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Thread: Transposing and its effects

  1. #16
    Senior Member millionrainbows's Avatar
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    Consider the way these string instruments are tuned: Double bass is tuned E-A-D-G, Cellos are tuned (low to high) C-G-D-A, and violins are tuned G-D-A-E.

    The open strings can be considered as tonics, and this seems to favor keys that use sharps, and which are located on the circle of fifths in a limited "regional" relation to C, by fifths: C-G-D-A-E, staying close to these fifths-related keys.

    The same strategy was used in "mean-tone" tunings for keyboards, which would yield pleasant-sounding fifths and thirds within a limited range of preferred keys, usually revolving around C as the starting point. Other keys could also be gotten by going the other direction ariund the "circle of fifths (fourths) by using C or F as that start point, giving C-F-Bb-Eb-Ab.

    Since the whole language of music notation is based on the diatonic C scale (letter-names are A-B-C-D-E-F, the rest requiring sharps or flats), this is a factor to be considered.

    All of the other orchestral instruments are based on a single pitch, for example the flute in C, which (and I've played flute) makes the key of C (or scales starting on its modes) the easiest to play. There are more examples...

    Chopin wrote his piano music in less-used keys like Ab or Db; this was because of his keyboard fingering system. This would, by default, include Scriabin. So if we changed the keys on piano works, it would affect the entire piano repertoire. Bad idea!

    See this:

    From a review of the book: The author, John Verbalis, is clearly a seasoned piano performer, teacher and a real scholar of the history of piano technique. His main point is that the playing and teaching of piano fingering should be based on the most mechanically efficient use of the hand and fingers given the layout of the piano: a wide keyboard, white keys closer to the body than black ones, and black keys higher than white ones. Attending to these simple concepts is what the author refers to in an overblown phase, "topological approach". The author usefully describes Chopin's original idea that the most natural position for the hand is with the middle fingers on the cluster of three black keys, the thumb and little fingers on nearby white keys. Much back and forth on teaching methods since then are described at great length in this book. Most useful are the author's recommendations for the best fingerings of scales, thirds, arpeggios, much of which is left for a website--he provides the link and the password.

    Beethoven probably used a tuning which approximated ET, since precise ET was not achieved until after 1919, when electric frequency detectors were invented. Before that, it was close, but imprecise, since it was all done using stopwatches and counting interference beats.

    Last edited by millionrainbows; Apr-05-2019 at 23:23.

  2. #17
    Senior Member Woodduck's Avatar
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    I agree with the OP that even a small (half-step or whole-step) transposition can noticeably affect the sound and feel of music, but how much it's noticeable and how much we care depend on both the music and the listener. Back in my singing days I took transposition for granted; in vocal music - mostly in song, but not rarely in opera - it's done as a matter of course to accommodate different voices. I see it as a necessary evil - there are songs that are more or less ruined by being transposed even a third up or down - but it helps to remember that the standardized tuning of A = 440 didn't exist when most of the classical repertoire was written, and therefore the actual pitch composers had in mind and performers used was apt to be a bit higher or lower than the pitch we're used to hearing. We get an immediate demonstration of this when we do a side-by-side comparison of a Baroque piece played on modern and period instruments: the difference in pitch - often about a half step lower on the latter - combines with the differences in timbre to make for quite a different sound picture (and also, I might add, tends to make Baroque music easier to sing at what's presumed to be authentic pitch, especially for tenors, who can sing a more comfortable Ab instead of the A which is usually the highest note called for in Baroque choral music.)
    Last edited by Woodduck; Apr-06-2019 at 08:01.

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    Quote Originally Posted by KenOC View Post
    With strings, transposing may change which notes are played on open strings and which notes are played on stopped strings. That's something composers consider very carefully when choosing key signatures.
    For example, in the Scherzo of his String Quintet, Schubert makes much use of the C, G and D open strings of the lower instruments to create a powerful harmonic effect. It would sound less striking if transposed to a higher key.

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    Senior Member Larkenfield's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ancore View Post
    Why does transposing a key change the whole atmosphere of the piece?
    Even like C major to C-sharp major sounds way different, what's the reason?
    Could transposing a whole piece ruin its sounding experience?
    Perhaps the difference is that many composers write things down in the key in which they originally hear them inside their heads as if that’s the only key a specific work belongs in. Consequently, it can grate by changing it into a different key in which the work didn’t belong. What composer would write something in the key of seven flats if he didn’t have to? And yet that’s the inconvenient key that Liszt wrote his La Campanella. Because he heard it originally in that key, he wrote it in that key and it wouldn’t have had the same effect being played on a different part, color, and range of the keyboard. It’s almost as if such a work is alive and has a will of its own rather than being dictated to by anyone. The composer is simply the channel for the music. I believe that the original source of the music is far more mysterious than that.

