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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.

  • 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 '18 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. – Richard Metzler Oct 15 '18 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. – skinny peacock Oct 15 '18 at 18:05
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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 '18 at 18:42
  • 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 '18 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 '18 at 18:44
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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 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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