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Thread: Difference between scale an key?

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    Default Difference between scale an key?

    Originally, I thought that key and scale were essentially the same thing. I thought "key" was just a way of saying that (for the most part) we will be using notes from a certain scale. Maybe, C major, maybe B minor etc… But, the more I’ve studied theory there seems to be a deeper, more fundamental difference between the two.
    For example, apparently you can use multiple scales within one key. I don’t understand why the key of C major would be called C major if you can use notes from other scales… My first thought would be that multiple scales can use the same notes, which makes sense. But, then my next question would be, can you use notes outside of the C major scale in the key of c major?
    I've also heard “it all has to do with the concept of tonality”. I have a vague understanding of tonality, so how specifically does tonality determine what can be played or should be played within a certain key?
    I feel like if I've learned anything in music theory it's that there are a lot of rules, but even more exceptions to the rules. Just saying that so you know I get that your answer probably won’t be as cut and dry as I'm asking haha

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    Senior Member Woodduck's Avatar
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    This is not complicated, but it takes a bit of time to explain.

    A scale is simply any set of notes presented in ascending or descending order of pitch. Any particular scale ascends or descends by specific intervals that distinguish that scale from other scales. For example, the major scale (say from C to C) ascends by whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step. The natural minor scale ascends by whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step. The Lydian scale ascends by whole step, whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, half step. It's the pattern of intervals between steps that determines a scale's special identity and name; any scale can begin at any pitch and maintain its identity as major, minor, etc, as long as its pattern of intervals remains the same. Thus we can have a C major scale, a D major scale, etc.

    Applied to actual music, the pattern of intervals in whatever scale is used are important in the structure of the music. Most important is the scale's starting note, which has a special function and status. Music that uses a particular scale - major, minor, etc. - assumes the first note of that scale as its tonal center, the tone we feel as the strongest point of resolution around which other tones revolve and to which they have particular relationships. This system of relationships is called a tonal system, tonality, or mode. Scales, containing specific intervals, represent by those intervals particular tonalities - e.g., a major scale represents a major tonality, a minor scale a minor tonality.

    "Key" is a concept originating within a particular tonal system, the Western major-minor system. It indicates the location of the tonal center within a piece of music. A piece in C major is in the key of C. At some point in the piece the tonal center may shift to F, and we would say that the piece modulates to the key of F. If the piece begins and ends in C but has a middle section in F, we might still say for convenience that the piece is in C despite a temporary excursion into a different key. "Scale" is relevant only in that we recognize the keys of C and F major by their use of the C major and F major scales; if the middle section of the piece modulated into F minor rather than F major, it would be using the minor scale (with its flat third degree) rather than the major scale. A key is not a scale, but is identified by the scale it uses - by the location of its tonal center and by the relationship of its other tones to that center.

    You can indeed use multiple scales within a single key. You can use any notes you want. It's the way in which you use them that determines whether you can reasonably say you're in a certain key. It would make no sense to give a piece a key signature of three flats and say that it's in Eb major while spending most of your time in A minor, but you can certainly use some A minor tonality, even a clear modulation into A minor. To achieve that, you'd use, for a certain length of time, the notes found in the A minor scale.
    Last edited by Woodduck; Mar-26-2020 at 07:39.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    This is not complicated, but it takes a bit of time to explain.

    A scale is simply any set of notes presented in ascending or descending order of pitch. Any particular scale ascends or descends by specific intervals that distinguish that scale from other scales. For example, the major scale (say from C to C) ascends by whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step. The natural minor scale ascends by whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step. The Lydian scale ascends by whole step, whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, half step. It's the pattern of intervals between steps that determines a scale's special identity and name; any scale can begin at any pitch and maintain its identity as major, minor, etc, as long as its pattern of intervals remains the same. Thus we can have a C major scale, a D major scale, etc.

    Applied to actual music, the pattern of intervals in whatever scale is used are important in the structure of the music. Most important is the scale's starting note, which has a special function and status. Music that uses a particular scale - major, minor, etc. - assumes the first note of that scale as its tonal center, the tone we feel as the strongest point of resolution around which other tones revolve and to which they have particular relationships. This system of relationships is called a tonal system, tonality, or mode. Scales, containing specific intervals, represent by those intervals particular tonalities - e.g., a major scale represents a major tonality, a minor scale a minor tonality.

