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Originally posted by BruceD:
"Can you explain why you feel G major is wrong for this piece? My guess is that it was transposed to G major to make it easier to read the notes. This is not a consideration for me, but in G major I think it is easier to control the figurations in the right hand due to greater leverage on the white keys. I see no disadvantage sound wise to play it in G major so for me the only reason not to play it in G major is the fact that it was not composed in that key."

In a word: No. I cannot explain why G major is wrong for this piece.

I have - without the objectivity that I would like to have to make a convincing argument - tried playing this piece in G major, just for the experiment, and on several different pianos - and it sounds too "thin," too "bright," too "cool" in that key. Going to Gflat immediately brings to the fore that darker, thicker, warmer texture and tone that I want in this piece.

I'm sure it's all in the mind, and perhaps because of that, I unconsciously play differently in Gflat in spite of myself.

It seems to me that no one has thus far given any convincing arguement about why G flat major would sound better(or even different) than G major. I think it really is psychological based mostly on what one is used to hearing and feeling in the hands. I think if one mostly played the Impromptu in G major and then starting playing it in G flat major, one might have the opposite opinion about which key sounded better.

Of course, if one transposes a piece significanty more than a half step from the original it might sound differnet because the range of notes and notes used in the melody would be quite different from the original. After last year's recital at Mannes, Earl Wild discussed how he had tranposed Chopin's Etude Op. 10, #3 by a significant interval(in the downward direction, I think) in a performnce because he thought it sounded better in that much lower key.

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The test would be to record it in G major and then electronically lower it to Gb. That way the pitch will be Gb but the nuances of Gb - if there are any- wouldn't have been transfered so it won't sound the same as a recording actually played in Gb (in theory).

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I write a lot of piano music. Sometimes the reason I pick a particular key is arbitrary. I may be thinking of an idea, humming something to myself half the day. When I finally get back to my piano, I sometimes just leave the piece in whatever key I happened to be humming it in when I sat down....if that happens to be A flat, it may just stick there. Sometimes I get a good idea for a piece while playing...when this occurs, the likelyhood is higher that it will be in a less advanced key, since I am a terrible piano player. Usually when I decide to change the key from what the original germ of a piece began in, it is because I decide that the melody just doesn't sound right in that particular range of the piano. The lower you go, the darker and more muddled things can sound. When this happens, I usually put things up a third or fourth.

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Originally posted by pianoloverus:
/QB]
Can you explain why you feel G major is wrong for this piece? My guess is that it was transposed to G major to make it easier to read the notes. This is not a consideration for me, but in G major I think it is easier to control the figurations in the right hand due to greater leverage on the white keys. I see no disadvantage sound wise to play it in G major so for me the only reason not to play it in G major is the fact that it was not composed in that key. [/QB][/QUOTE]

Gflat is the right key because of how the impromtu's were written. At the end of the second one in eflat which is the relitive major of cminor (the first one) the piece has modulated to bflat minor. the relative major of bflat minor is gflat minor. So if played in order it sounds right.

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RonTuner,

Thank you for that wonderful explanation. I've been reading about this stuff in a great book: Harmonic Experience

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This is certainly a very interesting topic, with an intriguing question, and where all the answers are valid (taking into account personal opinions).

I've never really given it this in-depth thought before, though I do recall my dad asking me once "why all the different keys, surely you can just do everything in C and not worry about the different key signatures" and my answer was "it is just nicer (not being in C major), richer/more melancholy/more *something*."

Thinking about it now, what I meant was the difference in the key signatures give it the character, the mood and the complexity.

My thoughts on this (which encompass several lines of thought already presented), and in no way scientific, nor going to be based on professional musical analysis would be as follows:

**Technically speaking**

If the piece calls for grandoise scales and arpeggios (Chopin's Revolutionary comes to mind), then it would be easier for it to have more white keys or at least have half of the keys being white. Simply because it would make it easier to play, not having the fingers slip off the keys as easily etc.

Of course, having *some* black keys would be helpful because they act as a sort of "marker" which helps with the accuracy of the playing. As I think it was Bruce who said, C major can be heck to play accurately in.

**Playing dynamics/accoustics (or whatever the term is)**

1) If the piece has loud clashing chords that are to be resoundingly played, in terms of physically being able to exert more force, the white keys would be handier. I sometimes feel playing-wise, having a black key in a chord of white keys can add character as well.

