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I play/practice the piano for some decades and when improvising (Jazz, Romantic, and sometimes even Baroque), I observe a certain magnetism of the C Major key. I'm able to play scales, arpeggios, cadences in every key, but this didn't help. For this reason, I started transposing pieces into other keys, and I'm able to play transposed pieces, but the magnetism of C Major still remains.

Did you ever experience this? Have you any suggestions?

Addition: As to be more specific, when improvising free (over a handful of motifs), I find myself modulating towards C, regardless where I start playing.

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@BraddSzonye: Done. –  keshlam Jun 7 at 4:37
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Nearly everyone learns initially round the key of Cmaj. I seems to happen on other instruments, too. Probably something to do with no sharps and flats.Thus it becomes the key we gravitate to most easily. A self-taught friend can only play in F#, just loves the black notes. –  Tim Jun 7 at 6:04
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Have you tried A minor? :) –  Kieren Johnstone Jun 7 at 11:09
    
@Tim Band instruments are different. For instance, French horns typically start off in their key of F (Concert key of Bb). (Concert B natural is a terrible note on our instruments.) [This is just a fun fact for anyone who wanted to know.] –  AsianSquirrel Jun 8 at 14:01
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And on guitar, of course E minor/G major... –  PA6OTA Jun 8 at 15:46

7 Answers 7

up vote 7 down vote accepted

From your question, and some of your responses to comments, it sounds like you are relatively proficient playing in all the keys, and in improvising, but you find yourself modulating back towards C over the course of the improvisation, regardless of where you start. Am I interpreting you correctly?

If this is indeed the case, then you may want to figure out how and why these modulations are occurring. Are you using pivot chords to shift from one key to the next subtly, or are you changing all at once, like the infamous "truck driver gear change" modulation? Are you doing it accidentally because the chords just seem to end up leading you there, or are you deliberately doing it because the piece sounds boring if you don't?

A few things you may try doing: while improvising melodies in a non-C key (perhaps Gb or Db!), limit yourself to only a handful of chords. Maybe start with just I, IV, and V. Maybe throw in the occasional ii or vi. But try to limit your improvisation around those chord structures. When you find yourself using a chord outside this set, stop, backup, and find a different way to proceed. If you really want to limit yourself, improvise the melodies only using notes from the pentatonic scale, which avoids the notes that are most actively used in several common modulations. Sometimes less is more.

Another possibility is to improvise around a simple existing melody, such as a hymn or a pop song, which stays in a single key. You can be more free with harmonizations, but if you stick close to the original melody, you'll eventually need to work your way towards a cadence in the original key.

If you find yourself modulating eventually because you get bored of playing in the same key after a while, try finding other ways to make it interesting by changing the texture. One option is to use registration changes -- play an octave higher, or play the melody in the left hand and chords in the right. Or switch between block chords and arpeggiations. By varying the texture rather than the key, it might keep the piece from feeling like it needs to modulate to stay alive.

If you absolutely must modulate, and don't want to go towards C, then try finding keys that are further away from C, and deliberately modulate to them.

To a certain extent, I think it's only natural to think in terms of C on a keyboard, since it is the most natural (ahem) scale to play. Sometimes, I still find myself thinking of music theory and chord relationships in terms of their C-equivalents, and needing to "translate" them. The best thing for that is to think of chords and scales in terms of numbers rather than letters.

Also, if you aren't already familiar with the concept of functional harmony, you may want to look into that, since its a way of structuring chord progressions in terms of their tonic goal, by recognizing each chord has a one of three functions (pre-dominant chords, dominant-like chords, and tonic-like chords). It's sort of a grammar for chord progressions.

This is a bit of a shotgun answer, since I'm not sure of your exact situation, but hopefully something here hits.

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but you find yourself modulating back towards C over the course of the improvisation, regardless of where you start. absolutely. You are exactly describing my problem. (+1 just reading) –  Wolf Jun 7 at 10:49
    
I still find myself thinking of music theory and chord relationships in terms of their C-equivalents indeed: I thought changing to numbers. Now I'll try it. pre-dominant chords, dominant-like chords, and tonic-like chords where did you read about this "grammar", it sounds reasonable, but new to me, despite having done some functional harmony. –  Wolf Jun 7 at 10:56
    
Mostly I'm thinking about how, like model sentences have an "SVO" construction, a model musical phrase could be thought of as having a basic "TPDT" construction. One somewhat accessible online resource that takes a similar grammatical approach is "Syntactic Structures in Music", though it doesn't seem widely recognized: harmony.org.uk/book/chord_progression_musical_phrase.htm –  Caleb Hines Jun 7 at 14:14
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Here's a great video that gives a more traditional view of functional harmony, and how they can be used to make chord progression "sentences". youtube.com/watch?v=IonRKmcAtAY –  Caleb Hines Jun 7 at 14:36

C Major is a tempting key on the piano. I would suggest trying to improvise in G Major and F Major. G Major only has 1 sharp, and F Major only has 1 flat. They're pretty easy to improvise over and since you only have 1 black key to worry about it won't be much harder than improvising in C Major. Just stick with those keys for a while, so that you can break out of the C Major comfort zone.

