How To Transpose a Song in Under 5 Minutes

Laugh in the face of a key change

Transposing is probably a lot easier than you think and with a little practice you'll never need to fear a last minute key change.

Yes.  It's a hassle when you have to change a song key at the last minute, but it's not the tragedy so many worship musicians make it out to be.  It's part of the job description.  You can get apps and print out charts in every key, but ultimately you'll spend more time and energy avoiding it than simply learning how to do it.  In this post I'm going to teach you a simple and comprehensive system to get the job done in less than five minutes.  Once you tame the transposing beast you'll find he's just a helpless little puppy.

The Musical Alphabet

Let's start with the basics.  The musical alphabet starts at A and goes to G#, then repeats.  It looks like this.  (Keep in mind that A# and Bb are different names for the same note.)

The interval between each note is a half step and two half steps equal a whole step so... 

The Major Scale

The major scale is the basis of all western music and it's how we define what notes belong in what key.  All it is is a fixed pattern of Whole steps and Half steps that never changes.  It's ALWAYS the same.  Visually it looks like this:

Go ahead and read that out loud a few times.  

"Whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step"

"Whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step"

"Whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step"

Defining The Key

To find what notes are in a key you simply apply the major scale pattern to the alphabet making sure you start on the root of the key.  So if you want notes in the key of C, you start your 1 on a C like so.

Go ahead and hover your cursor over it.  From C to D is a whole step.  D to E is a whole step.  E to F is a half step...whole step, whole step, whole step, half step.  If you do it right, your 1 and 8 will be the same note.  Seriously, hover over it while saying the steps out loud.  I'll wait.

Changing Keys

Okay, C is easy because there are no sharps or flats but every other key is just as easy.  You simply apply your major scale pattern.  Let's try the key of D.

You'll notice we use the sharp (#) designation instead of the flat (b).  That's because we want a representation of every letter in each key.  If we used flats instead of sharps, we would have D E Gb G A B Db D which would give us doubles of D and G while depriving us of F and C's lovely company.  No bueno.  Let's try the key of F and see how the flats come into play.

In this example we go with flats because we don't want both an A and an A# in the scale.

Transposing

Now you see that each note in a key occupies a specific scale position.  Transposing is simply swapping notes that share the same scale position.  So let's say you have a chord progression in the key of F that goes like this:

If we translate that to numbers (read: scale positions) it looks like this:

Once you have those numbers you can quickly and easily swap in the new chords. So let's try it with G and D.  First we lay out the scale:

Then drop in the notes:

So...you're saying this is easy?

No.  I'm saying it's essential and becomes easy with practice.  Practice enough and you'll start thinking in numbers.  If this is an entirely new idea to you I'd suggest simply writing out the notes in each key as a starting point.  I have a handy cheat sheet and video on this here so you can check your work.  Try grabbing a few song lesson charts and converting them to number charts.  Play through your chords in each scale saying their numbers aloud.  Mastering this skill is worth the investment so get after it.  I'll respond to any questions or comments below and don't be shy about sharing your transposing tips.

Let's Practice Transposing Together

So I've showed you how to transpose to a different key, but nothing will help you like working through some real life examples with some direction. Below I've listed some posts I've done that dive into a specific song and walk through the challenges that come with each. Your confidence will grow with every song your transpose. 

How to Transpose "The Lord Our God" by Kristian Stanfill

The tough part about dropping this tune down a full two and a half steps is the lead riff spans so many frets and the slides are necessary to capture the right tone.  Here's how you get the job done.

How to Transpose All My Fountains By Chris Tomlin

"This week I got a request a request to take the song "All My Fountains", originally in the key of E, all the way down to C. That's no small jump. Here's how I did it."

How to Transpose Man of Sorrows by Hillsong Worship

This week our Facebook friend, Josh posted "I'd like to see one on Man of Sorrows in the key of D. I'd like to have my soprano lead it but we can't find a way to get these verses to sound right with the electric lead." Well Josh, it's time to set that soprano loose. Here's how you do it.

