AVA219: Would a given piece of music have the same "feel" if transposed to a different key?
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
Vidas: Let’s start Episode 219 of Ask Vidas and Ausra podcast. This question was sent in by Russell, and he writes:
I found your course while searching for guidance as how to educate myself in music theory.
I have a piano and an old Hammond organ, but I am not a musician. I read music, but only with difficulty.
I desire to learn music theory because I do not understand many things about music. Most importantly, would a given piece of music have the same "feel" if transposed to a different key? For example, why did Bach choose D-minor for the Toccata & Fugue, BWV 565, and C-minor for the Passacaglia & Fugue, BWV 582? Would music written all in the same key be boring or tiresome? Or does the key (other than major or minor) enhance the effect of a particular piece of music?
It seems to me that, for me, a good starting point would be to practice and memorize scales and chords.
I love classical organ, but I wonder how an organist manages to keep track of multiple voices, such as in a fugue. I wonder whether some brains are "wired" with this capability and others are incapable of playing polyphonic music. By the way, are organists typically ambidextrous?
At age seventy, I do not expect ever to become proficient on the organ, but I do find your instruction enlightening and welcome.
V: Ausra, this is a nice account of Russell’s experience because at this age when he’s 70 years old and still is interested in music theory, it’s a great gift!
A: Yes, you know, and I appreciate his question because some even professional musicians, they, you know, play for like 20, 30 years, and they never raise for themselves similar questions. So this is, I think, a very nice example of how people can, you know, think.
V: Obviously, if pieces are written in different keys, there is a reason for that.
A: Sure. And just a couple days ago Vidas and I gave a lecture at our school of art about historical temperaments. And, that’s why I think originally musical compositions were written in different keys, because each key had a different meaning, because each key sounded different at that time. Because before the beginning of the 20th century, you know, the A of the first octave wasn’t tuned in 440 Hz.
A: And it could be higher. It could be lower, and the half steps wouldn’t be equal, and we have many many historical temperaments. And, in Bach’s time, for example, there were, like, Kirnberger II, Kirnberger III, and Werkmeister, and Rameau, and all those other temperament systems. So, and it makes sense why Bach wrote his compositions in different keys. Because each of it’s keys had its own unique character.
V: And symbolism, too.
A: Yes, that’s right.
V: So, the difference between D minor and C minor was very apparent in those days---not so much in our time, if you play on a modern tuned instrument.
A: True, because, you know, D minor was a more common key at that time, and it sounded a little more like a regular D minor key, especially because most of Baroque music still had like a D minor sort of Dorian feeling.
A: It often had a raised 6th scale degree, not B♭ but B natural, as in the Dorian mode.
A: But for example C minor, it had more accidentals, so it sounded more dramatic!
V: Yes. The more accidentals you have, the more colorful the sound---sometimes dramatic, if it’s a minor key, and sometimes more joyful, I think, if it’s a major key.
A: True! For example, E♭ major, that’s a very, very joyful character.
V: Or A major.
A: Yes. A major was suited more for, like, pastorale scenes.
A: And E♭ major was considered, because it has three accidentals, it was connected with the holy trinity. So, this is a whole different world beneath those keys.
V: It’s connected with musical rhetoric, and musical affects theory, but Russell is, of course, on track here, thinking that it shouldn’t sound the same when transposed to a different key. And, he wants, of course, to learn more about music theory, and Russell suggests he would practice memorizing scales and chords. That’s probably one of the first steps, Ausra, right?
A: Yes, I think it would be helpful.
V: Not only will it improve his own technique, but his own knowledge of other keys, and the system of circle of fifths. Things like that will help him understand how pieces are put together. He should not stop here, though. Even if it’s a slow practice. But, I think in the not too distant future, he will be able to expand his knowledge into, let’s see, cadences, modulations,
A: That’s right..
V: Things like that. And then the last part of his question is really intriguing. Russell asks whether some brains are wired for understanding and playing polyphonic music, and others not.
A: <laughs> I think maybe for some people it maybe easier than for others, but, I think for everybody it’s quite hard and it needs some special training, and it needs time.
V: But, for some people it’s easier than for others.
A: That’s true!
V: Who can coordinate and do two things at once.
A: Well, and he asks about if the organists are typically ambidextrous. That’s a very nice question, actually. About that, that people can be ambidextrous, I found out about 10 years ago, only. Before that, I thought people could only be either right handed or left handed. But, you know, I am right handed, and so is Vidas!
V: I even am right footed!
A: <laughs> I don’t know about that, but, for myself, yes, I’m right handed, but since I have played starting from the age of five, in time, over the years, I think I improved my left hand enough.
A: For example, in the summer time, sometimes I go to the forest to pick berries, for example, lingonberries or blueberries, and I can do that equally well with both hands. And other members of my family are wondering how I can do that so well, and I think its partly because I’ve played the instruments all my life: organ, piano, so…
V: I also eat berries with both my hands!
A: <laughs> but I’m telling you about picking them.
V: Oh no, I prefer eating to picking!
A: I know that, so that’s why I have to pick berries with both my hands, so that you could have plenty of them to eat!
V: Yes, big stomach! And then, of course, we have to think about if some people develop this ability faster than others. What about, Ausra, your parents. Can they use their hands equally well or not?
A: Well, probably not.
V: Not so much.
A: Not so much. Yes. And I think that it’s important, because you know that one part of the brain is responsible for math and science, and another one is for more responsible for arts
A: and probably languages
V: Creative stuff.
A: Yes. So, and it’s important that if you are right handed that you would work more on your left side of the brain, and vice versa.
V: To compensate?
A: Yes. So I think for right handed, it’s a good way to learn arts.
V: But actually, Ausra, you’re sort of… you have to add… because… it’s a mixed connection. The right side of the brain controls the left side of the body.
V: Mostly. In motor skills. And vice versa. The right side of the brain controls the left hand, for example, more.
A: That’s right.
V: So, what does it mean? I think that you have to do both things at the same time sometimes. Improve both hands. To coordinate both hands. It’s wise to develop these skills especially in organ music because we have so many melodies moving independently at the same time.
A: That’s true. And that’s why it’s so beneficial to play the organ, because it keeps your brain in a good shape.
V: Yes. And, if Russell is 70 years old, he will find out for himself very soon that practicing actually organ music and analyzing organ music is even better than solving sudoku puzzles or crosswords from developing Alzheimer's to prevent such diseases, too. It’s like always engaging your brain, always exercising your brain when playing the organ.
V: Wonderful. Thank you guys for listening to us and for applying our tips in your practice. We hope this has been helpful to you, and we also hope to receive more of your questions to help you grow further. This was Vidas,
A: And Ausra.
V: And remember, when you practice and share your art,
A: 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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