How does Db Major differ from D Major?
October 6, 2012 7:13 PM   Subscribe

Do the keys of 'D major' and 'Db Major' sound different on a modern piano?

I was listening to a BBC radio program this morning when the announcer introduced the next piece - Chopin's Nocturne in D flat major - with the phrase, "... bathed in the glow of the key of Db Major ..."

I could understand that if this were, say, a violin sonata, a piece in Db would use far fewer open strings than one in D, and thus have a different 'tone' - darker perhaps - but in the case of a modern equally tempered piano, surely the only difference would be that the piece in Db would use more black keys. The fingering patterns would thus differ, but surely down inside the piano itself, there would be no reason for the half-tone difference to result in any appreciable/audible result (except perhaps for those with perfect pitch ...)
posted by woodblock100 to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
You're essentially right: each key is mathematically the same as any other key. Try playing a song in each key, though, and there are some that you'll like more than others. That is because you are human and not a computer.
posted by jrockway at 7:15 PM on October 6, 2012


Db feels warmer and fuzzier to me, while D feels more bright, but I don't expect anyone without perfect pitch to have such associations.
posted by dfan at 7:52 PM on October 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Try playing a song in each key, though, and there are some that you'll like more than others.

Well, there are reasons for that which do not support the announcer who described the Nocturne as being characteristic of D-flat major. Any given piece will have a slightly different tonal quality if you take everything up a half-step on the same instrument, since strings have a different timbre depending on whether they're higher or lower. But if Chopin had written it in D major instead, there's no way to know if he would have made some different choices about how to voice the chords, for instance, so that you could have ended up with lower notes instead of higher ones overall.

Also, if you play the same piece in two keys, one after another, you're not just judging each one in isolation. Rather, you've doubled the piece and added a new element in the middle: a key change. A key change can provoke a strong emotional response. But your experience of that key change wouldn't be a factor if the Nocturne had been written in D major to begin with.
posted by John Cohen at 7:55 PM on October 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


The perceived differences on a modern piano are because a) more blacks sounds more impressive and exotic since beginners start with C and learn C# and the like last, so much more music is written for keys with more white notes, and b) famous pieces and sounds from childhood and other impressionable times use certain keys, so music in those keys benefits from the association.
posted by michaelh at 8:12 PM on October 6, 2012


A half-step can make more of a difference than you might think. This is most obvious when trying to choose the key of a song you're going to sing.

I'm a bass (vocal range) who likes to cover rock songs so I have to transpose nearly every song I learn in to suit my vocal range so I don't have to shout or make disturbing guttural noises. When I try a key out and it's either too high or too low I almost always overcorrect and jump up too far. Many times I won't even bother trying a half step up or down if I can sing it reasonably. But when I get my head out of my ass and really try all the keys in that range I'm consistently shocked at how much easier or harder a song is to sing just a half step away. It can make a huge difference.

Of course vocal range doesn't figure into a Chopin nocturne, but even on piano a half step means more than you would expect.

Personally, the lowest Db (or C# if it's minor) on a piano is my favorite key. It's the lowest note before the tone starts getting brash, like the way the lowest A sounds if you hit it hard. Db is a very low and dramatic note and it still retains a fully warm sound. Rachmaninoff seemed to love Dd and D. There and lots and lots of slow, beautiful, dreamy pieces in Db because of the warmth and depth of that lowest note.

Also, when you spend years constantly listening to a particular instrument you start to get an ear for the sort of sweep of timbral change as you move up and down it's range. I've been playing piano for 25 years almost, for reference, and if I turned my back and you played a note of your choosing on the piano, I couldn't name the note but if I went back to the piano and played a note it would be pretty close I would wager, just because the timbre of the notes changes along with the pitch as you go up or down the keyboard, and I would have a pretty good idea of how high or low it is within a couple whole steps maybe on a good day.

Likewise with vocals. Maybe moreso, because of the visceral benefit of having the instrument inside of you, if you sing a lot and know what notes you're singing you begin to recognize the feel in your throat and cavities of certain notes. I don't have perfect pitch, but I can usually triangulate the pitch of an unknown note because I know especially how the low notes in my range feel and sound and can usually sing pretty close to a D because it's the lowest note I can sing without cracking. Then with relative pitch, which I do have, I can get the interval and name the note. Not terribly useful, but hey.

