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I play Renaissance tenor recorder. I usually stick to Renaissance music, but like Rutter's "What Sweeter Music", that is in 6 flats!

Why write in 6 flats when 1 sharp would do? Can I play this in 1 sharp if I'm careful of accidentals?

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    Your "careful of accidentals" may be "key" here...Music is usually written to make it easy to be played – Doktor Mayhem Dec 11 '20 at 14:52
  • @DoktorMayhem - you're right about careful, but won't there be the same number of accidentals (in the same places!) in either key? – Tim Dec 11 '20 at 15:31
  • Horowitz tells a funny story about learning Schubert's Gb Major Impromptu from a "cheap Russian edition". As a shortcut, the edition had left out the key signature, so Horowitz effectively learning the piece in G major. – Aaron Dec 11 '20 at 17:07
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    @MichaelCurtis "Why write in 6 flats when 1 sharp would do?" in this question and "From what I understand major keys are all the same except for being shifted by one or more semitones ... Is this correct? If so, what is the point?" from the dupe. We've answered this core question many times. It's been edited with more emphasis on the transposition, but I still feel like we've answered before. Laurence's answer hits on a lot of the points that the other answers go into in the dupe. The dupe is not about relative keys, but why write in keys with any accidentals. – Dom Dec 11 '20 at 20:26
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    This question is causing all sorts of turmoil. Please re-phrase it in a much clearer way, so we can attempt to answer it with as much clarity. – Tim Dec 12 '20 at 11:10
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My answer mainly adds notation which I worked up from the beginning of the example song What Sweeter Music.

If the letter and mode of the tonic stay the same (G♭ major to G major) and the music is all diatonic, then yes you can just read the staff "as is" and imagine the key signature was different...

enter image description here

When accidentals are used things get complicated, but maybe manageable. Naturals become sharps, double flats become flats. I tweaked the tune to get accidentals...

enter image description here

...that doesn't seem too bad, because the location of accidentals isn't changing and all four get some kind of accidental.

Things get funny with a mode change. Keep the same letter G but change to two flats for minor.

If the harmonic structure isn't involving the dominant, it seems it doesn't need any accidentals in minor...

enter image description here

...the harmonic structure is basically tonic to subdominant, no dominant, so no accidentals are needed.

If there is a dominant implied, then being able to raise the leading tone on the fly in minor is necessary...

enter image description here

...notice how the leading tone F♮ in G♭ major needs to take a sharp in F♯ in G minor. There is no accidental in major, no visual clue, so you need good awareness of the leading tone in minor to know where it goes.

The secondary dominant case - the one with D♮ to E♭ - is surprising in minor. In the other cases the harmonic structure remained essentially the same, but in minor the harmony potentially can change.

The secondary dominant moved to the submediant, in minor you could just remove the accidental and it still moves to the submediant nicely...

enter image description here

That works because you don't need a dominant chord to make that move to the submediant, it's just optional coloring. But, if you did want to maintain the sound of a dominant chord, things get funny. In major the step between B♭ A♭ is a whole step and in minor it becomes a half step B♭ A♮ changing your options to form a dominant. I tried it not as a secondary dominant, but as a plain dominant and "deceptive" move to the submediant...

enter image description here

Probably the case of diatonic music and keeping the same mode is the only practical one for actual sight reading.

Depending on your purpose you could add some hand written accidentals in your sheet music to aid the key change. But you will probably be the only one who could read it.

Possibly you could flip the question. Why not take music in G - of which there is tons - and try reading it with either a G♭ major or G minor key signature? Instead of trying to make six flats easier, it becomes a way to practice less familiar keys, and it's a transposing challenge. Probably won't work on recorder, but for other instruments, certainly piano, it would work.

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  • I am genuinely confused by the answer. The two side by side staffs in the first line would not sound the same, one would be Gb maj the other (for lack of a better choice) would be Gb (or F#) Locrian. Wouldn't you have to shift the notes to be in relative tune? What am I missing? – ggcg Dec 12 '20 at 2:58
  • The first part of this answer covers what I believe the question to be about. Pure and simple. But then going into modes? There's no relevance. With a key sig. of 6 flats, it's squarely in Gb. OP wants to remove 6 flats, and replace with one sharp. There's no indication that there is a mode involved, and certainly no minor. Which OP didn't need or want. – Tim Dec 12 '20 at 11:03
  • @ggcg - the idea is that they would sound the same, except the second would be one semitone higher. That's all. – Tim Dec 12 '20 at 11:04
  • But that is not whats written therefore they would not sound the same – ggcg Dec 12 '20 at 12:12
  • @ggcg - You're missing the key signature change between the clefs in the first line. This already shifts the notes for you. – Dekkadeci Dec 12 '20 at 15:33
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G♭ major lies nicely under the fingers on a keyboard instrument - a lot of self-taught 'pub pianists' play everything in G♭ or D♭, there are fewer 'wrong notes' playing on the black keys!

Rutter probably chose the key because it was 'just right' for the voices though.

But, sure, transpose the piece to G if you like. The first page at least is easily found online, I've looked and it seems pretty diatonic. If it doesn't get too much more complicated later, imagining a G major key signature and changing naturals to sharps should be OK. Or write it out in G.

