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What's your feeling about transposing songs?

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by Deacon_Blues, Jun 1, 2007.

  1. Nothing wrong with it

    46 vote(s)
  2. No problem if the singer can't sing in the original key

    19 vote(s)
  3. Ok if the sound and feel in the song still is ok

    43 vote(s)
  4. If the singer can't sing it in the original key, don't play it

    5 vote(s)
  5. I give the singer a carrot and sing the song myself in the orgininal key

    1 vote(s)
  1. Deacon_Blues


    Feb 11, 2007
    Hi all,

    I know a lot of people that don't care about if the song they're playing is heavily transposed or not. However, I think you often lose the right feel when you transpose songs too much. One whole step is mostly still ok for me, but I avoid transposing more than that. (I'm a singer/bass player). Sometimes heavy (more than a 3rd) transposing works well, but mostly not, IMO.

    A few examples:

    My band was practicing Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" one step lower than the original. I thought It'd be easier to sing then. However it didn't sound that good but when we played it in the original key, it sounded much better. Less muddy and more powerful, just right. :)

    A band I know recently played "Pride" by U2 in E on a gig, the original key being B. The power in the chorus was completely gone. The original is ridiculously high for my voice (and he had about the same vocal range as me) so I understand the reason to transpose it. I've been playing and singing it in G and that sounds still good, at least with my voice, but E was just way too low.

    So... what's your opinion on transposing songs?
  2. Hi. Deacon_Blues

    IMO it's just something that has to be done sometimes in order to perform a certain song. If our vocal range isn't in the correct region, there's just no alternatives.

    It becomes more obvious when a female sings in a "male key" or vice versa.

    I try to avoid transposing also, but sometimes it just can't be avoided. Usually I just ditch the song, rather than try to sing it in a different (wrong) key because, as You said, usually the feel is lost.

  3. I only have a problem with transposing if it gets in the way of something I want to do, or if it makes things harder to play somehow. And even then, I still do it if there are other compelling reasons to do so (like the singer can't sing the song in the original key, for example).

    I don't see that transposing is a big deal. If Bach didn't mind doing it (and he didn't), I don't have a problem with it either. It's actually quite a useful thing to be able to do.
  4. I have to transpose on the fly quite often. we're playing a tune in E and the band leader may call out, "Key up to F# (then he calls out some chords) 'B(b9)-C#7'." Then, bingo new key. As far as changing for the vocalists. I don't have any problems with it as long as it doesn't completely change the sound and feel of a song, which it can sometimes do.

    As bassists, we need to be able to transpose anything, anaytime, at least that's been my experience. I mean, someone has to tell the rest of the band what the new chords are. :D
  5. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    If it's an improvised bass line, based on the chord changes - then it doesn't matter to me what key I play it in.

    But if it is a written bass line that is a key feature of the song, then it can make a difference. So there is a very nice bass line to a song by Omar "Nothing like this" - which is normally played around the 12th fret on bass and being high up, it gives it a lightness and flow that really makes the tune.

    But I played it with a singer who transposed it down to Bb and it sounded dull and flabby...:meh:
  6. I guess it all depends on the situation. I played in an original band, and one of the guys wanted to tune down a half step.

    We tried it, and although we still played in the same fretboard positions of course, the sound was definitely changed, and not to my liking.

    My brain had learned a certain way some songs were supposed to sound, and now they simply sounded "wrong." I found myself looking at my hand a lot because I thought I was making a mistake - but actually it was just the tuning.

    My hand said G but my ear said Gb! It was strange because when I agreed to do it I never thought I would notice - but I noticed big time.

    I guess this example is more about an alternate tuning than a transposition - but sonically the results could be similar. Of course, some songs could benefit, it just depends on the song, the musicians, and the starting and ending points of the transposition.
  7. Foamy


    Jun 26, 2006
    Sac Area
    So far I'm the sole vote for don't sing it. I think that a cover band should do a cover song as close to the original as possible, and that starts with the key signature.
    I'm not super staunch in my belief here, but there are a bazillion and one songs out there to choose from that any singer could do in the original key.
  8. Try this exercise. Take a song that you have known for years and would never mess up and start to sing it. I bet you are will start to sing it in close to the right key. There are musicians out there that have learned what it feels like to sing an "A" or whatever, and then they can reproduce that at will and then use relative pitch to develop a type of perfect pitch. I've been trying for years, and I don't have the ability to always get a proper "A" yet.
  9. SteveC

    SteveC Moderator Staff Member

    Nov 12, 2004
    Eastern North Dakota
    I hate it. Maybe a 1/2 step in either direction, but that's it. There are millions of songs out there. If you can't sing a few, there are more than enough to fill the void.

    I think there is a reason things are in the keys they are in - for some music genres it's more important than others. We have transposed a couple in the band I'm in and they never sound or feel quite right to me.
  10. Deacon_Blues


    Feb 11, 2007
    Just realized I should have put this in the miscellaneous forum instead... Maybe a moderator could move it?

    As most of you have mentioned, I understand that some songs are restricted to specific keys because you cannot technically play them properly in other keys. That was however not what I was after, I'm interested in whether or not you think like me that transposing often (not always) "destroys" something in the sound and feel. Playability is a different story.

    EDIT: Lots of new replies came while I was writing this. I agree with most of the last replies.
  11. Nothing wrong with transposing to within a singers range imo.
    What annoys me is when guitarists transpose the music by using a capo, moving up a few frets and can only think in terms of the shapes they'd be using in open position.
    But thats more nit-picky than anything else, nothing a bass player can't deal with :bassist:
  12. rylche


    Oct 27, 2005
    I am of the opinion that usually the feel is lost. I have this weird problem of finding it extremely hard to play whatever basslines I originally had improvised for the original key after transposing.