    But in vocal music, as already mentioned, it’s sometimes necessary for the work to be transposed to fit the vocal range of the singer. But I question whether the performance has the same impact when it’s known, say, for having been performed in its original key for perhaps 200 years.

    What would be the value of transforming a string work that requires open strings into another key? It’s mostly a hypothetical situation that I doubt would have much practical value.

    One of the true mysteries and subtleties of music is that some composers have attributed certain emotional moods and qualities to certain keys and that would be lost by transposing a work to another key. Just thinking of the difference between the key of C and C# is probably something that a person could contemplate for a lifetime. I believe that certain keys do have certain emotional attributes but I don’t think it’s something that can be proven. In general, I would associate certain brighter emotional qualities with the inherent nature of the sharp keys, and a greater earthiness with the flat keys, with probably a million exceptions to any tendencies these keys might have.

    It’s also possible that certain keys have a special resonance with the physical body that will someday be discovered and better understood. But I do feel that each major and minor key has its own fundamental mood or personality and that whatever keys the great composers write in is not merely by chance or are the results of some strictly rational decision. I believe the origins of music are far more mysterious than that.
    Last edited by Larkenfield; Apr-06-2019 at 07:43.
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  5. #20
    Senior Member tdc's Avatar
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    I think it depends on the work, and the key of the transposition. Some can work, many can't. I do think sometimes people just get used to hearing something one way, and that is how they want it, but the work is not inherently better that way necessarily than in another key.

    Because of the range and the fact there are no open strings on a piano, I think many keyboard works can be transposed to different keys successfully. Bach transposed his French Overture from C minor to B minor so that it would form a tritone relationship with the key of the Italian Concerto (F major) when he released both works as Clavier-Übung II.
    Last edited by tdc; Apr-06-2019 at 06:43.

  6. #21
    Senior Member Woodduck's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Larkenfield View Post
    One of the true mysteries and subtleties of music is that some composers have attributed certain emotional moods and qualities to certain keys and that would be lost by transposing a work to another key. Just thinking of the difference between the key of C and C# is probably something that a person could contemplate for a lifetime. I believe that certain keys do have certain emotional attributes but I don’t think it’s something that can be proven. In general, I would associate certain brighter emotional qualities with the inherent nature of the sharp keys, and a greater earthiness with the flat keys, with probably a million exceptions to any tendencies these keys might have. It’s also possible that certain keys have a special resonance with the physical body that will someday be discovered and better understood. But I do feel that each major and minor key has its own fundamental mood or personality and that whatever keys the great composers write in is not merely by chance.
    I don't think it's mysterious or debatable that different keys should have different emotional resonances, and I don't think it depends on the system of tuning employed, although that could certainly add another layer of difference. The most obvious difference is in what we call "brightness," with higher keys sounding more brilliant and transparent than lower keys because there are fewer perceptible overtones and clashes between overtones to "muddy" the sound.

    Composers do indeed choose keys with these differences in mind. What we can't do is assign any specific expressive content to the keys, which some have done in calling, for example, C minor "tragic" or D major "joyous." The musical content will be the chief factor in creating such impressions. If I'm not mistaken, the clarino trumpets of the Baroque were generally pitched in D, and so a lot of music using them was written in that key, thus explaining the association of D major with joyful emotions (think of Bach's Magnificat and the brilliant choruses from the B-minor Mass). I think a distinction between the emotional qualities of "sharp" and "flat" keys is probably based originally on such a deployment of instruments - the "trumpet key" of D is closely related to A and G - but is otherwise fanciful.
    Last edited by Woodduck; Apr-06-2019 at 08:10.

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    Senior Member mikeh375's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by TalkingHead View Post
    Several points need addressing here, Ken:


    Given that there are only four open strings (V1, V2, Alto & Cello) I doubt very much a transposition would radically alter the overall "atmosphere" of the piece in terms of the frequency (use) of open strings. String players tend to avoid open strings as they are not so open to "treatments" such as vibrato. Obviously, if the composer writes the lowest note possible for a string instrument it will by definition be an open string.
    One must remember too that open strings are a technical resource to be exploited by the composer and any transposition away from a piece that utilises open strings in techniques such as bariolage, multiple stops etc. is not desirable at all. Composers often write for and with instruments in mind at the point of creation and that process is often inextricably bound up and influenced by the technical abilities of the instrument. The best composers will exploit the characteristics of an instrument in an idiomatic way to maximise expressivity. In this regard, transposing could have a deleterious effect on delicate, precise and colourful scores by making some passages impractical or maybe even impossible.

