How to transpose chords to a new key

NOTE: This article is under construction


If you want to transpose a song to a new key, but you're unclear about musical terms like"key" or "transpose" this article is for you.

There are a few primary purposes here:

Why transpose music?

Question: Why did the musician transpose the chords?

Answer: To get to the other key.


OK. So what's a key. And why would a musician want to get to another one? And why do musicians want to get to another key? Lot's of reasons. And we'll dealve into those, but first, we need to define the wiley concept of "key."


NOTE: explain "key" or hypertext to it

The concet of key is a big topic, and one that's frequently fumbled.

We'll be looking at those as we proceed.



Reasons that musicians transpose chords and accompaniment arrangements

In the most general terms, the main purpose in transposing music is to change key: to make the music easier to sing, to make it easier to play instrumentally, or to affect an intended mood by changing the pitch and/or tone.

The human voice

One of the primary motivations for transposition is to accommodate the range of the human voice: to bring melodies within the vocal range of an individual vocalist or a group of singers. When vocalists are involved in a musical collaboration, they chose the key, or if they don't know how, someone with adequate music experience assists in determining the idea key.

Singers have clout—that's how it should be. A singer shouldn't have to strain his or her voice to a pitch that's uncomfortably high; nor should they have to sing so low that they lose volume and tone. This is why pianists, guitarists and other instrumentalists need to be able to change keys and transpose chords, to accommodate the needs of vocalists.

If you're a singer you've surely been in a situation like this. You suggest a song you want to sing, and perhaps you're comfortable singing it in the key of a famous recording.Everything about the accompaniment is fine, but it's so high that you are uncomfortable, or you can't reach the highest notes. In other words, the accompaniment is in a higher key, a key doesn't suit your voice. The musician(s) may have a way of easily compensating ... whatever the case, they need to let you try out some keys until you find one you're happy with.

When a song has a reasonably narrow pitch range the average person can usually sing it comfortably in about 4 to 5 consecutive keys. When a song has a wide range of notes, say two to two and half octaves, there may be only one or two keys that will work for a particular vocalist.

Acapella transposition

With solo singing or acapella situation, transposition is quite simple. Singers may transpose instantaneously without thinking, without knowledge or effort, simply raising or lowering the pitch of their voice. Simple as that. They do so to ensure that they can comfortably reach the highest and lowest melody notes.

Although the result may technically fall between official keys-- as they say "in the cracks" between the piano's white and black keys, that's not a problem when singing unaccompanied. However, when instrumentalists are included it's another story. Although the choice of key is upon the singer, they have to choose a key that's on the grid, and not in the cracks. Then the instrumentalists can do their job. ***

Sometimes, at the instrumentalist's request, a vocalist will bend by a half-step up or down. As an instrumentalist you shouldn't expect much more. [make a chart of SATB vocal ranges, and the range of girls and boys as they mature]




OK, so let's say you've transposed the easy way by placing a capo on your guitar. You're playing a song in D on the 4th fret, and now you want to play with a bass and piano. They need to know what chords you're playing. Let's say you're playing a simple I IV V VIm progression, so you think of your chords are D, G, A, and Bm. But due to the capo the concert pitch is F#, B, C#, and D#m or the enharmonic equivalent of Gb, Cb, Db, and Ebm. You'll need to communicate this to them.

Reasons why instrumentalists transpose music

As discussed instrumentalists transpose to accommodate a vocalist, to match the vocalists preferred key for a particular song.

Instrumentalists also transpose accommodate the range of pitch of a particular musical instrument. Instrumentalists, particularly guitarists, transpose so they can use comfortable, unique, or ideal chord voicings, perhaps voicings that fit a particularly style of music. Tuning, key and chord voicing can easily determine the entire feel of a guitar arrangement or accompaniment.

Methods of transposing chords

There are lots of ways to transpose chords. Some require thought, and perhaps considerable calculation based on prior knowledge of scales, chord formulas as defined in classical music theory.

Some transposition methods are fully automatic:

Other methods are partially automatic: using charts, slide rulers, or chord wheels—but usually such tools are only partially correct, and yoku'll need to use a modicum of knowledge, or the result may contain poor musical grammar (misspelled notes) or notes of the wrong pitch.

