2 Big Reasons Jazz Players Need to Transpose

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by Eddie Lewis

Why Transposition Is So Important

If your desire is to some day become a serious jazz musician, then you need to learn how to transpose and you need to learn it soon. There are several reasons for this, but let’s focus on two for this post/video.

To be clear, in this case we are talking about transposition on sight. You see the music and you play it in a different key from what it’s written. In my school of thought, transposition belongs to the broader category of sight reading.

Transposition is a Crucial Skill for Jazz Improvisation.
Eddie Sitting in at a Jam Session in El Paso

Jazz Material

To be a great jazz player, you need to improvise fluently in every key. You need to have a vast vocabulary across each one of those keys. If you don’t have this, then you are not a “great jazz player”.

But here’s the thing…

Most materials you have access to are not written out for you in every key. If you want to be a great jazz player, you cannot afford to limit yourself to only keys that were already written out for you. You need to consume jazz materials like an elephant. Elephants can eat up to 600 lbs of food per day. You need to take in more and more jazz material, like you just can’t get enough of it.

Not being able to transpose is going to slow you down. I don’t think you can possibly consume enough material if you are limited to what is just readily available in print. If you find a great lick you want to practice, you need to learn it in all 12 keys. If you find a cool pattern you want to learn, then you need to do it in all 12 keys.

When you can transpose, one page of jazz material becomes 12 pages of jazz materials.

Some of our best selling books are books that I never thought would do well. I assumed everyone was ambitious enough to transpose all their materials to every key. Don’t misunderstand me. I am happy to be of service in this way. If there are musicians out there who prefer to pay someone to write materials out for them in every key, then I’m okay with that. But that’s not what’s best for an aspiring jazz musician.

And even with the materials that I’ve written out in every key, that is just the tip of the iceberg of materials you should be practicing in every key each day. So yes, that’s the first reason you need to learn how to transpose. It gives you access to 12 times more material.

Changing the Way You Think

Being able to transpose, and then spending a lot of time doing it, also changes the way you think about music in general. Without being able to transpose, there are advanced aspects of music that will never make as much sense to you because you still have a one dimensional view of music, instead of the twelve dimensional view great jazz players have.

When you can transpose fluently, your mind is operating at an entirely different level. To transpose well, you must not only be a master of the key you are playing, but also a master, at the same time, of the key your are reading. Both at the same time. Think of what this does to your mind.

Now, I do believe that most of what happens in a great jazz performance is subconscious. So what I am talking about here is mostly stuff you are doing during your practice time. But the way you approach transposition during your practice time transforms your thinking and spill over into your public improvisation.

Have you ever heard people talk about learning the jazz language?

The way I teach, the jazz language is connected to the key you are improvising in. When you transpose the language materials into every key, you are opening new opportunities for yourself as a jazz player. One of the things that holds a lot of aspiring jazz musicians back is their limitations in the different keys. Often someone will sound great in one or two keys, but have great difficulty in all the other keys.

This is even more pronounced when the tunes change keys a lot. A tune like Stella by Starlight changes keys four or five times. If you don’t have language for all of those keys, then you will have sections in the tune that don’t sound quite right.

That’s because, without the language, you are forced to play notes! Notes are not cool. I like to say, “If you are thinking scales, patterns and arpeggios, then the audience is hearing scales, patterns and arpeggios…. not music.”

Your ability to make music in all the keys is connected to the jazz language and the jazz language is hindered without the ability to transpose.

Pulling Teeth

Sometimes getting the students to learn to transpose can be like pulling teeth. It’s just like everything else you do that is difficult when you first start. It can be frustrating. It can be humiliating. There is something psychologically addictive about only ever practicing what we can already do… in our comfort zone… where we already know we have at least a modicum of success. Learning to transpose makes us feel like we’ve taken a few steps backward for a while.

But that feeling doesn’t last, and those who tough it out are rewarded with a skill that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.

Jazz Lessons

If you are interested in jazz lessons, we do currently have a couple openings. You can read more about our lessons at the other website at https://EddieLewis.com.

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