How to Transpose Glorious Ruins Hillsong Worship

I got an email asking for help on this one.  Glorious Ruins is originally recorded in the key of Gb but the acoustic guitar is capoed on the second fret and playing those open E chords we've grown so accustomed to in worship songs.  

How to Transpose God My Rock by Brenton Brown

Last week I was challenged to take "God My Rock" by Brenton Brown from the key of D all the way down to G. That's a huge drop but it's doable and it might be easier than you think. Let's give it a look.

Jason Houtsma serves as Worship Pastor for Mosaic Church in Bellingham, WA, Husband to Alli, Father to Bjorn and Asher, and guitar instructor for WorshipArtistry.com

How To Transpose a Song in Under 5 Minutes

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Comments

Minor Notes in the Number Scale

It is fair to say that the minor notes/chords normally come on 2, 3, 6 and 7? That's what it seems...

Yessir!

There's some more detail on it in the "Intro to Guitar - The Language of Music" lesson in the 101 section.

I Use a different method

I count the amount of half steps in between a note and count that many when transposing.
(Ab to C = 9 half steps when transposing down) So, if I want want to transpose a note and the song is in the key of Ab to key of C, and the first note is F, I count 9 half steps down from F.

transposing for notes

So I get doing the the chords for different keys but what if I need to transpose a song like Jesus Culture which you listed in lessons from key of D to key of A? I can't figure out how to do the whole song in key of A . thanks jon

Or you can cheat a little bit

First off, I completely agree that it's important to understand what is happening when you transpose. However, once you "get it", buy the Shubb transposing guide and make your life a lot easier (I have no affiliation with the company, just love the product).

Not only does it quickly transpose chords between any two keys, but the flip side will tell you which fret to put your capo on to change your chord shapes to a key you are more comfortable with.

Hark The Herald Angels Sing key change

Hi! I'm going to be playing the lead guitar part for "Hark The Herald Angels Sing" by Lincoln Brewster in a couple of weeks. However, we are playing it in the key of E (standard tuning) instead of F# (tuned down 1/2 step).

If my calculations are correct I use the same fingerings in the lesson for the intro and solo but I need to move up the neck 3 frets to play it in E.

The issue I have now is I don't have the song in E to practice with so it is making it difficult to practice everything in E.

Is there a tool out there that will transpose the song so I can have something to practice along with? Any suggestions or tips would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks

You can purchase one

Multitracks appears to have that key available. It might be a little pricy for a practice tool. If you have an apple device, the AnyTune app allows you to change the song key. If neither of those are an option, I would master it in the original key and then make the move down to the key of E and try playing it without the track.

Also for clarity, you are moving the parts three frets "down" the neck (meaning notes on the 15th fret are played on the 12th instead), correct?

iPad app?

This is a great tutorial and I understand how to transpose. However, we change keys so often that it gets stressful and I'm afraid I'll make a mistake. My question is, is there an app that I can copy the chord sheet you have here on the site and put it in the app and transpose it there? I'm also planning on getting an iPad so I look more in the times rather than printing sheet music weekly, so it isn't just for transposing.

Transposing

Out of necessity, one day I figured this out, but I can't keep it in my head while playing. I have to write it out and look at it. I don't play by ear, but I am trying to learn. I am mainly stuck with a chord chart or lead sheet. Last week in church I watched how the keyboard player in the church just played each song without a music sheet. I don't understand how she can memorize all 5 songs! How do they do that I ask? She must play by ear!

Practice practice practice.

Practice practice practice. Our director doesn't like music stands so we memorize at least 4 songs every week, and keys change from week to week depending on singer. I'm not an expert guitarist so I usually practice 3 or 4 nights plus two band rehearsals, and some songs I still don't get down. Luckily I can put a sheet of paper on the floor with the chord names to help my memory that the congregation can't see.

How about riff and solo work?

How do you figure riffs and solos when changing keys? Most use TAB to write it out and I don't see how you can transpose that.
Thanks