As long as you're playing it all by yourself, of course :-) No point in you playing in G if everyone else is playing in G♭.

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  • ...unless you have a keyboard that can transpose... Doubtful on a tenor recorder though - especially a Renaissance one. Although if they could, it would have been useful to be able to play with others while travelling! – Tim Dec 11 '20 at 15:15
  • "It is commonly believed that Berlin could not read sheet music, and was such a limited piano player that he could only play in the key of F-sharp using his custom piano equipped with a transposing lever." [Wikipedia, Irving Berlin] He only learned to play in one key, but note which key he chose. Chopin wrote many piano pieces in D flat or A flat -- he found that such music fits the hand well. G flat uses many of the same pitches as D flat. – Rosie F Dec 12 '20 at 8:06
  • @RosieF - Wait, so Irving Berlin constantly left his transposing lever depressed and was actually using F major, G major, or even C major whenever he wanted F sharp major? – Dekkadeci Dec 12 '20 at 15:35
  • No, the opposite. He PLAYED in F# major. The transposing lever allowed him to hear other keys. music.si.edu/object-day/… – Laurence Payne Dec 12 '20 at 16:57
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A key signature with six flats is not the same as a key signature with one sharp.

6 flats = Gb major = Gb Ab Bb Cb Db Eb F

1 sharp = G major = G A B C D E F#

So you will need a lot of accidentals.

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    @Angharad I thought I was sticking to the question. Can you please clarify your question? – Peter Dec 11 '20 at 14:59
  • No-one is saying the two key signatures are the same - or even that the keys are the same. No clarification needed - I guess the idea is to play it in a different key. – Tim Dec 11 '20 at 15:14
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    @Tim: I agree with Peter here. If the question actually meant "Can I play something in G, which is written in G flat", this could be stated much simpler. As non-native speaker I can't recognize precision in would do. – guidot Dec 11 '20 at 15:39
  • I see now that I misinterpreted the question. I thought it was about enharmonic spelling, but it is actually about transposition. – Peter Dec 11 '20 at 15:45
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    @Dom - I gleaned from the question that OP wnated to know if a piece written in one key could be read in a different key just by changing the key sig. I.e. a different way to transpose. That, to me, is a very different question, not helped by the phraseology., now edited. – Tim Dec 11 '20 at 16:35
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One big consideration, not mentioned in other answers yet, is tuning.

On an instrument suited to playing in equal temperament or close to it — e.g. a conventionally tuned modern piano — transposing won’t make make a big difference to the character of a piece.

But on an instrument whose tuning is further from equal-temperament — e.g. a renaissance recorder — transposing will make a big difference, especially transposing between harmonically distant keys, like from G-flat to G. I don’t know renaissance recorders specifically, but on most early wind instruments, G will have a fairly neutral character (being fairly close to the key of the instrument) while G flat (being further away) will sound more distinctive — often decidedly peculiar.

So the question is: is this distinctive G-flat character intended? If Rutter (or a good arranger) specifically chose to put the piece in G-flat for the recorder, then the choice was presumably intentional and the character was what they wanted. So you can transpose it, but in this case you’ll lose a bit of the flavour of the piece. On the other hand, if it was originally written in G-flat for other instruments (e.g. modern piano and voices), then it’s probably better for you to transpose it to G — this will be closer in character to what was intended than the unusual tuning of the renaissance recorder’s G-flat.

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  • Yes, indeed! A very good musical point! – paul garrett Dec 12 '20 at 19:12
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It's quite possible to 'change key' just by changing the key signature. Obviously the piece will come out with different notes, i.e. in a different key, but it's fine to imagine a different key signature - providing it's solo, or others can do likewise.

Seeing 3 flats, and imagining 4 sharps moves from key E♭ to key E, seeing 4 flats and imagining 3 sharps moves from key A♭ to key A.

So, seeing 6 flats but imagining 1 sharp moves from G♭ to G.

Any accidentals in the piece might cause slight problems, just change naturals to sharps, but in the main, the diatonic notes will just be a semitone above what's written. And if it's to accompany voices, that semitone shouldn't be too onerous.

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You could, but why? To further exaggerate your point, why have the concept of keys at all? All you would need to do is is have C Major and A Minor, and then from there add the accidentals you need to make the piece sound in a certain key

Well, the key signature is there to avoid having to do that. Instead of having a piece in C# Major be written as C Major with a butt-load of accidentals everywhere, you neatly summarize at the beginning of the staff and take them into account as you play

In your case, you could play the song as if it was in G Major, but you're not doing yourself any favors, both on a readability standpoint and a learning one. You could choose to transpose the song into G Major, but that's an entirely separate point

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    I think the idea is to transpose the piece into key G, simply by ignoring the flats, and putting one sharp instead. That's what I have edited the question to portray. – Tim Dec 12 '20 at 10:57
  • I'm not sure that's the point of the OP. The question is phrased to weirdly to know precisely – Andrew the Programmer Dec 12 '20 at 11:00
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    I honestly can't see any other concept from the question. That's why I tried to clarify. OP doesn't want to read/play in Gb, so chnge key sig, play in G. Am I the only one who sees it as being as simple as that? We really need OP to re-visit and clear it up! – Tim Dec 12 '20 at 11:08

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