2) If the piece requires soft, mellow sounds, I find the addition of the black keys aids that As someone has already mentioned that one plays the black keys with physically less force than the white. They are further in (hence the wrist action would automatically differ) and they are narrower.

Of course, all of the above could be evened out with lots of practice and mastery of the piano and technical competence. It's difficult but not impossible.


**Variety-wise**

Variety is the spice of life. :-) But seriously, taking for example Bach. I believe a lot of his works were elaborate exercises more than Concerto-style work (e.g. Two-Part Inventions) though they still maintained beautiful musicality. If they were set to be exercises, it is understadable re: difference in keys. I mean, if not, why don't we all just practice the C major scale and forget the rest?

**Personal/Psychological Input**

This is probably the biggest IMHO, and most ambiguous reason for the different keys. Enough has been said about the different colours/tones/moods of the different keys. I'll just add that C major somehow sounds and feels very barren and naked to me. I think the sound of the key signature name itself and the number of sharps and flats does a lot to mould a person's idea of the piece. Even the different sound of C sharp and D flat though they are enharmonics and are the exact same key on the piano.

Just for me, myself playing, I tend to caress the black keys and push hard on the white ones (this is playing in a single piece). So unless I sense the music itself telling me otherwise, the feel of the black and white keys and the shape they make are the guide to allow me to put my own interpretations of loud and soft, accents, rubato and mood into a piece.

I also get the feeling with Bach that he built his works around a pattern on the keyboard. He not only picked those notes to create a melody, but to create a certain shape on the keyboard as well.

Going with the same idea as above, the shape of the up and down of the B&W keys can create the mood - e.g. starting on a white and moving (adagio) up to a few black ones can sometimes creates a yearning type of feel; alternate B&W keys can be made to be lovely and frisky; mainly white keys can to pompous and bombarding; mainly black keys give a sharp, light touch (if done legato) or a laser sharp sound (if done in a chord).

Of course, these are just my own feelings on the matter (esp the last section) taken from my own experience. Everyone's different so they would probably have a very different imagination of the different keys.

I know the question still hasn't been answered in a solid, objective manner (!) but unless we can travel back in time and ask the likes of Chopin, Beethoven and Bach etc, we wouldn't know. And even then, we probably would get a pot-pourri of answers similar to those already mentioned here.


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I've enjoyed reading the pianists' responses to this key color idea. It would be very instructive if more people would have a chance to play music on pianos that were tuned in a mild well temperament, and then shared their experience with us.

With the insertion of technology into the "tradition-bound" art of piano tuning, a wide variety of harmonic contrasts are now available at minimal cost to the performer. (for me, it's the same price as a regular tuning) Yet tuners are often as uneducated about alternate tunings as anyone else.

When people just "dial in" a Vallotti-Young, or a WerkmeisterIII strength temperament, they are often put-off by the strength of the contrasts. The response is usually something on the order of, "this is nice for baroque music, but I wouldn't try Debussy with it!" There is a whole new generation of temperament creators willing to use spreadsheets to "preview" and tweak harmonic contrasts and balances to come up with some very nice tunings that are suitable for just about any tonal music. The machines allow us to share ideas and tunings quickly across the country and around the world. Tuners don't need to go study with each author to replicate a tuning style, as was the requirement with aural-only tuners.

Music is the language of contrasts; loud isn't better than soft, long isn't better than short. What is valued is the range that a performer is able to draw from an instrument. Likewise, the idea of adding harmonic contrast values the range, so consonence is not better than dissonence, just contrasts to be used by composers and performers to enhance the experience.

Since I work around Chicago, most of the pianos I tune drift as much as 20-30 cents from A=440 Hertz due to humidity shifts throughout the year. (100 cents= 1 chromatic half step) The strongest tuning offset for an individual note I normally use is only 4.5 cents from equal temperament. This provides a robust amount of contrasts to a few of my piano teacher clients, yet without providing any fear of being too far from what is accepted as "normal". It takes such a small change to make a significant impact to the music. I urge you to give it a try sometime!

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I don't think anyone has mentioned the following observation thus far. I'm not even sure it is true. The music teacher at my school(who believes that different keys do sound differnt) said that on a piano that is tuned the way modern pianos are tuned(equal temperament?) all the half steps are not exactly the same, i.e. the number of cents between C and C# is not exactly the same as the number of cents between say F and F#.
Does anyone know if this is correct(tuners please chime in) and if it is correct, do you think that it could scientifically account for the differnct colors some people attribute to different keys?

