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Why do most jazz pianists, as far as I know, usually play a song in the key it was originally written in?

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How do you tell? by that I mean a few different things.

1: Do you track down every recorded song and check the sheet music? And even if this shows a correlation,

2: The printed music may not be in the key the composer wrote it in, it may be transposed by the printer, and

3: Many songs get published in more than one key.

I admit that most or all of this may not apply if you're talking about such things as Giant Steps, or some Ornette Coleman composition.

But if you're talking about Tin Pan Alley standards, they all apply.

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Originally Posted by rogerzell
How do you tell? by that I mean a few different things.

1: Do you track down every recorded song and check the sheet music? And even if this shows a correlation,

2: The printed music may not be in the key the composer wrote it in, it may be transposed by the printer, and

3: Many songs get published in more than one key.

I admit that most or all of this may not apply if you're talking about such things as Giant Steps, or some Ornette Coleman composition.

But if you're talking about Tin Pan Alley standards, they all apply.
1. I've noticed that many songs seem to be played in the same key by jazz pianists most of the time although not necessarily all the time. Maybe I should have said "key it was published".
2. An experienced stride pianist once told me he always plays a song in the key it was originally written(or published) in.
3. I remember reading Bill Evans saying he plays a certain song(can't remember which one) in key X although it's usually played in key Y.

Last edited by pianoloverus; 04/30/21 05:38 PM.
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I think the short answer is--they do what they want.

But I have noticed that alot of players play the same song in the same key--I have no idea why.

While I don't consider myself a jazzer, here's my reason--I play in the key I can sing it in.

And remember, Irving Berlin only played in F#, but none of his songs are published in that key.

On a related subject--I recently saw a Youtube vid about Girl from Ipanema, which firstly, claimed it was "weirder" than you thought, but never got around to showing how it's weird. More to the point, he claimed it was originally in D flat, and that "Brazilians" know this and disdain performances in other keys. But I doubt that all Brazilians can distinguish between keys.

In short, for all listener's purposes, the key doesn't matter.

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Originally Posted by rogerzell
But I have noticed that alot of players play the same song in the same key--I have no idea why.

I think the real book is a large part of it, most people learn tunes from the real book. Also there is a sort of tradition with the keys - most well known tunes are played in one or a couple of keys, maybe from famous versions or the original music. It makes it easier to play gigs with people you have only just met when there is no rehearsal. If someone wants to play ‘all the things you are’ you don’t need to discuss what key it will be in. Unless you are playing with a singer when anything could happen.
I don't think anybody really knows or cares what key the tunes were written in and probably it is impossible to tell anyway.

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Originally Posted by beeboss
Originally Posted by rogerzell
But I have noticed that alot of players play the same song in the same key--I have no idea why.
I think the real book is a large part of it, most people learn tunes from the real book. Also there is a sort of tradition with the keys - most well known tunes are played in one or a couple of keys, maybe from famous versions or the original music. It makes it easier to play gigs with people you have only just met when there is no rehearsal. If someone wants to play ‘all the things you are’ you don’t need to discuss what key it will be in. Unless you are playing with a singer when anything could happen.
All these reasons make a lot of sense to me.

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Not all tunes sound equally as good in any key. The main reason to change it would be to accommodate a singer, or you happen to think a different key is a better range for it. Normally, I would assume that the composer has found the sweet spot for it and I'd go along with that. But, there could be exceptions.

This may not be as relevant for some tunes, but for others it certainly is and not any key works just as well.

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An important fact: if you have to perform with a vocalist, be prepared for the fact that you will have to transpose the song into a key that is convenient for him or her. A self-respecting singer will bring the arrangement at his disposal. But...
In the absence of charts, neither side should show stubbornness; and you can come to a compromise to perform the song in a key that is convenient both for singing and for piano comping ; and for a solo, you can make modulation into a familiar key.

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re Nahum's last--"if you have to perform with a vocalist"--easiest way out is, don't play with a vocalist. heh.

Greener--you missed my note above--we have no way of knowing what key a composer wrote in, unless you have read or seen interviews with the composer, or better, asked the composer yourself. All we know is in what key a song is published.

I have never found that any song sounds better in any given key---on piano. Maybe on sax, clarinet or guitar, where range and the tonal difference is a consideration.

On a different level, I'm not one of those who assigns character to keys--i.e., D major is sunny and bright, heroic, etc.

So, do you have examples of tunes that work only in the published key, and reasons why it doesn't work in any other key? On piano, that is.

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"we have no way of knowing what key a composer wrote in, unless you have read or seen interviews with the composer, or better, asked the composer yourself. All we know is in what key a song is published."

