Sorry if this is a silly question, I'm a total newbie to music and trying to wrap my head around things. :)

From what I've learned, there is a pattern to all major/minor scales. For example, a major scale follows the pattern tone-tone-semitone-tone-tone-tone-semitone. For minor scales there were several variations depending on which type of minor scale you used.

So, like, a C major scale starts on C and follows this pattern, thus resulting in notes C D E F G A B. A D major scale starts on D and, following this pattern, results in D E F# G A B C#. Etc.

Now, any piece of music can be rewritten (transposed) to a different scale that follows the same pattern as the original simply by shifting all the notes by a certain amount of semitones. So, take a piece of music in D major, shift all notes down by 2 semitones, and you've got that same piece in C major.

What I don't understand is - unless you've got absolute hearing or are listening to the pieces side-by-side, you won't hear any difference between the two versions. It'll sound exactly the same, even to the most trained ear. So why bother with it? Why are there so many pieces of music in different scales when you could just transpose them all to the same scale?

Some ideas that I came up with on my own but wasn't convinced:

  • So that writing is simpler. But no - as long as you don't stray from the notes in the scale, you don't need to use any extra signs. Those are only used when you use notes outside the scale, thus they will be there in the same places no matter how you transpose.
  • To match the available range of a specific music instrument/voice. However they all span at least a few octaves, so why would you need to adjust so precisely? Just move them up or down by a whole octave. Unless the piece has a so wide range of sounds that it spans nearly all of the available sounds on the instrument/voice, but I think that's a pretty rare case. And anyway, most of those odd E-major-whatever pieces are for the piano which has the biggest range of them all.
  • When playing together several instruments, you might wish to have them play the same melody just a few (semi)tones apart for some specific effect. But then why do these scales then appear for pieces that are meant to be played solo (including all the piano exercises)?
  • Because some combinations of notes are easier played (as in the mechanical finger motion is simpler) in a specific scale. Doesn't seem convincing though, most instruments are pretty uniform, and it doesn't apply to voice at all.
  • Tradition?

So... is there a better explanation as to why so many different scales are employed today?

  • 2
    "It'll sound exactly the same, even to the most trained ear." - Sorry, but that is just wrong - though until your ears become "trained" you will have to take other people's word for it! "Most instruments are pretty uniform" - again, that is not true at all. Most instruments are extremely non-uniform. (As a straight forward example, take the black and white keys on the piano, and the fact that humans have short thumbs and pinky fingers compared with the other three - so the short fingers "fit better" on the white keys not the black ones.
    – user19146
    Jul 19 '17 at 13:19
  • 1
    I think you are asking why there are different keys, not different scales. Different scales most assuredly do sound different, even to untrained ears. Different keys sound different in temperaments other than equal temperament. Some keys lay better than others on different instruments. The nature of sound production for a musical instrument means that the actual sound made is different in different keys, i.e., if you have to play higher-up on the instrument to fit a key into the instrumental range, the timbre changes. And, given that we have 12 tones to work with, the keys are just there.
    – ex nihilo
    Jul 19 '17 at 13:20
  • 1
    The Levitin effect indicates that close to everyone can hear the difference between (major) keys well enough to remember that certain pieces are in different keys from each other.
    – Dekkadeci
    Jul 19 '17 at 13:48
  • Also, in various musical contexts, you will be hearing the same melody in different keys in relatively quick succession (e.g. both major). Listen to the famous first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and you'll hear the famous opening bars in C minor and F minor, then the major-key section in E flat major and C major. Play Mario Kart: Double Dash!! for one course and you'll hear the music go up one semitone (typically) in the final lap.
    – Dekkadeci
    Jul 19 '17 at 13:53
  • First - Keys vs scales - I'm not sure, what's the difference? I mean things like "C major", "D major", etc. Those are scales, aren't they? Second - yes, I'm talking about equal temperament. It didn't occur to me to specify this since it's so ubiquitous today, but I guess it should be noted. Third - so... all of my guesses are right?
    – Vilx-
    Jul 19 '17 at 13:56

What I don't understand is - unless you've got absolute hearing or are listening to the pieces side-by-side, you won't hear any difference between the two versions. It'll sound exactly the same, even to the most trained ear.

There's many reasons, but your premise here is false. You may not be able to tell the exact key if you don't have absolute pitch, but a trained musical ear will still notice differences to the warmth, timbre and other qualities of the sound regardless.

In addition:

  • Some keys are easier to play on some instruments than others, especially those instruments not in C - so your point that "most instruments are pretty uniform" is also not correct.
  • Many pieces will transition between keys in different sections, so you can't just have one key if you (for instance) want to transpose up a minor third for an interlude.
  • Some instruments simply sound better (or at least different) in different keys. On a violin for example there's a very distinct sound obtained by using open strings, but you've only got four to choose from! If you force everything to be written in C, then want the sound of an open string on the tonic... you're out of luck.
  • Disagree slightly with the second sentence -- all except the very most tone-deaf will be able to tell a difference, even if they don't know what the difference is.
    – user28
    Jul 19 '17 at 17:47
  • @MatthewRead - your comment puts me into the very most tone deaf category. Thanks! I've been a muso for 60 odd years! If I play a piece in G that's supposed to be in Ab, I doubt most people would notice without an external reference.
    – Tim
    Jul 19 '17 at 22:42

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