    "Key" is a concept originating within a particular tonal system, the Western major-minor system. It indicates the location of the tonal center within a piece of music. A piece in C major is in the key of C. At some point in the piece the tonal center may shift to F, and we would say that the piece modulates to the key of F. If the piece begins and ends in C but has a middle section in F, we might still say for convenience that the piece is in C despite a temporary excursion into a different key. "Scale" is relevant only in that we recognize the keys of C and F major by their use of the C major and F major scales; if the middle section of the piece modulated into F minor rather than F major, it would be using the minor scale (with its flat third degree) rather than the major scale. A key is not a scale, but is identified by the scale it uses - by the location of its tonal center and by the relationship of its other tones to that center.

    You can indeed use multiple scales within a single key. You can use any notes you want. It's the way in which you use them that determines whether you can reasonably say you're in a certain key. It would make no sense to give a piece a key signature of three flats and say that it's in Eb major while spending most of your time in A minor, but you can certainly use some A minor tonality, even a clear modulation into A minor. To achieve that, you'd use, for a certain length of time, the notes found in the A minor scale.
    I largely agree with Woodduck, and I'm glad that he distinguishes between a scale/tonality/mode and a CP key signature.

    Quote Originally Posted by youngcapone View Post
    Originally, I thought that key and scale were essentially the same thing. I thought "key" was just a way of saying that (for the most part) we will be using notes from a certain scale. Maybe, C major, maybe B minor etc… But, the more I’ve studied theory there seems to be a deeper, more fundamental difference between the two.
    I know exactly what you mean. You're probably a person who uses his ear and hears these kinds of similarities. Then, conceptual questions begin to appear to you. Like me, you are going to have to eventually learn that there are differences in what our ear tells us, and the rules & regulations of the Western CP major/minor tonal system.
    If you are more of an "ear" person, I suggest that you look at jazz theory very closely. That's not to say you shouldn't keep on learning CP theory, but I think the jazz and more modern approaches will clear things up for you. Jazz players use their ears, and the approach to their "theory" reflects this.


    Quote Originally Posted by youngcapone View Post
    For example, apparently you can use multiple scales within one key. I don’t understand why the key of C major would be called C major if you can use notes from other scales… My first thought would be that multiple scales can use the same notes, which makes sense. But, then my next question would be, can you use notes outside of the C major scale in the key of c major?
    I think this question reflects a sense of restriction of the CP idea "being in a key" and using key signatures. If you look at some jazz instructional videos, you can look at how different scales can be used over different chords. You might eventually realize that in many cases, key signatures are just something we "ear" players learn to accept and work around. Trust your ear, always.

    Quote Originally Posted by youngcapone View Post
    I've also heard “it all has to do with the concept of tonality”. I have a vague understanding of tonality, so how specifically does tonality determine what can be played or should be played within a certain key?
    Woodduck is correct in what he says above, so read it carefully, then read it again. On this forum, in many lengthy discussions, there finally emerged a definition(s) of 'tonal' and 'tonality,' and yes, this definition of 'tonal' is more general and inclusive than you might think. It is an more of an "ear" definition. CP tonality can be included, but does not use this general definition;

    "Tonality" is usually used to denote the CP tonal system exclusively, leaving out 'folk' and 'ethnic' forms of general tonality, so it's important to remember this in discussions of music here. In the CP tonal system, it's major/minor scales.

    Quote Originally Posted by youngcapone View Post
    I feel like if I've learned anything in music theory it's that there are a lot of rules, but even more exceptions to the rules. Just saying that so you know I get that your answer probably won’t be as cut and dry as I'm asking haha
    Music theory does not have to be full of rules and restrictions. That's the CP system, and I suggest you do learn the CP version of it, but bearing in mind that it was specifically designed for music of an earlier period.
    Why learn it? Because all of the notation, key signatures, letter names, and more, are "the system" that all musicians use when they want to write music down, and communicate with other musicians. But if you want to play jazz or make soundtrack music, or use computers to make modern music, then study some jazz theory.