It's not necessarily a bad thing to stick to a handful of keys, but it is good to be able to to play in several keys. I favor the keys, C Major, G Major, D Major, A major, F major, Bb Major, and Eb Major. I've played in other keys, but most of my writing and improvising takes place in those keys.

Practice Practice Practice.

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+1 this was just I was afraid of: G and F :-) But maybe this is the only way... (just trying -;) ) –  Wolf Jun 6 at 18:23
    
There is a double to in your answer. BTW: accidentals and black keys are not my problem, it's rather a "modulation trap" –  Wolf Jun 6 at 18:49
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In that case, I would suggest getting as far away from C major as possible, because modulating back to C Major from G and F would be easy and tempting. Try playing in Eb Major and Ab Major, or even E Major and A major, those would make it much harder to get back to C Major. –  MrTheBard Jun 6 at 18:51
    
I'd prefer B, F#, and C#. But G and F (or D and Bb) seem to be reasonable. The problem is the every-day practice, and to stick to one alternative, IMO. –  Wolf Jun 6 at 18:54
    
If it's a matter of discipline, rather than technical proficiency, then G or F might be a good choice – learn to resist the temptation to modulate to the dominant or subdominant. –  Bradd Szonye Jun 7 at 0:53

Start playing with guitarists. They often prefer E, A and D. This means you move from purely white keys to white and black. In each there are patterns that are similar, but not exactly the same. Learn the scales that go with new keys - they are the basic notes on the menu for each new key. Often, particular bits of tunes work better to play in other keys than C.

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good point, but (I should update my question) as I tried to explain when commenting (maybe not very obvious), I start in Eb, F#, whatever... and sooner or later (after doing some fantastic modulating) I'm back home ;) –  Wolf Jun 7 at 10:46
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Guitarists won't let you do that ! Once they're in a key, they tend to stay there !There may be a MIDI program that administers an electric shock to the players seat after more than 5 consecutive white notes have been played... –  Tim Jun 7 at 11:24

To practice improvising, practice improvising. Put on a recording that's in a key you want to be able to deal with, and start seeing what you can play against it. It's going to feel awkward at first, and that's OK; remember that when you first learned to improvise in C it wasn't all that easy either. Practice makes better.

(I play an instrument which is even more biased toward its "home keys" -- anglo concertina -- but I'm slowly learning how to use more of its capabilities.)

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true (+1), since my question was not specific enough, as I realize now. –  Wolf Jun 7 at 10:57

When do you modulate to C? For example, if you're happily playing along in the key of F and suddenly find yourself in C again, you just modulated up a fifth. Now try doing the same thing in a different key: perhaps try starting in G and modulating to D, reproducing roughly the same emotional effect you did when modulating to C. Now, not only are you playing in a different key, but you understand a particular musical effect in terms of the internals involved and can apply it more easily in other situations.

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If improvising free, I'm landing at C in almost every cases, regardless how far away I start ;) –  Wolf Jun 7 at 11:00

Improvise to real songs ( jazz standards for example ) in their intended keys.

If you're just following your muse and wandering wherever you feel, it's not surprising you're getting trapped in the easy chair.

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True, clearly. I missed to mention that this problem doesn't occur when improvising on given songs, pieces, etc. –  Wolf Jun 8 at 19:33

I've been playing in A minor for 10 years. Literally.

I've never felt any magnetism for C maj, as it was 'too happy' for me, but for some reason I found myself going into A min at every occasion I practiced or improvised out of the top of my head.

At first, I felt restricted.

And then I realized I have the 'transpose' key in my piano.

But, more seriously - a guitarist can use a capo to transpose his playing easily; he learns his ropes in basic setting, and then just moves the capo as needed. Same can be said about a modern pianist - the electronics actually made this deal a lot easier, you can only master a couple of settings (maj, min, blues/jazz scales, pentatonics etc), and just easily go into any tone root from there.

Apart from that, try to be creative. Changing a simple F->F# in C major gives you a very distinctive sound, nicely going with 7th C/D/E chords; going for A minor extended with G# allows you to play jazz-style A-D-G-C-F-D-E-A progressions easily etc. You don't have to leave white keys and C/A root to explore the entirety of basic chromatic scale.

Also, try to reverse your flow - if you can go into C maj from everything, track your sequence and start getting everywhere from C maj.

Btw, try going into the aforementioned A min - you'll notice that there's a lot of blues/jazz tunes going that way (Westchester Lady or Fly Me To The Moon come to mind here).

tl;dr - if you like playing like you do, just play. If you can play other keys, there's nothing wrong with having a preference for C maj,

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