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To add to the discussion, I've been told by my college professor I'm studying with that university pianos tuned by one particular tuner sound much better than those tuned by other tuners. That particluar tuner tunes by ear.


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Hmmmm... most tuners I know use their hands...

ba dum, ching!

Anyway, back to the topic. The quick answer is that in equal temperament, by definition, all half steps should be the same width, when measured in cents. See my previous post how this makes it possible to still have different key colors in ET. They are just arranged in a chromatic fashion, instead of the traditional circle of fifths order. Also, the amount of contrast between keys should be small.

The long answer involves looking at string vibration. Each note we hear is actually a blending of the pitch we hear, along with the overtones produced by the string. So a C actually consists of:
C_C_G_C_E_G and on up, all vibrating together at different volumes, depending on the location of the note. (Fundamental, octave, octave 5th, double octave, double 3rd, double 5th) So when we measure the cents distance between notes, which part of the note is measured? Tuners train themselves to hear all this stuff, and the beats between overtones of notes played together. Because of the physical properties of piano strings, the overtones don't quite behave in a nice linear progression across the keyboard, creating the "tuning puzzle". Many times if you set the chromatic half steps exactly equal in the fundamental, the other overtones will not line up, once you fudge for that problem, then the octave won't work.....and so it goes. Tuning becomes a series of compromises, based on what the manufacturer has designed into that particular piano.

As to the machine vs. ear tuners, there are just too many variables, including the hands of the technician to just say it is an ear tuner vs. a machine tuner issue. It could very well be that the ear tuner is not tuning equal temperament! (happens quite often) There are also significant differences between the machines used for piano tuning, as well.

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Hmmmm... most tuners I know use their hands...

ba dum, ching!
laugh laugh laugh

Great posts RonTuner, I've enjoyed reading them very much.

This topic makes me wonder about people who have "perfect pitch" and the actual meaning of "perfect pitch". It always sounds as if they have something innate which allows them to create equal tempered pitches at will. But equal-tempered isn't really very "natural", is it? Is it more likely that they have a superior ability to re-create the sounds they hear?


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Well, I think like everything else in life, there is a "range" of perfect pitch people. The vast majority can name a note, but not be able to tell if that note is off pitch by a little. Some have a "reference" pitch locked-in, and then use a good relative pitch sense to find the others. There are some that describe it like looking at colors, you just know what note it is without looking. Then there are those few that can tell when a note is just a few cents off. Of those, I've only heard that they are checking the A, so I'm not sure that equal temperament comes into play.

It's interesting to look at the development of "ear" tuning. At first, tuners used a melodic approach. Start with one note tuned, then play a second note after the first and adjust until it sounds right. Looking for a perfect 4th? "Here comes the Bride" is the melodic interval. It wasn't 'till much later that tuners began to play both notes at once and try to manipulate the slow beating of the 4th and 5th to complete a tuning. Since the beating is so slow, it is easy to have substantial errors creep into the process. It was not until sometime in the 20th century that the faster beating intervals of the 3rd and 6th, 10th and 17th used for more precise tuning. Only by using those advanced aural tests is it possible to actually set equal temperament on a piano. Therefore, even though people knew about ET, and may have tried to set ET, it just wasn't possible to do until pretty recently.

Which brings us back full circle to why composers (pre-1900 at least) wrote music in different keys. The pianos were tuned either in a mean-tone tuning, meaning that some keys are rendered unplayable,(not much key color, usually "good harmony" or "bad harmony") or some circulating temperament. This group usually goes by the name of a Well Temperament. (Think the Well-Tempered Clavier) Once these "new" tuning styles came to be, composers could use all keys, yet each key had a different quality of ratios between the intervals. Just look at the WTC, and notice how the writing changes depending on the remoteness of the key. If a composer wanted a consonent sound, they chose from the top of the circle of fifths, if they wanted dissonence, or a quicker vibrato effect, they could move down toward the bottom of the circle. In the writings of the day, since all keys could be used, people claimed that they were using an equal temperament. This is the source of the confusing idea that tuners of Bach's time were able to tune equal temperament.

What does that mean for us? Playing piano is an interactive experience. How we play is influenced by the instrument we play on. Differences in the dynamic range available, or sustain, or touch or tone will certainly have an effect on how the music is performed. Likewise, the tuning has an interactive influence on how the music will be interpreted. For the most part, we've lost a big piece of the harmonic complexity that went into the music. Using a carefully designed modern well temperament can bring that to your piano, at little or no additional cost.