    "Did I offend anyone?"-Frank Zappa
    Last edited by millionrainbows; Mar-26-2020 at 15:03.

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    Quote Originally Posted by youngcapone View Post
    I don’t understand why the key of C major would be called C major if you can use notes from other scales… My first thought would be that multiple scales can use the same notes, which makes sense.
    In the key of C there will be a many references to the major triad . This is the identifier . Dance around it at as you please , tease it , diverge and return .

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    Senior Member Woodduck's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Tikoo Tuba View Post
    In the key of C there will be a many references to the major triad . This is the identifier . Dance around it at as you please , tease it , diverge and return .
    That's typical, but you can write a piece easily identifiable as being in C major without ever sounding a C major chord.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    That's typical, but you can write a piece easily identifiable as being in C major without ever sounding a C major chord.
    Yeah, who needs triads?

    ...But the ear can Perceive a key center and do it much faster and easier than the brain (cognitive aspects).

    Saying "you can write a piece easily identifiable as being in C major without ever sounding a C major chord" doesn't prove or disprove anything. It's all CP ideological rhetoric.

    I can identify many words with missing letters. For example:

    iscontinuous pattern
    nrequited love
    tupid idiot
    eautiful girl,

    etcetera. That metaphor is biased towards the cognitive aspects; it doesn't really explain what makes music work; as above, you have to use your brain to infer these kinds of cognitive meanings.

    In music, it's the ear which puts things into context, not the brain, as above. If not, you are visually biased; you want music to be like a book: uniform, continuous, and connected, and dependent on cognitive processes and corresponding simple precise meanings.

    What are you trying to say here, Woodduck? That a collection of CP "devices" is what makes a key center, not the ear? And that if you accumulate enough of these "devices" that a "key area" or "tonality" will be perceived, according to CP standards?

    I think the egg came before the chicken, and furthermore, that the chicken was the egg's idea to get more eggs.

    I think the reason you think this way is because the music you like (Wagner, etc) is "spread out" into these long narrative sections of time. Things are based on travel to & from key areas, over periods of time. This is unlike Indian raga music, in which "key areas' are simply established once, by the drone tambura, and is "not an issue."

    But can't you see that this CP music is a result of these drawn-out processes,, and not the primary cause of tonality, centers of key, etc?

    Or are you so carried away by these forms that you will not consider the notion that they are not primary causes of Man's innate ability to perceive tonality?

    If not, then please stop talking as if they are.

    I fully agree that the language of CP tonality is beautiful, the way it does this. I listen to it. But I see both sides, and realize that "the drone' is the ear, and this is the prime cause.
    Last edited by millionrainbows; Mar-27-2020 at 17:03.

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    Senior Member Tikoo Tuba's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    That's typical, but you can write a piece easily identifiable as being in C major without ever sounding a C major chord.
    An arpeggio will do . And in reference to the triad , this might just be two
    of its tones in sequence with the root featured often enough to identify it .
    Last edited by Tikoo Tuba; Mar-27-2020 at 17:15.

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    Senior Member Woodduck's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    Yeah, who needs triads?
    That depends on what you need them FOR.

    ...But the ear can Perceive a key center and do it much faster and easier than the brain (cognitive aspects).
    Nonsense. The ear merely vibrates. The brain perceives. It's basic neuroscience.

    Saying "you can write a piece easily identifiable as being in C major without ever sounding a C major chord" doesn't prove or disprove anything. It's all CP ideological rhetoric.
    I wasn't trying to prove or disprove anything. And it isn't "ideological rhetoric." It's simply a true statement which qualifies Tikoo Tuba's statement. I believe it's acceptable to make simple, true statements without some pretentious *** butting in with a gratuitous putdown and a truckload of irrelevant verbiage, such as:

    I can identify many words with missing letters. For example:

    iscontinuous pattern
    nrequited love
    tupid idiot
    eautiful girl,

    etcetera. That metaphor is biased towards the cognitive aspects; it doesn't really explain what makes music work; as above, you have to use your brain to infer these kinds of cognitive meanings.

