Ask the Expert: Is it legal for me to transpose songs to other keys?

Ask the Expert: Is it legal for me to transpose songs to other keys?

Licensing law for churches

Licensing law can be quite complex and of course most churches are keen to stay on the right side of the law. We had this question from Beryl in Selsdon, UK. Beryl writes:

“As a musician and keyboard player, I can easily transpose a song by ear and play it in a lower key, if I understand it correctly, copyright forbids me to actually write the score in a lower key for other musicians (although there are websites where the guitar chords can freely be transposed down).   There are various churches who have asked me to transpose songs for them, but to date I don’t feel I can do it by law.   That seems very unfair to those keyboard players who need the score, and I wonder what your take on that is.

I also found another problem about the law preventing the electronic storage of copyrighted music, so does that mean I cannot ever transpose it using Sibelius?   It appears that it is allowable to transpose chord sheets, but not the score???”

We asked CCLI to clarify the legal situation. Chris Williams, from CCLI in the UK responds:

The reproduction of a work, whether it be the words (lyrics) or the music (melody) requires the cover of the Church Copyright Licence or direct permission from the copyright owner/administrator.  Transposing (including transposing using software such as Sibelius) is not considered to be an arrangement so long as the melody is not altered in any manner. As such no additional licence is required other than the CCL.  It’s also worth noting that guitar chords are not considered to be a music arrangement and can be used without any additional permission.  The Music Reproduction Licence is required if digital scans are to be made from commercial music publications or from digital copies purchased through publishers online.

The Church Copyright Licence (CCL) from CCLI covers the words and music to around 175,000 hymns and worship songs for printing out of the words and music or the electronic storage of these works for projection, print or use through an electronic device. The reproduction of works from a commercially available music publication requires the additional cover of the Music Reproduction Licence (MRL) from CCLI.  Call CCLI for more details.

We hope this clarification is helpful for Beryl and all the other musicians who are called on to transpose for others. Do just make sure you have the CCL licence in place.

Other posts you might like

We’ve covered some of the issues raised in this enquiry before (particularly those relating to songs that are “too high” for many congregations to sing). A few links below:

And of course, if you are interested in learning more about how chords work and about how to transpose easily, do check out our Playing By Ear Course and the new Capo Positioning and Transposing Course.