I doubt it is such a mystery, and I would think a publisher worth their salt, would know what works best and you could similarly rely on this lead. Unless, maybe this publisher is just trying to put it where they think most people could more easily play it. In which case it is quite likely not to be the best choice. In either case it would not take a ton of research on your own to come up with a suitable choice.

You wouldn't typically change key with classical works. By doing so, low notes can get too muddy or high notes too difficult to distinguish harmony. We assume that those geniuses knew where to put it and so we don't question it. Perhaps it is not as pertinent in other genres, but the same reasoning still applies.

It is like listening to a tune on the radio and the reception is a bit off, when all of a sudden the reception is clear and the stereo kicks in, you think yes, that's better. Some keys are just a better fit and sometimes, much better.

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For solo performance, it may be worth asking the same question you'd ask of a vocalist: what range (on this instrument) sounds best for the melody (or other characteristic part). Also, you don't learn much by transposing everything into one of your favorite keys, and some players may want to demonstrate that they're not the sort who do that.

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Originally Posted by rogerzell
re Nahum's last--"if you have to perform with a vocalist"--easiest way out is, don't play with a vocalist. heh.

In my case, not to marry a singer, and even twice ha

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Wasn’t it Irving Berlin who wrote everything in D flat because that’s the only key he could play in? Erroll Garner favored Gb and D flat because he like to sit high and have all the black key clusters available making it easier and more comfortable for him to fill in the notes in between the octaves he loved playing in his right hand. His right hand was orchestral, think of a sax section with harmony filling inside an outer octave.
We often play in keys that we feel most comfortable in, that are most user friendly and familiar. Why not. It’s a matter of practicality. And publishers do publish songs in physically user-friendly keys generally.

I do agree that some keys feel a little brighter than others , sharp keys for example, but I don’t think it’s really important when choosing a key. I think practicality and familiararity is more important.

Last edited by RinTin; 05/01/21 04:20 PM.

Harry Likas was the Technical Editor of Mark Levine's The Jazz Theory Book and helped develop The Jazz Piano Book. Studied with Mark Levine 1985-89 and Barry Harris 1995-99
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well--like most threads here, this one's getting off track.

OP was--
Originally Posted by pianoloverus
Why do most jazz pianists, as far as I know, usually play a song in the key it was originally written in?

So we're not talking about singers in any capacity, or any other instrument.

My point was we have no way of knowing what key the composer wrote the song in. As far as piano-based standards, publishers print them in a narrow range of keys--Cmaj/min, dmin. E flat maj, f min/maj, g min/maj, a flat maj, b flat maj, and the occasional d major, with a very few in D flat maj. I have no idea what guides their choices, but whatever it is, it is no more valid than any individual's key choice.

Nobody publishes piano based songs (i.e., "standards") in a flat min or f sharp anything.

The above does not apply to guitar based rock, which often is in E maj, B maj, A maj and the like. Although I have an old Beatles songbook which uses only piano type keys of F, B flat etc, so that does happen too.

RinTin--Irving Berlin wrote exclusively in f sharp, but none of his songs were published in that key. And re Sharp keys sounding brighter--one person's sharp is another person's flat. You're letting the word Sharp influence your ear.

Nahum--smart move bro. Bullet dodged.

Finally, Greener--first, we're not talking about classical music, and 2nd, there's a famous story of Beethoven playing the piano live in concert, transposing the piano part in one of his concertos, from C to B or D flat because the orchestra was tuned to a different key. Quite a feat.

I've wondered how classical composers chose keys, and there is no definitive answer. Although you may notice that the later romantics wrote alot more in f sharp maj, and even sometimes in c flat, apparently just for the heck of it.

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It may be that those who think different keys have different characteristics are letting their eyes fool their ears, but listen to Bill Evans on Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz. Both of them agree that they feel different keys differently and have a brief discussion about this point. And those are two pretty good sets of ears!

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Originally Posted by rogerzell
So we're not talking about singers in any capacity,
.
Do you prefer not to talk about the elephant in the room? A classical pianist can play for 60 years and not have to deal with a vocalist; pianists from other genres simply do not have this luxury. You are apparently unfamiliar with the profession of a pianist in wedding and ship orchestras, which many famous pianists have gone through.

Quote
Although you may notice that the later romantics wrote alot more in f sharp maj, and even sometimes in c flat, apparently just for the heck of it.
I'm sure that's how they heard the color of the key, and its difference from the B major.

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Unless you are an effortless transposer there shure is (personal) tradition and convenience.
Apart from that i see many more good reasons.

