Transposing songs by a large amount?

Discussion in 'Playing and Technique' started by HughesP, Feb 24, 2012.

  1. HughesP

    HughesP Member

    Jul 4, 2006
    I generally don't have a problem transposing songs, and understand the music theory required to pretty much transpose anything.

    My question is - if we transpose a song too far, might it end up less recognizable for an audience, or might it hinder the song as much as it improves it?

    Most of the time, I think not, but my dance/top 40 cover band has recently realized that we have a deficiency in our selection of 90s & classic rock songs, and I'm coming across a few that just don't sound right to me when you transpose them too far..

    For example, our singer has requested that we move "Under the Bridge" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Bb (originally in E). She does sound better in this key, but in doing so, the whole introduction, which is just the guitar by itself, ends up being really high and you loose (imo) the instant recognition that the song might otherwise have.

    It may just be me, as I'm a guitarist, and grew up loving the guitar in some of these songs... so I'm not sure if the average person would really notice whether something sounds a little "off".

    Some seem to suggest that people can't hear the difference between keys, and we can transpose anytime we want... meanwhile, a prime feature of music during the baroque era was a belief that different keys had their own character and changing the key completely changed the intent & meaning of a song (of course they weren't dealing with equal temperament, so there's more truth to that than today!). Maybe the truth lies somewhere in between?

    So I ask - to you, is it worth transposing a song by a huge amount (like a tritone, as suggested above) to make it easier to sing, or are there cases where it is better to just not do the song?
  2. huw

    huw Member

    Jul 31, 2007
    As you suggest, the "key colour" of those days was intrinsically tied up with the use of meantone temperaments. ie fixed pitches, but non - equal temperament. (In other words in was mainly a keyboard thing).

    These days the use of ET (or as close an approximation as we actually use) renders the idea of "key colour" largely obsolete, at least as a reason to transpose as you're describing.

    My experience has been that as long as the singer sounds good audiences have a very high tolerance of changes of key that may seem extreme to the player. Personaly I've shifted signature guitar parts up to a 4th from teh original key without a word from the audience. It sounded really odd to me, but the audience bought it.
  3. willhutch

    willhutch Supporting Member

    Feb 1, 2006
    I don't think the key itself matters much to an audience. It kinda sucks when the transposition makes it awkward or impossible to play a signature guitar part. Like when you lose the use of open strings. Or when the new key requires a note below the low E and you have to shift up an octave.
  4. CowTipton

    CowTipton Silver Supporting Member

    Apr 18, 2011
    Haunting Mid-west
    Let's face it, the singer is everything.
    If you've gotta move it up or down to get into the singer's optimal range, just do it even if it sounds a little "off" to you.
  5. semi-hollowbody

    semi-hollowbody Member

    Sep 18, 2007
    Metro Detroit Burbs, MI
    If I play a song that was recorded in eb and I play it in standard, it sounds wrong...if Im in a bar and a cover band changes the key of a popular song, it usually wrecks it...if the singer cant sing it, get a new song or a new singer
  6. sausagefingers

    sausagefingers Supporting Member

    Dec 22, 2007
    'Neath the shade of an old walnut tree

    We play Let It Be in F# :omg
  7. Michael_V

    Michael_V Supporting Member

    Nov 1, 2010
    One of our singers transposes nearly every song he sings, often by four or five steps. While I can almost always figure out some way to play the signature parts (occasionally making creative use of partial capos), every single song we have done has been (in my opinion) worse for the change.

    Songs are born in certain keys for a reason, and the song is certainly more than the its singer.
  8. parraboy

    parraboy Member

    Aug 20, 2010
    Newcastle, Australia
    I agree - some songs when you transpose even a 1/2 step ( or more ) they don't sound recognizable / lose their signature or sound dull and flat or overly bright and sharp. A classic example is Bmin ' Hotel California '. Any other key is dumb imo. However, change the key and the feel of the song and BINGO a new song ( almost ) with your stamp on it.

    If I am singing and playing guitar, I try at all costs to not change the key. Importantly, I pick a song that I can sing in it's original key.

  9. Lucidology

    Lucidology Member

    Aug 14, 2006
    Monterey, CA
    Unless it's a signature line, say that uses open guitar strings ...
    it truly does not matter to an audience
    (this opinion is from a great many years of doing so...
    but it's really not an opinion as it's just the way it is really ....)

    However, it is true that a song may have less power or aggression in a different key ...
    And in the same vain, have more power and uhmp in another key ....
    Last edited: Feb 24, 2012
  10. Seraphine

    Seraphine Member

    Aug 31, 2011
    If you consider why some people / bands use Eb for tuning and how the music "sounds" because of this...,. That provides some of an "answer" to the query here.... Even playing other keys with a gtr tuned this way has a "difference"....

    In composing music I find using different keys renders different music really, some not as in your face as others... Sometimes it'll outright change what you write in music, depending on the "Key" used... Sometimes I work 2 or 3 pieces from the same basic ideas because of the different keys, which provide different harmonics...

    Doing some of those 80/90s tunes in Eb tuning as they are and changing them to E or higher... hmmmm The difference will be notice-able to listening ears.... Especially those that know the tunes... I can throw out Live's ~ Dance With You in E and not the original Eb and it sounds alright, of course... but it has "more" in it's original setting. The gtr itself sounds different tuned down a half.

    Changing keys and working with a singer as the OP reveals... can render some very interesting takes though..... Just keep the options on the table to not do this to every tune if it doesn't work well enough? ...some can be pliable and others shouldn't be changed so much, or too much. Especially if you can't make it your own.

    Even a 6th string A on the 5th fret is "different" to an open 5th string A.. eh? Playing "Iron Man" from the open 5th A on up and playing it from the 6th string 5th fret A on up, renders different tone, even with a compressed distortion...

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