Playing in other keys.

Playing in other keys.

At first I wanted to add this to the "muscle memory" thread but thought it might be better in a new thread. It seems to me that the more a player becomes familiar with the notion of interval as opposed to playing the notes the easier it becomes to play in different keys. Of course it becomes imperative to be able to hear and play any note, any interval, and that requires practicing….wait for it….scales. It’s easier to do on some instruments, whistles I think are the hardest and I have no idea about boxes and concertinas. I suppose fiddles, ‘zouks, banjoes are a bit tough because you pretty quickly lose the the open string (note: the capo helps a bit I think), but still doable. As flute player I find that even without keys A is pretty easy, C, F, and Flat (in that order and with a lot of octave hopping) not too bad.

If I may illustrate. 30 years ago I had to take a college 100 level piano course. Never mind why. The instructor used course material that stressed interval instead of notes. After a few weeks of scales and other basics, the first tune we played was written in G and we played in B Flat. Really drove the idea home. Interesting too was the way the method blended both sight reading, and ear-training. As a bassist I’ve relied heavily on interval to get me through the frequent times when I’m playing tunes I’ve never heard or played before or familiar tunes in new keys (A flat anyone?). Sometimes for vaudevillian variety my trombone player friend plays along. The sharp keys so common in trad are out of his comfort zone, but he does it anyway. How? Because he’s intimately familiar with his instrument and interval. One last example, I had a good friend, a pianist, who raised 6 kids by playing piano in lounges (sans Michelle Pfeiffer), and jazz venues. He could nearly double his tips because he could play any song requested in any key…this was before karaoke.

So if we can cement our neural pathways (muscle memory) why should it be harder to take the next step? On my bass it seems instinctive, on my flute, well, not so much. Is it because we’d just rather knock out tunes instead of developing real skills or is something else at work? I get that some instruments have limitations, but do we even push them to those limits? Your thoughts please. How do you feel about this?

Re: Playing in other keys.

I agree completely that learning melodies by intervals rather than by notes commits it to memory more fully. When practicing, I often play tunes in more than one key. If I can practice a tune in the relevant mode of both the D and G scales, I feel like it sticks in my memory better. With some creativity, most tunes are fairly easily playable in more than one key, even on flute and whistle.

And why stop with D and G scales, particularly if you play a chromatic instrument? Modes of A and C aren’t THAT hard on most instruments. And developing this skill has paid off for me in a lot of cases. I’ve played at many sessions where a well-known melody was played in an alternate key. Thanks to practicing not only scales but actively trying tunes in alternate keys in the woodshed, I was able to unconsciously play along, sometimes not even realizing that "it was weird to play that tune in C." Beyond that, it helps me remember tunes more like songs, sequences of melodic intervals rather than specific notes and finger patterns, which helps make the tune fit my "voice." :)

Re: Playing in other keys.

Some years ago , living in East Clare , I ventured to relearn a lot of my basic repertoire in C . It was a lot of brain work but well worth the effort , opened up a load of different ideas for ornaments and variation.
An amusing incident, I was playing a tune along with a c whistle and after I finished the guy opposite said , quite stunned , how did you do that ? , I replied one word :’ practice’ :-)
I can’t play all my tunes in flat keys but a good few and I did need the dots sometimes ! Even though I knew the tunes well, take them down a tone and my brain quickly became confused. The dots helped me keep some order to it.

Re: Playing in other keys.

I definitely think in intervals, not notes. However, this is all pretty subconscious. I don’t ever think "that note is 3 half steps above the note before it" in any conscious way. So I think being able to play in different keys is really a combination of being able to anticipate the intervals between notes, but also having built up the neural pathways for playing in the key you’re trying to play in.

For instance, a visitor at my session this last weekend played Musical Priest in A minor instead of B minor. And I didn’t think anything about it. About half way through the tune, I realized that it wasn’t in the normal key. But if you were to start it up in G minor, I would struggle to play it at session speed, because I don’t play a lot in G minor.

At a festival a few years ago, there was one session where some really great players were throwing tunes at each other in weird keys. I could handle some of it, but most of it was beyond my abilities, so I took it upon myself to start playing more in the flat keys, and changing tunes into less familiar keys. It’s slow work at first, but as with anything, the more you do it, the better you get at it and after a while it becomes less daunting…

Re: Playing in other keys.