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Originally Posted by RonTuner
I was cruising through old topics and found this one from last year. I don't think the question ever got answered, so I'll take another stab at it...

First, this is a fixed-pitch instrument phenomenon. (keyboard) All orchestral instruments, etc, micro-adjust their pitch on-the-fly, to try to get the purest intervals. The piano gets tuned, and the performer doesn't have any way to influence the tuning during performance.

In equal temperament, the tuner tries to fix all of the half steps an equal amount of distance (measured in cents) from each other, based on the optimum octave width for each particular piano.
We can't hear cents, but instead hear beats between mistuned intervals. Now, here is the tricky part: Even though all of the intervals will be the same width, measured in cents, they can beat differently. For example, to fit into a 12 note chromatic system, equal temperament mis-tunes each major third by almost 14 cents from a pure sounding third. (a chromatic half step is about 100 cents) BUT, every third will have a different beat-rate. As technicians, we may set the F-A third below middle C to 7 beats per second. The octave above will beat at 14 beats per second. (beat rates double with each octave) Every beat rate, from really slow to really fast will exist in the keyboard, based on where you play a third. I call this the piano vibrato effect.

So, music played in different keys, even in strict equal temperament will have different beat rates from each other, creating an indivudual "flavor" to the music, with each third beating a little bit faster then the one just below it.

Stick with me just a little longer and we can complete this story...

Composers are certainly sensitive to this effect, look at the difference in how they voice certain chords... dark, slowly beating, muddy in the bass, bright, lively, fast beating in the treble. They don't even need to know about the beats of the thirds, or sixths, they will just intuitively find the match for the sound in their head.

Flash back a hundred years, when equal temperament might have been an idea, but certainly was not in general use. Look at the graphs of the historical temperaments at:

www.rollingball.com

Even without understanding anything about tuning, a pattern is easy to spot. Historically, the structure of tuning placed faster beating intervals in the remote keys, and slower beating intervals in the simple keys; in the same range of the piano. I believe the reason that we don't find composers writing about the temperament, was that it was just one of those intuitive things that they responded to... No matter which one of those temperaments their piano was set in, similar contrasts were to be expected in other pianos. Sad keys, happy keys, noble keys; that is the historical record that came down to us to let us know that they were responsive to the tunings available to them.

Alternate temperaments are just an easy, low-cost way to add a little contrast to the music, especially appropriate to music written before 1900.

Ron Koval
Chicagoland

There's a lot more I could add, even some numbers to give to your technician to let you try an alternate tuning without trauma...I really tried to keep it as short as possible.


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This topic has been dredged back up by Rin Tin. It's a very interesting read, worth revisiting everyone's comments and experiences starting from page 1 of this post.

I've read through all of the comments. Part of the discussion centers around the fact that many of us believe music sounds different and seems to evoke different emotions depending on what key signature it is played in.

I was going to post my thoughts on why I think this is so, but then I came across read pianodevo's comments. Pianodevo has done a better job than I ever could of explaining why this may be so. I'd therefore like to direct attention in particular to Pianodevo's comments which were posted back on 05/24/2003.

So....

Why might different key signatures have different effects?

Hint: "This garden universe vibrates complete."

(Moody Blues fans may recognize the above words from their "In Search of the Lost Chord" lp - it's part of the album track entitled "OM").

Jeanne W


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Well, this is certainly an old thread. But a very interesting topic, certainly worthy of discussion. I shall read through the old posts and comment if I feel that I can contribute anything.

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The passages in the extreme registers of a piece may sound notably different when transposed even to a nearby key.


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1) Some 'keys' are not playable due to wolf notes when played in the temperaments popular at the time of writing. Check out any Meantone temperament.

2) J.S. didn't invent 12TET, but he did tune his own instruments so he could play in any 'key', though they likely sounded quite different from each other., some calm, some shimmering, some bright - well suited to different kinds of composition.

3) The human has a vocal forment which is essentially a resonant chamber that changes only slightly as the singer changes vowels. Since the resonant chamber volume os relatively constant, a given singer's voice is best suited for a given pitch range, constraining the choice of 'keys.

4) Christian Schubart published in 1806 a treatise on 'key' colour. Here is a summary:

From Christian Schubart's Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst (1806) translated by Rita Steblin in A History of Key Characteristics in the 18th and Early 19th Centuries. UMI Research Press (1983).

