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The title says it all, I guess. I'm in the process of learning scales and chords in the different signatures. I find some patterns/licks to be easier in, for example, D minor, so when playing a song in C minor, I'd just use my e-piano's transpose functionality and transpose all keys down 2 semitones.

Guitar players use capo's all the time and I have the (maybe unwarranted) feeling that this artificial transposition is less accepted as a pianist? I understand the argument of "When you play an acoustic piano, you can't do that", but in analogy, you could then say "Don't bother learning to use the gears on your bicycle, because some bikes don't have them."

Any and all insight are more than welcome.

Best regards, GB

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    What is your goal exactly? Are you trying to improve your piano playing? to jam with other people? to compose music, or something else? Jul 10, 2022 at 10:55
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    What would you do for a piece that had two licks of which one is easier in C minor and one is easier in D minor?
    – Aaron
    Jul 11, 2022 at 0:29
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    The bike analogy doesn’t hold up because if you can ride a bike with gears, then you can ride a bike without them. If you can play a piece in the right key using transposition on a keyboard with that feature, it doesn’t mean you can also play the same piece in the same key on a keyboard that doesn’t have that feature. Using the gears is learning to do something. Using the transposition is not learning to do something. Jul 11, 2022 at 0:51
  • I used to play guitar and as far as I know using a capo was usually very rare and only if you want to make some very particular sound.
    – Tom
    Jul 12, 2022 at 11:01
  • Fun thing, I asked some time ago a question which was fairly similar, if I remember well titled "Is it ok to transpose for jamming" or so, which was closed fairly fast, and now removed…
    – Tom
    Jul 12, 2022 at 12:41

9 Answers 9

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The title says it all, I guess. I'm in the process of learning scales and chords in the different signatures.

The title does not mention "learning" at all. The title states

Is it OK to use the transpose function of a piano like guitar players use a capo?

and most certainly if a guitar teacher tells a student to learn a particular scale and the student asks whether using a capo is ok for that, the answer is "no".

Keyboard-performed transposition is a performance aid. It's there for the case that a singer or other soloist cannot work best with the key you know a piece in by heart.

It doesn't help you avoid learning scales and keys since you still have to deal with in-piece modulations and key changes, and since bands will have a dim view towards you having to fiddle with your keyboard between pieces of a set.

If you want to learn fewer scales, the solution is to get a uniform keyboard layout, like a Jankó keyboard or a chromatic button accordion keyboard. The latter are more compact but are worse for velocity-sensitive play, so you'll not get them in a weighted version like piano keyboards (or if you do, it will not make a lot of sense). Spontaneous transposition is quite more tenable than with a piano keyboard on any uniform keyboard layout, particularly those with redundant rows.

However, scales are more of an initial investment in an instrument with regard to their impact on your mental capacity (which doesn't mean that they aren't a permanent part of the training regimen).

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    In addition, one might want to learn how effectively play keyboard instruments that have no transposition function. Jul 11, 2022 at 0:48
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    "since bands will have a dim view towards you having to fiddle with your keyboard between pieces of a set" - Do bands have a dim view of guitarists having to fiddle with a capo between pieces of a set? Or having to fiddle with peddles to get things ready for the next song?
    – Dason
    Jul 12, 2022 at 18:05
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Being able to use easy open position chords is not the only possible reason for using a guitar capo, and often not a reason at all. When guitar players use a capo, it is a very specific situation.

  • The guitarist might want a different sound. With a capo, the guitar sounds different, due to overall change of pitch, and because open string chord voicings sound different.
  • If the guitarist only knows open position chords, written chords need to have been pre-transposed for the capo in the sheet music or other written notation. Or the guitarist plays by ear, or can transpose on-the-fly. Or the song has been specifically written for a capo'ed guitar.
  • Guitarists who know and play chords across the whole fretboard, including barre chords, might use a capo just as an "extra finger", to for example get different open notes while keeping the fretting hand higher up.
  • There are probably not many modulations in the song. A modulation requires either moving the capo during the song, or changing from open string chords to barre chords. Doable, but what's the point in using a capo if you get the open chords only during a small part of the song. (Except if you want to play the capoed open strings during a small part of the song)

All of the same reasons or requirements apply to using a "keyboard capo" i.e. transpose feature.