Whether you want to transpose chords for guitar or piano, or for any another instrument the process is identical. The resulting names are applicable to any instrument. (The trick is settling on a key that offers voicings suitable for your instrument and for the particular song ...more on that later.)

Alphabetical transpositions

Before we look at transposing chords in music, let's briefly look at transpositions in general. Since alphabetical transposition happens to serve as a good example of musical transposition, let's take a quick look.

Alphabetical transpositions were probably one of the earliest forms of encryption and secret codes.

Here's an example of alpha-encryption from a famous 1970s film. In Stanley Kubric's movie, 2001: A Space Oddesey, HAL the computer protagonist represents the extreme potentials and dangers of computer technology. Fittingly HAL's three-letter name is an allusion to IBM, the computer superpower of the day. HAL is an allusion because it is a single-letter downward transposition of IBM.

If you lower each letter in IBM the resulting transposition is HAL:

the letter below I is H

the letter below B is A

the letter below M is L

This demonstrates one of the simplest forms of alphabetical transposing: a one-letter shift.

We can apply this method of encrypion by shifting each letter up one character. We can apply this to a word or phrase or an entire text message. Someone interpreting your code can disencrypt by shifting the letters back up.

For example: abc becomes bcd


Here's an example of a single letter disencryption. By raising each character by one character "Kds'r gzud  ktmbg!" transposes to "Let's have lunch!" [NOTE" write a little decoder app to place inline!]

Music Transposition

Music transposition is not as simple as alphabetical transpositions. It is considerably more complicated because in music the distance between letters varies, thus musical transposition follows different rules than pure alphabetical transposition. So let's examine the oddities of the spacing of the letters in the musical alphabet, which only runs from A to G

Most letters in the musical alphabet are equidistant. They are all whole steps apart, except B to C and E to F, which are half-steps.

Whole steps:  A - B     C - D     D - E     F - G     G - A

Half steps:  B - C     E - F

Here's an example that illustrates the complexity that this creates.

Let's say you want to transpose a three-note melody: A B C ... and you simply want each note to be one letter higher. The logical answer is B C D, but this is not musically correct. Transposing names alone does not produce the intended tranposition. For the tranposition to be identical, the intervals involved must be identical. The intervals for A B C are whole-step half step. The intervals for B C D is half-step whole step. So as To correct the situation we need to increase the distance between B and C. B to C# does the trick; now the first interval is a whole step. And this also corrected the second interval because C# to D is a half step, which is the

Well that's complicated! And we're only talking about three notes.


, because




So in our example (A B C) the distance between A & B is two notes, and there is one note between B and C.

When we look at the logical transposition (B C D) the distance between B & C is one note, and there are two notes between C and D.


A B C goes: C, whole-step, half-step

B C D goes: B, half-step, whole-step

Proof that adding letter names does not work in music.




If you understand "bases" in mathematical numbering, think of the musical alphabet as base 7. But without the use of 0, without the use of place columns, where the numbers are not all equidistant, and the starting number is 3! Numerically we can say the  *** is 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7; these are often indicated in Roman numerals I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII.

C D E F G A B  =  1 2 3 4 5 6 7




In the domain of pure alphabetical transposing that's pretty simple. To approach we used when IBM to HAL


***The presence of the sharps, flats, and key signatures.

For instance, let's say you want to transpose an Eb chord progression to another key. First let's pick a simple chord progression, say I - IV - V, and the destination key of B.


Roman numbering I - IV - V -- half our work is down.


(Eb, Ab, Bb) from the key of Eb


the key of B, the result is B, E and F#. Suffice it to say, simply adding five letter names doesn't yield the correct result (i.e. you may have guessed Bb, Eb and Fb); the crux of the issue is that the distance between letter names is not constant.


If that seemed like a huge leap, rest assured an explanation will follow. Alternately, if these facts are old hat, please stay tuned. We're about to look at methods transpositional methods that work even if you don't understand the underlying issues.


Even if you possess enough musical knowledge to perform your own transpositions, these methods and tools may prove valuable because you may want to save time and ensure accuracy. And with a tool as instantaneous and grammatically accurate as Transposer you can't go wrong. Nevertheless I'll explore and explain other manual methods of transposition, so you know the ropes, and can figure out correct results for yourself.


