Why are pieces played in one particular key?

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Why are pieces played in one particular key?

Postby Hugh-AR » 02 Jul 2017 23:31

I came across this in my Express Newspaper this Saturday. Anything to do with mathematics and music fascinates me, so I am posting it here.

Question:

Why are the works of the great composers of yore always described as "in C sharp minor" or "in F major" or some such. What does it mean? Presumably it is the key the piece is to be played in, but what difference would it make hearing the piece performed if it was in the incorrect key?

Answer:

It's all to do with the physics of music and the vibration frequencies of the notes in a scale. Starting on any note, we can sing a scale, ending on the note an octave higher, which corresponds to a vibration frequency twice that of the note we started on.

The notes in between (Re, Mi, So, La, Te in the tonic sol-fa scale so well known to fans of The Sound Of Music) also have prescribed frequencies relative to the starting note which sound good to the ear.

The trouble is, if we start Do-Re-Mi, then begin a different scale starting on the second note Re, it's own second note will differ slightly from the Mi of the first scale. To get around this a system of tuning called "equal temperament" was introduced in the 17th century in which every semitone was the same distance from the previous one in terms of frequency.

All keys could be played but each sounded subtly different from the others because it differed slightly from the ideal. Indeed, JS Bach wrote his Well-Tempered Clavier, begun in 1722, to show how different emotions could be conveyed by different keys. In 1806 German musicologist Christian Schubart described C Major as pure and innocent, D Minor as melancholy, Eb Major as "the key of love" and so on.

End of newspaper article.

Any of you that are 'real musicians' and know your Music Theory, can you explain to me in simple terms what all this means?

My observations with playing things in particular keys are as follows:

1. When in the band as a youngster, I had to play loads of things on the piano in Bb. I gathered at the time that the reason for this was because the trumpeter (who played the melodies most of the time) had a Bb trumpet, and to him, playing in Bb was like me playing in C. No sharps or flats for him, and no complicated piston combinations to cope with. Nothing about any 'special sound' because it was being played in Bb.

2. I reckon, when playing the piano, that certain keys sound 'richer' than others (to my ear, anyway). Particularly the key of E. I know that Cliff Richard's hit 'Move It' sounds phenomenal when played in the key of E. Not the same sound when played in any other key. Is that because E is a 'richer sounding' key, or because the bottom string on a guitar is E, and therefore 'open' when played. Click this LINK to listen to the Demo. Maybe do a right-click and open it up in a New Tab.

Cliff's Move It (Demo)

I have checked with my AR organ and this is being played in the key of E.

3. Suppose I were to play something in the key of D. My organ has a TRANSPOSE button, so I could put the organ 'up' two semitones .. and play the piece in C. Which of course would 'sound' as if it were being played in D. The question is, would the piece played in C, transposed to D, sound the same as if I had played the piece in D in the first place?

4. One final comment about playing in different keys. I do this quite often, usually by actually playing something in a different key .. although sometimes I do use the 'Transpose' button so the piece 'sounds' in a key I would not normally play in. The reason for this is that when I put several songs together for eg. a CD, it would get very boring if every song was in the same key. So ringing the changes makes the CD more interesting to listen to overall.

Hugh
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Re: Why are pieces played in one particular key?

Postby papadeedee » 03 Jul 2017 13:54

Hi Hugh,
An interesting topic, I have a few things I would like to say on the matter.
I think some tunes definitely sound better in some keys than others. I think some keys are brighter and some keys are darker.
I can't tell what key of a piece of music is in but if I hear it in a couple of different keys, I usually have a preference. Guitarists like E because of the
open strings. Bb is favoured by sax players etc, and pianists like C, basically because of ease of play.
I can often tell when a piece is in D major because it sounds so bright to me.
Now here is an expert discussing it.

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Re: Why are pieces played in one particular key?

Postby VAL7JEAN » 04 Jul 2017 13:07

Some tunes do sound better in a different key.
Some favour Bb major and others D major.
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Re: Why are pieces played in one particular key?

Postby kens » 05 Jul 2017 20:57

Hi!
Each Thursday morning I take my wife to a singing for the brain session. This is run by the Alzheimers Soc and stimulates the brain of unfortunates who suffer from Dementia.
The professional who leads us plays a keyboard while reading music. She frequently uses the transposing tab to alter the key to one that suits the range most of us are comfortable with.
So that is one valid reason to have a range of keys available. Generally I accept the composers choice to write in a key that suits the mood of the music. This is particularly found for example in lullabies. My long gone mother in law used to play piano to accompany silent films at the local flea pit. It was essential she played in a key that suited the particular scene being shown in order to enhance what would otherwise be soundless and drab. She was brilliant at selecting suitable pieces of music and transposing as she saw fit.
regards Ken
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Re: Why are pieces played in one particular key?

Postby Hugh-AR » 07 Jul 2017 13:07

I had no idea that 'tuning' an instrument was as complex as that newspaper article implied:
.. a system of tuning called "equal temperament" was introduced in the 17th century in which every semitone was the same distance from the previous one in terms of frequency.

So you can tune an instrument by Just Temperament, or Equal Temperament. Tuning our pianos/keyboards/organs by Equal Temperament (ie. dividing the frequencies up equally between the octaves mathematically) means any key you play in will sound the same (apart from it being higher or lower). So Transposing my organ up from eg. C to D will sound the same as if I had played it in D in the first place.

If you play an instrument that has been tuned by Just Temperament you should presumably play it in the key it was tuned for. The piece would sound 'richer' .. and if you played it in another key it would sound a bit 'off'. They say that a 'Just-tuned' 3rd is definitely slightly lower than an 'Equal-tuned' 3rd. Or mathematically, the Just third is 1.25, and the Equal is 1.259921. This is a difference of 13.69 cents, which is easily distinguishable by ear.

