Changing Keys

May 31, 2011 at 12:44 AM ·

This is probably a very simplistic question but I'm a beginner and if I don't ask, how will I know?  I play at a bluegrass/folk music jam session every Sunday.  When it came my turn to choose a song, I chose "You are My Sunshine".  It's simple and I know it fairly well.  I play it in D.  The banjo player suggested we play it in A since our "D" pitch singer wasn't there and he was going to be the singer.  I know that D and A are fairly similar keys.  The mandoline player said to just bump up a string.  But I start the song on the D and work up the E so if I started on the A I would run out of strings.  I don't know 2nd position yet, so that's out.  Would I, instead, bump DOWN a string and start with the A on the G string?  That would mean every note would bump up one finger.

Is it really that simple or am I totally screwed up?  I haven't learned to play by ear so if I don't have sheet music in front of me I am completely lost.  This is becoming a big problem that I need to work on.

Replies (22)

May 31, 2011 at 01:06 AM ·

Correction to above..... I typically play this tune in G, not D.

May 31, 2011 at 01:19 AM ·

Hi Sue,


Yes, you got it right. Either bump up or bump down as applicable. Yes, if you normally start on the G, just go up one finger position.


You must get off the sheet music if you want to play in jams. Sheet is ok for at home trying to learn some new melodies but it falls flat on its face stylistically. And as you have noticed, bluegrass players do things like changing keys on the fly and off they go.


I know you are new to this whole adventure, but do work hard at playing by ear, and on improvisation. Being an adult learner, the paper aspect will always be approachable to you; the real hard work is in the ear and the natural playing sound, which only happens when you get off the page. By the way, this is true for classical work, too: until you have memorized the piece, you really aren't free to work out the musical details with complete ease. There is a "lock-in" which happens when reading music--especially for rank amateurs. Pros can read and play musically, but that is always a long way off...


Practice playing by ear by following along with some music you like. Heck, it can be the Kinks, or the Stones, whatever.  You can even do it without the bow, if that is making it difficult. Just noodling around like this gets the patterns into your fingers.

Then use the same technique, but improvise lines over the existing recording. Improvisation is a skill, not a god-given talent.

Good luck, and enjoy the bluegrass jams--they are the best!

May 31, 2011 at 03:22 AM ·

Coming from a classical background, I've always struggled with transposing on the fly. I am only speaking of easy tunes (not, for example, a sonata, concerto or Kreutzer etude).

Try and Google "Nashville Number System". This is used by bluegrass/country/non-classical session players. Basically, the notes are replaced by numbers, for example, C major 1 =C, 2=D, 3=E, etc. If you're playing in Dmajor, the numbers will remain the same, except for the fact that you'll need to now map 1=D, 2=E, 3=F#, etc. In short, the "notes" aka numbers remain the same regardless of the key.

If sight reading from sheet music and the piece is a simple melody or, for example, at the level of a hymn, usually, I can transpose by sight. I make a note of whether I need to play 1 finger lower or 1 finger higher or two fingers lower or higher and play accordingly. Otherwise, I will play the piece one octave higher, preserving the same fingering I would use if I were in the first position, with the 4th finger for the open string. Depending on the scale, for example, Bflat, when you see a natural sign, you will need to make it a sharp, or a natural into a flat, or vice versa. It takes some practice. You can try this (transposing) using Suzuki Book 1. Of course, speaking as a mere mortal, this does not apply to intermediate or advanced classical repertoire.

I am also wondering how violinists read viola music (C clef) and "transpose" it on the violin.

May 31, 2011 at 04:18 AM ·

hi susan-

try it with some really easy songs, like Twinkle, Twinkle, or Happy B-day.  Try to play them starting on different notes.  Obviously some starting notes will be easier than others.  I just tried Happy Birthday starting on a low B   ha- don't try that one!   :-p   Pick the easy ones to start- build your confidence!

the easiest to transpose are from G to D, D to A, or vice versa, because, as you realize, all you have to do is move up or down one string.  So what if you run out high on the e-string,  its folk music, you don't have to play all the notes anyway.  :-)



May 31, 2011 at 12:26 PM ·

Hi, Susan, When you start out on open D for that song, you are in the key of G. You can play this tune on two adjacent strings by using your pinky for the E on the A string. If you start on an open A, then you're in the key of D. Same deal: use pinky for high B. To be in key of A, you need to start on first finger on D string. This is a fiddle-friendly change.  Sue

May 31, 2011 at 02:54 PM ·

I am doubtful about the utility of the "number system" VJ posted. That is just yet another intermediate translation to learn. However you should of course know some of what that number system is about--you should know your intervals--your major 3rds, , minor thirds, 6ths etc and know how they feel on the fingerboard. If you know that you are playing a tune that goes 1,6,3,3,7,1 and you came from the key of G and go to a, then you will know how it feels---what I am suggesting is that you not use an intermediate translation step, but rather that you internalize the feel of intervals. See next paragraph.

