Skip to main content

Changing Key and Transposing

I taught guitar and music theory for many years at college, and some theory was increasingly interesting, although about 90% was not!

Major scales and music theory

Let's face it, some aspects of music theory are tedious. I tend to just work on the aspects that will save me time and hassle!

This chart will hopefully save you some time, and increase your understanding of music theory, if you play any instrument or sing. The more you play with other people, especially singers, the more important transposing becomes. If you are in a band it becomes an essential skill, even playing jazz standards, which may have more than one standard key.

What is transposing? - it's changing key, or the pitch of a song. More detailed info below. Just to reiterate, it is an essential part of improving vocal performances.

The first note in bold is the name of the key and the major scale. So every major scale has 8 notes (making an octave) - but only seven different notes. They all sound the same, but start at a different pitch or frequency.

First line for example, gives all the notes in C, which follow the alphabet up to a point! And then start again.

I've put a tick against the important scales, so learn these first, and forget about the ones you will almost never encounter. Db (D flat) is an example of a totally useless key, with nothing at all to recommend it! Discuss.

It really helps if you play through these on a keyboard, or on a virtual keyboard on your i-Pad. There are many free virtual keyboard resources on the net - though playing it on a real piano will probably help in the learning process.

Flats and sharps - This hint may save you a lot of problems!

  • There is no flat or sharp between B and C, E and F. All the other notes have them. You can check this by looking at a piano keyboard, or even a picture of one!

Transposing Chart (all instruments and voice)


Harmonised scales

This is how chords and harmony work - if you build a chord on each note of the scale, the chords will be in the following pattern:

I is major

ii, iii are minor

IV and V are major

vi is minor

vii is diminished or m7b5

In the key of C we would find

C Dm Em F G Am Bm7b5 C, otherwise known as the diatonic chords in C, the basis for all songs in any style.

Every other key works in same way, with the same pattern of chords.

Scroll to Continue

So for the key of D, moving up two semitones:

D, Em, F sharp m, G, A, Bm, C sharp m7b5, D

Example in the key of D

If you wanted to know which minor chords are used in the key of D, just look up chords ii, iii, and vi.

  • The chords would be Em, F sharp minor and Bm.
  • Now look up the major chords - they would be the I, IV and V chords.
  • D, G and A.
  • By the way, if you are playing guitar solos you can safely use all the notes in the chords as well as any scale containing the major or pentatonic scale notes.
  • You can use all this information for songwriting, which is also one of the best ways to understand and assimilate music theory.

Key signatures

Key signatures are those little squiggles at the beginning of music scores. Of course, it could just say which key the music was in, but that would be too easy. Far better to make you do some codebreaking first!

The key of G for example only has one sharp note, so the key signature is one sharp.

The key of F only has one flat note, so the key signature would be one flat.

Really worth memorising the number of flats and sharps in each key, at least up to three or four. Cycle of fifths comes in handy here.

Cycle of fifths

Look up my hub on the cycle of fifths, as all the info here is linked strongly to that diagram.

Why do the keys of F sharp and G flat use the same notes, even though they have different names? - they are known as enharmonic equivalents. Or to jazzers, "The same bleedin' notes".


Transposing is changing the key of music. Why would we want to do this?

  • Generally, it's to ensure that the pitch or key is right for a singer's voice. Male and female singers, for instance, generally like quite different keys.
  • In a similar way, different instruments will perform at their best, or will be easier to play, in different keys
  • Guitar will usually suit the sharp keys, such as G, D, A and E - partly because the open strings available make everything sustain better.
  • Wind instruments will often prefer the flat keys such as F, Bb, Eb.
  • Transposing can be done with a capo for guitar, or the transpose button on an electronic keyboard/ synth/ piano. It's important to understand what you're doing when transposing like this.
  • When do I need to transpose? Literally every single gig!

Pentatonic scales

Pentatonic scales are the most widely used scales almost everywhere around the world. From the Greek (penta = five) they are just the same as major scales, but with two of the notes left out. Omitting these two notes avoids clashes in chord harmony, and it's just generally easier to use them for improvising. They are also extremely common in all folk music, and especially in blues music.

  • To find the pentatonic scale, just use notes 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6 from the transposing chart. In the key of C, these would be the notes C D E G A.
  • From this you can also see the notes that are left out - the F and the B.
  • The notes of C pentatonic are the same as those in Am pentatonic, again it's that cosy relationship between a key and it's relative minor.

The capo and transposing

If you play guitar, the capo is one of the most useful (and cheapest!) things you can buy. If you study some of the great singer - songwriters like James Taylor and Paul Simon you will find that they use a capo extensively to perform their songs.

  • A capo in fret 2 will change chords in C to chords in D
  • In fret 3 from C to Eb
  • In fret 4 from C to E
  • In fret 5 from C to F
  • A capo in fret 7 will change chords in D to the key of A - as used by The Beatles in Here Comes The Sun
  • It's unlikely that the original recorded key of a song will be the best for your voice. When learning a new song, sing it in several different keys. A capo can speed up this selection process!


Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on February 11, 2012:

Hi bassist - you're welcome.You might enjoy this website -

Bassist on February 10, 2012:

This made major scales and transposing all click for me. Thank you!

Related Articles