Archive for the ‘Pitch imperfect’ Category

Christmas Carols transposed

Jean and I played organ (Jean) and piano (me) at a Christmas Festival of Lessons and Carols yesterday evening. The piano was tuned a semitone sharper than the organ necessitating some on-the-hoof transposing for us both. She played the sharp key carols a semitone down and I did the flat key ones a semitone up. It is easier to do it that way since you read the notes as set as if it were with the flatter or sharper key signature. So G major ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ was played by Jean in G flat major; I played in G. I played B flat major ‘Silent Night’ in B major; Jean played in B flat major.

All went pretty swimmingly bar the occasional forgotten C flat (Jean) or E sharp (me). When we came to the last carol, ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ (G major), my concentration was flagging. Jean played the introduction in G flat major. My brain heard F sharp major (the same sound because G flat and F sharp are the same note). And (horror!), my fingers moved on to the black keys of F sharp/G flat major. As verse 1 began, in I came with Felix Mendelssohn’s block chords in F sharp major. The piano being a semitone sharp, this sounded in G major producing a clash with Jean’s G flat major chords on the organ. Fortunately, 3 chords in, I realised what I’d done and shifted my fingers up a semitone. The Herald Angels were singing so loudly that my faux pas passed unnoticed.

What this showed is that my brain can still hear F sharp major at its true pitch, rather than the more usual semitone up of my Pitch Imperfect transition (unless the organ was tuned a semitone flat, of course…..).

Wishing all a Happy in-tune Christmas 2022


In the latter part of 2021, it was clear to me that I had lost in D major. All D major pieces sounded in E flat major from the start. This also applied in the Christmas period to the standard carols Joy to the World and The First Nowell. So I was very surprised this evening when watching the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s New Year’s Day concert when that old warhorse, the Blue Danube waltz, was in its unequivocal D major start and finish. Clearly, some warhorses are more deeply ingrained than others.

No change

I started this thread nearly 10 years ago. In my last post I lamented an apparent extension of the change in my key perception. Today I have to acknowledge that some things have not changed at all over this period. Listening to the peerless second movement of Beethoven’s first piano concerto in one of my favourite keys, A flat major, I was aware that I was hearing it with no suggestion of a key shift. The roundness of A flat major was there from beginning to end. The dialogue in this key between the first clarinet and piano was serene. The wonderful full sound of a dominant sevenths and big chords that Beethoven gives to the left hand of the pianist were there in all their fullness. Pre-lapsarian bliss!

More movement?

After a long period with little change (and no blog posts in Pitch Imperfect) I have become aware that I am having difficulty than before identifying the key that a piece of music I am listening to is in. Am I moving into the second semitone of shift that is described?

A moment of joy

Working at my computer, I had the 2nd movement of Rachmaninov’s 2nd piano concerto playing. I had used an example of Rachmaninov’s orchestration in this movement in the Knowing the Score programme on the clarinets. I tuned into the final minutes in a gap in my work concentration. I picked up the slow descending sequence of notes that the muted first violins were playing as the movement gently subsides to its close. There were the flute and clarinets quietly bobbing in the background. And finally the pianist builds a chord in the home key to put the movement to bed. Startled, I realised that I was hearing this and everything that had preceded it in that home key: E major.

Delight and joy; I thought that E major had disappeared for ever from my auditory sensorium. I hold that delicious final chord in my consciousness as I type.

A flat key holding a flat key?

In this case the key is A flat major. Jean was playing the piano while waiting for the arrival of our grandchild for a morning of joy. She started playing the A flat major slow movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata. Not unexpectedly I heard it in A major. I repeated the experiment I have chronicled before: I came up next to her and looked at her fingers playing all the flats and my sense of the key change back to A flat major without any change in the actual sound.

Two days later we were privileged to attend a piano recital by David Earl. First on his list was that Pathetique Sonata. It is in C minor which has remained (so far) one of the strong keys for me. So the first movement was thoroughly satisfying in this questing minor key. I wondered what would happen to the slow movement. I needn’t have worried – it was wonderfully held in A flat major even after the intrinsic modulations that Beethoven incorporates, right through to the gentle chords at the end. And of course the Finale stayed in C minor always through.