The the central idea with being able to change keys on the fly is the idea that you can play all keys easily on your fiddle--if you can do that, then it is really trivial to change a tune up or down. When you have the patterns of the scales in your fingers as it were, it is easy. Note that there are fewer than 12 patterns because a lot of them are redundant.  One way to practice this is to start with a G major scale, then do an A major, B major etc. Then come down and fill in the flats and sharps. You will start to notice the pattern redundancies, the high third fingers, the keys which cannot use open strings etc.

May 31, 2011 at 04:07 PM ·

Thanks for the suggestions everyone!  The "Nashville Numbering" system pokes up quite a bit at our jam sessions.  Mostly as it relates to guitar chords though.  I'm getting familiar with it so I can help my husband figure out what to play.

I think my biggest hurdle at the moment is a disconect between my finger placement and what the note sounds like.  I forced myself yesterday to play several tunes without the use of sheet music.  There are 5 tunes that I thought I should know by now.  It took a bit of noodling around with each song but I didn't give up until I was able to roughly play each song twice with a minimum of errors.  What I keep finding is that I will play a note and it will be too high or two low and I feel that I should have known that it was going to be too high or too low.  Usually I am only off by one step or 1/2 step.

I have had two lessons with my new instructor so far.  I meet with him again next week.  He has me working on finger placement up and down each string, the C major and G major scales and some exercises for my fourth finger.  I do these exercises EVERY day.

One of my friends has a fiddle instructor who only teaches you to play by ear.  He has his students write down the title of every tune they know or are working on.  I went through my sheet music book and wrote down every song that I have been working on.  I came up with 20 tunes - mostly folk songs since that's what we play at our Sunday jams.  Of those 20, there are only 4 that I could pick up and play well without sheet music.   I really want to up that number!

May 31, 2011 at 04:19 PM ·

To change keys from G to A, you have to raise every note two half steps. That's because A is two half steps above G.

May 31, 2011 at 06:09 PM ·

"What I keep finding is that I will play a note and it will be too high or two low and I feel that I should have known that it was going to be too high or too low.  Usually I am only off by one step or 1/2 step."

OK you are on the right track. This is exactly what I am talking about with knowing your intervals. You are getting there. Keep at it. When you know them, you will be able to take anything someone hums, and simply play it. BTW this is also what trips people (myself include) when we go back and forth from violin to guitar. The intervals across strings switch by two frets. You have to remind yourself to use the other muscle memory.

May 31, 2011 at 09:05 PM ·

I don't know whether it's the same as the "Nashville Number System" that VJ mentioned, but I grew up using the Numbered musical notation (beside the European system, of course) and it's a very quick and easy way to jog down any music I hear without knowing what key the music is in (I don't have perfect pitch).  I think it's a great tool for anyone who wants to play by ear.

May 31, 2011 at 11:45 PM ·

The Nashville numbering system is indeed similar to numbered scales, although it's typically used for chords rather than individual notes.  It's very useful in a bluegrass environment.  Many bluegrass songs only use I, IV, and V chords; if you're playing in the key of G (perhaps the most common bluegrass key), these chords are G, C, and D.  These are easy guitar shapes, and many guitar players use a capo so they can use these shapes even if the song is in another key.  The Nashville numbering system provides a notation that's consistent regardless of tuning; a sheet of lyrics marked up with chords would have to be changed to be played in another key, while one marked in Nashville notation doesn't (although you have to be able to convert on the fly).

Mandolin players (I play both mandolin and fiddle) have enough fingers to cover all the strings to make closed chord shapes, which they can move all over the neck to accomodate different keys.  I don't know about your jams, but at ours most singers seem to like the key of B for some strange reason - whenever I see the guitarists put their capos on the 4th fret, I know I'm in for some work.

The trick is to get to know your closed scales.  Remember that on an instrument that's tuned in fifths, you can play half a scale on one string, then play the other half using exactly the same fingering on the next highest string.  Using open strings is easier, but isn't transposable.  However, it's worthwhile to learn the easier open scales: G, D, and A are good ones to know.  A is the most popular key for fiddlers, followed closely by D; in these keys you almost always have an open string you can use as a drone against the note you're playing.

Keep at it; it'll come with practice.  Bluegrass is one of the friendliest environments I've ever seen - and it's also a heck of a lot of fun.

May 31, 2011 at 11:47 PM ·

Does anyone make a capo for the violin?  Works for guitar and banjo.

June 1, 2011 at 12:53 AM ·

There's no point in a violin capo. You just need to learn to use your 4th finger. When you learn 3rd and also 2nd position, that pretty much takes care of everything. For those cases where you really, really need a drone string and the key doesn't accommodate, you have to tune one of your strings down to get the drone.

Really, the capo is most helpful for chords--it makes the open chord shapes possible, getting rid of bar chords. This keeps the ringing sound--another reason for the banjo capo. Mandolins could be capo'd but nobody bothers.

June 1, 2011 at 01:34 AM ·

Randy - I thought I had successfully converted the song from G to A then realized while driving today that I actually converted to D.  I'm so confused!  Hopefully getting better though!

June 1, 2011 at 01:55 AM ·

converting from G to D is simply moving over one string, same shapes, same fingerings. In other words if the root was the 3rd finger on the D string, it changes to the 3rd finger on the A string.

