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Learning to play a tune/piece in only one key is a very popular piano method. People learn in different ways but I find that I get a lot of understanding when I practice it in other keys as well. Transposing is very important to me. I analyse and feel the music when I transpose it. Standard piano lessons never really works for me. I want to understand the music I play.

Why is it that most piano students are taught to only play a piece in one key?

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    Interesting. Maybe not just confined to piano, but could encompass most, if not all instruments. Originally, years gone by, sheet music was only available in one key? – Tim Nov 30 '20 at 13:13
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    What new information do you actually get from transposing something though? Ultimately it should be pretty mechanical. If it works for you then obviously keep doing it, but you haven't really justified why it's worth spending lesson time on, especially when most students' aim will be to "play the piece". – DavidW Nov 30 '20 at 13:14
  • I’m currently working on a piece by Ligeti where you couldn’t transpose it down at all and only up by a minor third at most because the range of the piece is from the lowest key in the piano to the highest A on the piano. – Todd Wilcox Nov 30 '20 at 13:39
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    Like others here, I don't really understand what's added to your understanding of a piece by transposing it. All the pitch relationships are present in any one key, no information about the piece is added by playing in a different key. The facility of being able to play in more than one key, as Todd noted, is important for jazz and studio musicians, and many others, but no information about the structure or feeling of the piece is added, as far as I can see. – Scott Wallace Nov 30 '20 at 15:20
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    Probably because the piece was written in that key and they want to play it in its "original form"? – Jonas Dec 1 '20 at 13:42
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Like you, I have a hard time getting something to work properly without a deep knowledge of exactly how it works. My driving teacher spent hours repeatedly explaining the sequence of steps required to drive a manual transmission and I just couldn't get it. Later, when I looked up the internal mechanics of exactly how a manual transmission works, it immediately clicked and I could suddenly drive a manual without issue.

So I too have an insatiable need to understand exactly what (and why) I am playing in order to play it properly. When I decide to learn a new piece, I carefully analyze each chord and passage, trying to internalize the technical structure and decipher the composers original intent. I also take time to gain an understanding of why exactly the composer chose the key that they did; oftentimes this also involves some study of why they didn't chose certain other keys.

This often comes down, largely, to fingering and technique. As you get into more advanced pieces, certain keys just don't make sense and may be nearly impossible to play. At the end of the day, classical composers had a very deep understanding of music and their choice of key was not arbitrary. Figuring out why a piece is in a particular key may well give you more insight and understanding than figuring out how to play it in other keys.


Now, to actually answer your question: why are piano students taught to only play songs in one key?

The main point of piano lessons is to learn proper playing technique, not music theory. Naturally, some theory must be taught, but it is usually secondary and supportive. If additional knowledge of theory is desired, one must seek out other sources, like online tutorials, music theory dictionaries, college courses, or this site (obviously).

(Alternatively, you can do what I did and try to find a teacher that loves theory as much as you do so you can lure them into spending the entire hour session in a deep theory dive! That is, until your parents find out that you have been spending most of your lessons chatting and not actually playing anything, so they get mad at your teacher who explains to them that you are "advancing" into jazz improvisation for which you need a solid foundation of music theory, after which your sessions are split between discussing theory and screwing around on the piano...yup, he was by far my favorite teacher!)

The ability to transpose, either in advance or on the fly, is a practical application of music theory, not a physical skill. A steady progression of the student's skill and ability is the closest thing a piano teacher has to a deliverable "product", and is therefor the easiest way to demonstrate to the student (or their parents) that they are getting their moneys worth.

Lastly, as alluded to before, most pieces, especially more advanced ones, are intentionally written in a key that provides a stable structure for proper technique. For example, pieces that require the thumb to frequently pass under the other fingers are often written in keys with lots of sharps/flats to make this motion easier and more fluid. Practicing it in a different key can make it more awkward to play, and can even result in picking up bad habits, negatively impacting the advancement of technical skill, thereby undermining the very reason for taking lessons in the first place.

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    Beyond keys of pieces in a multi-movement work being related to each other, keys with many accidentals in their key signature being avoided in earlier times due to the desire to not change keyboard tunings so often, and arrangements mirroring the key of the original, I actually get the impression that keys of single-movement absolute music works are chosen arbitrarily (a la "because that's what the composer thought of first"). Can you provide any examples where the keys of those were purposefully chosen? – Dekkadeci Dec 1 '20 at 13:41
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I think it depends on what you’re going to do with the piece. Personally, if I had time to learn the piece in more than one key then I think I should have chosen a more difficult piece.

It might take me 3 - 18 months to learn a piece. After that, I’d rather learn something else than learn to play the same piece again in a key different from the composers original intent.

