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5 Reasons You Should Transpose Your Songs

Transposing music may seem like a pretty complicated process. You have to know some music theory. You need to be familiar with what chords go in what keys, etc. It’s a lot easier just to play the songs in the keys they were recorded in, right? Well, not always. Many times, playing the songs in the original keys is not the best idea. Here are 5 reasons why you should transpose your music.

1. Put the songs in keys that you can sing.

It is very important as a worship leader that you sing confidently and on pitch. If doing a song in the key of B pushes your range a bit, drop it down to A. There is no shame in it at all.

2. Put the songs in keys that your congregation can sing.

Chris Tomlin is the most sung worship artist in Christian churches today. He writes awesome songs that become anthems for churches. He also sings really, really high. It’s likely that there are only a few people in your church that can comfortably sing his songs in they keys he records them in – especially men.

As worship leaders, it’s important that we focus on facilitating worship. In other words, our job is to remove any barriers that might be keeping people from engaging in worship. One of the biggest barriers, in my opinion, is a song that is in a key that’s too high to sing comfortably. Transpose those songs down and watch (and listen) to people belt out that big anthemic chorus with you like never before.

3. Put the songs in keys that are easy to play on your instrument.

This is probably mostly for guitar players – and acoustic guitar players at that. Ever try to play a song on acoustic guitar in the key of Bb? Here’s some advice: Don’t. Transpose those chords to G and play with a capo on the 3rd fret. Or transpose to A and play with a capo on the 1st fret.

4. Give your band charts in the key of the song (not capo charts).

You might be asking yourself, “What does he mean by this point?”. Let me explain: I used to have a lot of songs with chords relative to the capo. So our band would play “Jesus Paid It All” in the key of B, but I’d give the band chord charts in the key of G – because that’s what I played with a capo on the 4th fret. I sort of expected them to transpose on the fly or on their own time. DON’T DO THIS! I was a jerk of a worship leader, ha!

Lots of worship leaders play acoustic guitar, and lots of acoustic guitar charts are  in the key of G and require a capo. If you find charts for an awesome song, and they are in G while the actual song is in B, transpose those charts to B and give the open chords to your keyboard player, bass player, and other instrumentalists. Don’t expect them to be able to transpose in their heads in real time.

Small note here: If I have charts for a song on this site with a capo, I will provide open chord charts for instrumentalists as well.

5. Facilitate transitions.

Smooth transitions are a pretty big key in a nice worship flow, and a capo change can really kill the mood, especially if you are in a band where you (as the acoustic guitar player) are facilitating transitions. You can transpose your songs so that you can change keys (musically) without changing your capo. Let me give you a scenario:

Say your worship set goes from “Blessed Be Your Name” in the key of B to “Sweetly Broken” in the key of A. Typically, most guitar players play “Blessed Be Your Name” in the key of A with the capo on the 2nd fret, and “Sweetly Broken” in the key of A with no capo. This is no good if you’re responsible for the transition. What you could do is transpose “Sweetly Broken” into the key of G, and now you can keep that capo on the 2nd fret and be playing in A. Now you can go from one song to the next in different keys without a capo change.

Conclusion:

As a worship leader, you should be concerned with removing barriers that might inhibit the congregation to worship. That’s why point #2 is so important. Forget about doing songs in the key that they are recorded – make sure and do them in keys that are comfortable for most people in the congregation to sing. If you’re not sure a song is easy to sing – just ask! Make sure you ask both a male and female from the congregation. Usually, you can just ask the other musicians in the band, but it’s always good to ask a few people from your congregation as well.

Stay tuned – I’m planning a few posts where I will highlight some really easy (and free!) methods you can use to transpose your music.

14 Responses to 5 Reasons You Should Transpose Your Songs

  1. carvinae185 Oct 16, 2012 at 2:45 pm #

    Great stuff Brian.  I follow most of those guidelines.  I can’t always transition from song to song as well as I’d like ( i.e. no capo movement ),but do the best I can.   There are some sites out there that will transpose a song to a new key.  I still use that for myself but also used to use them for our keyboard player when we had one.  I think many modern keyboards have a transpose “button” but our old keyboardist didn’t want to use it because he could tell what key he was in just by listnening, so it threw him off.

    • Brian Wahl Oct 30, 2012 at 1:47 am #

      carvinae185 I always get nervous when keyboard players use the Transpose button. It’s way too easy to forget and start playing the wrong key. Not nearly as obvious as having a capo on your guitar.

  2. JohnBeavers Oct 30, 2012 at 1:42 am #

    I have issues with capos, in general. Why not just transpose and play it in the transposed key without a capo? It removes one more variable from the worship leading process. I was under a worship leader who didn’t transpose (luckily I could transpose on the fly NP), but our keyboardist would change the key of the keyboard to play it correctly. It worked most of the time, but there would be times when one of them would forget to put on or take off their capo/transposition setting. Then there was a train wreck and the mood was gone. He’s gone now, and I’m leading, so I’ve gotten rid of the capo.
    My philosophy is to play without a capo and transpose as needed. No worries about forgetting to put on/take off the capo. No worries about transitions between songs. Why not just learn to play in the key to which you transpose the song, or play it in a key that you can play in? It’s not that hard, and it saves a lot of hassle. I refuse to use capos and anybody who I mentor I encourage them to do the same.

    • Brian Wahl Oct 30, 2012 at 1:52 am #

      JohnBeavers Thanks for commenting! I agree with you that it’s a good thing to learn how to play guitar in any key, but I also think there are lots of reasons to use capos. Especially with acoustics, you get a particular sound using voicings in certain keys. For example, playing a song using G shapes with a capo on the 3rd fret just sounds much more pleasant than playing in Bb with mostly barre shapes, in my opinion.
      In the end, I think it’s a personal preference, and for many players, using (and remembering to remove) a capo is a lot less to think about than playing in Gb or F.