    In music, it's the ear which puts things into context, not the brain, as above. If not, you are visually biased; you want music to be like a book: uniform, continuous, and connected, and dependent on cognitive processes and corresponding simple precise meanings.

    What are you trying to say here, Woodduck? That a collection of CP "devices" is what makes a key center, not the ear? And that if you accumulate enough of these "devices" that a "key area" or "tonality" will be perceived, according to CP standards?

    I think the egg came before the chicken, and furthermore, that the chicken was the egg's idea to get more eggs.

    I think the reason you think this way is because the music you like (Wagner, etc) is "spread out" into these long narrative sections of time. Things are based on travel to & from key areas, over periods of time. This is unlike Indian raga music, in which "key areas' are simply established once, by the drone tambura, and is "not an issue."

    But can't you see that this CP music is a result of these drawn-out processes,, and not the primary cause of tonality, centers of key, etc?

    Or are you so carried away by these forms that you will not consider the notion that they are not primary causes of Man's innate ability to perceive tonality?

    If not, then please stop talking as if they are.

    I fully agree that the language of CP tonality is beautiful, the way it does this. I listen to it. But I see both sides, and realize that "the drone' is the ear, and this is the prime cause.
    This is sloppy nonsense, and completely irrelevant to the statement it pretends to be responding to. The ability to perceive C major in music that contains no C major triad is based on acquired knowledge of a tonal system. All this "ear-brain" dichotomizing is fallacious and beside the point.
    Last edited by Woodduck; Mar-27-2020 at 19:48.

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    Senior Member millionrainbows's Avatar
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    Yeah, who needs triads?

    ...But the ear can Perceive a key center and do it much faster and easier than the brain (cognitive aspects).

    Saying "you can write a piece easily identifiable as being in C major without ever sounding a C major chord" doesn't prove or disprove anything. It's all CP ideological rhetoric.

    I can identify many words with missing letters. For example:

    iscontinuous pattern
    nrequited love
    tupid idiot
    eautiful girl,

    etcetera. That metaphor is biased towards the cognitive aspects; it doesn't really explain what makes
    music work; as above, you have to use your brain to infer these kinds of cognitive meanings.

    In music, it's the ear which puts things into context, not the brain, as above. If not, you are visually biased; you want music to be like a book: uniform, continuous, and connected, and dependent on cognitive processes and corresponding simple precise meanings.

    What are you trying to say here, Woodduck? That a collection of CP "devices" is what makes a key center, not the ear? And that if you accumulate enough of these "devices" that a "key area" or "tonality" will be perceived, according to CP standards?

    I think the egg came before the chicken, and furthermore, that the chicken was the egg's idea to get more eggs.

    I think the reason you think this way is because the music you like (Wagner, etc) is "spread out" into these long narrative sections of time. Things are based on travel to & from key areas, over periods of time. This is unlike Indian raga music, in which "key areas' are simply established once, by the drone tambura, and is "not an issue."

    But can't you see that this CP music is a result of these drawn-out processes,, and not the primary cause of tonality, centers of key, etc?

    Or are you so carried away by these forms that you will not consider the notion that they are not primary causes of Man's innate ability to perceive tonality?

    If not, then please stop talking as if they are.

    I fully agree that the language of CP tonality is beautiful, the way it does this. I listen to it. But I see both sides, and realize that "the drone' is the ear, and this is the prime cause.

    Yeah, who needs triads?
    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    That depends on what you need them FOR.
    You said you could estabish a tonality without using a tonic triad, which is cognitive. Triads are the basis of tonality more than cognitive trickery and artifice. Saying "you can write a piece easily identifiable as being in C major without ever sounding a C major chord" doesn't prove or disprove anything. It's all CP ideological rhetoric.
    The ear can Perceive a key center and do it much faster and easier than the brain (cognitive aspects).
    Nonsense. The ear merely vibrates. The brain perceives. It's basic neuroscience.
    I won't dignify that with a response.
    I wasn't trying to prove or disprove anything. And it isn't "ideological rhetoric." It's simply a true statement which qualifies Tikoo Tuba's statement. I believe it's acceptable to make simple, true statements without some pretentious *** butting in with a gratuitous putdown and a truckload of irrelevant verbiage, such as:
    You've always tried to prove the same old point; that a sense of tonality is established by all these CP gimmicks which are spread out over a narrative distance, to be read like "War and Peace." That's not true except in a CP context. "Tonality" is heard immediately by the ear, which is of course connected to the brain.
    This is sloppy nonsense, and completely irrelevant to the statement it pretends to be responding to. The ability to perceive C major in music that contains no C major triad is based on acquired knowledge of a tonal system. All this "ear-brain" dichotomizing is fallacious and beside the point.
    Exactly; glad to hear you finally say it. Perceiving tonal centers is an innate ability, not learned.
    Last edited by millionrainbows; Mar-28-2020 at 02:30.