*Major keys versus minor keys.

Transposing automatically

  • A tool like Transposer does all the work for you and it transposes with enharmonic integrity. For instance, provided with good input, Transposer won't write a B where a Cb is grammatically correct.



Transposing semi-automatically with charts

  • The cycle of 5ths
  • Musical slide rulers


Transposing chords manually

It's the good old fashioned way. It builds character and ... manually.


Even if you prefer to use an automatic tool or chart, and intend to do so predominantly, you you'll benefit in knowing how to transpose. The task exercises your musical knowledge, and allows you to rely on your own understanding and memory when other tools are unavailable.

  • Counting on your fingers.
  • Writing on a staff

Transposing by switching to Roman Numbering, and then from Roman Numbering to the new key

Lets say we're in the key of A, and the song has the chords A D and E.

Ordinal Numbering

Ordinal numbering is a form of ordered labeling. We are quite familiar with this, in both written and numeric in form:

Ordinal numbering is always used to label things. So the numbering always starts with "first" or 1st. In mathematical terms, this is called a 1-indexed numbering system, where counting starts at one. This makes sense, because there is no "zeroeth" thing!

And so it is in music. When we label the degrees of a scale


... see more on ordinal counting below and merge

Transposing chords by counting

You can easily transpose chords by counting on your fingers. For simple songs this approach is easy and reliable.

We need to consider at two aspects of a chord name: the root, and the quality (or type).

When transposing we only alter the root, and leave the chord quality untouched.


When counting intervals we use a 1-indexed ordinal counting. This is a fancy way of saying, you start counting from one, never from zero. Think of it this way, when your order things you count and label them 1st, 2nd, 3rd ... there is no zero-eth thing. The same is true in counting degrees of a scale.

The first note of a scale is called the 1st degree. So if you want to determine the 5th note of the the A scale, you count A, B, C, D, E as 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th. The common mistake is to unconsciously 'label' A as the zero-eth degree. I notice people doing so like this. They say A, and then count B as 1, C as 2 ... so they mistakenly conclude that the 5th is F.

OK. We're clear, E is the 5th degree of the A scale.

Now here's where it gets tricky. when you count up through the degrees of the scale, you must include some sharps or flats (unless you're in the key of C) Remember we counted up the alphabet A, B, C, D, E? The 3rd degree of the C scale is actually C#, not C natural. How would you know that? You'd know by exposure to music theory. You may understand this if have read music enough that you've memorized the key signatures. But if you have not studied music theory and you don't read music, you'd have to do some calculations based on the to most global rules in music. ???Again we'll leave the calculation tutorial for later and


Read more about transposing by counting ...

The smallest musical distance is a half-step

  • There is an interval of a whole step between all letter names, with TWO EXCEPTIONS: B to C and E to F.

For a simple song, say a I, IV, V progression in G


Using Transposer


Transposing Chords Using Notes on a Staff


A staff and scale make a very useful transposing tool. Together they form a tool you can easily construct and use when other are unavailable, even scribbled on a piece of scratch paper during a music theory exam.




Here are the steps:

For this demonstration I'll use the treble clef.


Here's the notes of the C major scale, which has no sharps or flats.

C Major Scale


Let's say we have a simple song that only uses C, F and G chords. We can assign degree numbers to those letters.

C Major Scale and I-IV-V


Now let's look at the notes in the key of F:

F Major Scale


If we label the I IV and V in the key of F, our work is basically done.

F major scale I-IV-V


So in the key of C the I IV V chords are C, F and G

In the key of Bb, the i IV and V chords are F, Bb and C


??? there' a more systematic way, that will cover any oddball chords that fall outside of the key.


Transposing chords by using the Cycle of 5ths


Transposing using musical slide rulers, chord wheels, and charts

Show Sound thinking ruler in a flash animation -- look for design in FrameMaker document, or look at the book printouts


Sometimes people name chords roots incorrectly to begin with, If so, when you transpose correctly you'll get the same error.



one peculiarity about chromatics. We see chromatics in chords names in the manner that we pronounce them. the chord C#m is pronounced "C sharp minor." However in notation the note C# is written with a sharp symbol preceding the C. Even though the sharp precedes the C, we say C# not #C.

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