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I recently started trying my hand at composition and could not figure out why the two chords progressions sounds different:

  1. F minor followed by B flat major, which is an interval of a 4th
  2. C minor followed by F major, which is also an interval of a 4th.

I am not sure if my hearing is confused, but 1 sounds better than 2.

I thought 1 and 2 should be the same given that they are the same interval and just transposed?

Edit: Thanks for all the answers! To clarify, I am testing this on a piano (simulated pianoteq / midi vpc1). All chords are in root position, and in the same octave.

Reading through the replies I just wanted to clarify that I am not referring to the "timbre" (read - "harmonic" in music engineer terms) of the instrument due to register differences or other instrument differences, e.g. the difference between a middle C on a Yamaha vs middle C on a Bluthner.

I guess the question I wanted to ask could be better phrased as "if we used computer software to lower the frequency of (1) to (2), would the two chords sound the same"? Disregarding any differences due to frequency, are the quality of (1) and (2) theoretically the same?

Looking at the different note frequencies (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_key_frequencies), the differences between each semitone is not uniform. The frequency doubles across each octave, but, the notes are distributed unevenly - difference between middle C and C# is 15.557Hz, where as the difference between D and D# is 17.462Hz. If this is the case, how can (1) and (2) "sound the same" / have the same "quality"?

Is the difference between (1) and (2) due to "temperament"?

Edit 2: Wow - I did not think through my last edit. As Patrx2 points out, the frequencies are geometric so the ratio remains constant (not the difference). Not sure why I did not spot this as octaves are clearly a doubling of the frequencies... I think I must have been imagining things as by all accounts, (1) and (2) should sound the same. Thanks again!

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    I think even for those without perfect pitch there is a detectable difference when playing the same intervals at different pitches. – Todd Wilcox Dec 15 '15 at 21:50
  • what instrument are you playing on? – topo morto Dec 15 '15 at 22:28
  • It'll be either guitar or piano/organ, I guess. Using the same voicing on piano/organ should make hardly any difference, given that it's in the middle of a piece, and one's ear is 'in that key'. On guitar, there will be differences due to the particular strings used, and where on the fretboard each chord is voiced. I wonder, what does , say, Gm > C or Am >D sound like to you? Much, any different? – Tim Dec 16 '15 at 14:48
  • @tim - my guess was guitar. Can't be a horn, not likely a cello, and as you said, difference would be less obvious on keys. I slanted my answer towards guitar with piano as an example of how voicing can alter perception. tian seems to be MIA. Perhaps he will check in soon and confirm our suspicion. We should thank him for posting a good question. – Rockin Cowboy Dec 16 '15 at 18:08
  • @RockinCowboy - yes, it needs to be a chordal instrument (people will say chords can be played on tpt, etc., but that's not the issue here...) and guitar is the one which WILL sound quite different even with the same voicing for different chord registers. – Tim Dec 17 '15 at 9:49
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The answers given so far are fairly comprehensive: tessitura (the normal range of a given voice or instrument) matters. Your transposition of a fifth imposes a different tessitura on the musical idea, and that will have an effect.

  • It matters with regards to comparative sustain of the notes (in non-sustaining instruments such as piano, harpsichord or guitar), or the relative penetrating quality of an instrument (think here of the recorder family: the descant (soprano) is quite a bit louder and shriller than the F bass). As alluded to elsewhere, it also affects the relative consonance of close intervals.
  • It matters with regards to the character of a given passage or piece - we have a variety of styles and musical characters that we tend to associate with a given tessitura. For instance, you will normally hear funeral marches inhabiting a fairly low-lying melodic range.
  • It matters from point of view of the instrument's technique, and the effect that has on a piece's expression. For example, if you play a piece on the piano around C major, you will be dealing with the white keys, and you don't particularly need to reach for the keys. If you play a piece in a key with a real mixture of white and black keys, perhaps F minor, you may have to arrange the fingering to bring the black keys under the longer fingers, or, failing that, to cock your hand so that a shorter finger can catch a black key. The change in technique will affect the phrasing, and can have some effect on the expression as a result.
  • And finally, it can matter from the point of view of its effect in conjunction with temperament. Dom's examples brought this to mind: most early music instruments use different tunings than equal temperament, and, should you write for these instruments, you will be hard-pressed to get the performers to stop using these tunings. In this case, because the intervals are not uniform, the character or colour of a key can be quite pronounced, for example, the major second from tonic to supertonic may well be of a different size as you transpose up a fifth (and this may well be true of many of the intervals after transposition).

I'll give an example of the last case. The following is a demo of an incomplete sketch using a 1/5-comma mean tone, but there is enough to illustrate the change in colour, I think. The piece starts in C major, moves to E♭ major in the 2nd section, then back to C major in the (incomplete) 3rd section. Because the sections are very sharply defined, you should be able to hear the difference in key colours.

  • Thanks Patrx2! I think your comment on temperament on that the intervals are not uniform essentials explains why chord inversions, any why my original two chord progressions of the same interval and type (fundamental frequencies aside) have a slight different quality. – tian Dec 17 '15 at 21:11
  • @tian like I commented in your question, your keyboard is an equal temperament instrument so the distance between every semitone is 100 cents. You keyboard would have much, much more than 12 keys per octave if it was any other temperament. There are instruments where this matters, but your keyboard is not one of them. – Dom Dec 17 '15 at 21:18
  • @Dom is right about this: most keyboards are equally tempered by default unless you impose an alternate tuning on them. However, most temperaments don't need any more than 12 keys/octave; most are compromises (hence the term "mean tone") that allow the more distant keys from C to be used, so you tune the keyboard once. I did not re-tune midstream to handle the Canzona's middle section, for instance. – user16935 Dec 17 '15 at 22:21
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Welcome to becoming a composer. Instruments in general sound different in different parts of there range. A fourth will be a fourth where ever it's played, but how it sounds is slightly different due to this. When transposing something by a fourth, this can be a huge difference depending on where it lies for an instrument.

