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I realise this might be kind of a silly question, but I recently got a kalimba and I am trying to turn various piano songs into kalimba songs!

My kalimba is tuned to C major and has 17 keys; no sharps or flats.

But most C major songs I've found have the occasional sharp or flat note in them that I can't seem to play. Is there a way to change them to a different note that would suit? I assume it might be a little difficult, and would probably depend on the song. I've read about transposing but it looks like that's only for the entire key.

I don't know much about music theory honestly, if this is a bad question feel free to just tell me.

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  • I would love for you to give some examples of melodies which you're unable to play, to try and work out whether your problem is with transposition, chromatic passing notes, or actual chromatic harmony/modulation, because they're progressively more easy to solve (and I may as well use examples that you actually want to play rather than simply coming up with some of my own- less work for me and more relevant to you so everyone wins haha)
    – Some_Guy
    Oct 14, 2018 at 18:52
  • If you don't want to change the structure of the melody, transposing the piece is your best bet IMO, but that depends if the sharp or flat notes are used instead of the natural note, or in addition. For example, if your piece had a B flat, but no natural B, you could treat it as if it were written in F major, and transpose it to C major (replace each F with a C, each G with a D etc.). If your piece has both B flat and B natural, you're out of luck, and must find ways to modify the melody unobtrusively. Oct 15, 2018 at 6:36
  • I suspect you've just discovered that there are limitations to just about anything we know how to do. In order to achieve a designated pitch, you'll need to have something capable of producing it. Oct 15, 2018 at 18:05

4 Answers 4

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While you can change sharps and flats to naturals, this has a nasty tendency to either sound like amateurish mistakes (as hitting an adjacent note is one of the most common types of mistake made at the regular piano) or major/minor mode changes (changing all the C sharps to C naturals in an A major piece, for instance). I don't recommend it in general, and I really don't recommend it if you're publicly performing these pieces.

You may be able to get away with changing sharps/flats to more distant chord tones in the harmony (e.g. change an F sharp in the bass to a D when you're playing a D major chord), but you basically cannot in the melody without people thinking that you're messing up the piece.

As the question asker has already mentioned, transposing the entire piece to C major has the greatest chance of working, but many pieces still end up with black notes no matter what key they are in (such as every piece that uses 3 or more notes that are a semitone apart from each other). For example, you cannot transpose "The Star-Spangled Banner" to any key without requiring a black note, as due to its use of a secondary dominant, even the C major version requires F, F#, and G.

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    With a melody like the star spangled banner that's so well known inside and out with people singing it on a regular basis, it's more difficult to get away with, but often you can change the melody slightly to avoid it. So for "by the dawn's early light" instead of playing e d c E F# G I'd play e d c E a G or e d c b a G. Now, if I was playing the star spangled banner in America, I suspect people might notice that melody change and notice it as "wrong", but in other melodies you can often get away with fudging the melody a little to fit in in the diatonic scale.
    – Some_Guy
    Oct 14, 2018 at 18:42
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    To be honest with the star spangled banner the most passable solution is probably simply to play an F natural; in this specific case the melodic shape is more important and in this case an F natural still works as a weak ii V I that's not particularly jarring to the ear (you can imagine the melody having been written that way just fine, it just wasn't). If you play e d c E F G I doubt many people (other than musicians) would notice that much to be honest. Usually just dropping the sharp isn't a good solution of course, but in this case, it's not so bad,
    – Some_Guy
    Oct 14, 2018 at 18:57
  • @Some_Guy indeed, the earliest versions of the tune didn't have the F#. The Library of Congress has a version from as late as 1861 without the raised 4th degree on "dawn's early light" at blogs.loc.gov/music/2010/03/our-national-anthem, though it does have a raised 4th degree at "flag still was there" (sic). The ca. 1790 print of the Anacreontic Song, however, lacks the raised 4th degree in both places: loc.gov/resource/ihas.100010458.0
    – phoog
    Oct 15, 2018 at 18:44
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You might be interested in knowing that there are Chromatic Kalimbas available that would make available all the sharps and flats you might need to play the melody lines accurately, and you can also play the songs in any major or minor key. It would just involve learning how to play it and learning some basic theory. That would be the best solution I can think of.