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    Senior Member Tikoo Tuba's Avatar
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    I am an elder of the rainbow family of living light . You do not respect me , nor acknowledge me when
    you make my idea the center of your view . hmm . 'scuse this simplicity . I am embarrassed to think this .

    rainbow , million rainbows ,
    a rainbow around the sun .

    Ha ha . (the last word of the OP's first post)
    Last edited by Tikoo Tuba; Mar-28-2020 at 03:18.

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    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    You said you could estabish a tonality without using a tonic triad, which is cognitive. Triads are the basis of tonality more than cognitive trickery and artifice. Saying "you can write a piece easily identifiable as being in C major without ever sounding a C major chord" doesn't prove or disprove anything. It's all CP ideological rhetoric.
    It's obvious that tonality is something perceived, regardless of whether or not we go on to conceptualize it. My original statement, "you can write a piece easily identifiable as being in C major without ever sounding a C major chord," is simply true. Schumann does it for quite a stretch in his C major Fantasy (a work I brought up in an exchange with you about implicit tonal centers in Wagner, the very idea of which you pooh-poohed for some reason I can't even remember). I've never said that we needed to think about tonality in order to know it's there. However, if we want to know that the piece in question is specifically in C major, we have to know what C major is. That's where theory enters: first perception, then conceptualization as needed.

    The ear can perceive a key center and do it much faster and easier than the brain (cognitive aspects).
    Of course. I never said it couldn't, although I don't accept the terminology. Perception is a function of the brain; the ear merely sends the brain vibratory data.

    You've always tried to prove the same old point; that a sense of tonality is established by all these CP gimmicks which are spread out over a narrative distance, to be read like "War and Peace."
    I don't know what that means. How can a sense of tonality be "established"? You either sense something or you don't. In any case, I've written a number of times about tonality on this forum over six years, and have repeatedly called it a natural phenomenon that arises in music all over the world in part because the human brain spontaneously tries to organize percepts - and, be it noted, concepts - hierarchically. (There are other reasons for tonality's appeal; the psychological concept of "cross-domain mapping" - a sort of "metaphorizing" of one mode of perception by another - seems to me particularly useful.)

    It's only common sense that the tonal organization of music has to take place before the level of conceptual thought is reached. Otherwise there would be no tonal music before the existence of theory, or in cultures lacking a theory of music altogether. There would be nothing to have a theory of.

    Perceiving tonal centers is an innate ability, not learned.
    I would modify this to note that innate abilities still require experience before they can be exercised, and that this involves learning, to varying extents. I don't think it's safe to assume that an innate ability to perceive tonality must always or automatically result in an actual perception of it.

    Unfortunately, you want so desperately to pigeonhole me as some sort of disembodied intellect divorced from physical sensation that you can't even read what I actually write. I doubt that there's anything you can tell this lifelong practicing musician about the relative roles of perception and conceptualization in the experience, study and making of music.
    Last edited by Woodduck; Mar-28-2020 at 08:03.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    You can indeed use multiple scales within a single key. You can use any notes you want. It's the way in which you use them that determines whether you can reasonably say you're in a certain key. It would make no sense to give a piece a key signature of three flats and say that it's in Eb major while spending most of your time in A minor,
    which is what makes this piece quite remarkable in my view:


    http://www.cmpcp.ac.uk/wp-content/up...011_Chueke.pdf
    "...The very first intriguing aspect we encounter is the non-establishment of any specific tonality, due to the absence not only of a key signature but also of a central tonality which would justify the allusion to C minor in the title...
    ...The same can be said about any of the numerous other tonalities suggested during the piece: none of them is sufficiently present to the point of being considered the tonic key...
    ...Through the Fantasy’s musical discourse, the confirmation of C minor as the main key is held until the end of the piece, justifying the term “musical plot”; the “mystery” will be solved only at the end, like in his operas, or Talk Classical music theory threads that invariably conclude with dénouement from millionrainbows..."
    Last edited by hammeredklavier; Mar-28-2020 at 07:13.