All that's to say that it definitely makes an obviously different sound if you've an ear that, over a lot of time, has attuned to whatever instrument is in question. I know some about piano and vocal, but it's true for any pitched instrument as a sort of unavoidable consequence of experience.
posted by TheRedArmy at 8:42 PM on October 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


Yes, it's surprising how much re-voicing of chords and textures you have to do when transposing a piece down by a half step, or certainly by a whole step.

I've fallen into that trap before--"I'll just write this all in C and then transpose to Bb when I'm done." When 'done' you hit the transpose button in Finale. And then end up re-writing the whole thing because it sounds too thick and the voicing's all wrong a step down.

And that is at the obvious level. Beyond that, most musicians believe that different keys have different emotional associations and a very subtly different 'sound' even to people who don't necessarily have perfect pitch per se. How much of that is true and how much isn't is up for debate, but if it is there it is certainly on a very subtle and emotional level.

(But then that is true for a lot of things in music. Even though you can hear the difference between a violin piece in G and the same one in Ab--to take an extreme difference--I guarantee that if you can master the piece in Ab well enough to make it sound non-horrible, then play them both for your Aunt Gertrude, she'll be hard pressed to hear or explain the difference. Yet it's plain as day to anyone who plays a string instrument. Point is, we're talking subtleties here, and your definition of subtlety is going to be different from everyone else's.)

Also, there are some features of the piano that are likely to make different keys sound at least a little different. For starters, pianists (and piano music) definitely favors certain keys, meaning that the hammers are likely to be more compacted for the notes in those keys, and less so for notes in the lesser-used keys. So--a subtle difference in the tone color of the piano depending on the key you're playing in.

And certainly to the pianist playing, the experience of playing in D and Db is far different. How much this might transfer to the sound they project is a difficult question, but from the performer's experience, they are very different. So this might color how we experience it ourselves and how we talk about it to others. Musicians very definitely have favorite keys and part of it is how they feel to play and part of it is how they sound. Pretty soon those two factors become closely intertwined and very hard to separate.
posted by flug at 9:23 PM on October 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


No difference for anyone without perfect pitch. I've heard this before, about certain keys having a "character", intrinsic and without regard to instrumentation. Even some famous people (Andrew Lloyd Weber) repeat this tripe. Well, they're artists, not scientists. They may swear they hear the difference, but... schitzophrenics hear voices, too.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 9:29 PM on October 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


The strings are by no means the only resonant elements in a piano, so transposing the key a piece is played in is not equivalent to doing a simple pitch transformation on the overall sound.
posted by flabdablet at 9:34 PM on October 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


Does this have to do with pianos being tuned to equal temperament and not just intonation? Equal temperament is extremely close approximation of just intonation; does changing keys give slightly different offsets of errors from just intonation? That would make each key sound subtlety different.
posted by ShooBoo at 9:43 PM on October 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


Db feels warmer and fuzzier to me, while D feels more bright, but I don't expect anyone without perfect pitch to have such associations.

I agree and I do not have perfect pitch.
posted by capricorn at 9:55 PM on October 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


The fingering patterns would thus differ, but surely down inside the piano itself, there would be no reason for the half-tone difference to result in any appreciable/audible result (except perhaps for those with perfect pitch ...)

Hmm. This is a really interesting question. I would think that it would definitely make a difference - like flabdablet says, it really isn't just the strings. The body of the piano contributes to resonance too, so different notes (which have different frequencies) would have different timbre.

I have to third the idea that different keys have different personalities - Db major is warm and comforting yet exotic, but I couldn't tell you why. So this whole personality thing may be tripe, but to speak of music is essentially pretty hand-wavy in a good way in the first place.

The question to ask is 'to whom?' For musicians - well, I can only speak for the piano and voice - a semitone is already a huge leap, especially if you hear it in relation to the original pitch. When I'm singing with my choir, I can tell we've gone sharp when the sound feels more 'open' than usual. That is usually less that half of a semitone. (A semitone sharp is like, what the hell are you doing? territory.)

