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Thread: Transposing and its effects

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    Default Transposing and its effects

    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?

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    Senior Member TalkingHead's Avatar
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    Very good question.
    You could argue that in equal temperament, if you play Beethoven's Monnlight Sonata in C minor instead of the original C# minor it will sound very much "the same". If you don't have perfect pitch you won't perhaps notice anything; if you have perfect pitch (that is, brought up since birth on A = 440) and have a Bach score played by a HIP ensemble (historicaly-infomed performance, that play, let us say, more or less a semitone lower) you might be slightly decomforted when confronted by the score and the sounding experience. Without the score I don't see (hear) the problem.
    However, that doesn't answer your question.
    Whatever the tuning (the frequency), why does a piece in one key sound different to the same piece transposed up or down by a semitone or other interval?
    I think the reason is that the overtones play an important part in changing the "colour" of the sounding experience.
    For my part, if you played the opening chords of Beethoven's Eroica in E major instead of E-flat major there would be a discernable change of timbre.
    I await MR, EdwardBast and Woodduck's input on this...
    Last edited by TalkingHead; Apr-05-2019 at 20:05.

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    "I think the reason is that the overtones play an imlporta"

    What do you mean by that?

    Thanks for the answer by the way!

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    Senior Member TalkingHead's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ancore View Post
    "I think the reason is that the overtones play an imlporta"

    What do you mean by that?

    Thanks for the answer by the way!
    It was a typo, sorry. I have corrected my post.
    What do you think?

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    Senior Member KenOC's Avatar
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    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. The same is true to some extent with the winds, where instruments may sound a bit different in different registers -- and there's always the usable range of the instruments to consider.

    On a piano tuned in equal temperament, for the most part the music will just be higher or lower in pitch. If it's only a semitone or two, it may not be noticable unless you have perfect pitch.


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    Senior Member TalkingHead's Avatar
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    Several points need addressing here, Ken:

    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.
    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.

    Quote Originally Posted by KenOC View Post
    The same is true to some extent with the winds, where instruments may sound a bit different in different registers
    Whatever the key, whatever the transposition, all instruments sound a lot different in different registers. If your transposition is a semitone or tone higher or lower, the register won't sound too different; if your transposition is on a wider interval, ok, that would be the case. But I think that ancore is asking about close-interval transpositions.

    Quote Originally Posted by KenOC View Post
    -- and there's always the usable range of the instruments to consider.
    Again, as above, that depends on the interval of transposition.

    Quote Originally Posted by KenOC View Post
    On a piano tuned in equal temperament, for the most part the music will just be higher or lower in pitch. If it's only a semitone or two, it may not be noticable unless you have perfect pitch.
    And if you didn't have perfect pitch would you notice anything different beyond a transposition of a semitone or two?
    Last edited by TalkingHead; Apr-05-2019 at 20:54.

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    Actually, this problem occured when I tried to transpose one of my pieces, because the flute was too low.

    The original in G minor:


    The transposed one in B minor:


    It's hard to tell for me which one is better, because I'm used to G minor.
    I'd appreciate if you could listen to it, and tell which one sounds better for you!

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    Senior Member TalkingHead's Avatar
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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. [...]
    Just to return to this point by Ken: in the classical repertoire, extended notes on open strings are usually avoided (unless specified by the composer) as the player cannot carry out "treatments" such as vibrato, as I mentioned before. That said, with subtle use of the bow, one can "modulate" the open string via swells (diminuendos...) and so on or by moving the bow closer to the fingerboard or the bridge, which will substantially alter the "timbre" of the note. In that sense, Ken is quite right that transposing a piece can impact that.
    Last edited by TalkingHead; Apr-05-2019 at 21:18.

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    Senior Member TalkingHead's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ancore View Post
    Actually, this problem occured when I tried to transpose one of my pieces, because the flute was too low.