First the mood of the tune and the voicings you will apply. Over the changes of a tune, thin or muddy may be just a few steps up or down. The character of a tune is so much more than real book changes. As a composer you will choose a key which fits naturally. Ray Charles often changed keys but more in a limited range E-F-G.

Playing with horns they will appreciate some "home keys".

And i believe, at a certain level of artistry there may be personal relations to specific keys. I remember an interview (but no with whom) mentioning that. Think of F as Freddie who is totally different from Alice (A). No way Alice could sing Freddie's song!

-Rhodes74

P.S. In classical music might be some influence from non-equal tunings...

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Originally Posted by rogerzell
...
I've wondered how classical composers chose keys, and there is no definitive answer...

What I am suggesting is that there is a definitive answer, whether or not we recognize what exactly their reasoning was.

Originally Posted by jjo
It may be that those who think different keys have different characteristics are letting their eyes fool their ears, but listen to Bill Evans on Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz. Both of them agree that they feel different keys differently and have a brief discussion about this point. And those are two pretty good sets of ears!

Yes, it is not about key characteristics and if Georgia on my Mind seems to work the best in Bb, it doesn't mean the next standard will too.

I am sure the differences are far more subtle with genres other than classical, nonetheless there is still a sweet spot, I think and it is more in terms of range than key characteristics.

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alot to unpack here--

jjo--re this--"It may be that those who think different keys have different characteristics are letting their eyes fool their ears, but listen to Bill Evans on Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz. Both of them agree that they feel different keys differently and have a brief discussion about this point. And those are two pretty good sets of ears!"

if you refer to this youtube vid

key preferences are at 28'28", and they state a few keys they like, with McPartland saying something about "the vibrations they set up" (and what does she mean by that? Physical, mental, psychic?), but Evans just says he likes playing in E and A. But I guess we know they don't play only in those keys--Evans plays in C a few minutes before. This is not a detailed discussion, and they do not talk about the other 9 or 21 keys.

I like to play in the keys I listed above, only because I can't be bothered to work hard to be fluent in B or F sharp--not because of vibrations.

Nahum, re singers--that elephant is not in the room, since OP is about pianists playing in the published key, which I think you'll agree may or may not be the good for the singer. And I spent many years playing with singers (not on cruise ships or in a wedding band), which accounts for my snarky comments.

And re different colors for B maj and C flat maj--since pianos are tuned to equal temperament, I have to ask for an example of the same piece played in both B and C flat, in separate performances. But I doubt there are any. The composer may feel different feelings about it, and so may the performer, but the listener won't. I certainly won't.

Rhodes74--I'm not sure whether you agree with me or not. But again, horn home keys may not be the published key, so so much for that.

I don't think about the key vs my voicings--I will change my voicings on the fly to suit the key I play in (which is always my singing key). And the mood of the tune is what you make it, in any key. If you can't make a tune happy, or doleful, or tragic or whatever, in any key, you may want to step back and think about it for awhile. After all, what if a happy song is published in C, but you can't get happy in C?

Greener--re this--
...
"I've wondered how classical composers chose keys, and there is no definitive answer..."

"What I am suggesting is that there is a definitive answer, whether or not we recognize what exactly their reasoning was."

I've been studying music classical (including in a conservatory) and pop for nigh unto 68 years, and I've never seen a statement by a composer about why they chose a particular key for a particular piece--omitting encyclopedic things like Chopin preludes and Bach WTC. So, as a wise man once told me, if they don't communicate their ideas, it's as if they didn't have any ideas. So--there may be a definite answer, but since we don't know what it is, it doesn't matter.

I know that some classical composers liked to associate certain keys with certain moods, or colors, but that doesn't mean I have to buy into it. Many of those ideas are holdovers from the days of valveless horns, untunable tympani, and very different pianos than we have today.

More--I read a snarky comment (from Chopin I THINK--might have been Mozart, the king of snark) about some upstart young composer--it was a list of things he found offensive and pretentious about him, and one of them was "he writes in f sharp minor".

whew!

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Originally Posted by rogerzell
And re different colors for B maj and C flat maj--since pianos are tuned to equal temperament,
I'm pretty sure I've heard of this too.

Quote
I have to ask fo an example of the same piece played in both B and C flat, in separate performances. But I doubt there are any. The composer may feel different feelings about it, and so may the perfrormer, but the listener won't. I certainly won't.

Don't be so sure: until 83, I worked as a violinist and violist, and a melody in the key of Cb major played on the instrument will sound lower than C, but not like B. When I play the piano in this key, there is something dual in my head . Today it is possible to use electronic keyboards for this purpose in fine tuning mode.

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