Do you know music for piano where the two hands don't have to play in the same key?

  • 10
    I've heard people play that way, but don't think it was written as such...
    – Tim
    Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 14:57
  • I was tempted to add a trivia tag, since I can recognize no practical impact of the question, but there seems to be none.
    – guidot
    Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 22:26
  • @guidot I think a question asking about the existence of polytonality is a little more than "trivia", considering it has sparked an entire movement of contemporary composing...
    – Nico A
    Commented Jan 25, 2019 at 1:25
  • @TreFox: I would agree more, if the question contained at least a hint of a level beyond trivia. Note that it is a closed question, where a simple yes would be a valid answer.
    – guidot
    Commented Jan 25, 2019 at 8:19

3 Answers 3



The term for such music is polytonality.

Keep in mind that polytonality may not necessarily apply to the entire composition. It would not be un-common for a composition to have only parts which are polytonal.

Many polytonal works will be from the early 20th century. You will see some of the composer names in the wiki article: Stravinsky, Bartok, Milhaud, Ives, etc.

Here is one the cited examples from Milhaud: Copacabana. Right hand is in B major and the left hand is G major.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • Each part separately is pretty clear and simple (diatonic within their respective tonalities.)
  • The listener should be able to hear each part is in a separate key. From examples I have seen, that separation is largely contingent on the clarity of the separate parts. You should need to strain to hear the two keys.
  • Some counterpoint/rhythmic contrast between parts will help with perceiving the separation.
  • A large tonal contrast help with separation. The difference between G (one sharp) and B (5 sharps) is 4 accidentals. That's a pretty large contrast of tones. It's hard for G to be confused with B. But, compare C and F major. The difference is only 1 flat. When combining those two keys the results could sound like extended harmonies of 9th or 11th chords, or perhaps a C tonic with a variable natural ^7 or b^7 scale degree. A similar point could be made about blues tonality. It isn't polytonal, it's a idiomatic blending of major and minor and 'blue' notes, but clearly there is only one tonic.

That's probably the essential point with polytonality: you really need to hear two (or more?) simultaneous tonics.

  • 1
    There is polytonality (or maybe polymodality according to you reference) even in popular music. This song was a summer hit here in Brazil last year: youtube.com/watch?v=lYxcW8jtFw0. Melody is in Ab major, and harmony in Ab minor.
    – coconochao
    Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 17:53
  • 1
    FWIW, I have sometimes played with taking a given piece of music - like a classical piece with simple alberti bass or a familiar song like Jingle Bells - and just transpose one of the hands to hear a "polytonal" rendition. Kinda silly, kinda fun. Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 19:54
  • 2
    @coconochao - modal mixture is a little semantic as far as polytonality is concerned. Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 19:55
  • 2
    At sound checks, I like to play 'The Entertainer' r.h. in original C, l.h. in C#. It works - in a weird way. And if anyone comments, I ask if the piano's been tuned lately..!
    – Tim
    Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 19:58
  • Do you know the story about Charles Ives' father who was a band leader? He would have two marching bands play in different keys. Apparently an influence on the son's crazy music. Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 20:12

Bela Bartok Mikrokosmos Vol. IV

99) cm / am

101) am / Ebm

103) B / am

105) em / c#m (both pentatonic)

There are some others: It's obvious that two hands play in different keys, even it is not signed as such.

But the title will say it clear.


Surprised that there's been no mention of the Blues, where often the left hand (accompaniment) is played in a major key, while the right hand is played, in a fashion, in the parallel minor, more or less, with the addition of a tritonal b5, putting it into maybe an unknown key.

  • I just made an edit to my post, re. blues. In the strict academic sense it's not polytonal. There aren't two tonics simultaneously. Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 19:49
  • @MichaelCurtis - OP's question asks - different keys.
    – Tim
    Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 20:44
  • up vote for mentioning the blues! I always thought improvising in G above E or C above A was my invention ;) Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 21:30

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