But, I mainly play classical piano. Accompanists for musical theatre, jazz pianists, and some other genres quite often are asked to sight read songs and transpose on the fly. Those professionals aren’t exactly learning pieces in different keys, they are just playing them in a different key. If you would like to play like that then there’s nothing wrong with learning the same piece in multiple keys and/or learning to transpose on the fly.

In the classical world, the key in which a piece is written is an important, intentional choice. I’ve never heard of a classical work being professionally performed in a key other than the one it was written in, although I expect it may have happened from time to time.

And now I’m reminded of a slight contradiction to my first paragraph, which is that I’m currently learning the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves” in a different key from what it was written in to make it easier for me to play the melody on clarinet (for which I’m only a beginner).

So in summary: in the classical world, transposing pieces is rare, probably because that would make it a different piece (in the classical mind). In the musical theatre and jazz genres; transposing is very common, but often the pieces are not learned in different keys, merely transposed on the fly (an important skill). In pop and rock transposing happens for covers and less commonly originals. For example, as Ozzy Osbourne has aged, he has lost his ability to hit some high notes, so some of his most popular songs, like “Crazy Train” have been played in a lower key in live shows.

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    The classical side is an important mention - most pieces are played in their original key. 'Play Fur Elise in Bbm'... what? Which makes me wonder why certain pieces were written in certain keys, when other keys would have done the job - maybe better. But transposing jazz classics and others to help transposing instruments, or just for fun/challenge is fair game. Although you may fall into the trap of only being able to play Autumn Leaves in a key that most people aren't used to playing it in! Enjoy it - I always do - and it's probably appropriate to play it at this time of year too...! – Tim Nov 30 '20 at 13:49
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    I think in classical music the key may change in arrangements. – Michael Curtis Nov 30 '20 at 13:54
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    @Tim During the baroque, classical, and romantic periods, because of keyboard temperaments not being equal, different keys sounded different. So that of course is a motivator for the composers to have chosen the keys they did. There’s a recent question on this site about whether keys still sound different in ET, and one theory is they have attained cultural differences due to associations with works written in specific keys. Certainly most classical musicians and listeners find the key of a piece to be an important aspect that shouldn’t be changed expect in special cases. – Todd Wilcox Nov 30 '20 at 13:58
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    you learn how music works by transposing. I do but perhaps you don't. – user20754 Nov 30 '20 at 14:51
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    "I’ve never heard of a classical work being professionally performed in a key other than the one it was written in, although I expect it may have happened from time to time." It's not common for piano solo, but quite common for vocalists. For example, lots of 19th century Lieder are often even published in different keys for different voice parts, and lots of classical singers perform transposed versions (obviously with the transposed piano accompaniment). – Athanasius Nov 30 '20 at 19:49
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To my knowledge, most piano lessons (at least ones given to children) are oriented around playing classical music. For classical music, playing according to the written score is important, and deviations from the score are treated as mistakes.

As Todd Wilcox mentions in his answer, keys of classical music pieces are chosen intentionally. The notion that a classical piece of music must have an overarching key is so important that they are often labelled with their single key each in their name (e.g. "Minuet in G Major", "Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67"). Entire cycles of preludes and etudes have one piece in each of the major and minor keys - changing the key of any one of these pieces is seen as sacrilege.

Sheet music isn't cheap. As illegal as all my piano books said the practice was, all my piano teachers photocopied my repertoire and gave the photocopies to me. I strongly suspect my piano teachers were not alone. I don't think they're about to bust sheet music transposing my repertoire.

One more note: piano repertoire for young children is often in keys with few accidentals such as C Major, F Major, and G Major, probably for readability's sake. Good luck convincing piano teachers to change the keys of those.

  • You're right in all you say.What I don't understand is a composer writing in, say, a harpsichord, just intonated to play in a certain key, trying to write a piece in a different key. It would sound more odd than writing in the key tuned properly, surely? Unless, for instance, Mozart had his harpsichord or piano tuned in G (JI) for 'Minuet in G'. Were it tuned so Eb was JI, it would sound odd, wouldn't it? – Tim Nov 30 '20 at 15:21
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    @Tim As a Beethoven fan, I know Werkmeister III better than any other historical tuning. In WIII, it’s not that some keys sound good and some sound bad, it’s that they all sound different. D major sounds happier. C# minor is dark, dark, dark and disconcerting. Playing some Beethoven in the same tuning he wrote in is very enlightening. – Todd Wilcox Nov 30 '20 at 16:13
  • @ToddWilcox - I'll check if one of the keyboards has WIII, and try it. Maybe Mozart et al didn't have the same luxury with harpsichords. – Tim Nov 30 '20 at 16:16
  • @Tim the problems of JI on keyboards was well known by the baroque era if not earlier. So very little if any of the keyboard music of the common practice period was written for JI. I believe in Bach’s time 1/4 comma mean tone was a common temperament. I don’t know if Mozart favored a tuning or what it was. I wonder if conductors asked for intonation adjustments from orchestras to try to get the sounds they had on their home keyboards or not. – Todd Wilcox Nov 30 '20 at 16:43
  • mistake? that is just stupid. – user20754 Dec 1 '20 at 13:05
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To give a counter-example, The Russian School of Piano Playing encourages teachers and students to introduce transposition right from the beginning:

