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I'm trying to get better at reading and writing standard notation. I was wondering how to transpose a piece from one key to another on sheet music, so I wrote a 2-bar phrase and tried to do it myself. The first bar is just natural notes, the 2nd bar contains alterations. I quickly realised that, if there are no alterations, it is actually pretty easy. The problem seems to be that of transposing the sharps and flats.

In this first picture you can see the 2-bar phrase that I wrote, followed by the same phrase transposed through the circle of fifths (c major/g major/d major/a major/e major). 2-bars in 4/4 time, beginning in C major with C-D-E-C | A# A D# D In this 1st picture the transpositions were done automatically by the software, and as you can see, the software accomplished this by adding lots of natural signs. I can see why that is correct, but if I were to do this by myself, it would take a long time since I'd always have to remember which sharps are in the key signatures, recognise them on the score and calculate the intervals in the piece, etc.

So when I tried to do it myself on paper, I came up with what you can see in picture 2. By-hand transpositions of the 2-bar phrase All I did was to move the phrase up or down the staff until it was in the right key. This worked really well for the keys of G and D, but when I got to the keys of A and E (and I didn't notice this at first), I realised that I have to make those notes double sharp in order for the phrase to be correct.

I play guitar, and on most stringed instruments you could just move the passage up and down the fingerboard, and it would be automatically transposed.

Isn't there a simple way to do this on sheet music as well? It seems that you can move the passage up and down the stave just fine, but the sharp/flats and key signature accidentals really make this more complicated than it should be.

Am I missing something obvious here?

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    Obviously not manually but by software, see this question. If there is even the slightest chance, that you need to modify the sheet afterwards, this will be a real time-saver. See linked question for examples, MuseScore is a good choice for the beginning.
    – guidot
    Aug 28 '18 at 13:38
  • I'd be interested in which piece or chord progression this phrase appears. it could be in C resp. am: F#7 B7 and B7 -E7 . this would be 6 fifths away from the tonic what is absolute possible, but then in E / c#m this circle ofsecondary dominants - (V) of (V) of (V) of (V) of V would be enharmonical be replaced. Jan 22 '19 at 13:31
  • Related question: What are the exact steps of transposing a note?.
    – Aaron
    Aug 14 at 7:27
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Good spelling is important. Unless there's a compelling reason in the harmony to do otherwise, it's best to try to give each note its own line/space in the staff. If you write an accidental and then have to cancel it later in the measure, that's a good sign that maybe the music should be spelled differently.

On your first line, you should use B♭ and E♭ (unless the choice of chord dictated A♯ and D♯). That would result in a B♭ on the second line as well, and then everything else in the computer-transposed version is good.

You shouldn't think of transposition as a mechanical act of sliding all of the notes the same direction by the same number of steps. You should try to think of it as recreating the music in a new key. But to do that effectively, you have to properly understand the music in its original key first. Picture the melody as scale degrees 6 7 1 6 ♭7 6 ♭3 2, and then it should be easy to apply that to any key. You could do the same with ♯6 and ♯2, but I think it's a little clearer in this form why that's less desirable.

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  • Good point about the Bb and Eb, which most times would be the expected note names. I'm trying to figure an easy 'rule' as to which would be more applicable where, and apart from something like the note's contained in the chord at that point, or since Bb and Eb (here) come sooner in the #/b race than A# and D#, is that a good enough reason to prefer them, given the tune's in C/Am?
    – Tim
    Aug 25 '18 at 16:08
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    The thing is that Eb is a better note than D# in an A minor context if it keeps being immediately followed by D naturals. I've encountered multiple pieces where this occurs. And it also occurs in the first line of the first picture of this question.
    – Dekkadeci
    Aug 25 '18 at 16:53
  • It depends entirely on where the key is leaning. Obviously in the context above, the A-minor/C-major is moving towards E-minor/G-major and further along the circle, thus I'd clearly want to avoid mixing in those flats for better consistency. Aug 28 '18 at 13:08
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The double sharps are correct. If we take the first line as being in C major, the second-to-last note is D#, the sharpened second note of the scale. The last line is in E major, the normal second note of that scale is F#, so sharpening it gives Fx (double sharp). And that's the key (sorry!) to transposing, knowing where each note is in relation to the key. (It doesn't even matter which key you take as base, as long as you're consistent. You could take the first line as being in F major, the last line as A major. The result would be the same, as long as the first note was the third of each scale.)

Yes, it's all about knowing your keys and scales.

Now, there's correctness and there's expediency - "the quality of being convenient and practical despite possibly being improper or immoral" (love that 'immoral' :-)) We might be tempted to make the Fx 'easier' by re-writing it as G nat. Once you're over the initial fear of a double sharp this can be unhelpful - it's much easier to read a scale when it LOOKS like a scale, a triad when it LOOKS like a triad.

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The trick is to resolve sharps you don't need/want, to avoid double sharps. That's basically what the automatic transposition does. Whenever an added sharp would create a new natural pitch, it uses that instead (including the natural marker).

Thus you could add sharps ad infinitum without ever having more than one on any note.

Consequently I also think it's a terrible idea to add flats in the original phrase, as that would leave you with a mix of sharps and flats after transacriptions, which is usually something to avoid. You WOULD use flats if you were going into the other direction on the circle (F, Bb, Eb..)

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I interpret this melodic phrase of the two bars as: la ti do la, ta la ma re.

ta= ti flat and ma = mi flat (or what ever you will use as relative names for altered steps of do re mi)

it doesn' make sense to have here an A# followed by an natural A or a D# folloed by a natural D (except this was transposition were in 12 tone music where the enharmonic exchange wouldn't matter - but probably there wouldn't be a key assigned after the clef)

I agree with all those saying Bb and Eb instead of A# and D#, (etc. in all other keys) as they are leading tones solving to the I and IV - if this examples are melodic phrases and not just single notes in a 4/4 measure.

But for a guitarist I would propose to note both enharmonic names in the fret or tab.

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On most stringed instruments you could just move the passage up and down the fingerboard, and it would be automatically transposed. Isn't there a simple way to do this on sheet music as well?

The critical difference between stringed instruments and the written staff is that sliding up the fingerboard moves all of the pitches by the same interval, but this is not true when moving over the staff's lines and spaces.

Consider the guitar. Moving up one fret always raises each pitch a half step. On the staff, however, moving up one line or space could be a half step or a whole step.

For a melody having only notes within a given key, shifting the notes by equal numbers of lines and spaces, plus adjusting the key signature, will work fine. The key signature has the effect of reassigning where the half and whole steps are on the staff.

But this is only helpful for notes within the key. Notes outside the key are spelled according to their relationship to notes in the key. In the key of C, for example, we might have A# — as in the two-bar phrase of the OP — that is, "a raised sixth degree of the scale". Transposing to a key like G or D, having a sixth degree that, as in C, is a natural (E and B, respectively), it works just to add the same accidental: E# and B#. But for a key like A, in which the sixth degree is already a sharp, we need a double sharp (Fx). Likewise, in a key like Db, with a flat sixth degree (Bb), we need a natural sign (B-natural).

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