Changing from G to A is either moving over two strings, or, if that takes you too high, staying on the G/d strings, but either playing in 2nd position with the exact same fingerings (except you need 4th finger instead of opens) or it is understanding that your root is now the 1st finger on the G string, instead of the open G. remember that the key of A has a "high" third finger on both the G string and the D string, whereas the key of G has a low 3rd finger on those strings.


June 2, 2011 at 02:06 AM ·

Thanks Bill, I think?  I'll try that answer again in the morning when I'm rested and not dog tired from two long days of work.  I'm sure it makes easier sense than it does at the moment!

June 4, 2011 at 10:59 PM ·

 I just wanted to put in my two cents on this topic since I play a lot of traditional music on the fiddle as well as the mando, guitar and banjo.

First of all, I agree with Bill when he says it's important to not go through intermediary mental steps when transposing.  However, I disagree with the idea that thinking of scale degrees is an intermediary step.  It's much more confusing to think, "Okay, I move down one string and up one finger to play this song in the new key," than it is to think, "This song starts on the 5th note of the scale, moves to the 6th and then up to the 1."

I would suggest the following procedure:

Re-familiarize yourself with all the first position notes in the scale that corresponds with the "old" key.  Then, figure out which scale degree the song starts with.  For example, if you're in the key of G and the song starts on D then it is the 5th note of the scale, or scale degree 5.

Next, play all the notes in the first position of the scale for the "new" key.  Then, for simple songs, start on the same scale degree and, using only the notes in the scale of the "new" key, sound out the tune.  Of course some songs have accidentals which can be figured out with a half step finger slide when things sound wrong, but most of the notes should be within the scale.

Remember that most traditional songs only have 5-7 different notes in them.  The trick is knowing which 5-7 notes you have to choose from.  As you get better you will start to ALWAYS be aware of which scale degree you are playing, regardless of key.  Being very familiar with the scales and arpeggios in all keys, particularly A,D,G,C,F and E for traditional music, will make this so much easier.

Regarding Nashville Numbering, this refers only to Chords.  It's a system which refers generically to chords based on the scale degree of the chord's root.  You might say, "You Are my Sunshine kicks of on the One!"  referring to the accompaniment, even though the melody starts on the 5th scale degree.  

In my opinion, knowing which scale degree you are playing at all times is not an intermediary step; it is as important as knowing the letter name of the note you are playing and is even more fundamental to a basic musical understanding.  This is particularly true in traditional forms of music where melodies are handed down through generations.

June 5, 2011 at 01:56 AM ·

I agree with Randy re: knowing what scale degree you are (starting) on.  What I was recommending is that you not take whatever method of scoring you have, and translate the whole thing to something new.

Key changing is something which you may end up approaching differently as you gain experience. If you are new, and you are comfortable with a few keys, then some methods will be dificult, and others easy. If I asked you to play the key of bflat in 1st position, you'd find it difficult.

I will also add that you should pay attention to what Randy says and strive to understand him. He plays at a high level--professionally--and his perspective is the real deal. Understanding the craft of musicianship is, for me, like opening windows or opening draperies. He's just given the means to open a big one.

June 5, 2011 at 07:29 PM ·

Guys, my head hurts and a good nights sleep didn't help!  I REALLY appreciate your advice.  I think I am going to send this thread to my instructor and have him help me understand all of it.  I know one of these days (hopefully soon) I'll have a light bulb moment and all will be clear.  It's obvious I have a way to go!

June 5, 2011 at 10:07 PM ·

 Sorry about that Susan, maybe a simpler example would help:

Suppose you play the first three notes of a D major scale (open D, 1st finger E, 2nd finger F#).  This should have that familiar "Do, Re, Mi" sound.  Instead of thinking of these notes by their letters or by Do, Re, Mi; you can think of them as the first, second, and third notes of a scale, or 1, 2, and 3.

Now, if you play 3, 2, 1, 2 ,3, 3, 3 you should hear the beginning of Mary Had a Little Lamb.  Okay, easy, right?

It should be fairly simple to sound out the first three notes of a major scale anywhere on your instrument by adjusting your fingers until you hear that familiar Do, Re, Mi.  Once you have done this, it's easy enough to play the first few notes of "mary" by following the same pattern of the first three scale tones.  

If you want to get really quick at transposing, start by practicing playing simple 3 note melodies such as this on random strings, starting with random fingers.  Then start adding more notes to make more complex melodies.


June 5, 2011 at 11:31 PM ·

Thanks Randy! That was simple enough!  :-)

While practicing today I took another fairly simple song and said to myself, ok, it's starts on the open D and ends on the G on the D string.  That's 3 steps.  So if I want to play in A, then I need to count three steps down for my starting point.  That seemed to work.  I think someone explained that to me earlier.  Sometimes my mind just needs to work it out for a bit.  I'm also a very visual person and get things easier if I can visualize something.  

June 6, 2011 at 02:31 AM ·

Hi Susan,

Look closely at this visual aid and see how moving over one string from G to D is equivalent to moving from key of G (root G) to key of D, and over to A is equiv to key oF A. The finger sequences are identical, just one string over...

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