I don't know, maybe the best answer to your question is to grab a friend and a piano, blindfold yourself and experiment. Maybe?
posted by undue influence at 10:31 PM on October 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Experiments would be ideal. But not with a piano, which already has a bias (toward C, and what flabdablet said). Also you'd have to "erase" key memory between each test so people don't make relative comparisons, etc.; a difficult thing to do. No wonder it's so subjective.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 11:23 PM on October 6, 2012


Different keys absolutely have different character because different keys are made up of different intervals. Mathematically, the fifth of a key has a 3:2 ratio to the tonic, but modern instruments, like pianos, don't use this perfect interval. For example, A4 is 440 Hz, which means that E5 should be 660 Hz. But a properly tuned piano tunes E5 to 659.255 Hz. Why the deviation? Because pure intervals only work for single keys, but pianos need to support all keys. For example, the fifth of 440 Hz (A4) should be 660 Hz (E5). The fifth of E5 should be 990 Hz, and down an octave (ratio of 1:2) is 495 Hz (E4). If you keep going around the circle of fifths so that every key's fifth sounds good, you end up with A5 at just north of 892 Hz. But then when you play the octaves of A4 and A5 together, it'll sound really really bad. For them to sound good together, A5 should be 880 Hz. The difference between 892 Hz and 880 Hz is very detectable by almost every listener.

So to deal with this issue, the intervals are massaged so that all the keys sound close to what they should sound like. But the approximations aren't identical between keys. The differences are tiny, but in the context of lots of information (e.g. lots of chords and melodic lines and progressions) the ear can absolutely detect differences between keys. Musicians call those differences "character", but it's just that each key is imperfect in its own way.

So, the statement that intervals are just math and transposition doesn't change the math is only correct in theory, not in practice.
posted by ericc at 11:33 PM on October 6, 2012 [11 favorites]


The difference between 892 Hz and 880 Hz is very detectable by almost every listener.

For comparison purposes: 892 is about 1.4% more than 880; the step from a note to the next semitone up is about 6%. So a note that sounds at 892Hz when it ought to be at 880Hz would probably sound pretty much OK to most people in isolation, but when played with other, properly tuned notes to form a chord, would make the chord sound quite out of tune.

A piano tuned exactly to equal temperament would presumably minimize the differences in character between keys. It wouldn't eliminate them entirely because of the frame and body resonance effects I mentioned earlier. However the most likely reason for a piano to display distinct characters for different keys is that it has not been tuned precisely to equal temperament by a machine with no judgement; it's more likely to have been tuned to a close approximation to equal temperament that sounds better, by a skilled professional piano tuner who is in fact at least as much artist as scientist.

Character difference between keys is a feature, not a bug.
posted by flabdablet at 1:33 AM on October 7, 2012


Perfect pitch is often thought of as a binary thing in that you either have it or don't. In my experience, this is clearly untrue. Some days my pitch is more perfect and other days less so, and some days I'm paying more attention, too, but different keys do have different "qualities" that I can experience directly (on those occasions when I can).
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:04 AM on October 7, 2012


Just as another data point, I also do not have perfect pitch, but have fairly strong and reliable emotional responses to different keys. Db major and D major are probably the two adjacent keys to which I have the most discordant response. I can't really justify it in any scientific way, but it's definitely something that I experience.

When I listen to music that's performed in non-equal temperament, I don't have such a strong response.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 1:08 PM on October 7, 2012


Db feels warmer and fuzzier to me, while D feels more bright, but I don't expect anyone without perfect pitch to have such associations.

Ditto this. I'm a pianist with perfect pitch and each key definitely has a different "feel" to it, maybe a synesthesia thing. D to Db is a HUGE difference, whereas, say, E to Eb isn't as huge a contrast. Flat keys just seem more mellow, and I don't know why that is. It's an interesting phenomenon.
posted by altopower at 2:07 PM on October 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks to everybody for the responses. It is clearly a pretty vague concept, and one that is not going to have a single clear answer of course. I'm approaching it as a listener and it seems to me at this point that although performers may feel some differences from one key to the other, I myself suspect that not a whole lot of that will make it across the hall to the listeners. But as always ... YMMV ...
posted by woodblock100 at 3:52 PM on October 7, 2012


No difference for anyone without perfect pitch. I've heard this before, about certain keys having a "character", intrinsic and without regard to instrumentation. Even some famous people (Andrew Lloyd Weber) repeat this tripe. Well, they're artists, not scientists.

And you have entirely too much faith in your own bogus method and clearly don't play the piano. Setting aside your broader claims, any half-decent piano player can tell you if a piece is in D flat or D natural. Idiomatically they sound completely different; it's a function of how the tempered scale is laid out across the keyboard. "Tripe" yourself, and your science is quite measurably crap.
posted by Wolof at 6:07 AM on October 12, 2012


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