Transposition in Music: Definition & Music Theory

Instructor: Jacob Dike

Jacob has taught college Music Theory and has a Master of Music degree from the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

In this lesson, you will learn what transposition is and how to recognize it in a musical context. The lesson will also explain how the method of transposing works within the framework of music theory and how one might use it in creative applications.

What Is Transposition?

Have you ever been to a sporting event (baseball, basketball, etc.) with an organ player providing music in between the action? Often the organist will repeat a particular theme, going higher and higher up the keyboard, building intensity as they go. Although the starting pitch of the melody is being raised with each repetition, the melody is still recognizable, no matter how far away it gets from the original starting pitch. This is an example of musical transposition.

Musical transposition is a type of repetition where the starting point (or pitch) of a chord or melody is restated at a different level than the original segment. This restatement may be higher or lower and may occur as many times at different levels as a composer thinks is appropriate.

Many times, a piece of music will use transposition to either build intensity with consecutive repetition (as seen in the sports example above) or as a method of generating new musical material that is still related to an original theme. The latter is more often used in classical repertoire to form over-arching thematic relationships (such as in a symphony or sacred mass) or for other thematic associations that signal a particular character or mood (such as Darth Vader's Imperial March theme in the Star Wars franchise).

How Does Transposition Work?

Because transposition is a restatement, intervals of pitch relationships need to be preserved from the original segment to all subsequent segments. Let's take a closer look at exactly what that means.

Consider the keyboard of a piano.

Keyboard1 REVISED

The keyboard consists of a series of white and black keys, which make up what we call steps. Two keys directly adjacent to each other (with no other pitches in between) form a half step (H), sometimes called a semitone, while moving the combined space of two half steps is called a whole step (W).

How to Transpose

But what does all this step business have to do with transposition? As we said before, intervals of pitch relationships must be preserved, meaning depending where you transpose to, you may have to add accidentals to your new segment area. Let's take a look at a few examples to see how this process works.

  • Example 1

Transposition 1B RESIZED

Looking at the first measure of this segment starting on C, the interval relationships of whole steps (two semitones) and half steps are as follows:

C to D = Whole Step

D to E = Whole Step

E to F = Half Step

The second measure shows how transposing the segment to start on D would occur. The first pitch proceeding up a whole step gives E, followed by another whole step to F#, finishing with a half step to G. A third version of the segment can be seen starting on E in the final measure. It should be observed that sharps (#) needed to be added in measures 2 & 3 to preserve the necessary W and H relationships.

  • Example 2

Consider the following excerpt of the well-known children's tune 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat.'

Row your boat 1

With this segment staring on C, the interval relationships of whole steps (two semitones) and half steps are as follows:

C to C = Unison

C to D = Whole Step

D to E = Whole Step

E to F = Half Step

F to G = Whole Step

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