  • If you're going to use it, you'll need pre-transposed written music or you'll have to play by ear.
  • You don't want to play songs with lots of modulations, because then you'll have to either change the transposition setting in the middle of the song or change to another non-written key, which kind of defeats the purpose of having the transposer.
  • You might want to use a transposer for getting a very specific sound effect that needs the piano's "open string voicings", for example for playing a long all-black-keys pentatonic harp-like roll, in a key where it doesn't naturally work.
  • If you have sheet music for a song, and the singer says it's a little too high and asks to have it one semitone lower, you can do the change with a transposer, if you need to read the music and can't do the transposition on the fly in your head.

If those apply to your case, or if you just want to avoid the pain of learning basic skills like playing in C minor, go ahead and keep relying on the transposer.

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    +1 for the comments on the guitar. While using a capo is common practice in campfire guitar playing, it is heavily frowned upon in many situations. Many luthiers would strongly protest against a capo, especially a spring capo, touching a carefully hand carved neck. A good musician should almost always be able to transpose, and this is an opportunity to learn that Jul 11, 2022 at 14:01
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    @BrydonGibson "it is heavily frowned upon in many situations [citation needed]" Jul 12, 2022 at 8:14
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    @ToivoSäwén worshiptutorials.com/blog/…. Here's an article that, despite being on the side of using capos, still gives valid reason not to use them. Non-adjustable capos put additional pressure on the fingerboard, frets, and can change tuning/intonation. My previous comment may have been an exaggeration, but one should absolutely learn to play without a capo before using one Jul 12, 2022 at 11:37
  • @BrydonGibson I know many people who never learned to play barre chords, always capo. They lived long happy lives and enjoyed playing the guitar and singing. Most people never learn to play any instruments at all, and I personally find guitar+capo better than no guitar at all, even though it would be nice if everyone was very interested in guitar skills. Jul 12, 2022 at 11:52
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    I do not thing using a capodaster with a guitar requires transposed scores. After all the capo simply sets the open string to a specific fret. Differently to transposing pianos this does not affect any fretted not (if the guitarist plays the nth fret it still produces the same note) but only open strings. Which is kindof the reason for using a capo, you get other open strings without having to transpose (which would be the case with changing the scordatura).
    – Lazy
    Jul 12, 2022 at 13:10
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It's absolutely fine to use any facilities available on any particular instrument. Who's judging?

Don't rely on it too much though. Lots of music doesn't stick in one key. You can't be continually changing transposition because your fingers are only happy in C major!

(OK, Irving Berlin. And the Beatles couldn't read music. Yada yada...)

One day I must go through some Irving Berlin songs and see just how feasible it is to play them 'all in G♭' with a transposing lever...

https://music.si.edu/object-day/irving-berlins-transposing-upright-piano

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To address the title, the answer is yes. You're in 12tet tuning, so you can play in one key, while everybody else is in another, and it'll all sound good. So if you can only play in, say, key C, you can re-tune your keyboard to any other key to fit - although getting it wrong is embarrassing.

You may find, as you make your way through the various keys, that some are easier to finger for some pieces, though. It hasn't always been thought through by the composer, so actually changing the key can be a good thing.

However, if you've learned a particular song in a partcular key, and the new vocalist doesn't want to sing there, it's easier to click the transpose button to find a suitable key than to play off the cuff in a new key. But being able to do that properly is way more impressive!

As others say, presented with an acoustic piano, without knowledge of all keys, you'll look a bit lame. So it's worth learning at least the more common keys and their scales.

I often see guitarists who cannot play without capos, and some of the reasons are risible. 'I learned it that way' is one. And if a guitarist has learned a song in open chords, using a capo sometimes won't rescue them from the mire. Being able to play barre chords properly will. Of course, there's always the case with guitar that capoed (?) chords sound different, and they do. So there is a good reason for use of capo on occasions. No real such argument for keyboardists, though. Except who would ever know?

