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Most of Western music is now played in 12et/edo, where a key change won't make an appreciable difference to how it sounds - providing voicings are the same.

Back in other temperamental days, let's take a piece written in, say, C major. If that was then transcribed to, say, Eb major, and replayed, would it actually sound any different, apart from being a m3 higher in pitch? Or, given the vagaries of instruments tuned to other than 12et, would it sound different?

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It certainly would sound different. How different would depend on the particular temperament.

In the "mean-tone" temperaments that were widely used before J S Bach's time, and still used during his lifetime by some conservative organ builders, some keys were so out-of-tune as to be unusable. These temperaments were usually based on a cycle of 5ths from E flat up G sharp, and next lowest and highest fifths (i.e. A flat - E flat and G sharp - D sharp) were not usable, since Ab was a significantly different pitch from G sharp, etc.

Therefore, in your specific example, transposing a piece to E flat would probably sound horrible, since the A flats would actually sound as G sharps.

In the "well-temperaments" of Bach's time, all 12 major and minor keys were playable, but they certainly had their own distinctive sounds. If you study (and listen) to Bach's two and three part inventions, for example, you find that he makes deliberate use of the differences - and those pieces were written not only as teaching material for performers, but also for composers.

The same thing occurs in his major works.An example is the organ prelude and fugue in D Major BWV532, which starts with a passage of scales and arpeggios on a D chord, ending in a cadence on A. So far, all very nicely "in tune," but followed after a pause, by a lurch to F# major and its dominant C#7 - a "WTF" moment in unequal temperament, with the chords sounding as F#-Bb-C# and C#-F-G#-B! This is followed by another abrupt change, back to D major harmony.

This is a recording on an organ tuned to Valotti temperament where the tuning differences are fairly "mild" compared with some of the other baroque temperaments - but the effect is audible.

Contemporary writers noted that Bach sometimes used to "wind up" his favourite organ builder, Silbermann, who took a very conservative position on tuning systems, by deliberately using the out-of-tune chords when trying out a newly built instrument.

Modern digital organs (and other sound synthesis systems) often have the capability to switch between several historical temperaments. Experimenting with one will answer the question better than reading a wall of text!

  • 1
    This covers organs mostly, and thank you for that. I'm wondering partly, though, if , say, a piece for strings, if written in C, played in C, would sound much different if written in Eb (for example), and played from those dots. What I'm getting at is a 4th or a 5th in any key is going to be the same, isn't it, in any similar tuning temperament. Not one instrument built around one good key, as I guess harpsichords, for instance, were tuned. I understand that a harpsichord tuned to C wouldn't sound good played in Eb, – Tim Jun 22 '18 at 13:52
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    Modern digital organs (and other sound synthesis systems) often have the capability to switch between several historical temperaments. Experimenting with one will answer the question better than reading a wall of text! Bolded in comment for truth. Apple Logic Pro X in particular has a huge range of temperaments and tunings that can be used with any of the equally huge number of virtual instruments included. The biggest catch is you have to have a Mac. And $200. – Todd Wilcox Jun 22 '18 at 14:45
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    @Tim I think you’re mixing together a lot of separate things. A piece written purely for strings, or for any non fixed pitch instruments, isn’t really in any temperament at all. The word temperament (at least in the sense you’re using it) only really makes total sense with fixed pitch instruments like keyboards. An unfixed string instrument won’t always play any pitch at the exact same frequency and will generally tend to something closer to just intonation. When you talk about a harpsichord tunes to the key of C it sounds like you’re talking about a just intonation harpsichord, which would… – Pat Muchmore Jun 23 '18 at 11:51
  • exceedingly rare. Unfixed pitch instruments and just intonation in general are untempered phenomena. If one wishes to make more than a few keys usable on a fixed pitch instrument, then one has to temper the instrument. That’s where equal temperament and well temperament come in. There’s (theoretically) no difference between keys on ET, but there will be differences in WT. – Pat Muchmore Jun 23 '18 at 11:56
  • @PatMuchmore - yes, I'm probably mixing a lot of things. I'm also mixed up, otherwise the question wouldn't be asked. Why not put all this, and more down in a great answer? – Tim Jun 23 '18 at 12:21
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It sounds different to me if people play in 12et or not, which makes different keys sound different. Of course, to what extent depends on how far the tuning differs from equal temperament.

  • Sounds like you could be 'afflicted' with absolute pitch ! However, if you've never heard a piece before, the key becomes academic.That's not what I was trying to ask within the question. – Tim Jun 23 '18 at 7:04
  • Tim- I'm only afflicted with relative absolute pitch: I can produce a pretty good "A" if not disturbed, but not in the heat of the battle. But yes, I do understand what you were getting at. To be very specific, take Kirnberger III: it was a typical Baroque temperament, and it has three just (5/4) major thirds, three abysmal Pythagorean (81/64) major thirds, and the rest in between. In normal C-centered Kirnberger, the major third between Eb and G is one of the Pythagorean ones. This is a very audible difference. – Scott Wallace Jun 23 '18 at 16:10

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