Transposition and key colour
Abstract image

Transposition and key colour

‘for high voice; for medium voice; for low voice’

This used to be seen on nearly all single copies of songs and even some song albums, but what does it mean?

– Just that the song is printed in different keys so that it can be sung more easily by these different voices, In other words, it’s ’transposed’.

Being able to transpose is a skill that accompanists develop to accommodate their singers individual needs, but it has to be said that some people find it easier to do than others. Because it looks easy, don’t be misled – it’s not. Looking at the written music and playing it all in a different key takes great skill. Be glad if your accompanist is good at it.

Nowadays, for convenience, many electric pianos have a ‘transpose’ button so that the player can read the same notes but it all comes out at a different pitch. This can be an uncomfortable experience for players who have ‘good pitch’ – so it’s a mixed blessing!

Apart from not wanting to ‘mess with your accompanist’s head’, what else should you consider when you want your song transposed? Well, without making it all sound like a ‘dark art’, it has to be said that changing key can change the character of a piece – sometimes, slightly – sometimes, quite dramatically.

Key colours are quite fascinating in themselves – dark shades for some keys and lighter ones for others, so moods and subtleties can change when a key is changed. In ‘Automne’ by Fauré for example – the B minor version is noticeably less intense than the C sharp minor version. So it’s often worth a bit of experimentation to see if the key that you are using is the right one to convey the meaning and mood of the song. If you want to intensify the mood and it would be comfortable, how about putting the key up a semitone?

Transposing also changes the complexity of the piece for the pianist. Finger patterns can often be made easier by changing key. Listen carefully to some iconic recorded performances of Schubert lieder for instance and you’ll realise that even these use more ‘convenient’ keys to get round some really awful passages – so it’s not always done just for the benefit of the singer…