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Word of the week: transpose

In this piece from February 2016 I summarized the three levels of expertise that apply to practical skills, skills like speaking another language or playing a musical instrument. I categorized these three levels of expertise as “nothing, something and everything”. The first of these applies when you have no familiarity with a task. I offered the examples of playing the trombone or speaking Mandarin, neither of which I had done at the time. I have still never gone near a trombone but over the last month have heard and read a little Mandarin for the first time. My daughter has started to learn it, having moved up to senior school at the beginning of September. If she were learning French or Spanish I could keep up with her for a while, maybe even offer some assistance, but not with Mandarin: her expertise in the subject will always be greater than mine.

In my case the second level of expertise, “something” rather than “nothing”, still applies in the areas that I mentioned in that earlier piece: speaking enough French, Spanish or Italian to be able to order a meal abroad, and playing the piano and guitar well enough to have a repertoire of hundreds of songs, but not achieving a level of mastery (or “everything”, the third level of expertise). I will never be a fluent speaker of any language apart from English and will probably never be able to sight-read piano pieces for both hands. My ability to read music goes as far as simple melody lines on the treble clef, the musical equivalent of spelling out “the cat sat on the mat” rather than, say, “Beethoven’s neighbour joined a choir in Gloucester”. For most songs I just follow the chords, from either chord charts or “Fake Books” (which typically feature melody lines, lyrics and chord patterns).

In recent weeks I have been adding to my repertoire of #1 songs. As it says on this page on my Projects Menu, “I can sing and play at least one UK #1 single for every year between 1954 to 2013”. The span of years now runs from 1953 to 2015 and there are a few new songs for the years in between. Many of the other songs have been in my repertoire for nearly 30 years now. Some of the tunes that I could sing reasonably comfortably back in the 1980s are more challenging these days. There are notes that are just beyond my one-and-a-bit octave range. The answer is to transpose the chords into a different key. On a guitar this is easy: use a capo (defined on the Oxford Dictionaries website as “A clamp fastened across all the strings of a fretted musical instrument to raise their tuning by a chosen amount”.) On a regular piano you have to work out what the chords are in the alternative key. For simple songs (3 or 4 chords) I can just about do this in my head, but for anything more complex I need to work them out and write them down.

“What a wonderful world”, for example, which I have spent nearly 30 years playing in the key of F, is easier to sing in C. I have transcribed the chords and tried to play the song in the new key, but having spent all these decades playing it in F I still need a lot more practice to feel anywhere near as confident. What I need is the equivalent of a capo for a piano, allowing me to play the same chords as before, but shifting the key down half an octave. Last week I decided to search for such a thing online. It was just before midnight, as Thursday became Friday and my birthday began. It took a while to find the right search term (the key word was “transpose”). I looked at the specifications of several electronic keyboards that allow you to transpose the keys and then discovered that my Yamaha electric piano (a P-105, which I’m very happy with) also allows it. There’s a key combination that you are unlikely to come across by chance, shown on this page on the Yamaha website. (Reminder to self: hold down DEMO/SONG and METRONOME/RHYTHM and press the required key, from F#3 to F#4.) I spent the first hour of my birthday bashing away at a range of songs in a variety of keys (through headphones rather than ambient), both excited and a little wary of the possibilities. The technology allows me to learn a song in one key and play it any of the 11 others; anyone could sing along in any key they choose. But this could also prevent me from improving my musicianship, from being flexible enough to play songs in multiple keys. And I could become dependent on the technology. Sit me at a regular mechanical piano, or a different make of electric piano, and you’ll be stuck with whatever key I learnt the song in. Still, this was good enough for Irving Berlin, one of America’s greatest songwriters. He was a self-taught pianist and could only play in one key. He wrote and played all his songs in F# (lots of black notes) and had a special transposing piano built to allow him to shift the keyboard, physically, to play in different keys. You can see it in action in this vintage clip.

 

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