    The original in G minor:


    The transposed one in B minor:


    It's hard to tell for me which one is better, because I'm used to G minor.
    I'd appreciate if you could listen to it, and tell which one sounds better for you!
    The two are completely different in "colour" I would say. I'm not sure which one is "better", but I prefer the one in B minor because the flute part comes out more clearly in the texture. Do you want the flute part to stand out more or be more subsumed, so to speak?

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    Senior Member EdwardBast's Avatar
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    Does a transposition by half step make a difference to most people? I have no idea. An experimental study in music perception might settle that; I'd be surprised if it hasn't been done.

    TH and Ken have hit most of the important points. A couple of random observations: I suspect the effect of transposition is going to be most important for ensembles with winds, since their timbre is most strongly affected by changes in register. And no one is going to be playing the Bach Chaconne in E-flat minor. On the other hand, singers transpose song rep all the time and no one bats an eye.

    In piano music I've been playing lately I've been paying attention to how much composers change the voicing and even identity of chords when the same theme is heard in different keys, presumably to get a similar effect in different registers. Beethoven was exceedingly sensitive to this, even late (like Op. 101/i) when hearing was difficult for him. So it's clear to me that composers found it has a big effect even on an instrument like piano where timbre changes pretty uniformly.

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    Senior Member KenOC's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by TalkingHead View Post
    ...In that sense, Ken is quite right that transposing a piece can impact that.
    Actually I was thinking about works featuring strings, where open strings may be treated as "effects" in themselves. That is, sonatas for stringed instruments or string concertos.


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    Senior Member TalkingHead's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by EdwardBast View Post
    Does a transposition by half step make a difference to most people? I have no idea. An experimental study in music perception might settle that; I'd be surprised if it hasn't been done.

    TH and Ken have hit most of the important points. A couple of random observations: I suspect the effect of transposition is going to be most important for ensembles with winds, since their timbre is most strongly affected by changes in register. And no one is going to be playing the Bach Chaconne in E-flat minor. On the other hand, singers transpose song rep all the time and no one bats an eye.

    In piano music I've been playing lately I've been paying attention to how much composers change the voicing and even identity of chords when the same theme is heard in different keys, presumably to get a similar effect in different registers. Beethoven was exceedingly sensitive to this, even late (like Op. 101/i) when hearing was difficult for him. So it's clear to me that composers found it has a big effect even on an instrument like piano where timbre changes pretty uniformly.
    Yup, agree with all that except for the part marked in bold. Surely you mean "nobody bats an ear"? Hm, not quite the expression I was looking for, maybe "nobody flaps an ear"?
    Question is though, when you have the score in front of you of Schubert's "Müllerin" notated in G minor (soprano voice) and then you put on the CD and it's in E minor (bass voice) it can be a bit disconcerting!

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    Senior Member TalkingHead's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by KenOC View Post
    Actually I was thinking about works featuring strings, where open strings may be treated as "effects" in themselves. That is, sonatas for stringed instruments or string concertos.
    OK, I see what you mean. I don't have the scores to hand but I believe Beethoven in one of the movements in one of the late quartets asks for open strings to be played on the bridge (sul ponticello) or on the fingerboard (sul tasto). That confirms your point, wherein a transposition would seriously undermine the original intended effect.

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    Senior Member tdc's Avatar
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    "Beethoven did say that he could distinguish between the music in D flat and C sharp, but his remark applies even to music played on the piano, and has nothing to do with intonation or temperament. What Beethoven was talking about was the 'character' of different tonalities, a subject that is more relevant to the psychology of the composer than to the actual musical language."

    -Charles Rosen from The Classical Style

    I think Rosen touches on a good point here, while there are exceptions based on the nature of instruments (open strings, pitch range etc.) The perceived changes of character based on key are often psychological.

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    Senior Member KenOC's Avatar
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    IIRC, Beethoven also said that any music written in B minor (I think) should be marked "barbaresco."

    BTW a question: Did pianos in Beethoven's time use equal temperament? I seem to remember reading that equal temperament tuning can't be attained using overtones of other notes, only by modern artificial means. So maybe some less-than-equal method was used -- ?


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