On my Boehm flute, I play in any key on demand without effort. In over 35 years at itm, I have never had occasion to do anything of that nature.

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Re: Playing in other keys.

Ailin, with the exception of the fact that I don’t play Boehm, our experience is the same. ( I admire your ability to play the Boehm). Much of what I play too is in the familiar D or G. I do believe that what we call the Irish Trad flute (or something to that effect) was at one time the instrument you would find in the orchestra. I even remember hearing that some community orchestras, retro I think, still use them. The tunes we play in the folk tradition can be easily played on the wooden flutes we play but weren’t written for it. At the moment I find myself playing at a classical piece from Ravel and an Irish musical-hall piece that takes me into the 3 rd octave, to the G, (it’s beastly hard too). Could it be that the opportunities to play them (tunes in flat keys) are caused by the fact that they’re harder to play? I also have the sense that many fiddle players either hate, or can’t, play in keys that don’t rely on open strings away from the first position. I know that I lean on open strings on my banjo yet never, ever, use open strings on my bass. I’d bet that, at your skill level and with a little work you could transpose as easily on your Siccama flute.

Re: Playing in other keys.

I think in relative pitch. But, I think, it is more where the ntoes are in the scale rather than the intervals between them. Something like the way the shapes work in shape note singing, or in solfege.

Though I am sure that getting better at recognising intervals would help me, time spent getting better at recognising fah or la seems more productive.

I have learned a couple of tunes in G minor recently. It is fascinating how after practicing those and the G minor scale (stepwise or in thirds) some other very simple tunes in that key become feasable without much pause for thought.

Re: Playing in other keys.

Simple tunes that I already know in other keys, that is.

Re: Playing in other keys.

I think tunes written in a particular key for a particular instrument are the easiest that way and especially at speed.
Certain fiddle motifs, especially rapid switches over 2 strings (thinking the first motif of drowsy maggie et al) or arpeggios work in a particular key, some may be playable in other keys but some aren’t. Not at speed anyway.

Re: Playing in other keys.

I play in other keys all the time. You can never know of the musicians around you play a certain tune in another key (and it’s better to be prepared). You will also become more familar with the notes on the instrument.

You will move from "playing the notes" to "playing the tune". If someone starts a tune in another key, I never think "OK, this means I have to flatten these notes/sharpen those notes" - I just think "Gm" (or "C", "E", "Bm" etc.) and I either "see" the pattern or just feel it.

If you’re playing with singers, you can never know how much you have to adapt a certain tune. I don’t remember which song we did during last session, but it was in Bb, and the instrument at hand was a C#/D box. I had NEVER played the song before on that instrument (in any key), but of course I knew what to do, and it worked perfectly.

Re: Playing in other keys.

I’ve started bringing an A whistle to our sessions sometimes and play many tunes on it, just to practice playing in keys I’m not used to (fingering-wise). So I’m forced to think in intervals, not notes.
At one session another sessioneer asked me why I used the A whistle. When I told him why, he was surprised, since he only ever med whistle players who choose the whistle that’s easiest for the particular tune in the particular key.

Re: Playing in other keys.

I hear notes and I play them. I’m a parrot. The note is in my head and it might have been generated there or it might have come from outside. Doesn’t matter. That’s why I sometimes play along with a tune in a session and get stared at strangely because it’s a tune the player themselves composed the night before. If someone plays a wrong note I often play the same wrong note. If they wander off into a different tune then so do I. If they are in the wrong key then I play in the wrong key. I’m very bad at leading tunes because I have difficulty keeping going correctly when someone else has gone wrong. If someone plays with an incorrect, variable or wavering rhythm I’m often the only person who keeps playing along and I keep matching their odd rhythm by watching them - so I’m a mimic as well as a parrot.

It’s one of the reasons I hate pop music - now ubiquitous in pubs and shops. I’m distracted by it all the time because at some level I am reproducing this dreadful rubbish on an invisible instrument - and I can’t stop. I can’t turn off my ears and I can’t disconnect the parrot.

Re: Playing in other keys.

Ross, my point was that playing Irish in alternate keys serves no purpose and in my experience rarely comes up. I find 19th century flutes awkward to play chromatically, especially at fast tempos. These flutes are good for Irish because they can be played like a whistle. There’s a reason why the Boehm flute replaced it for classical music.