I sometimes use the transpose the opposite way. After three or four songs in the same key, I'm getting fed up, so I'll hit the transpose button, and voila, I'm playing the next in a different key from the others, in a manner of speaking, and will then be able to sort of play in a different way, as well as alleviating the boredom. It's also a good way to brush up on the more unused keys than the guitar based E A D G and C. Unless the guitarists get out their capos...That sometimes fools me at open mics, when I see the 'open' chord shapes, but can't see where the capo is!

Become a better keyboard player, and learn all the scales, it'll benefit you in the end, and at the same time, learn to read in all keys, it'll put you well ahead of many others who own a keyboard!

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Most pianos do not have a transposition function. This is a feature quite exclusive to digital synthesizers. A pianist is usually expected to be able to play on provided instruments (other than guitarists who tend to play on their own instruments). Thus as a pianist you will be expected to be able to play on any instrument, no matter if it as a transpose function.

But of course it is totally legitimate to use the transposition function to make things easier in concert. For example if a transposing instrument is switched with a different instrument you can use this to transpose the key without having to actually transpose on the fly.

For practising you should not rely on such a feature, else you will not build up the technique. Generally such "cheats" should be considered okay in concert if they lead to a better result, but should be avoided during practise.

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    No, not "quite exclusive". My family used to own an upright acoustic piano that had a transpose function -- it physically moved the keys relative to the strings! IIRC, it would do +/- 3 semitones or so.
    – Dave Tweed
    Jul 11, 2022 at 1:13
  • @DaveTweed This a feature also found on modern harpsichords, where you can slide the keyboard up or down to alternate between modern tuning and HIP tuning, although that one requires you to remove all the jacks. But this is the reason why I wrote quite exclusive and not exclusive. And if go out there onto any acoustical piano chances are quite high that it doesn’t feature a transposition function. So I think my statement is valid. Similar to your remark one could refute the statement: "Almost all pianos play chromatically" by saying "No, because there exist like 4 quartertone pianos".
    – Lazy
    Jul 11, 2022 at 7:40
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    If you have any tendency towards absolute pitch, you need to practice playing with transpose mode just to get used to the idea that the same key produces different pitch
    – ojs
    Jul 11, 2022 at 9:29
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    I think part of the problem is that you're using "quite" in "quite exclusive" to mean something that is unexpected (to me, anyway)...it sounds like you're trying to say "nearly exclusive" or "almost exclusive". "Quite exclusive" sounds like you're redundantly saying "very much exclusive".
    – Beska
    Jul 11, 2022 at 19:46
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    @DaveTweed - thanks. Now we know why there's the bit of wood on each side of the keys! I used to think it was for an ashtray and a pint. But then, they all used to put the pint on top...
    – Tim
    Jul 12, 2022 at 13:15
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I want to give you my perspective, as a self-taught pianist of 18 years.

I can play in any key, it's all the same to me (actually there's one or two which are more challenging, but nothing actually difficult). I will state that I often play in D major, perhaps because I simply prefer it while singing, or perhaps it's something I can play without having to think about it as I sing. But my favorite? F# minor. I just can't get enough. It was hard to learn 17 years ago, but now I feel truly on top of the world as I rip through the keys fully impromptu, my fingers racing across the board and landing exactly where they have to, the music pouring out of the piano as it transforms from a wooden box of wires into a beautiful instrument of inspiration and euphoria.

It's ok to transpose electronically. But it's just that: ok. It is, however, both amazing and exhilarating to play in other keys. You are free to choose.