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    Senior Member millionrainbows's Avatar
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    Everyone is talking about transposing as if it were a normal, easy thing.

    I think a better question would be, "Why do composers write music in the keys that they do?'

    The piano, despite the cavalier attitudes expressed, is not a transposing instrument in the same easy way a guitar is (where you can just move everything up a fret, or use a capo), or even violins, where you can move up in position. For piano, I provided Chopin's fingerings as proof of the keys he used. If you transposed them, it simply would be unplayable.

    Additionally, all the orchestral instruments are built around certain tones (trumpet in eb, flute in C, etc), and the whole language of music (seven letter names and the staff) are biased towards "C" and related keys.

  10. #24
    Senior Member tdc's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    Everyone is talking about transposing as if it were a normal, easy thing.

    I think a better question would be, "Why do composers write music in the keys that they do?'

    The piano, despite the cavalier attitudes expressed, is not a transposing instrument in the same easy way a guitar is (where you can just move everything up a fret, or use a capo), or even violins, where you can move up in position. For piano, I provided Chopin's fingerings as proof of the keys he used. If you transposed them, it simply would be unplayable.

    Additionally, all the orchestral instruments are built around certain tones (trumpet in eb, flute in C, etc), and the whole language of music (seven letter names and the staff) are biased towards "C" and related keys.
    I think what it comes down to is we are talking about different aspects of transposition. Most people here are talking about the aspects of transposition relating to the idiomatic nature of instruments and how they do not perform the same way in all keys. I think a lot of good points have been brought up relating to this. However fundamentally I was just thinking about this question in terms of sound and pitch. I guess another way to look at this is - if we just retuned the instruments, or alter the pitch artificially on recordings in order to achieve a different pitch, do you still think it is as big of an issue? Especially when we are discussing key changes by as little as half a step, I've never thought of it as making that big a difference, but I'm interested in hearing thoughts on the question relating to the changes in pitch itself, not as much in instrumental limitations.
    Last edited by tdc; Apr-08-2019 at 03:40.

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    Senior Member Larkenfield's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by tdc View Post
    I think what it comes down to is we are talking about different aspects of transposition. Most people here are talking about the aspects of transposition relating to the idiomatic nature of instruments and how they do not perform the same way in all keys. I think a lot of good points have been brought up relating to this. However fundamentally I was just thinking about this question in terms of sound and pitch. I guess another way to look at this is - if we just retuned the instruments, or alter the pitch artificially on recordings in order to achieve a different pitch, do you still think it is as big of an issue? Especially when we are discussing key changes by as little as half a step, I've never thought of it as making that big a difference, but I'm interested in hearing thoughts on the question relating to the changes in pitch itself, not as much in instrumental limitations.
    The problem with changing pitch on recordings is that it cannot be done without changing its tempo. Everything is changed. The primary use of transposition is in vocal music to bring a work into the vocal range of the performer.
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  12. #26
    Senior Member millionrainbows's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by tdc View Post
    ...However fundamentally I was just thinking about this question in terms of sound and pitch. I guess another way to look at this is - if we just retuned the instruments, or alter the pitch artificially on recordings in order to achieve a different pitch, do you still think it is as big of an issue? Especially when we are discussing key changes by as little as half a step, I've never thought of it as making that big a difference, but I'm interested in hearing thoughts on the question relating to the changes in pitch itself, not as much in instrumental limitations.
    I think this whole question of transposition is somewhat of a moot point. I see this question as being the leftover residue of the idea of the "affekt" of keys, back before ET had arrived, and mean-tone tunings involved differently tuned fifths, thirds, and sevenths for different keys. Then, it WAS different.

    Now that everything is ET, that "affekt" has disappeared, so the question of differences no longer interests me; it's just a way of accommodating voices for practical reasons, not for any "effect" this may have.
    That's why I was focussing on other aspects of transposing; I see them as the only relevant aspects. If somebody has "perfect pitch" and hears differences, this doesn't interest me.

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    deleted doubleposting
    Last edited by MartinAlexander; May-24-2019 at 00:25.

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    Because our hearing is very unlinear (just look up "fletcher munson curve").
    Also there are intermodulations in our ear (cochlea to be specific), that differ based on frequency / pitch.
    There are many more physical, physiological and psychological reasons why different keys do feel different, but this are the mainstays. Hope this helps !

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