    One whole step is the maximum for me. Otherwise, usually the feel is thoroughly lost.
  13. IMO whatever's fundamentally good about a song, whatever makes it worth playing at all, will survive transposition. If transposition "destroys" a song, it wasn't a good enough song to be worth playing to begin with. But that's just my possibly idiosyncratic opinion.

    This doesn't mean you will like a song equally well in all keys, or that it couldn't seem to "lie" better in one key than another. It just means that a good song in A is still a good song in Db.

    I don't believe in the sacredness of the original key. I think that's kinda nonsensical, to tell the truth. Sure, there's usually a reason a song was written in a particular key, but much (most?) of the time IMO the reason probably wasn't a particularly compelling one. Very often you'll find it was something like, it happened to be be the key the composer started in when coming up with the idea, or the key the composer felt comfortable singing in, or the only key the composer could play guitar or piano in! None of which are nearly good enough reasons to straitjacket different musicians (who have different voices and different instrumental capacities) into having to use the same key if they don't want to.

    And I also see no reason at all why a band should have to play a cover tune in the original key, unless they're getting paid specifically to do as faithful and exact a rendition as possible. (Which is a perfectly valid consideration.)

    Finally, once you admit the idea of transposing even a half-step or a whole-step, you've already started down the slippery slope; it's still a transposition. It's sorta like being a little pregnant. There's NO difference in principle between transposing a major 2nd and transposing a perfect 5th. if you're out of the original key, you're out of the original key.

    Again, far greater musicians than probably any of us here have had no problem transposing when it suited them. IMO, that's because they understood that whereas keys may indeed have flavors, the most important musical ideas are not tied to specific keys but can be expressed in multiple keys.

    All that said, if I learn a song in G off a record, I'm still likely to want to play it in G by default unless I have a good reason to go to a different key. All I'm really saying is such reasons do exist, and they don't ruin the song if the song is worth playing.
  14. Akami

    Akami Four on the floor Supporting Member

    Mar 6, 2005
    Excellent thread and I'm surprised it hasn't been done sooner!

    I transpose all the time because I do what the original songwriters do; sing in a key that works with my voice!

    Case in point; Hotel California was written in a different key but was transposed for the singer. I start off in Am and have never had anyone in the audience come and complain.

    One song I have tried hard to transpose down a step that I just couldn't make work though was The Monster by Steppenwolf. Try as I might, I couldn't make it feel or sound right, but I still feel that it's an exception rather than the rule.
  15. There are songs (usually in the key of D - minor, major, whatever - but D) where I use the open "D" to drone and do a lot of melodic stuff on the "G". A very middle-eastern, sitar-ish flavor - There is a certain feel that comes from this 'pure droning' technique that you can do in other keys, but because the "D" and "G" Strings are adjacent and lend themselves to the type of stoke needed to really bring the drone and melody out, another key won't come out as ringing and pure-sounding. Droning an open "A" or "E" doesn't have the same effect.

    So in this case, when a particular bass part simply gets destroyed by a key change, I get a little bummed. But you have to serve the song - not your part. If you part can be ultra cool and do some neato technique like a droning sitar line, that's even better! But the first priority is the song and if the singer is not in their comfort zone, the key must change. Every other player can adjust without much physical discomfort. Asking a singer to tough it out can not only harm the song, but it can also harm the singer.

    Being able to change keys is a necessary skill.
  16. Pilgrim

    Pilgrim Supporting Member

    No problem as far as I'm concerned. There are times when a particular part just is easier for someone to play if we transpose a bit, or if we're making it the first or second part of a medley, transposing can make the transition more graceful.
  17. Deacon_Blues


    Feb 11, 2007
    I just got thinking of one thing that relates to this topic. When you play two notes on an instrument, especially string instruments, they will not have the same frequency response even if one of them are artificially transposed to the same note. A D played on different strings sound different. Different tunings sound different, even if you play the same things on them.

    I'm not completely against transposition as you've noted from my earlier posts, and the reason is related to what I said above. Human voices sound differently. A tenor might be able to sing a high A without no extra effort whatsoever, whereas a barytone or a bass might have to scream to reach that note (if not singing in falsetto). So that said, when I want so sing a song by one who has a higher voice than me, I need to transpose it to get the right feel in the song with my voice. But it just doesn't work every time, and when it doesn't, I leave the song and try another one.
  18. JimmyM


    Apr 11, 2005
    Apopka, FL
    Endorsing: Ampeg Amps, EMG Pickups
    I'm getting older and my voice loses a couple notes at the top occasionally, and even when I have them, it kind of hurts, so hell yeah, I'm all for transposing!
  19. BillMason


    Mar 6, 2007
    LOL, I have a guitar player who does this all the time, used to really screw me up, until I figured it out. He'd stick a capo on the second fret and start playing a "G-C-D" progression, except it was actually A-D-E! Then he'd call out the chords when a change was coming up, like F# or A, and I'd be all screwed up trying to transpose that single chord on the fly - only a step, I know, except sometimes he'd try to be helpful and call out the real chord instead of the one he was fingering, so I'd be playing a C while he's playing a D, and I should have been playing a "C."

    What I do know is just close my mind and pretend I am in whatever key his fingers are in, and tell him if he needs to call out the chords, use the "capo" key rather than the real one. Bass makes that easy, except when you forget your open strings are no longer E-A-D-G (well, they really are still, but not if you're pretending they're not - see what I mean???)!
  20. BillMason


    Mar 6, 2007
    Bebop players did it ALL the time in the old days, it was a necessary skill of all musicians, but now usually just the ones who get theory.
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