A simple example to demonstrate this concept is just transposing by an octave. The notes are exactly the same, but how something sounds is very different. Sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.

I've taken an old short piece I wrote that I still had a Finale file for and transposed it to demonstrate this difference. It's an invention written for a harpsichord. Bear in mind what you hear is not an actual harpsicord, but a synthesized output from Finale it still gets the general idea across.

Original:

Octave Up:

Octave Down:

Listen to all of them and compare and contrast them. There are parts where it sound better transposed and parts where it doesn't. As a composer you wouldn't transpose by this much, but you would seek a key that best says what you want to and in your specific case the first chord progression may say it better than it being transposed in the second case.

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    Nicely composed answer! – user6164 Dec 15 '15 at 22:39
  • Thanks Dom - there definitely a difference in the octave transpositions, although not the difference that I am trying to understand! (Bravo on the composition!) – tian Dec 17 '15 at 21:06
  • @tian while not the exact scenario, it may explain why they sound different. I can also generate files up and down a fourth and the results will be similar, but not as extreme. – Dom Dec 17 '15 at 21:09
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I think this is just personal taste. You say that (1) sounds better than (2), but some other person might say the opposite. This has happened to me as well. I might play a song from Bb major, but the singer needs to sing it from D major, so we move it up a third. The result might sound better or worse to me.

If I remember correctly, this happened to Wes Montgomery as well. A song of his ( I think Bock to Bock) is from Db and when he tried to transpose it to C, he didn't like how it sounded, so he played it from Db.

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You did not mention what instrument you are composing on or trying out your chord progression on. But if you are using a guitar, the voicing and position you play the chords in can have a dramatic effect on how they sound together.

Unlike with a keyboard instrument such as piano, with a stringed instrument capable of playing chords (such as a guitar), there are many different ways to play a chord in roughly the same octave using the typical root as bass arrangement verses an inversion.

On piano, if you move the chord shape an octave to the right, it will sound very discernibly higher in pitch. To the left - lower. So when you play the next chord on piano, you could play it to the left OR to the right of the first chord and the direction you move to reach the next chord will affect the sound and feel of the progression.

With a piano, if you go in the same direction the same distance for the second chord regardless of transposition, it will be more likely to sound just as good (or at least have the same effect) in either key. On piano the octave you play each progression in may have more of an effect than the key you play it in.

With a guitar on the other hand, depending on the voicing, you may not be moving to the left or right at all. Or you could play the two chords on opposite ends of the fretboard. But even then, both chords could be in the same octave ballpark. This is because, unlike on piano where you can play each note in only one exact place, on guitar the same note at the same pitch in the same octave can be played in several different places.

So for example, you can play the F minor as a first fret barre chord followed by the B flat major also as a 1st fret barre chord (different shape chord). It will sound a certain way. But if you play the same progression starting with the F minor on the eight fret followed by the B flat major on the 1st fret, you will get a completely different sound that you may perceive differently.

Similarly if you play the C minor to F major using barre chords played on the 3rd and 1st frets respectively, you will get a completely different effect than if you played that progression using the eight fret position for both chords.

So if you are playing the F minor to B flat major using the first fret barre position for both chords, the root bass note and perception of the transition is that the second chord is higher. To achieve that effect on piano, the second chord would be played to the right.

If you play the C minor followed by F major progression using the third fret position for the C minor and the first fret position for the F major (full 6 string barre) - the opposite occurs. Your root bass note and perception of the progression changes to render the second chord as a lower sounding chord. To replicate that sound on piano, you would play the second chord to the left - giving it a completely different sound, feel and perception than if you played the second chord by shifting to the right (higher).

So to a great extent, the way it sounds to you will depend on the chord voicing and position you play the chord in and the instrument you play the progression on.

Also, what sounds "good" to you can be a matter of both personal preference and context. Moving higher in the range from one chord to the next versus lower may alter the emotional impact of the progression. The direction the melody is going to move following the progression might inform whether the next chord should be voiced higher or lower than the preceding chord to achieve the desired effect as well.

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Even if we put aside the idea of a chord progression, The quality of an individual chord (let's assume a root inversion triad) will be different depending on where it is played on an instrument. Play a C major chord low down on the piano, then somewhere in the middle, then up at the top. The basic 'quality' changes from muddy and rubmbly and discordant, to sweet, to again somewhat sharp and discordant.

Part of this is because the harmonic structures of the notes are different in different ranges. The lower notes have weak fundamental frequencies, and a lot of the energy in the notes is in overtones that have frequencies many times that of the fundamental. This makes it harder for the ear to pick out the distinct notes and the frequency relationships between them, and the result is that the sound is subjectively discordant.

The very high piano notes have much less energy in the overtones, and as a result are more easily separated by the ear. However, because there are fewer overtones, the harmonic effect is less interesting.

Just as Red Riding Hood taught us, the middle range of the piano is 'just right' for chords. Here, the fundamentals of the notes are strong enough for the notes to be recognised individually, and yet they have enough harmonic content to be interesting as the overtones of each note interact with the fundamental and lower overtones of higher notes.

There are other differences between lower and higher notes. With many instruments, higher notes die away quicker, so there's less opportunity for the shifting harmonic content you find in natural notes to evolve and interact in interesting ways with other notes.

Of course all instruments are different. It's possible that on one piano, you might like F minor followed by B flat major; on another, C minor followed by F major might sound better to you!

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