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This question was prompted by two phenomena I've encountered as a 24yo self-taught jazz musician of 2 years who is committed to playing entirely by ear.

  1. A large fraction of people, myself included, when recalling songs do so within 1-2 semitones of the original key. This shows that when internalizing music, the brain does so with some link to the actual key, despite not being able to identify the actual key or note when unfamiliar music is played (ie perfect/absolute pitch).

  2. When learning complex melodies or chord progressions, I can play the first note or chord, and audiate the rest. However, when transposing the concept (starting at a different note) I struggle to hear the rest in my head. I don't have absolute pitch, so shouldn't my brain be totally agnostic to the specific key I play the concept in and thus able to hear it correctly no matter at which note/chord it started?

These patterns seem to imply that though I do not have perfect pitch, the licks and changes I learn are ultimately internalized with respect to the actual key I learned them in. I hate this idea. I want to fully digest all the licks and changes I learn by ear. I want them to be deeply ingrained into my musical cognition and aurally summonable in any key when improvising.

This has implications for how I practice: should I make it a point to play and sing my favorite songs and progressions in every key? Are they not fully digested/internalized if I don't?

NOTE: With respect to reproducing/playing music back in different keys, I mean mainly in terms of singing/whistling/humming/hearing in your head. The question presumes a skill level such that playing the concept on an instrument in different keys is a trivial task. I am a guitar player, so almost often this is the case for me. The question stresses the mental aspect of improvisation, as ideally I'd like to play whats heard in my head, not what the instrument suggests to the muscle memory in my fingers.

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    Reading through, I expected to see an instrument tag. No such luck. On guitar, there is a completely different mindset with respect to this question, compared to, say piano/keyboard. In other words, the mechanics of the instrument (barring vox) is of paramount importance. Also, playing in certain keys, again, instrument-wise will have some bearing. I'm happy on keys in most keys, but something like transposing to key B might have me doing a lot of thinking! On guitar - so what?
    – Tim
    Jun 15 at 16:24
  • @Tim Good point! I added a note stressing the mental focus of the question. I'm a guitar player as well and given the nature of the instrument playing stuff in different keys is usually trivial. Jun 15 at 16:59
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For some, it's absolute: 'I learned that song in that key, and that's where it stays, for ever.' If it's a song that is sung (and played) by the person concerned, that's almost fair enough. They're in charge, with no (or little) reason to vary. I've worked with people like this, and it's almost written in stone. Which means when I want to harmonise, sometimes it's impossible.

Others, probably including myself, regard meody lines and harmony sequences in a very different way. Using interval and chord family patterns, it doesn't really matter where we are, key-wise. The geography of the piece works the same in any key (thanks to 12tet) so where we start will be where we finish - same key!

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If you learned music from sheet music, it's pretty likely (at least IMO) that you internalized it as a series of note names and rhythms. This means that, regardless of whether you ever figured out the piece's key, you internalized it with respect to the original key it was learned in. This internalization is especially emphasized in every genre and situation where you are not expected to deviate from the sheet music (e.g. concert band, choir, children's typically classical piano lessons).

There are music types and situations where disconnecting learned music from keys is expected (e.g. national anthems, folk songs), but these pieces are often learned in a different context from the above (e.g. not from formal lessons), so disconnecting is easier to absorb.

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I can play the first note or chord, and audiate the rest.

But how can you or anyone else know that it's correct without actually playing it so that it will be heard?

This just seems to get down to ear training and whether you correctly hear relative pitch relationships. You can "hear" it in your head, or listen to some actual music, but the real test of whether the hearing is correct, for either case, is actually playing the music. You can't ear train with just mental audiation.

Transposing doesn't seem to be the way to exercise this skill. Transposing means you already have the material, you know the sequence of intervals. It's more a question of mechanics. Can you play it in another key with ease? Or, for large amounts, like a whole song, it a question of memory. Do you actually remember all the relative changes rather than the specific fingering of a specific key?

You need to do dictation or playback exercises with unfamiliar stuff. Or, you can do things like sing the "missing" note, ex. play root & fifth, sing the minor third, play a triad, sing the minor seventh. These things will actually test your hearing and mental audiation better than playing transpositions.

...playing the concept on an instrument in different keys is a trivial task.

On guitar it may be trivial to just slide up or down a few frets, but transposing a fourth by shifting up or down across strings (where patterns change shape over the G & B strings), or playing all fretted notes, like 3 notes per string scales, compared with playing open position, isn't so easy.

The mechanical part will be different for each instrument. Keyboard is sort of opposite of guitar. Transposing by fourths and fifth is fairly easy, but transposing by half step isn't. You should focus on whatever are the mechanical difficulties of the instrument until all positions, transpositions, etc. are equally accessible.

...ideally I'd like to play whats heard in my head, not what the instrument suggests to the muscle memory

It seems to me there are two things, which are on many levels separate, but eventually you want to train to become inextricably linked: mechanical mastery of an instrument, and good relative pitch. You want them to be one and the same.

For example, the sound of a borrowed, minor iv is a common and useful musical device. You want to be able to recognize it when you hear it played, silently audiate it mental, and play it in various position, in all twelve keys/roots, with a variety of figurations. Ideally, you want to recognize important scale degree relationships about it: half step above SOL, half step between LA & SOL. If given a tonic aloud, you can sing the minor sixth above it, then the other iv chord tones, then resolve the LI down to SOL? Instrumentally you can play iv I in various position, voicings, and all twelve keys.

The traditional way to build those skills is play lots of essential harmonic patterns in all keys combined with ear training that incorporates singing.

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It is standard training for jazz musicians to learn everything (perhaps not literally) in every key. So, yes, you should make it a point to play/sing your favorite songs and progressions in every key. My experience is that this becomes easier over time, so that such transpositions happen more naturally and require less explicit practice.

Keep in mind that remembering and reproducing pitches/intervals/chords is not a function of auditory memory only. There's a physical component as well in associating the pitch/interval/chord to its production on an instrument. (See also @Tim's comment on the OP.)

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