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This is a complex topic. While the presence of accidentals can be a problem, it is not necessarily so, since:

  • Sometimes older scores do not state all real accidentals, but choose to provide some on every occurence instead, so completing the key signature may get rid of all interspersed ones, and simple transposition would work.

  • In the cases where not, a transposition may exist, where no further accidentals are required.

I would look for scores for other non-chromatic instruments and transpose them to C, if needed. I know by chance, that many old bagpipes have very limited chromatic support, so searching in that repertoire may improve chances. Also more affordable hook-based harps need some time to get to the accidentals, so the beginner pieces, where no chords are used and the used range is limited, may also be appropriate.

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You may be able to change the tuning of your kalimba. I had a commercially produced kalimba and the tangs were moveable by pushing/pulling them to become shorter/longer over the bridge which changes the tang's tuning. It's tricky to get the tuning right, but it's possible.

About your actual question: dealing with chromatic pitches on a purely diatonic instrument.

Think of this more as a strategy than a proper musical process. Sort of the way a jazz singer "interprets" a melody and changes pitches around. There isn't a "right" way to do it. Keep in mind chromatic tones are often the distinctive features of a melody, so changing those tones may sound like changes to the essence of the melody. Try to listen to substituted pitches with an open mind.

The first practical thing to do is to transpose all melodies you want to play into C major.

Next, the common reasons for chromatic tones are to form temporary leading tones, subdominants, or borrowed harmonies. Usually those temporary tones are relative to one of the diatonic tones. So, in C major...

  • the temporary leading tones are C#, D#, F#, G# as leading tones those pitches would move up respectively to D, E, G, and A
  • there is only one temporary subdominant Bb moving down to A (all the other temporary subdominants are diatonic and present no problem of chromaticism)
  • the borrowed tones would be Eb, Ab, and Bb and they would likely be tones from borrowed chords, respectively the minor i, iv, or subtonic bVII

...that is just a list of the common harmonic origins of those chromatic tones. We want to know what to play as a diatonic alternative.

For the temporary leading tones you can alternatively play the whole step above the target note. Ex. for C# D try E D. The one place this will not work is D# E where the whole step above is another chromatic tone F#. In that case try playing B the dominant of E or just anticipate the E meaning play an E instead of D# before the main E.

For the temporary subdominant Bb try playing G to A, the whole step below the target tone.

All the above assumes the temporary leading tones/subdominant resolve by step to the next tone. If that doesn't happen in the melody, the most likely thing to happen in the melody will be those melody tones move to some other tone of the given chord. Conveniently all the other chord tones of the various chords involved will be diatonic tones. Ex. G# moving up to A, the G# is from the chord E7, the other tones of that chord are E B D, all diatonic in C major. Instead of playing the G#, try any of E B D.

For the borrowed tones try a similar approach of substituting with another tone from the borrowed chord. For example, if there is an Ab it is likely from a borrowed chord like minor iv, try one of the other tones from that chord like F or C. Conveniently, when dealing with borrowed tones Eb, Ab, and Bb and their respective chords i, iv, and bVII all the other chord tones are diatonic to C major.

It is very possible that a chromatic tone will be none of the chord tones above and will simply be a chromatic non-chord tone such as a chromatic passing or neighbor tone. In such a case you have a bit more freedom to choose an alternative. Probably you can try whatever tone is diatonic in the other direction. Ex. for a lower chromatic neighbor, use the upper diatonic neighbor tone.

An example that I think works pretty well...

Red Roses for a Blue Lady

enter image description here

...with the chromatic tones changed according to my suggestions...

enter image description here

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