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A childish question about music theory!

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(@dinah)
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Hello everyone 👋,

@Jen

I'm asking a question related to your other post about the minor key (I created a separate post so as not to derail the conversation in the original).

You mentioned

Posted by: @jen

And then there’s the matter of how sharp, how flat?  

The childish question from a music theory newbie, here 🙋‍♀️ would be :

It is my limited understanding (please correct me if I am wrong) that on the piano for example the (actual physical) "black" key between, let's say C and D would be called either C#, since it's a half step above natural C, or Db, since it's a half step below natural D, right? So the silly childish question is: the note this key plays is always, obviously, going to sound the same, whether we call it C sharp or D flat? Why then does it have two names?

My guess is that it's either sharp or flat relative to its neighbors?

(n. b. @capriccio, I think you should set up a "music theory for dummies" section or something, if only for my benefit 🤣).

Of course other members' input is always welcome.

Thanks, guys, for allowing me to take advantage of your musical expertise! 🙏


   
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 Jen
(@jen)
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Actually, that’s a great question, and it’s not easy to give a brief answer, but I’ll give it my best shot…

You are right: on a piano a C# and a Dflat are identical in every respect (except they are notated differently).

However, the physics that defines the tuning of intervals means that the precise pitch of any note depends on the function of that note within a key.  So a C# and a Dflat are not actually the same note. It sounds weird but it’s true!  

And rather than playing these notes on a piano, if you were to sing a C# (say as the 7th note in scale of Dmajor) you would naturally pitch it a little differently to a Dflat (say as the fourth note in the scale of Aflat major).   

That is the challenge of tuning an instrument with 12 fixed-pitch semitones in an octave: you can tune a C# so it sounds perfect in D major, but it won’t sound great in Aflat major.  Or you can tune with equal temperament, where each of 12 semitones are equally spaced, and they sound equally ‘almost right’ in every key, but exactly right in none.

And that is why, before the invention of equal temperament, the scale in each key had a distinct character, a feature that composers would take advantage of to create different moods.  The association of mood and key continues today (although today, with equal temperament, each major (or minor) key actually has the same character as every other major (or minor) key, except the whole scale is obviously at a different pitch).

 


   
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(@dinah)
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Thanks @Jen 🙏

That's a little bit clearer now. Still have to get my head around it, though.

 

Posted by: @jen

And that is why, before the invention of equal temperament, the scale in each key had a distinct character, a feature that composers would take advantage of to create different moods. 

I guess that's why so many of us are drawn to earlier music, then! You see, even though I didn't know much about keys etc... I still "felt" that music had a "distinct character" as you call it, an unconsciously appealing flavor, if you will!


   
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(@dinah)
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Posted by: @jen

(although today, with equal temperament, each major (or minor) key actually has the same character as every other major (or minor) key, except the whole scale is obviously at a different pitch).

Got it 👍

Starting to sink in. I'll eventually triumph over that mystery called music theory! Will be asking a lot of (probably stupid) questions though, so bear with me😂


   
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 Jen
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I still have to get my head round it too! It’s mind bending that the physics of tuning requires each of the semitone intervals to be different sizes.  And the size of the semitone interval, say between a C and a C#, varies depending on which key you play it in!

A piano can’t accommodate that,  so its tuning can only ever be one sort of a compromise or another.  In the compromise of equal temperament every semitone interval is equal. And they’re all very slightly wrong.

But with an instrument like the voice or a violin you can get the microtuning exactly right in the way that physics requires; you can nudge your tuning up or down a bit so that a C# is a slightly different pitch to a DFlat, but perfectly tuned in the key in which you sing.

It’s so hard to explain this well - can anyone help out (or provide a link to a good description on the internet)?!


   
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(@dinah)
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Semitone 🤔

That's the same as half-step, right?!

 

By the way: your explanation is quite clear, don't worry!

But of course input from other members will be highly appreciated. 🙏


   
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 Jen
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Thanks, Dinah!

We use the term semitone in the uk, but yes, I understand that ‘half-step’ is the same thing.


   
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(@capriccio)
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This is fascinating. Thanks @dinah for your question and @jen for your explanations. As someone who has played piano, oboe, guitar and banjo, I've experienced what you're describing, Jen, but never dug down into the science of it.

It makes me smile to think of the oboe as the pitch setter for the orchestra, except when a piano enters the mix and forces the whole orchestra to set it's pitch from an essentially pitch-deaf instrument!

On the banjo, in particular, it can be extraordinarily difficult to maintain an exact tuning. As soon as I play music in a different key, I have to adjust the tuning. Even songs in the same key may require a slight tuning adjustment. It becomes more complicated because, unlike the guitar with its standard E-A-D-G-B-E, the banjo regularly uses dozens of different tunings, including standard gBGBD, Double C-tuning gCGCD, my favourite G Modal "Mountain Minor" gDGCD (alternatively tuned as aEADE). G Modal eliminates the third of the G chord and the result is a G suspended 4th chord. Once you eliminate the third of the chord, you can't tell if it is a major or minor chord.

I also remember my piano teacher, Lottie Edwards, recounting the story of a concert she attended, probably sometime in the 1950s. The soloist was a leading Japanese soprano, accompanied by orchestra. Lottie said she sang everything fractionally off pitch, maybe a hundredth of a tone, possibly because she was used to a different pitch system from our Western ears. 


   
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(@dinah)
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Posted by: @jen

We use the term semitone in the uk, but yes,

 

👍

I must have been reading from American material, then!


   
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Posted by: @capriccio

It makes me smile to think of the oboe as the pitch setter for the orchestra, except when a piano enters the mix and forces the whole orchestra to set it's pitch from an essentially pitch-deaf instrument!

Indeed 😂

And yes, modal music is another matter altogether!  I love the names of the different modes.  Hypomixolydian, anyone?


   
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Posted by: @capriccio

Lottie said she sang everything fractionally off pitch, maybe a hundredth of a tone, possibly because she was used to a different pitch system from our Western ears. 

I sometimes wonder if that’s why singers use vibrato: to wobble around any controversy over pitch.  No, of course not 😉


   
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(@dinah)
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Posted by: @jen

Hypomixolydian, anyone?

🤨


   
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(@dinah)
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Posted by: @jen

I sometimes wonder if that’s why singers use vibrato: to wobble around any controversy over pitch.  No, of course not 😉

Haha! They'd have to possess such a devious mind to resort to something like that!


   
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(@dinah)
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Thanks @capriccio for the in depth explanation. 🙏


   
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(@capriccio)
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@dinah hypomixolydian - take a C major scale - all white keys - and start it on D instead. 


   
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