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

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    I've heard people play that way, but don't think it was written as such... – Tim Jan 24 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 Jan 24 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... – TreFox Jan 25 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 Jan 25 at 8:19
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Yes.

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.

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    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 Jan 24 at 17:53
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    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. – Michael Curtis Jan 24 at 19:54
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    @coconochao - modal mixture is a little semantic as far as polytonality is concerned. – jjmusicnotes Jan 24 at 19:55
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    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 Jan 24 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. – Michael Curtis Jan 24 at 20:12
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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.

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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. – Michael Curtis Jan 24 at 19:49
  • @MichaelCurtis - OP's question asks - different keys. – Tim Jan 24 at 20:44
  • up vote for mentioning the blues! I always thought improvising in G above E or C above A was my invention ;) – Albrecht Hügli Jan 24 at 21:30

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