The Sound Of Just And Equal Temperament Demo



When I was at University in Scotland (Dundee) there was a research group who wanted to carry out an experiment to find out how many people could hear differences in pitch, and how acute their hearing was. So they hired a hall and had 400 of us students in there, asking us to indicate by pressing a button whether the second note they played was higher or lower than the first. Quite a few left the hall right from the word go. Then they gradually reduced the difference in frequency between the two notes until there was virtually no difference. People were leaving the hall at different stages .. and I was the last one left! As I get older, I can't hear those tiny changes in frequency, which is probably just as well as I would be worrying about it all the time.

Hugh
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Re: Why are pieces played in one particular key?

Postby Wally Gator » 07 Jul 2017 14:49

My brain hurts. :D I'm thinking that it may also have to do with ease of play and transitions from chord to chord. You don't want your fingers getting tied into knots. :lol:

Wally is referring to what key you play something in, me-thinks. For those of us that 'play by ear' this is very significant. For those of us who play only from the music there is no option other than to play the piece in the key that you see on the music in front of you. Unless, of course you use the Transpose button. But changing keys this way would not involve a change of finger positions for the chords you are playing. Hugh
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Re: Why are pieces played in one particular key?

Postby Hugh-AR » 09 Jul 2017 09:33

Referring to what I have said in Wally's posting in green, above:

Wally,

The significance of what you have said has just dawned on me. You have a very valid point! As you change from one chord to another you will probably play a different inversion of that chord depending on what key you are playing in. And some chord inversions are easier to play than others. Also, when I play a piece I always have some 'voices' set up on the Lower (left of the split), and these voices are picked up as well as the STYLE notes. The technology is such that whatever inversion of a chord you play, the chord is recognised and STYLE notes remain the same. But not so with the voices. They will 'sound' the notes you are actually playing. So don't play them too low or they will 'growl'!

So for example, if I am playing in C then I would probably play G-C-E as the C chord; so the 'third' (E) sounds on top. If I then played F, I would play A-C-F ie. the root of the chord (F) sounds on top .. and it's easy for the fingers to change from the C chord to the F chord as the C note remains the same, and the other fingers move up one note. For G7 I would play G-B-D-F ie. the 7th note sounds on top. And I normally would play a four note chord here.

In contrast, if playing in F I would probably form my chords like this. F chord, F-A-C (ie the 5th on top). Bb, F-Bb-D (ie. the third on top). Again, easy to change the fingers as the F note remains in the same place for both chords .. at the bottom. C7, G-Bb-C-E (ie. the 'third' on top). Another four note chord, with the top sounding note being the 'third' and not the 'seventh'.

Either key would be easy for me to play in as far as fingering is concerned, but they would sound completely different because of the 'top notes' played in each chord inversion. The ear picks up the highest note of the chord you are playing and makes that prominent. Clearly there would be a different overall sound when playing in these two different keys.

If your brain hurt before, it will be hurting even more now! :D :D

Hugh
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Re: Why are pieces played in one particular key?

Postby Hugh-AR » 10 Jul 2017 08:07

With reference to what Wally had said above:
I'm thinking that it may also have to do with ease of play and transitions from chord to chord. You don't want your fingers getting tied into knots.

.. and with reference to what I had said in my posting above, Wally says:
Not what I was saying at all.

.. and then he adds: "In my post I was thinking of how chord fingering may play a part in certain songs and making it sound like it all flows together. As you know and mentioned in your post what inversion you use or octave you play can make a big difference in a song. It's a very interesting topic you've started."

Thanks Wally for your input!

If anyone else has any thoughts about playing in different keys, please add your comments below (click on POSTREPLY)
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Re: Why are pieces played in one particular key?

Postby Hugh-AR » 19 Feb 2018 22:19

I have been talking to Don Wherly (DonW) about playing in different keys, and he says that 'sad' songs are usually written in Eb. Also, a trumpet sounds 'richest' when the piece is played in the key of D. Thinking of Eddie Calvert, "the man with the golden trumpet", I wonder which key he played "Oh My Papa" in?



Well, the answer to that is Bb (I have just checked). But then I suppose he is playing a Bb trumpet, and to a trumpeter, playing in Bb is like me playing in C. No awkward sharps or flats for the trumpet playing in that key. We had a trumpeter in our band, so I suppose that is why we played so many pieces in Bb. Just for him to have an easy life!

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Re: Why are pieces played in one particular key?

Postby Brian007 » 20 Feb 2018 08:11

Hi Hugh,

Interesting topic, and one I cant add much to other than, I find that if I hear the original artist version say in the key of F
I always try and play in that key as it sounds better and any other key just does not sound the same/ right to me anyway.

I am talking about vocals here but I would imagine its all to do with the singer's natural voice key
and for instrumental , orchestral music maybe its the natural key of the lead instruments ?

Brian007 :D :D
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Re: Why are pieces played in one particular key?

Postby Hugh-AR » 20 Feb 2018 22:45

I asked Don again about trumpet pieces being played in D, and he said that he was referring to classical trumpet pieces, which were normally played in the key of D. Not 'Pop songs' like 'Oh Mein Papa'. And he has put up one he has played, Trumpet Tune by John Stanley.

Do a right-click to open this up in a New Tab
viewtopic.php?f=337&t=6091#p39449

So I have looked on YouTube and found a few 'trumpet tunes' that are indeed played in the key of D. Don said that an organ has a 'Stop' called Trumpet, so I asked him if these pieces were basically written for the organ using the 'Trumpet' Stop, or were they written for a real trumpet. He said a real trumpet, and a trumpeter would have no bother playing something in the key of D.





Hugh
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