A Beginner’s Guide To Transposition

Does your hair stand on end when you are faced with a part which requires transposition? Until you become familiar with playing notes that are not there, you will be uncomfortable. I will try to give you some helpful tips on how to reading transpositions at sight.

Learning to transpose music (which way and how far?)

Step #1

Extend your left arm to full length. Bring the palm of your hand in to face you. Think of each of your fingers as lines on a staff. Your thumb is now top line F, your first finger is now the D line, your middle finger is now Bb, ring finger G, little finger E.

Step #2

Establish what key the instrument you will be playing is in (Bb trumpet, D trumpet, C trumpet, etc.)

Step #3

Place the pitch of your instrument on your hand (staff). ie. Bb trumpet is still on your middle finger, C trumpet between your first finger and your middle finger, D trumpet on your pointing finger.

Step #4

Decide what transposition you will be adjusting to  (D music, C music, A music, etc.)

Step #5

If you are playing a Bb instrument and the transposition is for a C instrument, you first establish where you are (Bb middle finger) and where you are going (C one step above).

If you are playing a C trumpet and your transposition is for a Bb trumpet, you establish what you are playing on (C) and where you are going Bb and on your hand you can easily see the adjustment is down a second.

Remember this rule- Where am I on the staff and where do I have to go to get to the correct transposition?

The easiest and most common transposition is from Bb to C (up a second). I became fluent in this transposition after playing many years with a polka band in Illinois. Everything we played came from a fake book which was written in concert pitch (C). The best way to learn this transposition is to gather as many piano books with familiar songs as you can find. I would suggest that you begin with Christmas songs. Not because this is December but because you recognize the melodies and what you have to get used to is seeing one note and playing another. You will know at once if you have made the correct transposition if you know the song.

Not only will you have to move the notes around but you will also have to move the key signature. To do this, just use the same left hand you used before. If you are now in the key of F and you had moved up one step (Bb trumpet to C trumpet) do the same thing for the key (F up to G).

Now let us walk through a more difficult transposition-

You are playing a Bb trumpet and the music is written for a D trumpet. The rules are the same.

  • Left hand up
  • Establish Bb on your middle finger
  • Find D a third above Bb
  • Transposition is up a third
  • The part is written in Bb (two flats)
  • Your transposed key will also be up a third (D- two sharps)

Here is one more example-

  • Left hand up
  • You are playing a D trumpet (pointing finger)
  • You need to transpose for C trumpet (pointing finger to space below) or down a second
  • If your music is in the key of C (no sharps or flats) you transpose the key down a second (C to Bb).

This exercise would also fit a case where you are playing a C trumpet and reading Bb music.

Now that you hopefully understand the concept, you will need to be familiar with the terminology used to instruct you to transpose. I have included some of the most common terms for you to learn when first learning to transpose.

English- Trumpet- C,D,Eb, E, F,G,Ab,A,Bb,B,major,minor,flat,sharp

Italian- Tromba- DO,RE,MIb,MI,FA,SOL,LAb,LA,Sib,maggiore,minore,bemolle,diesis

French- Trompette- UT,RE,MIb,MI,FA,SOL,LAb,LA,Sib,SI,majeur,mineur,bemol,diese cis

German- Trompete- C,D,Es,E,F,G,As,A,B,H,dur,moll,ces

The material included in this post will get you started on your path to successful transposition. When you are performing orchestral material you will be expected to transpose at sight and in order to increase the limited knowledge you have gained here, I would suggest that you purchase the following book for additional study material-

One Hundred Studies for Trumpet by Ernst Sachse

Bruce was a member of the faculty at the University of Northern Iowa, School of Music in Cedar Falls from 1969 until his retirement in 1999. He has performed with many well-known entertainers such as Bob Hope, Jim Nabors, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Anita Bryant, Carman Cavalara, Victor Borgie, the Four Freshman, Blackstone the Magician, Bobby Vinton and John Davidson.