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Re: Playing in other keys.

I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that Beethoven was a big advocate of this approach for ear-training— he would transpose piano pieces into different keys for practice, and told his students to do the same. He was also well-known in his younger days as a great improviser. There are a number of crazy stories about his "duels" with piano players, in the salons of Vienna— he would do things like play the last guy’s piece with his elbows. (If anyone tries to film another Beethoven biopic, a la Immortal Beloved, they should really try to reconstruct one of these "duels"). The point is, it seems to have worked out OK for Beethoven.

As an amateur fiddler/mandolinist I think transposing is a useful skill to acquire, and it’s especially useful if you are trying to play something that wasn’t originally intended for your instrument, or trying to accompany a singer.

Re: Playing in other keys.

I think you are over analysing this a bit. You all seem to be learning the tune.
If I can hear it in my head I should be able to play it. I don’t think I necessarily hear a tune in a certain key.

Re: Playing in other keys.

Allan31 - Bingo.

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Re: Playing in other keys.

I’m tending to agree with Reverend, allan21, jeff l, david and Gallopede about playing the tune I know in whatever key, and also subconsciously thinking in intervals. As I’ve said in other threads, when I first started to play by ear (having previously been a "read-only" player), this was how I did it, as well as conjuring up a written score in my mind - "seeing the music". I no longer have to have the mental score.
As a player of both piano and B/C accordion, I am grateful for the "play in any key" possibilities of both: glad I didn’t go for the D/G box! On one music course I went to, led by a jazz trombonist for a mix of trad and jazz musicians, a lot of the tunes were in "flat keys", which was a big challenge, but hopefully rose to it, and managed some tunes in Bb and Eb.
And, yes, playing with singers who choose their key - also often Bb or F, it seems, gets you into more transposing. (That is, of course, if they ask you to play along or do a wee instrumental between verses!)

Re: Playing in other keys.

I hope this turns out to be germane to the issue, but something in Ross’ original post caught my attention. He said he didn’t know how it might be for boxes or concertinas. As a B/C player for the last 12 years after many prior years of strings & keyboard, there’s a factor that became apparent to me about 5 years ago that I haven’t heard mentioned.
That factor is the difference between the linear instruments and the button accordion. By linear, I’m referring to the fact that each and every note is in a certain location relative to all the others on a given instrument. On a keyboard, the eight notes of an octave in C occur on 8 different keys, with the other 5 notes of the chromatic scale interspersed among the white keys. That’s stretched out when you switch to a fretted instrument (or fiddle).
When I started on the B/C box, I used to find myself overreaching for notes all the time. It took a few years for me to realize that my mind was conceptualizing the location in relation to keyboard & fret board layouts. But on the box, with 2 notes for every button, that 8 key stretch for 8 notes shrinks to just 4 buttons (or 5 on the pull).
Once I started to check my tunes really slowly, my hand adjusted to where the notes actually were, rather than where my subconscious expected them to be. It’s made all the difference.
Since the Anglo concertina has the same push/pull set-up, I would expect this to be a significant factor on that instrument, also.
Anyone else notice this?

Re: Playing in other keys.

> When I started on the B/C box, I used to find myself overreaching for notes all the time.

Yep, 100%, and my mind’s playing exactly the same trick - I’m expecting the physical reach to match the interval.

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Re: Playing in other keys.

Yes indeed (B/C box): you’d expect the button pattern to repeat itself as you go up or down the octave, as the key pattern does on a piano keyboard, but no way - you just have to learn what every button does. It was also a while before I found my way around the B row alternative Es and Bs, which can help make certain sequences of notes easier to play, with less pushing and pulling.
The notes/buttons below middle C are arranged particularly confusingly, e.g low G (lower melodically than A) actually sits above it on the C row.

Re: Playing in other keys.

Actually, the arrangement of the buttons on a push/pull system is quite "logical", i.e. you have the "home" octave covered on four buttons - starting and ending with C. The range varies depending on the number of buttons on the home row, but at least anything above the home octave will move further away, as will anything below.

This is because it makes a lot of sense to have that the notes in the same bellows direction; the high D (after the home octave) must be on the NEXT button and so on.

By the way, it isn’t THAT different from how the notes move around on the fiddle. The D is an open string, a not on the A string played with the third finger, even higher on the E string…