When I was a student at the Royal College of Music, part of my course was a weekly class called “Keyboard Harmony” that dealt with such musicianly skills as harmonisation of melodies, reading in C clefs, reading from a full score, realising a figured bass, and transposition.
This last activity (which I found extremely taxing) involved transposing at sight a song accompaniment from the printed key to another key. If the key was a semitone up or down, you might be lucky and simply be able to replace the given key signature with another in your mind. You could then read the printed notes as they appeared on the stave, hoping to remember that a sharp would become a natural (or the other way round), a natural a flat, or whatever the circumstances dictated.
The problems came when you needed to make an awkward mental shift and play the printed F, say, as either a G or an E – depending on which direction the torture was meted out. This was all a bit too much for me, and I’m afraid I never mastered it. Transposing at sight is very useful skill for church musicians, repetiteurs and vocal accompanists. It is far from easy until you have acquired the knack, and only useful if you are regularly required to do it.
It is accepted that songs might need to be transposed up or down a bit to suit a different voice type, but instrumental music is inextricably associated with and suited for the key it was written in. When the publisher Haslinger changed the key of Schubert’s sublime G flat major Impromptu into G major some 20 years after Schubert’s death, it was presumably to increase sales (he must have considered one sharp easier for his customers to read than six flats), but this was effectively an act of vandalism. Not only does this semitone shift spoil the key relationships in the set of four Impromptus (should you be playing all of them) – the colour of the music is completely altered by it.
Leaving transposition at sight to those who need to do it, there are two other types of transposition that are indispensable for the pianist – transposition by ear (in memory work), and transposing the difficult passage (to enhance technical control of an awkward spot).
Transposition by Ear
Transposition by ear is a wonderful skill for any pianist to acquire, even if you only ever use it in your practice room. It engages the ear in a very powerful way and is a very good check against playing relying on muscular reflexes. If you can play whole pieces (or just those elusive sections of pieces) from memory in two or three different keys by ear, it means you really know the score. This doesn’t have to be done fast, and it doesn’t have to be perfect in expressive detail. Like anything else, it does take some practice.
Challenge: Take a piece you consider you know very well from memory and transpose from memory into a neighbouring key – slowly is fine. How far did you get?
If you found that challenging, you might want to consider including a bit of transposition in your practice. If you are unsure about your ability to transpose and wish to develop your skills, I suggest taking an extremely short piece such as those from Daniel Gottlob Türk’s Kleine Handstücke Für Angehende Klavierspieler. The first few pieces are only eight bars long and very simple. Learn one or two of these and test your ear by transposing into all twelve keys.
You might progress to something very familiar, such as pieces from the Anna Magdalena Notebook of Bach or, indeed, anything else not too complicated that you know very well. Rather than move chromatically up or down from one key to the next, you could go backwards or forwards through the Circle of Fifths.
Teachers – consider assigning simple pieces well below the level of the student for them to memorise and then transpose into any key on command!
As your transposition skills improve, increase the length and complexity of the music you transpose by ear and use it for all works you intend to perform from memory. For myself, I practise in three or four different keys – a semitone or a tone away in either direction and one or two more remote keys (if a piece is in D flat major, its opposite in the Circle of Fifths is G major). I aim not to stay in any one key for too long, because I don’t want to ingrain muscular memory in that key. Once through only in each key is my motto per practice session, before changing key. When I do this successfully, I know I am hearing all the tonal relationships and harmonic functions on a much deeper level than simply working in the original key.
Here are some general guidelines:
- Transposition does not have to be done at speed; even a much slower tempo is fine.
- Using the fingering of the original key when transposing for aural work is not necessary. Go with what feels natural (pardon the pun).
For more on using transposition when practising a difficult passage, follow this link to my eBook (click here)
- You don’t need to go through whole works in this way; if time is at a premium, then select trouble spots.
- Take a small section at a time and work on the transposition until you are reasonably secure.
- Consult the score when you need to, but it is preferable to stop playing while you do this and resume with the score away from the piano desk.
- The transposition does not have to sound like a finished product.
- You do not need to transpose into all twelve keys! Three or four will do.
- Practise transposing to different keys each day so that you don’t learn a new muscular memory that might confuse the issue when you play in the intended key.
- Return to the original key between transpositions to transfer the gains you have made in aural awareness.
So how is using transposition practice to bolster memory work likely to help us? As we go along, we might make the following sorts of discoveries:
- I hadn’t realised the notes in bar 4 decorate the dominant chord.
- My LH was not sure what it was supposed to be playing, but when I looked at the score, I noticed the bass line descends chromatically on every strong beat.
- I couldn’t seem to figure out the RH passagework in the new key, and this forced me to work out what some of the larger intervals actually were.
Transposing the Difficult Passage
Transposition in memory work is an advanced form of aural and brain training. When we use transposition for difficult passages (passages that present a technical problem), it serves an entirely different purpose – muscular or kinesthetic training. Sometimes a piece contains a difficult passage that just seems to jinx us no matter how much we practise it. We have done everything else, but we can’t be absolutely sure we’re always going to nail it. Here is where transposition comes to our aid.
The opening of Mozart’s Concerto in G, K.453 doesn’t appear to be especially difficult, but it can easily trip us up, especially as we have been sitting listening to the orchestra for some minutes and have to come in from cold with this flourish:
Whenever I perform this concerto, I make sure to practise the opening flourish in all twelve keys, using the fingering I worked out for the original key of G major. I use the original fingering when I transpose because I want to cement this fingering, to know it extremely thoroughly despite the different patterns of black and white keys in each new key. It is precisely because I teach my hand to negotiate all the different terrains with this original fingering that when I come home to G, it fits like a glove.
For more on the benefits of transposing the difficult passage, follow this link to Part 1 of my eBook Series (click here)
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