing.
When you’re transposing a song, try to make sure you keep the voicing of each chord the same as it’s heard in the original. The transposed chords should sound distinctly similar in tone to the original, no matter which key you’re transposing to, the only difference being the exact pitch. It’s important to get the correct voicing so you don’t end up with strange sound differences.
The two most important things to remember are (i) to think in terms of scale degrees during transposition and letters afterward and (ii) to keep the same voicings as heard in the previous key so the song doesn’t sound strange.
Next, I’ll show how to modulate this chord progression, taking the track from its original Bb key into the new C key. Here are the chords to To God Be The Glory again:
Bb9 – Dm7 – G7 – Cm – Fsus – F7 – Dsus – D7 – Gm7 – C7 – Ebadd9 – Fsus4 – Bb – G7 – C
As shown at the end of this progression, we can play the 5th degree of the C scale as a dominant 7th to easily transition into the new key of C. You can hear that clear key change when using the dominant 7th in this way. Try playing through this progression a few times and notice how the G7 leads straight into the new key of C without anything feeling out of place in the track.
Sometimes when I’m playing this modulation, I’ll add a little walk-up right after the G7, using the chords Fadd9/A – G/B – C. This gives a nice, prominent bassline walking up through G, A, B, and C, which can help you to find your notes:
Bb9 – Dm7 – G7 – Cm – Fsus – F7 – Dsus – D7 – Gm7 – C7 – Ebadd9 – Fsus4 – Bb – G7 – Fadd9/A – G/B – C
What if we’re in the key of Bb, and we want to modulate up by a half step? One possible way is by playing a 4/5 slash chord (4 chord with 5 in the bass) at the end of the original progression in Bb, which enters seamlessly into the next key. Using our example chord progression, the 4/5 chord would look like this:
Bb9 – Dm7 – G7 – Cm – Fsus – F7 – Dsus – D7 – Gm7 – C7 – Ebadd9 – Fsus4 – Bb – E/Gb – B
This E/Gb chord is simply an E chord with a Gb bass. It could also be played as a suspension chord for the same effect.
Try practicing with this track as you learn the process of modulation and transposition, or choose one that suits your level of musical practice. Even if you’re a beginner and only know two songs, you could practice transposing those two songs into each key, slowly, one by one, and starting with the easier song, before working your way up to more complex pieces.
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With this PDF, you NEVER HAVE TO GUESS what chord you’re playing.