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    Senior Member Woodduck's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by hammeredklavier View Post
    which is what makes this piece quite remarkable in my view:


    http://www.cmpcp.ac.uk/wp-content/up...011_Chueke.pdf
    "...The very first intriguing aspect we encounter is the non-establishment of any specific tonality, due to the absence not only of a key signature but also of a central tonality which would justify the allusion to C minor in the title...
    ...The same can be said about any of the numerous other tonalities suggested during the piece: none of them is sufficiently present to the point of being considered the tonic key...
    ...Through the Fantasy’s musical discourse, the confirmation of C minor as the main key is held until the end of the piece, justifying the term “musical plot”; the “mystery” will be solved only at the end, like in his operas, or Talk Classical music theory threads that invariably conclude with dénouement from millionrainbows..."
    I don't think the term "musical plot" is justified, or that there's really a mystery to solve. A plot has logic, and a mystery has clues. This piece is in C minor at the end, but most of it consists of a constant shifting of keys that could just as well have led elsewhere. Mozart sensibly provides no key signature. This is the very opposite of Schumann's great Fantasie, which is definitely in C and provides plenty of clues but avoids cadencing in C major for about its first eleven minutes.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XZ7hE4lQAYs
    Last edited by Woodduck; Mar-28-2020 at 08:26.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    I don't think the term "musical plot" is justified, or that there's really a mystery to solve. A plot has logic, and a mystery has clues. This piece is in C minor at the end, but most of it consists of a constant shifting of keys that could just as well have led elsewhere. Mozart sensibly provides no key signature. This is the very opposite of Schumann's great Fantasie, which is definitely in C and provides plenty of clues but avoids cadencing in C major for about its first eleven minutes.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XZ7hE4lQAYs
    Yes, there are clues to the mystery. Mozart frequently "hints" using the "F sharp pivot". For instance, the chromatic mediant modulation that leads to D major at 2:10. This is explained in another article <W.A. Mozart’s Fantasy in C minor, K. 475, And the Generalization of the Lydian Principle Through Motivic Thorough-Composition>
    There's logic in it , and with it, the work inspired Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt (structurally), Grieg, Tchaikovsky.
    I on the other hand have never really sympathized with other people's enthusiasm for Schumann's "GREAT" Fantasie, which honestly I think just meanders around all over the place for the sake of wandering around lacking sense of control, cohesion or inspired melodic & transitional ideas. (sounds kind of generic to me, like Liszt's lesser rhapsodic works tbh. Or his improvisations written down.) Each to their own. But I do think Schumann did write better piano works like the second sonata.
    (Sorry, but for this particular case, the idea of improvising for 11 minutes with constant arpeggiated figurations with the rule of not cadencing on C seems kind of 'pedantic' to me. Too pedantic for Romantic composers of the likes of Schumann, who express best when freed from constraints. It just doesn't suit their temperament. It reminds me of the awkward cyclic idea Schubert tried with his Piano Trio. Maybe someone like Brahms would have been the best guy for the job.)
    Last edited by hammeredklavier; Mar-28-2020 at 13:14.

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    To supplement Woodduck's dissertation (), I'll add this:

    There is no substantive relationship between the terms. The C major scale is a collection of seven notes played in an ascending or descending direction. Passages in the key of C major can include all twelve pitches of the chromatic collection (in at least one spelling).

    What greater comfort does time afford than the objects of terror re-encountered and their fraudulence exposed in the flash of reason?
    — William Gaddis, The Recognitions

    Originality is a device untalented people use to impress other untalented people and to protect themselves from talented people.
    Basil Valentine

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