David Earl follow the Beethoven with some Chopin Impromptus. The first one was the A flat major one which carried on the tradition of sounding in the key. The test came with the F sharp major Impromptu. F sharp major is a weak key, and I fully expected to hear things in G major, a semitone up. This did not happen until the key changed in the D major central section. Things went awry at this point as D major rapidly shifted into E flat major which it tends to do these days. And from then on the the rest of the Impromptu was in the wrong key. And the C sharp minor Fantasy Impromptu which followed did something most disturbing: it started in D minor and the middle section was in D major. This totally altered the feeling of the piece, disappointingly. It almost made a nonsense of it.

Schumann’s Carnaval was to come in the second half of the recital. This is entirely in flat keys with A flat major as the base key. It is one of my favourite musical suites and I have enjoyed playing it to the best of my ability on the piano. I know how the pieces feel under the fingers. So when David started playing in what seemed to be A major, I thought I would be in for over half an hour of further disappointment. However as the first section was coming to an end, I saw his finger playing a white note where A major would have had a black note. And miraculously the music transmuted back into A flat major. Every one of the miniatures from then on was in the correct key and I had a wonderful Carnaval experience.

Wonderful experience

I have had a wonderful experience. It was like old times – better in fact because of the novelty and sense of restoration that I could not have had before the pitch changes began to alter my musical perception and to undermine my consequent appreciation.

I was listening to the early morning programme on BBC Radio 3 (available online at any time of day). Mozart’s 23rd Piano Concerto in A major’s final movement was the next item on the playlist. It started vigorously in A major. ‘Ok’, I thought, ‘this won’t last. How long till B flat major arrives?’. On we went with no hint at all of any shift. This was strange. What was going on? I thought back to the announcement – a fortepiano performance with Michael Chang. Perhaps the performers including the fortepiano were playing in the pitch of Mozart’s time, significantly lower than modern concert pitch. Holding an A in my head, I went to the piano and played an A. Not the A they were playing – it was a sharper version. They were in 18th-19th century concert pitch.

I settled down to enjoy uninterrupted A major, knowing that there was no chance of any shift taking place. I could enjoy each modulation, every return to the tonic key. Freedom! Rare joy!

Please will someone invent a hearing aid that auto-translates music to a pitch that my brain will interpret as the original key. Or it is period performances for me if I crave a ‘retro’ experience. That limits the eras I can retro-fit sadly, so it is not a complete answer.

Juxtaposition of regret

By coincidence I have listened to the slow movements of Brahms’ 2nd symphony and the ‘Emperor’ concerto of Beethoven this morning. Both were written in dark, warm B major to be heard and experienced and appreciated in dark, warm B major. Sadly this beautiful key chosen by the composers for their statements of slow thoughtfulness now, from the outset, has the light blue sky colour of C major for me – utterly wrong for the music. No trace of B major remains.

The Rhine is fine

I had a lovely splurge of Wagner the other day. I watched an orchestra playing an arrangement of the highlights (best bits) from The Ring of the Nibelung. It started in the Rhine (‘in it!’, as Anna Russell emphasised). This is a long, long crescendo in E flat major that starts deep in the orchestra. I wondered whether the Rhine would change colour from E flat major to E major as flowed from the deep ever more strongly. I can happily report that it did not. The Rhine is fine.

The Valkyries still ride in B minor, I am happy to report.

The Rainbow Bridge over which the Gods make their harp-filled entrance into Valhalla was rather wobbly between G flat major and G major. I could shift what I was hearing between the two keys at will. I feared for the Gods’ future.

Samson is Strong

Well, technically it was Delilah in this instance. I was driving to the accompaniment of Delilah (in the form of a Russian mezzo-soprano) singing ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix’, from Saint Saens’ opera ‘Samson and Delilah’, with its sinuous descending scale tune. I was enjoying the composer’s wonderful skill and the soprano’s interpretation thereof when it occurred to me that I was hearing it in Saint Saens’ chosen key of D flat major. No suggestion of neighbouring D major. Samson and I were seduced by D flat major all over again.

Return top