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  • Can't understand how 'D matches my voice closely'. One reason songs are in the keys they're in is to match the range of a voice. Even for you, not every song will have the same range, so singing everything in key D? Unless you have a range of getting on for three octaves, of course...
    – Tim
    Jul 12, 2022 at 12:38
  • @Tim my range is around 4 octaves, but my most comfortable range is between the D below middle C and the D above it, with comfort gradients extending out from there both up and down. Thus, songs played in the key of D are the easiest and most comfortable for me to sing.
    – Blue Dev
    Jul 12, 2022 at 12:45
  • Still doesn't make sense. Happy Birthday has a range of 1 octave, but those notes are between the ^5 and the ^5 an octave above. Other songs might have a similar range (1 oct) but have highest and lowest note as the root. With a 4 octave range (watch out Karen Carpenter!), it's going to be a fact that actually any key would be good for you for just about any song!
    – Tim
    Jul 12, 2022 at 12:55
  • @Tim as you stated, I'm generally ok with most songs in their natural range (Take On Me is a challenge to sound good), but I do still have a preference. Perhaps I'm a lazy singer, though I prefer to think that if I center the song in my range, that I have the highest degree of flexibility. It may help explain if I state that I rarely do sing a song exactly on original melody, instead following my whims on harmonies or wild variations, both high and low.
    – Blue Dev
    Jul 12, 2022 at 13:00
  • Yeah, since most songs have a range of less than two octaves, it probably doesn't matter to you (or your voice) what key a song's in. (Don't write songs with a big range - people ain't gonna sing them...). Happy place to be! Maybe you prefer playing in D while singing.
    – Tim
    Jul 12, 2022 at 13:04
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If you have absolute (‘perfect’) pitch, then I suspect you're highly unlikely to be able to use a transpose function successfully.

In fact, I had trouble on the couple of occasions I've tried to use it in performance, and I don't have absolute pitch. Or at least, not enough to notice — but I found that my fingers would sometimes subconsciously try to compensate for the transposition (not always successfully), with predictably bad results.

Even if you can use it successfully, there are some good reasons not to do so, as detailed in other answers. (Being able to play in many keys is a very useful skill that will improve your playing generally; if a piece modulates, you probably won't be able to change the transposition cleanly; many keyboard instruments can't transpose; and so on.) But don't assume you can.

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  • This point of perfect pitch is actually a good one that I didn't consider.
    – marvelade
    Jan 7, 2023 at 12:38
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Proceed with extreme caution! I once relied on this technique for performance with my middle-school (age 11-14 ish) students. I recall an occasion when I had set the keyboard down a third to accommodate a singer, and then forgot to reset it for the next student. In the excitement of a performance it's easy to forget things like that. Needless to say, the singer who I accompanied next sounded terrible and sang off-key the whole time. I thought she was just having a bad day until I realized my mistake!.

It's worth the effort to learn to transpose. Start with an easy transposition, like the major second you might use to accommodate Bb instruments. Or, take the time to rewrite your accompaniment in the right key. Practice the skill and you will [eventually] improve. You may find that certain intervals are harder than others depending on (1) how absolute your sense of pitch is and (2) how good you are with key signatures.

I do not have strong absolute pitch, so transpositions within about a third either direction aren't too hard. I'm quick with keys and scales so playing something in C in B or Db isn't hard for me. Even though the key signatures are easier to consider going from C to G or C to F, just a change of one flat or sharp, playing a 4th or 5th away can be hard because it's easy to get I-IV-V progressions mixed up. So I find transpositions of fourths and fifths to be especially difficult. Also, when I play a fourth or fifth away, the notes do start to sound "too high" or "too low" from where my imagination seems to think they should. I sometimes second-guess myself.

Just one more thought, this is where learning to hear/play progressions by Roman numeral instead of absolute chords can be very helpful. If you know a song is following a I-IV-vi-V progression, for example, transposing is a snap. Just settle yourself on the key, let's day key of D, and think your way through the chords : D-G-Bm-A.

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Not sure if you will get to read this but if you do, that's good :) To answer your question, yes, it's perfectly fine depending on what you want to do. I like C for most things and I would rather become fluent in C and transpose that fluency than be average on all keys. Turns out that Irvjng Berlin was the same and had a transposing piano made for that very reason.

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