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Learning to Play in Different Keys

Learning songs in their standard keys is great, but what happens when you are all of a sudden expected to play a familiar song in a new key?  It happens often.  A vocalist sits in.  You’re at a jam session and someone calls a tune you know in a weird key to test other people.  For example, I saw a young bassist one time who sat in with Benny Green.  Benny called “On Green Dolphin Street,” but not in the standard keys of C or Eb.  He called it in Bb, and it was meant to test the kid, just to see if he could do it.  Benny graciously raised the key to C after a couple of choruses because the kid was floundering.  It happens!  Can you adjust on the fly and be able to hang?

Learning to play in different keys requires that you understand chord progressions.  Learning to think of a chord in its context, with Roman numerals, helps a lot if you want to learn to transpose.  Also, practicing songs in different keys other than the standard keys helps.

I used to practice playing standards in all 12 keys a lot.  It really helped me to be able to work with vocalists because you never knew what key you might be asked to play in!

Practicing your iii-VI-ii-V-I progression is a great way to start transposing.  This progression is present in many, many different tunes!  Having a great handle on that is a great start to being able to transpose.


iii-VI-ii-V-I All Keys

For working out melodies or licks in all 12 keys, the same idea is helpful: it’s best to think in Roman numerals, or in solfegge.

Instead of F G A Bb C, Think 1 2 3 4 5 or Do Re Mi Fa Sol.

Transpose it into any key you want!  If you are thinking notes, it’s more difficult to transpose.  If you are thinking a combination of sounds (using your ear) and solfegge, it becomes much easier to transpose.  You really have to practice transposing in order to get better at it.  It’s an essential skill for a jazz musician.

We are currently developing a tool to help musicians be able to change the keys on our Play Alongs, to be available on the new website we are developing, so they can practice songs in All 12 Keys!  Stay posted!

-Camden Hughes

Camden Hughes
Camden is a working jazz pianist, multi-instrumentalist, and music educator currently living near Boise, ID. He teaches music at the Idaho Arts Charter School, and is the jazz adjunct professor at Northwest Nazarene University. Check out his music at


  1. Hi! Can you please explain why there is two dominant 7 chords. Let say playing in C major why VI chord is A7 as I thought it should be Am7. Thanks

    • Hi Edvards! The vi chord in a major diatonic series is a minor 7 chord, however, jazz musicians sometimes turn that chord into a dominant 7 chord to create more voice leading. In fact, you can often turn minor 7 chords into dominant 7 chords. It's just a common alteration you should be aware of.


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