Ukulele Hack! Transposing
Updated: Mar 5, 2021
Have you ever ridden in the car, music blaring, hands in the air, with friends and family singing your heart out? Maybe it was to Queens “Bohemian Rhapsody“, or Leonard Cohen’s immortal classic “Hallelujah”. Or how about some Taylor Swift, Dua Lipa, or Post Malone?
For me it was… get ready for it… “The Backstreet Boys”!
Hey I was in high school at the turn of the millennium and they were the biggest thing in the world. Sorry *NSYNC fans. Next!
So my friends and I honed our singing abilities listening to Backstreet Boys, Boyz 2 Men, and Brian McKnight. Remember this was 20 years ago. I'm getting old...haha!
But we’ve all been there. ‘Bang Bang’ comes up next on the playlist. A hype song if I ever heard one with hot vocals from Jessie J, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj (everyone fails her part, but you get props just for trying)! Everyone‘s dancing in the car to that catchy intro and then Jessie J. belts out…
”She’s got body like an hourglass but I can give it to you all the time!”
And that’s all it takes. Everyone singing in the car goes flat or sharp. Either way… OFF! The key is so high she's cracking phone screens!
These ladies have incredible pipes! But maybe yours are a little rusty…haha!
So what do you do if you have a favorite song that you want to play and sing on your ukulele and the key is too high? Your struggling to hit the notes and feel defeated. Have no fear, there is a remedy for this. The remedy known as chord transposing!
Chord transposing involves the moving of a musical pitch up or down, but remaining in the same interval. There are a few reasons as to why we would need to transpose notes or chords in our music, the main reason being to change the key of a song.
For example, if you struggle singing a song in the key of Bb, you can transpose the song to the key of C. Doing this will making it easier to sing since you’ll be lowering the key. Another reason you may want to transpose music is to make it easier to play. Using the same example, playing the Bb is way harder than playing the open C. Chords associated with Bb are Eb, F, and Gm. On the other hand, the same chords transposed in the key of C are C, F, G, and Am. Chords everyone learns when starting out on the ukulele! So let’s learn how to transpose chords.
Finding The Key
Before you can start transposing you have to know what key you are in. Here's a hint, its usually the first chord of the song. But when its not, you’ll have to look at the other chords in the song to get an idea of the key. After you find the key, you have to figure out which key you want to transpose to. If you are only concerned with playing simpler chords, find a key that incorporates chords you already know. If you’re more concerned with singing in a comfortable key, then try moving up or down 2 keys. Some songs are actually too low for singers so in these cases they have to transpose to a higher key. Most of us mortals on the other hand need to lower the key. Thanks Celine!
How To Change Key
Maybe you find a song you want to play and it‘s in the key of Bb. So the chords of the first line of the song are Eb, Bb, F, and Gm. You try to play it and two things become evident. One, you can’t hold the chords right, and two, its pitched too high to sing. So you have to change the key to solve these issues. To bring down the key, you may want to try transposing to the key of C.
This is where the above diagram becomes helpful. Above is layout of a piano. Believe it or not, there are only 12 keys. Counting from the first C (white key), then C# (black key), on to D (white key) and so on, there’s 12. If you already know this from taking piano lessons, then the rest will is easy!
To transpose from Bb to C, you have to first find how many steps are between the two. Using the above diagram first find the Bb key. Then count each step until you get to C. In this case it will be two. Once you know this, you then apply this to the chords that need transposing. So moving up two keys from Eb brings us to F. And Bb to C, F to G, and Gm to Am (G to A). Try it out for yourself using the diagram and see if you get it. If you‘re successful, you‘ve transposed the song from the key of Bb to C! Congratulations! Now the song will be easier to play and sing.
Key Wheel Cheat Sheet
Above is a cheat sheet in figuring out key changes. The above diagram is highlighting the key of C (hey, that the same one we just went over). Notice anything interesting? The chords we transposed from Bb are all within the redlined part of the Key Wheel. Those being C, G, F, and Am. Now utilizing this wheel, you can figure out the chords in any key. If you want to find the different chords in the key of G for instance, just rotate the redlined section one letter to the right. All the chords within the new redlined area can be used in a song in the key of G.
But if you don’t have this wheel handy, try to memorize the 12 black and white keys on the piano and its layout. This will help you transpose on the go. Maybe your playing in a band and they change the key on the fly, now you can follow in an instant!
Whew! There you have it. Wasn’t that a lesson! Now let me let you in on a little secret.
Living in the modern age, its awesome seeing technology change things up. Some song sites now offer a transposing feature. WOW!!! All you have to do click on the key of choice and it will change the chords that display over the lyrics. What a hack! Well at least you know how to do it if you don’t have your phone handy.
Keep jamming and sing your heart out!