C major Completely pure. Its character is: innocence, simplicity, naïvety, children's talk.
C minor Declaration of love and at the same time the lament of unhappy love. All languishing, longing, sighing of the love-sick soul lies in this key.
Db major A leering key, degenerating into grief and rapture. It cannot laugh, but it can smile; it cannot howl, but it can at least grimace its crying.--Consequently only unusual characters and feelings can be brought out in this key.
D major The key of triumph, of Hallejuahs, of war-cries, of victory-rejoicing. Thus, the inviting symphonies, the marches, holiday songs and heaven-rejoicing choruses are set in this key.
D minor Melancholy womanliness, the spleen and humours brood.
D# minor Feelings of the anxiety of the soul's deepest distress, of brooding despair, of blackest depresssion, of the most gloomy condition of the soul. Every fear, every hesitation of the shuddering heart, breathes out of horrible D# minor. If ghosts could speak, their speech would approximate this key.
Eb major The key of love, of devotion, of intimate conversation with God.
E major Noisy shouts of joy, laughing pleasure and not yet complete, full delight lies in E Major.
F major Complaisance & calm.
F minor Deep depression, funereal lament, groans of misery and longing for the grave.
F# major Triumph over difficulty, free sigh of relief utered when hurdles are surmounted; echo of a soul which has fiercely struggled and finally conquered lies in all uses of this key.
F# minor A gloomy key: it tugs at passion as a dog biting a dress. Resentment and discontent are its language.
G major Everything rustic, idyllic and lyrical, every calm and satisfied passion, every tender gratitude for true friendship and faithful love,--in a word every gentle and peaceful emotion of the heart is correctly expressed by this key.
G minor Discontent, uneasiness, worry about a failed scheme; bad-tempered gnashing of teeth; in a word: resentment and dislike.
Ab major Key of the grave. Death, grave, putrefaction, judgment, eternity lie in its radius.
Ab minor Grumbler, heart squeezed until it suffocates; wailing lament, difficult struggle; in a word, the color of this key is everything struggling with difficulty.
A major This key includes declarations of innocent love, satisfaction with one's state of affairs; hope of seeing one's beloved again when parting; youthful cheerfulness and trust in God.
A minor Pious womanliness and tenderness of character.
Bb major Cheerful love, clear conscience, hope aspiration for a better world.
Bb minor A quaint creature, often dressed in the garment of night. It is somewhat surly and very seldom takes on a pleasant countenance. Mocking God and the world; discontented with itself and with everything; preparation for suicide sounds in this key.
B major Strongly coloured, announcing wild passions, composed from the most glaring coulors. Anger, rage, jealousy, fury, despair and every burden of the heart lies in its sphere.
B minor This is as it were the key of patience, of calm awaiting ones's fate and of submission to divine dispensation.

5) Analyze Prokofiev's 'Romeo and Juliet' Ballet. Every single key change made in the entire work directly references Schubart's treatise.

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Here's a quick breakdown of Prokofiev's 'key' structures for some of the R&J Ballet. Compare with Schubart above.

The Street Awakens- Prokofiev sets the stage for the upcoming quarrel - D Maj - F min - D Maj

Juliet as a Young Girl - Juliet is in a playful mood, then her parents show up with Paris, whom they expect her to marry, and she runs the gamut of moods - C Maj - F Maj - E Maj - Ab Maj - A Maj - C Maj - F Maj - E min - F min - B Maj.

Dance of the Knights - Capulet's Ballroom - Courtly dances, but uneasy atmosphere; Romeo and Mercutio enter in masks - E min - D min - A min - F min - E min

Friar Laurence - The Friar, hoping for an end to the feud, marries Juliet and Romeo - Bb Maj

Dance of the Girls with Lilies - Prenuptial ritual by Juliet's attendants. The family still thinks she will marry Paris, but she has already taken the potion to make her appear dead - A min - G# min - C Maj - A min - G# min - E Maj - A min - C maj - A min

Romeo and Juliet before Parting - They have consummated their marriage and Romeo bids Juliet farewell. (Juliet struggles inwardly as she decides to take the potion.) - Prokofiev foreshadows the things to come in his music - Bb Maj - C Maj - Bb Maj - C Maj - E min - B min - Bb min

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Thanks Prout for the Romeo & Juliet summary
To me, the key signature is a big part of the mood of any music


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