What Does it Mean to Change a Key?
To change a song’s “key” means to shift the whole musical system to a higher or lower position. This process is called “transposition.” Performers often need transpose a song to better fit their voices. That way, a performer with a naturally lower singing voice (like myself) will be able to more comfortably sing a song that was originally written for someone with a naturally higher voice. Or vice versa.
For singers, transposition feels fairly natural. All it takes is a slight reorientation to the music. Guitarists often use a capo to easily transpose their instruments higher. But for most other instrumentalists, like a piano or saxophone player, transposing is a skill that requires some significant mental agility. Transposing sheet music at sight is no easy task either. Usually, musicians need to have their written music transposed before learning a new song.
Fortunately, there are also music writing programs like Sibelius that allow you to transpose whole songs in just a few clicks. For those of you experimenting with programs like these, I will give a short “how-to” for transposing in Sibelius. Then, I will break down the theory behind transposition, so you can know how to transpose music by hand.
Transposing in Sibelius
You can change the key of a song in music writing programs with just a few clicks. I will review how to do in my preferred program, Sibelius, but the process is the same for most programs. In Sibelius, the first step is to select the musical passage that you would like to transpose. Then, go to “Note Input” and select “Transpose.” You can apply a transposition to a whole, score, or to a selected passage.
Choose how you would like to transpose the music, and select OK. If you are successful, then the music should have a new key signature and the notes should be moved up or down appropriately.
Figure Out the Solfege
Transposing music can be done easily enough with a little background information on how melodies work. If you’re trying to transpose music by hand, the first thing you need to do is figure out the “solfege.” Solfege is a collection of syllables that can be used to track musical relationships during a song. The basic syllables for most music look like this:
The great thing about solfege is that you don’t have to know how to read music in order to notice the musical relationships. All you need to know is the syllable pattern. “Re” is the one above “Do,” “Sol” is the one below “La,” etc. You don’t have to worry about which note is called what letter name. Music is about relationships between notes, and not so much about what each note is, and those relationships is what solfege helps people hear.
You can also think of them in numerical terms, what we music theorists refer to as “scale steps.” Using the numbers one through seven, “do” is one, “re” is two, all the way up to “ti” as seven. The next “do” can be the number one again, or you could say “eight” if you want to distinguish between the higher sound and the lower sound.
Key Signatures and Movable Systems
The key signature is the collection of symbols called accidentals, found next to the clef, at the very beginning of a written piece of music. It tells you which collection of sounds the music uses for its basic organization. You can learn more about key signatures at sites like musictheory.net.
Solfege or scale steps are “movable” systems, which means that you can use it no matter what “key” the music is using. This makes music easy to transpose. All you need to do is chose which note you want the new “do” to be, apply the correct key signature, and shift the musical notes accordingly.
Check out the examples provided. Here, Example 1 is an original melody written in the key of C-major. In Example 2, the melody has been transposed to G-major. The key signature has changed, and all of the notes were shifted so that “do” begins on G instead of C. Notice how the space between the notes, the solfege relationships, have stayed the same. That is what keep the music sounding the same, only “higher” or “lower.” In Example 3, the same things have been done, only the key was changed to F-major.
That ought to be enough for a practical working knowledge! I hope you found this helpful. Music theory is a great passion of mine, and if you have any questions or you would like to learn more about the structures of musical composition, you can contact me through my TakeLessons profile.