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How important is it to know to play a given song in multiple keys? I'm not talking about anything too complex. Think pop songs or traditional songs like Amazing Grace, Silent night, etc.

Say if I can only play these songs in a single key is that "bad"? Can accomplished musicians play these songs on any key they feel like? And on the fly ... meaning no practice beforehand, and it just sounds good?

note: I can play any of these songs with practice on different keys. but I'm talking about real-time, on the fly, type playing here, where it sounds good the moment you change keys.

another note: my purpose is being able to jam with other musicians, improvisation, busking, etc.

  • It's only important if you need to do so for whatever purpose you intend. – Matthew Read Aug 5 '17 at 15:44
  • I think instantly recognizing a song in different keys is more important. Pop music often moves its chorus up one whole step or half step late in the song. Classical music forms such as sonata-allegro form centers around transposing its themes up or down. Video game music sometimes reuses the same motives in different keys. – Dekkadeci Aug 6 '17 at 13:46
  • You don't mention your instrument. If you're playing guitar you already can play all songs in all keys with a capo. – pro Sep 12 '17 at 17:25
  • And if you use an electronic keyboard you can use the Transposition key. – pro Sep 15 '17 at 20:52
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It is indeed a useful skill to acquire, but it is somewhat dependant on what you're doing. As part of the house band in open mics, it's pretty well essential. It's no good saying to a singer who needs Bb to say 'but I only know it in D'. You don't get asked back!

If it's in a group situation, and one vocal harmony is too high, it shouldn't take half the rehearsal to change the key, write down the new chords, etc. A couple of minutes and it should be ready.

However, if it's just for your own enjoyment, one key will suffice. But it's a great challenge to take on, when someone who's playing with you says 'you know so-and -so song; let's play it in F# just for the craic.'And often the song takes on a different slant because of it. Relatively easy on guitar with a capo...

From a personal perspective I'm not impressed by anyone I'm playing with who cannot or will not play something in anything but the key they learned it in.

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Learning to play in all keys will improve your technique and your ear tremendously.

When my father was learning jazz chromatic harmonica, his teacher thought that my father thought too much about the music, to the point where it affected his musicality. So he had my father learn jazz standards by ear in all twelve keys.

First the teacher would play the tune alone. Then the teacher and my dad would play the tune together. If my dad was successful then the teacher would repeat the process with a scale on the root a semitone above the current scale. If my dad was unsuccessful then that was his homework.

As a result, my dad gained enormous proficiency on the harmonica in a relatively short period of time and could play anything instantly that he heard inside or outside his head.

1

Instant transposition is a useful skill, particularly when singers are involved.

Yes, with practice and experience both your 'busking' skills in all keys and sight-transposition from written music will develop and improve.

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