Transposing Vierne

One of the skills every improviser needs to have in their toolbox is the ability to transpose. Any of the larger forms which include a development section require the repetition of material in different keys. While it is acceptable to modify the material in the development, the best preparation for that is to practice strict transposition.

There are three ways that can learn to transpose: by ear, by clef, or by analysis. Some experience with all three can be useful as improvisers.

Using Your Ear

The ear is a great asset in transposition. It will be how you check if the notes you play sound the same in the different keys. If you have learned a melody by ear, then it may be easy to transpose by ear. Harmonies, especially complex ones, can by much harder to transpose by ear. This can be the slowest way to practice your transposition, but the ear will always be how we judge if our transposition is correct.

Using a Clef

The simplest transpositions are those by a half-step. Depending upon how many accidentals are in the piece, it is relatively easy to move a piece from Ab major to A major by simply changing the key signature. Likewise, moving down from E major to Eb major requires only a change in key signature and some attention to the alterations.

It is also possible to change the clef and read the music in a key further away. Sadly, most musicians today are generally only fluent in reading treble and bass clef. Violists will know alto clef. Some trombone and cello players will know tenor clef, but unless you read from a lot of early music scores, you probably haven’t spent much time with the other C and F clefs. There are enough different clefs that any note on the staff can actually be any pitch. Here’s an example of the same space on a staff and how it appears with the different clefs:
The way I learned to read these clefs was with Preparatory Exercises in Score Reading by by R.O. Morris and Howard Ferguson. (This is an Amazon affiliate link.) I spent one summer working through learning to read the various C-clefs and larger open scores. Being comfortable reading the different clefs makes it much easier to transpose pieces into more distant keys. I strongly encourage you to master as many clefs as you can.

Transposition by Analysis

Learning to read by clef reinforces reading by interval. One form of transposition would be to consider the interval that each voice moves. This can be very helpful when transposing a single melody or theme but also for complex harmonic structures. Recognizing that the alto moves a half-step down might be easier to see than reading the part in a new clef which shows a movement from F# to E#. In a tonal piece where you can analyze harmonic function, knowing that the original is a ii-V-I progression should make it easier to play the proper notes and progression in the new key.

One of the exercises I did daily for almost 6 months was to play a single Bach chorale in all twelve keys. Not only did this help me recognize standard chord progressions and voicings, I played everyday in keys that most people avoid, e.g. Eb minor, Bb minor, and F# major. I now read harmonic function almost as fast as I read the notes on the clef. The further I have to transpose a piece, the more likely I am to rely upon some form of analysis in addition to using a clef and my ear.


I still remember my amazement when one of my theory (and piano) teachers told me that Alfred Cortot suggested transposing Chopin etudes into different keys while keeping the same fingerings! I left my piano studies behind well before I ever played any Chopin etudes, however as an aid towards improvisation, I would recommend transposing repertoire. Let’s take something a little easier like the first of Louis Vierne’s 24 Pièces en style libre, the Préambule. (Free score available through IMSLP.)

The simple texture of this piece makes it relatively easy to transpose by ear or clef. The harmonic passages on the Récit will require some analysis (harmonic or melodic) in order to master. For my own practice, I read through the piece quickly in several keys:

There are also complete performances of the original C Major, and transpositions to C# major, D Major and Eb Major.

Once you’ve transposed a piece like this, use it as a model for improvising. Follow the score, keeping the same registrations and rhythms, but change the notes. After playing the piece in several keys, I improvised an imitation Vierne piece in F Major and in G minor. There are some hesitations as I searched for similar interesting tonal gestures without following exactly what Vierne did, but that’s why we practice. I decided to make this exercise my prelude this weekend, so there are two more that follow the score less slavishly in A minor and D minor as well.


Transposition is a skill that everyone easily recognizes as something that must be practiced in order to be mastered. Improvisation requires practice as well. Whether you choose a piece by Vierne or another favorite composer, I hope you will spend some time practicing it transposed and then imitating it in improvisation.


Newsletter Issue 61 – 2016 10 03

See the complete list of past newsletter issues here.

Sign up to receive future issues using the box to the right on this page.

Getting back up to speed

After a month of packing, moving and settling in to my new position at the Cathedral of Mary, Our Queen in Baltimore, I’m delighted to resume the regular weekly publication of thoughts and practice tips on organ improvisation. I’m still discovering the fabulous instrument at the Cathedral – stoplist available here – and look forward to posting videos later this year.

How Fast Can You Play

Back in October, I wrote an article on the first part of my first lesson with Franck Vaudray. At the time, I couldn’t find the paper that summarized my lesson and was my practice guide for the next week, but luckily while packing to move, I was able to locate it! So four months later, I’ll finally tell you about the second part of my lesson. (If you haven’t read the first part, it is available here.)

Melodic dictation

After assessing my technique and ability to play in an atonal style, this next part of my lesson tested my dictation and transposition skills and concluded with canons. Asking me to look away from the keyboard, Franck Vaudray proceeded to play a melody that I had to then play back to him. No reference or tonality was given. I had to find the right pitch and play the melody as he had just done. I don’t remember exactly how well I fared at this, but I do remember that Mr. Vaudray was kind enough to play the melody several times for me before I got it. We repeated the process for a second melody. Both are pictured below.


Once I had the motives down, it was time to transpose them. If transposition is not something you practice regularly, I’d suggest moving up (or down) by half-steps through all twelve transpositions. Be sure and do this with both hands. As these motives are not exactly tonal, be sure and pay attention to the intervals and shapes as you practice the transpositions.

In my lesson, we may or may not have gone through all twelve transpositions of both melodies with both hands before we started a more advanced transposition cycle. Rather than simply move in one direction or even around the circle of fifths, I was asked to alternate hands with one hand moving higher with each transposition and one hand moving lower. Applying this to the first motif, the starting notes for this pattern look like this: (Stems up for the right hand, stems down for the left)
If you were mentally tired after the atonal lesson, this one really stretches the mind!


In the themes above, you may have noticed a rhythm written out above the second melody. This shows the rhythmic placement for that motive in canon. Not only was I asked to play the canon in any transposition, but eventually to play the canon in different transpositions. For example, the left hand plays as written while the right hand follows starting on G, a minor third above. While I don’t think I was asked to do this then, it would be an interesting exercise to try and play the canon following the transposition scheme above. That would be a real challenge!

Free at last

Finally, I was given free reign to improvise a piece using these motives. After transposing and playing them in canon for the past thirty minutes, it was relatively easy to keep the themes front and center regardless of the tonality that I might have wondered in to. I prepared a worksheet with the melodies and transposition scheme that you can download here for your own practice.

Thorough preparation

How much work do we do with a theme before we improvise with it? While not all forms or pieces would require the amount of preparation outlined here, is there a hymn or chant that you improvise on regularly? Will it work as a canon? Perhaps you should put it through the transposition and canon practice outlined here. The better we know the theme, the more flexible we can be in our improvisations, and the more competent, convincing and coherent they will be as well!

Wishing you all the best for 2015!


Recent additions to


Newsletter Issue 32 – 2015 02 02
See the complete list of past newsletter issues here.
Sign up to receive future issues using the box to the right on this page.