Tip of the Week: Improving Transposition Skills with ‘I-IV-V-I’ Practice


One of the most popular PDF downloads from the Horn Matters site is a transposition chart, located within our Resources area. Roughly defined, music transposition in performance requires a player to look at notes on a page and output different notes at a fixed interval difference from what is printed. This skill is typically applied at-sight.

The interval difference for the modern player to utilize is typically determined by a printed key in the music. This is not to be confused with a key signature per se, but rather that the music provides the base key of the instrument (i.e. Horn in Eb, Horn in D or Horn in H). Before valves came into regular practice a Classical era horn player, for example, would use this indicator to determine a compatible crook.

A tradition worth preserving?

For a horn player today who is new to this concept, the world of transposition can seem fraught with perils and pitfalls.

For a more serious student who may decide to get cantankerous about the topic, the whole idea of transposing-at-sight might seem like an enormous waste of time.

Common complaints would be:

  • This is just so stupid! We have these things called VALVES now … DUH!!
  • Why do I need to change the notes in my head?
  • Why can’t publishers just get their act together and write out transposed parts?! 

If your ambition is to never play in a band or orchestra, to never play songs in a religious service, or to never challenge yourself with a practical skill that expands your horizons as a musician, then perhaps learning to transpose is indeed not for you.

Another hard truth for horn players

While this blunt stance may seem a bit harsh, the bitter truth is that sheet music publishers of orchestral repertoire print horn parts that require transposition. This is the absolute bottom line as it is practiced in the field. Most orchestral parts require on-sight transposition skills and this tradition will most likely continue in the future.

Let’s look instead then towards recognizing the more positive aspects of this skill set. To begin, here is a collection of previous Horn Matters articles on the topic, listed in alphabetical order.

A final word to sum it up — the ability to transpose on sight is tremendously beneficial in terms of gaining employment, expanding your mind, and in being flexible and adaptable.

Putting pencil to paper

Some problems can be solved more easily when sketched out on paper. Of course, if you are handy with music notation software a computer would suffice, but I prefer to use pencil and staff paper in circumstances like these.

This may sound a bit old-fashioned to some. But given that the French horn’s history and repertoire dates back hundreds of years, picking up a pencil seems like a natural thing to do.

Hakuna matata

A fundamental chord progression in common use in early Classical to early Romantic music was I-IV-V-I. Written out on staff paper in C major with three voices in root position, it would look like this:

By my own rough estimation, 60-75% of orchestral music that requires transposition for horn players falls within this harmonic cycle – in one key or another.

It stands to reason then, that if this cycle were learned in all keys on the instrument, a substantial amount of yardage could be gained towards improving transposition skills.

I-IV-V-I in broken chords

If the same progression is written out as broken chords, a basic outline for a practice tool begins to take shape.

Expanding these broken chords into a contiguous line, along with some re-voicing:

Expanding it once again into a 2-octave passage:

Back to roots

Writing things out on paper can help you grow as a musician in a number of ways. Exercises like these, for example, can help to internalize a basic harmonic structure and its application to the instrument.

It is one thing to sit in Music Theory class and learn these things, but hands-on exercises like this take it to a higher level in terms of personal growth.

Moving forward

The next task would be to take this final 2-octave passage and play it on the instrument, then begin experimenting with playing it in different keys at-sight.

For a novice attempting to play this passage in another key for the first time, it would be highly recommended to absolutely not write out the new key. The better solution would be to slow it down, and insist that this exercise be done without the notes being specifically written out.

However that being said, if playing this progression in different keys at-sight is too much of a challenge, there is nothing wrong with writing out the passage in different keys. For some learners, this method may in fact be the superior method towards getting it imprinted into the mind and fingers.

University of Horn Matters