#AskVidasAndAusra 80: Why do I need to know the rules for enharmonic transposition if the notes sound the same?
Vidas: Let’s start Episode 80 of #AskVidasAndAusra podcast. Today’s question was sent by Ugochukwu, and he wants to know about enharmonic transposition. He writes, “Why do I need to know the rules for enharmonic transposition if the notes sound the same?
Ausra: Oh my God...
Vidas: This is a question about harmony; and first, let’s explain for people, what is enharmonic transposition.
Ausra: Well, in general, enharmonic means it sounds the same, but it’s written in a different manner. For example, F♯ and G♭. That’s the same note on the keyboard, but has a different meaning in a score. But you know, when a question like this rises, I just would like to ask Ugochukwu if he knows, for example, the Circle of Fifths.
Vidas: It’s hard to tell; I think he doesn’t. Maybe he has heard about the concept, but if you tell him, “Please tell us the exact order of keys,” I wouldn’t count on it.
Ausra: Well, if you don’t know what enharmonic means, and you don’t know how to do enharmonic modulation, it means that theoretically you cannot realize the music you are playing, especially if you are playing, Romantic music and modern music. Because look what happens in the Circle of Fifths: if you will not change keys enharmonically, you go, let’s say from C Major, which has zero accidentals.
Then you go to a fifth above, you have G Major with one sharp and then D Major with 2 sharps, A Major with three sharps, E major with four sharps; then you go to B major with five sharps, and then you come to the F♯ Major with six sharps. In this place you should have to change enharmonically to G♭, and then you would start moving into the direction of the flats by omitting one of the flats. But if you wouldn’t do that, so instead of D♭ Major, you would receive C♯ Major and then G♯ Major…
Vidas: How many sharps do you have with C♯ Major?
Ausra: You have 7, and that’s the most you can have in music. Because other sharp keys moving up from C♯ Major, would have double sharps; and we don’t use that. We don’t create keys like this in real music. You could do that theoretically, but you could have the key of G♯ Major, but it would have six sharps and one double sharp.
Ausra: And then D♯ Major would have like 5 sharps and 2 double sharps. That’s you know, artificial keys; we don’t use those in music. So for example, yes, F♯ and G♭ sound the same, but they have completely different musical meaning.
Vidas: You have to specify a little bit that F♯ and G♭ sound the same on a keyboard that is tuned in equal temperament.
Ausra: Yes, but let’s not go now into historical temperaments. Just focus on this, on equal temperament. For example, let’s say if you are in the key of g minor, for example, and you have a dominant 7th chord--D, F♯, A, and C--could you write in the music, like, G♭? No, because it would not make any sense.
Ausra: Well, because in the key of g minor, it would be the first scale degree lowered, and we do not do that.
Ausra: That’s inappropriate! That’s simply...you know, you could not say in math, like that 2 + 2 = 3, because it equals 4. So this is the same. They’re just, like, general rules.
Vidas: Ah, it’s like the sun revolving around the moon. Or the earth.
Vidas: Hahaha. Or vice versa. I always forget.
Ausra: And, for example, if you have an interval, like C to F--that’s a fourth, yes--and you invert them, you have F and C--that’s a fifth. That’s how it works. That’s just math. And the same with enharmonic things.
Vidas: Is it a rule or a law?
Ausra: I would say that’s a law.
Vidas: In tonal music.
Ausra: Yes, in tonal music.
Vidas: You have to specify which kind of music.
Ausra: Yes, in tonal music. But look, that tonal music, it goes all the way from Middle Ages to 20th century. And even in the 20th century, most composers still base their music on these laws.
Vidas: There was--or we could say, still is--a number of composers who don’t adhere to the rules of tonal harmony, right? And they treat any pitch of the chromatic scale as a tonic in serial Dodecaphonic style.
Ausra: Well, yes there are exceptions; but for example, look, if you have a composition, let’s say, whose home key is D♭ Major, and if composers will start to confuse this key, D♭ Major, with for example, C♯ Major which are enharmonically the same, yes?
Ausra: You just will not be able to learn it.
Vidas: It’s like sometimes when I play a composition or improvisation on my keyboard, which is connected to the computer through Sibelius program--and notes appear on the screen right away (with weird syncopations, perhaps, I have to clean it up later), but what I improvise, could be written down, right--instantly. And if I play in some kind of tonal mode (major, minor, very simple and understandable), sometimes a certain flat or certain sharp gets mixed up in Sibelius. And instead of D♯, they write E♭. Suddenly, in let’s say, in a e minor piece: instead of D♯, I would get E♭. It’s weird. E♭ is not present in e minor.
Ausra: Yes, yes.
Vidas: So that’s why we need to know what fits together--what works together in each key, so that you could respell it enharmonically, if you want.
Ausra: Sure. And because we are organists, usually the texture that we play is so thick. It’s based on functional harmony--where you cannot avoid knowledge of chords and knowing what fits together and what does not fit. So then, it makes a big difference if you are having F♯ or G♭. And by learning new pieces, the more you know theoretically about composition, about how the piece is put together, about all those chords, the easier it will be for you to learn it. And when I receive a question like this, I would suggest for a person to really take music theory seriously.
Ausra: You really need it. Because otherwise, if you are theoretically well-educated, I don’t think that such a question would rise at all. Usually kids in my school in like 6th or 7th grade may ask question like this.
Vidas: Teenagers who want to challenge you?
Ausra: Yes, yes, yes.
Vidas: Who think they’re smarter than you?
Ausra: That’s right.
Vidas: Right. So guys, we can recommend, of course, starting with our basic chord workshop and learning the circle of keys, and any other courses in music theory and/or harmony collection. But this really helps you to grow as an organist in the long run. You will know how the piece is put together, you will know what the notes on the sheet music mean, what the composer was thinking when he or she created that masterpiece that you are playing right now.
Ausra: That’s true. Because in life, you can teach different things to different creatures--for example, a bear can ride a bike. I have seen it in the circus.
Ausra: But--it’s not the same with human beings. We have more evolved brains, and we can make decisions, right decisions. And we can teach other people to ride a bike--I don’t think a bear could teach other bears to ride a bike!
Ausra: So, I think knowing what you’re doing and understanding things is what separates us from other mammals. So just use your potential.
Vidas: Yeah. And teach other people how to ride a bike. Excellent! Please, guys, send us more of your questions. And remember, when you practice…
Ausra: Miracles happen.
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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