Compose Yourself: Transposing With The Toys

2:28 – Half-Step Modulation to E and Fade Out

Are your ears getting a little tired of these half-step lifts? Transitional chords are the solution. This is a big topic that we’ll talk about when we cover modulation in future columns.

To play the hook in the key of E, just slide everything up a fret:

Ex. 6: Chromatic transposition to E (“You’ll hold me in your arms…”)

(1) ———————————————————–

(2) ———————————————————–

(3) —- 4 —————————————— 4 ——

(4) ————————- 4 —- 6 —- 7 —————-

(5) ————— 7 —————————————–

(6) ———————————————————– 

0:20 0:27 – Diatonic Transposition

In a diatonic transposition, the melody (or part of the melody) moves up or down to a new set of tones within the scale; no modulation occurs. A previous blog (“Transposition – Friend or Foe?”) mentions “All You Need Is Love,” by Lennon and McCartney, as an example. Something similar happens here between

“How gen-tle is the rain,”

Scale tones: Sol – Do – Re – Mi – Fa – Sol; or 5 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5

Piano: G – C – D – E – F – G

Guitar (strings/frets): 3/0 – 5/3 – 4/0 – 4/2 – 4/3 – 3/0


“…that fa-alls soft-ly on the mea-dow,”

Scale tones: Do – La – Sol – Fa – Sol – La – Ti – Do – Do; or 1 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8 – 1

Piano: C – A – G – F – G – A – B – C – C

Guitar (strings/frets): 3/2 – 3/0 – 4/3 – 3/0 – 3/2 – 2/0 – 2/1 – 5/3

Each half-phrase has five notes that follow the pattern “five ascending scale notes.” The pattern 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8 (1) on “soft-ly on the mea-” is a diatonic transposition of the pattern 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 on “gen-tle is the rain.”

This is a beautiful melodic rhyme, and a demonstration of how diatonic transposition is used in composition: The first half begins an ascent to the tonic, and the second half completes it, achieving a perfect balance between promise and fulfillment. The form of both melodic phrases is similar, but diatonic transposition only occurs where shown. The rest of the melody is adjusted slightly to enhance the melodic rhyme.

Ear Training with Sequences

If you transpose a pattern through the scale step-by-step, you create a sequence. For example, here is a sequence made from the pattern “Do – Re – Mi”:

Do – Re – Mi, Re – Mi – Fa, Mi – Fa – Sol, Fa – Sol – La, and so on.

Playing this sequence—or any sequence—in the moveable C scale form is a great way to train your ear and develop an instinctive feel for where notes are on the fretboard:

(Do) 5/3 – 4/0 – 4/2, (Re) 4/0 – 4/2 – 4/3, (Mi) 4/2 – 4/3 – 3/0, (Fa) 4/3 – 3/0 – 3/2, etc.

Sing the sol-fa syllables aloud or mentally while you play sequences. I can’t stress this enough. While the guitar has multiple ways to play identical notes, there are only seven sol-fa syllables. Singing the syllables as you play reinforces this simple musical structure and greatly improves your ability to predict the sound of notes before you play them. (See my free e-book, Singing Sol-Fa, for more on this topic.)

Modal Transposition

A mode is a type of scale. In a modal transposition, the mode changes, but the tonic does not. The two most common modes are major and minor (traditionally “happy” and “sad”). “A Lover’s Concerto” is in major mode, but we could transpose it to minor simply by lowering the third degree of the scale a half step. Notice that the tonic (scale tone 1) does not change, but a slight alteration in scale tone 3 flips the mood from joy to sorrow:

Ex. 7: Modal transposition of the hook to “Lover’s Concerto”

(1) ———————————————————–

(2) ———————————————————–

(3) —- 0 —————————————— 0 ——

(4) ————————- 0 —- 1 —- 3 —————-

(5) ————— 3 —————————————–

(6) ———————————————————–

Changes of mode are not uncommon in pop music. “Norwegian Wood,” for example, deftly shifts between major, Mixolydian, and Dorian modes. The latter two are popular in folk music.

Transposition Across the Fretboard

Transposing across the fretboard means preserving the intervals while shifting the chord or melody sideways. Here’s a simple example: The G major triad is formed of three notes, which can be played 6/3 – 5/2 – 4/0. If we try to move across the fretboard while preserving the intervals, the chord shape must change, owing to the tuning of the guitar.

Ex. 8 Transposing the G major triad across the fretboard

(6): G major, 6/3 – 5/2 – 4/0

(5): C major, 5/3 – 4/2 – 3/0 (no change)

(4): F major, 4/3 – 3/2 – 2/1 (change)

(3): Bb major, 3/3 – 2/3 – 1/1 (yet another change)

(2): Eb major, 2/4 – 1/3 – 1/6 (yikes – we lost a string)

Unfortunately this is one of the weirdnesses about transposing on guitar: chromatic transposition is a snap as long as you can slide up and down the neck. The fingering and the visual pattern stays the same. But the moment you try to move harmony or melody across the fretboard, you have to adjust the chord and scale forms because of the way the guitar is tuned.

While working on user-interface design projects in Silicon Valley, I learned that the human mind rebels at devices in which different inputs (say, chord shapes) generate identical output (Do – Mi – Sol, in this case). There is no perfect solution, but we can simplify by focusing on what stays the same: the sound structure. Use Do – Mi – Sol sound as your mental anchor, and do not be distracted by all the different forms it can take.

This is what you are doing when you sing sol-fa syllables while playing sequences, an exercise that eases the difficulty of transposing melody across the strings. You are focusing on the simple, invariant structure of the scale. Transposing chords across the strings is more difficult, but I would suggest practicing with intervals (two notes) and three-note chords of various kinds. Sing the intervals, sol-fa syllables, and chord formulas. A few minutes of this a day should reverse your thinking (if it needs reversing) and put the emphasis where it belongs: on the music, not the guitar.

Finally, practice transposing chord progressions and arpeggios (broken chords) to all twelve keys, and sing them! Transpose the bass line first, as this is relatively easy and it establishes a visual pattern as well as a sonic pattern. Then fill in the rest of the chord over the bass line. And if you really want to stretch your mind, improvise melodies over the chord shapes while transposing the chord progression to all twelve keys.

While I wish it weren’t so, transposing on guitar isn’t always easy. But there are ways to make it fun. Keep your eye out for “Measure for Measure” in the 30th anniversary edition of American Songwriter, and you’ll find out how.

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