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What key? What tempo?

March 23, 2021

What key? What tempo?


Does a given piece have a character based solely on its key?

In the more extreme cases of absolute pitch, a piece for example in
the key of G-Sharp Minor has a distinct mood to it that is not evoked
by other keys.  That almost all pieces in G-Sharp Minor have a common
aesthetic in terms of tone, emotion, and disposition.  If the same
piece was transposed up or down into another key, it would suddenly
take on the characteristics of that new key, which would be different,
so much so that the listener with absolute pitch may at first not be
able to identify what piece it is.

One crosses a spectrum gradually from intense and hypersensitive cases
of absolute pitch, though less detailed region of absolute pitch, to
excellent relative pitch, to more poorly defined relative pitch, and
ultimately to even the failure to hear differences in pitch at all.

The ability to sense the character of the key of the piece being
heard is not lost suddenly as one leaves the extreme end of the
spectrum.  It persists in ever lessening degrees into the middle of
the spectrum.  Those of us who do not have absolute pitch can
nonetheless have intimations and responses to the quality of the key of
a piece.  Discovering these hints should become a purposeful and
studied quest. Sometimes we will catch glimpses of it without knowing
what to call it since, without a strong absolute pitch, we cannot apply
a label to the experience, a label such as “G# minor”.  For me, with
absolute pitch, G# Minor always hovers between sad and happy;
approaching near one or the other but never too closely.


How do we find a good tempo for a piece?

Ignoring for the moment any physical limitations that we may encounter
in the direction of speeding up the tempo.  The pertinent criterion is:
how slow or fast can we play a piece without losing conscious
awareness of the meaning of every connection from one note to another?
For if we orbit too high above the ground we lose awareness of the
identities of many of the features we are used to seeing closer to the
ground.  If, on the other hand, we look at the familiar under a
microscope, the old features are replaced by awareness of new types.*

In either case, we become aware of entities that were previously lost
or hidden from view and, which while scientifically interesting, my no
longer comprise an aesthetic basis of meaningful structure to the

The person who can retain a view of the original species of tangible
connections between notes, and the aesthetic value of each such
connection, yet play a piece slower or faster than most others do, is
doing something wonderful.  The usual result, however, of sizeable
changes in tempo, is a breakdown in the perceived connections between
things.  They are too close or too far in time.

At today’s lesson with J.M. the question arose: What does it mean
when, for example, we say that the C# Major Prelude in Book One seems
to want to go faster than many of the other preludes in Book One? It
seems obvious to us.  What is it we are responding to when we make
such a judgment?  Our judgment seems certain, at least until we try
to adduce specific reasons or causes for it: structural or
musicological.  The more we seem to find such justifications, the
more, rather than the less, uncertain seems the validity of our tempo
sense for the piece.

If, however, we just arbitrarily play the prelude as fast as possible,
we find ourselves in the situation that William Butler Yeats described
in “The Second Coming”**.

* I am reminded of the original “Star Trek” episode about the
“Scalosian water”, water from the planet Scalos which, when imbibed,
hyper-accelerated the drinker so that they moved so fast that they
could not be seen by anyone who had not partaken of the water.

** Yeats: The Second Coming.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.


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