      • JohnBeavers Oct 30, 2012 at 1:57 am #

        Brian Wahl Well, I won’t claim to be able to play in any key, but I can play in several. For example, I can’t play in Bb (yet), but I will usually just transpose up or down a half step to a key a can play in (and that is easier for the congregation to sing). So, for me, it’s not an issue with a bunch of barre chords, usually (I play acoustic, mainly).But, yes, it comes down to preference.
        Thanks for the site, by the way. I just found it. Can I request charts from you?

        • Brian Wahl Oct 30, 2012 at 2:02 am #

          JohnBeavers Brian Wahl Sure can. I get lots of requests for tutorials. While I can’t really fulfill all of the requests, if it’s a song that get requested a lot, I’ll usually put it on the short list of tutorials – same for charts. If it’s a popular song, I might even have a chart sitting on my computer that I just haven’t uploaded to the site yet.
          Glad to have you as part of the community!

    • carvinae185 Oct 30, 2012 at 7:57 am #

      JohnBeavers My answer here is that as volunteer I don’t have time to learn to play songs in all keys with no capo.. And as Brian said, some keys are just tough on guitar. If you play jazz for a living you kind of have to learn 500 chords in all keys. Since I lead worship, one of things I’m trying to do is avoid errors. That isn’t supposed to be the primary focus, but one “train wreck” during a song can destroy most of the atmosphere you’re trying to create.So I transpose to a key that is 1) singable by me, 2) singable by the worship team and congregation and 3) playable. Since a difference of a half step rarely makes that much difference, I can usually get it down to where a capo change is only needed mid-set where we usually pause for prayer.

  3. Pete Cestari Jun 2, 2014 at 9:32 am #

    Hi Brian, thank you for the information on why to transpose and use capos! I like the sound of capos with open cords and agree with you reasons to change keys. Have people sing where they are able and comfortable helps with the joyful noise. I don’t sing while playing guitar and thats a good thing (kinda like walking and chewing gum, not good at both but one at a time:) but I do sing in my head. I pray for you and the Worship Tutuorials team. You all are a blessing,

    • Brian Jun 3, 2014 at 9:18 pm #

      Thanks so much, Pete!

  4. henry liebenberg May 29, 2015 at 1:51 am #

    Transposing 1 to 3 half notes up and down is OK, but some folks take it to the extreme. They transpose everything into A, even songs written in D, E, F. I do not believe this is effective as one loses song dynamics. Please comment if you will. Kind regards. Henry

  5. Ben Elder Jun 2, 2015 at 12:22 am #

    OR get some voice lessons and stretch your range so you can sing in the original key… Singing Success by Brett Manning, Seth Riggs books, Mastering Mix by Brett Manning, and the Vox Tools iphone app have transformed my voice to be able to sing as high as the original recordings with ease.
    saying this is my range and i’m stuck with it is not true
    just like learning new things on guitar takes work, singer better and higher takes work…

  6. johnny qasada Aug 8, 2016 at 1:19 pm #

    Messing around with the original key with capo heavily is a REAL bad move. You will most likely ended up becoming an unskilled guitar player who only does certain thing like holding open chords. It will definitely take away the opportunity to learn the different variations in form. You should learn some variations in order to be able to play any songs. Capo won’t do the magic all the time especially when there are some complicated chords on the higher fret. You can play songs in different key for pure musical arranging purpose (real music) if you can’t make barred chords sound properly, you just need is practice before having capo on your guitar 24/7

    Heavy capo users may think they sound the same as long as the relative pitch is correct, they NEVER sound the same if you can tell the unique characteristic of each note. I don’t think people would enjoy/want to listen to Classical/Jazz tunes in weird key because it was easier for the musicians to play them that way.

    Also for jamming purpose, not knowing how to play the songs in original key is nothing but a headache for other players. If you want to mess around with original key at least do it without capo so you learn some variations. Capo use should be minimum. It’s more like a kids bicycle with training wheels on it in my opinions.

    • Brian Aug 22, 2016 at 11:00 pm #

      Hi Johnny – in my capo series I actually talk a lot about how and when capos are very useful, but they shouldn’t be used as a crutch or excuse not to learn new chords or voicings. But in some cases they can help create voicings that you couldn’t really get without them.

  7. Russell Nov 18, 2017 at 10:38 am #

    I lead music at a small country church. Most of the time we sing from hymnals and as one might expect, the keys are very often the same from one song to another; makes it nice to arrange your ‘sets’ also (jumping into the next song). I too don’t have time to learn classical or jazz guitar. I sing better than I play but I have good equipment and that usually brings my guitar ‘sound’ up a notch (as I also listen to recordings after church). While there are many sites that will provide you with sheet music for contemporary music, I find not too many that equal Brian’s site here. This is a blessing to me because I don’t have any other musicians; most of the time I don’t have many that sing either. But, nonetheless, I enjoy what I’m doing (thank you Brian), and the people at church compliment me and even tell me that they’ve noticed how much better our music is (and getting better). Now, I tell you this coming from a symphonic and jazz trumpet player (I played professionally for awhile in my youth) … I can transpose on the fly with my trumpet. But I know this too … not even trumpets sound good playing any tune in every key. You’re right, the person who developed the original arrangement chose the key they did, mostly for artistic purposes (and some listeners can tell). But I don’t know any of them that would be upset to know that we transpose their stuff; in fact, they’re likely very happy to know we still know about their music.

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