Thoughts on Service Playing Part II: Transposition

January 4, 2017

David Herman, DMA, MusD, is Trustees Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Music and University Organist at the University of Delaware. The author of numerous reviews for The Diapason, he has played in churches of various denominations for more than fifty years. His recent CD includes music by his teacher Jan Bender and by Bender’s teacher, Hugo Distler.

This is the second installment in a series of articles that will offer ideas for enriching service playing. (The first installment, on hymn playing, appeared in the September 2016 issue of The Diapason.) They had their genesis in a series of articles written for Crescendo, the newsletter of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Guild of Organists, and are used with permission. In this installment, we turn our attention to transposition


Organist to soloist at the rehearsal:

“So, you’re singing ‘O Perfect Love.’

What key would you like?”


After some thought, the soloist replied,

“E-flat—or would that be too fast?” 


This is a true story; I was the organist. The tasks expected of us vary somewhat according to the traditions and expectations of our congregations. Some of us have the opportunity to provide a significant amount of improvisation during the course of a service—extending the music for processions or linking music at the offertory with the Doxology. Others are occasionally expected to transpose a hymn—“kicking it up a notch,” so to speak. Although it is not reasonable to expect us to transpose complicated music such as vocal solos (“G is such a better key for my voice!”), we do face occasions when a psalm or hymn would be better in a different key—for reasons of vocal range; because of the tonality of its surroundings; or in order to integrate it within a choral setting or descant. And, raising the key of the final stanza—judiciously and not every Sunday, please—can provide an exciting climax to the singing of a hymn. 

It is true, of course, that those of us with digital instruments (as with some pipe organs) can leave the transposing to technology. But that’s not what we’re about here. The goal is to enhance our ability at transposition, one of those venerable skills—along with sight-reading and improvisation—that for centuries have been a hallmark of accomplished keyboardists the world over. (Note: those who may be preparing for the American Guild of Organists Service Playing Test should keep in mind that what is required there is prepared transposition, not transposition at sight.) 


Transposing at sight

When music with complex harmony or counterpoint must be transposed, writing out the new version is probably in order. Here, however, the subject is transposition at sight. A common situation: a B-flat trumpet player (or tenor sax or B-flat clarinet) must transpose a major second from a given melody in order to create an instrumental part sounding in the correct key. (See Examples A1 and A2.)

To begin with, it should be mentioned that transposition, as with sight-reading, is often challenging to learn (ultimately we must teach ourselves) and requires practice. This is especially so for Americans, whose musical educations usually do not include a working knowledge of the various C clefs. Those fluent in their use (as taught in most European conservatories) can employ the method of transposition in which one substitutes an appropriate clef for the given one and then simply reads the notation in the new key. For the rest of us, other methods must suffice. Let’s begin by mentioning a technique that I believe is not helpful: thinking vertically—that is, mentally moving notes up or down an interval. This may work with a single melodic line: transposing a tune from F major to G involves taking the given notes and moving each up a major second. When more than one musical line is involved, however, this method breaks down. In attempting this with the four lines of a hymn setting, one risks yo-yo of the eyeballs and a sprained brain!


Moving horizontally

Instead, proceed horizontally. Try playing from what is written while thinking in the new key. This requires a familiarity with keys and their signatures and is enhanced by having the feel of the key in one’s fingers (from practicing cadences and scales—the “musical vitamins”). The numbers in bold italics that follow represent the scale degrees of a key. Consider the hymn tune Azmon (“O, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”), as shown in Example A1. Think in the key of G by first focusing on what are the primary scale degrees of any key: 1-3-5 (Do-Mi-Sol = the three notes of the tonic triad; here, G-B-D). Beginning with an analysis of the melody and its form, we note a “half cadence” on 2 (A) at the midpoint. The melody’s first half, following the initial skip from 5 up to 1, consists entirely of motion by step, leading to that half cadence. Now play the tune’s first four bars in other keys, thinking in each new tonality while recreating the interval patterns of the melody. 

The second half consists mostly of intervals of a third, especially that tonally defining pattern of 5-3-1. Having discovered that you can now play this melody in different keys, apply the same treatment to the bass, after which you can put the top and bottom voices together in two-part counterpoint. Focusing on these outer voices, which define the harmony, makes it easier to complete the setting by adding the alto and tenor voices. To apply this process to another famous Common Meter tune, St. Anne (“O God, our help in ages past”), requires only the additional recognition of the motion (modulation) to the dominant at the midpoint, with its new melodic leading-tone. (See Examples B1 and B2.)

A final thought: must an organist be able to transpose at sight in order to be considered competent? I think probably not. But there are situations when the ability to transpose a hymn is useful. Let’s say that “Praise to the Lord” (Lobe den Herren) is one of the day’s hymns. And you would like to embellish the hymn by playing one of the hundreds of chorale preludes written on it over the years: as a prelude, or a hymn introduction/intonation (recalling the centuries-old role of these pieces), or even as an alternation stanza within the hymn. But nearly all of these pieces, having been written in earlier times, will be in the key of G, the key in which the congregation sang it for centuries. In more recent hymnbooks the keys of many hymns have been lowered, meaning that your hymnbook probably has Lobe den Herren in the key of F. Transposing the hymn up a step makes for a smoother connection to the choral prelude. But don’t alarm the choir by letting them know you’re putting the hymn into a higher key!


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