„From the outset of musical training it is important that the pupil be taught to transpose. Such exercises promote the development of ear, memory and keyboard orientation.“

As a specific example, on piece number 20, a simple one-line melody piece, the instruction says:

„The pupil should play the exercise in different keys […].“

So I would conclude that there is at least one piano school which recognizes transposition as an important concept of piano lessons.

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    Suzuki method also includes transposition. – Aaron Dec 1 '20 at 22:53
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I don‘t think that this depends so much of the education level of teachers or the education system like Stretto says. But theres some truth in it, there are actually teachers - generally - who are good in just one subject and transport their knowledge without seeing behind the horizon.

There would be great benefit in the task to transpose a piece in other keys. (But this shouldn’t be done by just using the same fingersettings and moving the hand some intervals up or down.)

I’m convinced that a didactic of more experience in transposing would help a lot for better understanding a piece and playing music in general.

Why doesn’t this happen?

Because any other method wouldn‘t fit with the expections of the students, their parents who probably pay the lessons and also the teachers themselves.

The goal of most people is to learn as many pieces as possible in a short time, and not the goal of seeing through and internalizing fully a piece.

And not every teacher would be able to control whether the student is playing correctly.

Of course there are other points like the key characteristics, the respect of the authority of the composer, the availability of sheet music in other keys, the lack of fantasy or insight of the benefit of transposing, improvising and transfer learning!

But the main problem seems to me that people want to reach a goal direttissima and don’t see that there would be a short cut what looks like detour at first sight.

A good piano teacher should apply different approaches and use a large variety of methods: transposing, formal analysis, improvising, comparing pieces are just some. A lot of this happens unconsciously. What is unconscious should become aware.

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Your question seems to telegraph the expected answer: the teaching is focused on recitals and advancing through graded methods. That kind of teaching isn't concerned with understanding why things happen in music.


EDIT

I wasn't going to add this initially, but there seems to be a lot of interest (disagreement) on this topic of transposing.

Recently I started working on Bach's Two Part Invention in C Minor and I simply did not want to memorize it. I've done that before with other music, and eventually I forget the stuff.

I decided to take most of the expository material and break it up into two beat units which I then practiced by sequencing the stuff up and down by step. I also inverted the parts between the hands. I made myself a sort of shorthand score of what I was doing, like this...

enter image description here

...the double notes at the end of phrases are supposed to show the continuation by sequence up/down. Fingerings above/below are RH/LH depending on how the hands invert. I don't expect anyone else to read this, but I think the basic idea should be clear enough.

Now I've moved on to playing each hands separately, but I play it in various keys. The music itself modulated up a fifth so you can just repeat the exposition and keep going around the circle of fifths. After working through a few keys and getting used to the changing "topographical" feel it seems I can play it in any key comfortably without practice.

I'm not done with the piece yet, and certainly this take more time than just memorizing it in C, but I definitely feel like I'm learn much, much more this way. My hands move more freely and I better understand the actual tonal content of the music.

At the very least, you aren't the only person that thinks transposing is a useful study method.

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    @Hank I understand music just fine when looking at it in its original key. This isn’t a good platform to try to convince us that we should be learning pieces in multiple keys just because that works well for you. – Todd Wilcox Nov 30 '20 at 14:49
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    @Hank sounds like you might want to look at finding a piano teacher who suits you better. – Todd Wilcox Nov 30 '20 at 14:58
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    @ToddWilcox - don't think OP is trying to convert anyone. Just looking for justification as to why (some, or most) piano teachers don't use that as one of their tools. Should a student of mine request it, I'd embrace the idea. It's just another piece in the armoury, isn't it? (For certain students). – Tim Nov 30 '20 at 15:29
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    I don't think the reason is that teaching isn't concerned about understanding the music. It's rather that it's often focused on performing, rather than creating, composing or improvising. – user1079505 Nov 30 '20 at 16:29
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    Transposing will present fingering challenges that are applicable in other situations. The techniques used to solve the challenges apply principles to understand and reuse. And it's really the same issue as the OP, you don't just execute fingerings, you understand why they are used. A good way to test whether you have that knowledge of principles is transposing. It may not make sense for every piece, like the "Minute" Waltz. But that's just recital memorization. There is a reason why people post questions here about being able to play recitals but can't improvise or sight read. – Michael Curtis Dec 1 '20 at 15:01