The Illiterate Musician; How To Transpose


Infants first learn a few words through repetition and imitation.  They then learn a few more words because they understand that the words have meaning and can get them something.  Then they are taught the alphabet and they learn to spell small words and sound them out.  As their vocabulary increases, they are able to put together more complex sentences and mix and match the words to convey a message or to get what they want.

Once they are able to read, spell and write, they are able to create and communicate ideas and feelings which opens up new worlds of possibility for them.  Some children are able to make up or improvise their own stories using their imagination, drawing from their experiences or using concepts and ideas from other stories or people.

Sadly, some children never advance beyond the stage where they are taught to speak.  Due to either a learning disability or behavioral issues they can’t comprehend the concept of breaking down the words to their base letters so for whatever reason they don’t learn to read well.  They acquire a basic vocabulary just enough to meet their needs and have no interest in expanding beyond that.

Musicians are like that, too.  Some only learn to read and repeat the notes on the score and like words, don’t grasp how or why they are “spelled” as they are.  For those who learn basic music theory, the notes on the page may appear as blocks of phrases, scales or chords to them without the music student actually understanding how each note is used in each phrase or harmonic block.  Furthermore, despite maybe having a musical vocabulary, they don’t know how to use all the theory they do know or how to create or manipulate the music with what they do know. There is a disconnect.  A musical autism.  They are like a TTS (text to speech) computer program which robotically  reads back the written word without understanding the words or meaning or spelling.

Most musicians are taught to read music and that is all they need or think they need.  Others are taught music theory but are never taught how to apply it. Others teach themselves to “play by ear” and hope for the best.  They are constantly taking chances, may not know what they are doing, can’t duplicate it or their playing can easily come crashing to a sudden halt because they don’t know what they are doing or don’t know where to go next.

A high school teacher friend asked me to help do tech for her at a recording studio for a school project.  She brought in the biology teacher to accompany her at the piano and he introduced himself as a musician, too.  I thought to myself, no you’re not, you’re a biology teacher.  He let it slip out a couple of times that he had a music degree from Juilliard saying things like “They taught us to do that at Juilliard,” or “My teachers at Juilliard would be aghast at me playing such simple music,” or after a compliment, “That’s what four years at Juilliard can do for you.”

At one point my friend asked him to transpose the piece up a third and he couldn’t.  He asked if there was an electric keyboard available and there wasn’t.  My friend asked me to step into the studio because she knew I would be able to do it.  The biology teacher said, “I’m an artist, not a technician.” I’m not sure but I think I was insulted.  But, I think it was more him trying to save face because he realized he was not as smart as he thinks or has been told he is.

So, that is why I wrote this blog and made the accompanying video on how to transpose.  Because this guy has the musical IQ of a four year old or someone with a severe learning disability or can only regurgitate what he sees on the page, like a TTS program.

Actually, it is not his fault.  He only knows what his teacher taught him and their teacher before them and their teachers before and before.  Somewhere along that lineage, none of those teachers had a teacher who could teach them the open secret of numbers.  Here is the video:


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