I'm a complete beginner and trying to understand the basics of music theory these days. I guess I have a good ear and can play most songs by ear on guitar and piano and I'm sure this is a stupid question but I've noticed that any song can be played starting from any note, as long as the tone distances are kept the same.

Let's say the song starts with C,D,Eb (Tone,Tone,Half tone), it also sounds correct when E,F#,G (Tone,Tone,Half tone) is played.

I'm a bit surprised to discover that cause I used to think notes are not interchangeable. Am I missing something? Any suggestions?

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    Won't sound correct for this song: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Do-Re-Mi – Cœur Dec 30 '19 at 11:34
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    @Cœur - yes it will sound correct. The whole point of Do Re Mi is that it is relative. – Doktor Mayhem Dec 30 '19 at 17:10
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    @DoktorMayhem it isn't relative everywhere. Some countries use "fixed do," where do is always a C natural, re is always a D natural, and so on. – Justin Dec 30 '19 at 23:11
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    So I guess the question is - did 1930s Austria use a fixed Do system? And if so, do the notes of Do-Re-Mi correspond to that system? – topo Reinstate Monica Dec 30 '19 at 23:19
  • @Cœur - The irony is that, in the movie, "Do-Re-Mi" is sung in B flat major. – Dekkadeci Dec 31 '19 at 8:38

This is because most people have a sense of relative pitch, so as you say, as long as the intervals (tone distances) are kept the same, the piece of music is recognisable.

Think about how we recognise things visually for a moment. You'd recognise a computer mouse, or a car, or an apartment block whether it was to your left or right, or above you or below you, or whether the thing was close to you or far away. That's because you don't recognise it as a fixed image, but a 'pattern' that can always be recognised from the relationships that the parts of that thing have with each other.

So because (as you say) C,D,Eb and E,F#,G represent the same pattern of intervals - a tone step, then a half tone step - most people hear it as recognisably the same tune.

Moving a piece up and down in pitch like this is called transposing.

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    I think even people with absolute pitch can recognize a tune as being the same even if it's played in a different key. :) Maybe a better explanation is that pitches are recognized relative to a tonic, home note, zero-point, origin. The tonic gets set very easily, like calibrating a measuring device. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Dec 29 '19 at 12:17
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    BTW the people i know who have perfect pitch also have relative pitch - at least that is my impression - so i don't think of them as mutually exclusive..? – topo Reinstate Monica Dec 29 '19 at 18:41
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    Pedantic note. You meant C, D, Eb, rather than C, D, D#. Of course, you cannot tell the difference between Eb and D# just from listening to them individually. But there is a music theoretic difference. The interval from C to Eb is a minor third. The interval from C to D# is an augmented second. – pyon Dec 29 '19 at 19:10
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    @pyon The examples I quote are just those from the OP. I did consider changing the OP's note spelling, but given that the actual size of the pitch ratios can be understood in either case, I decided explaining my logic would be an unnecessary distraction. Of course misspellings are a distraction too so I was probably damned either way... – topo Reinstate Monica Dec 29 '19 at 19:38
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    There's also more direct analogy: people intonate while speaking. You are expected to recognise the intended intonation of the phrase, even if the voice is much higher or lower than yours. – Dmitri Urbanowicz Dec 30 '19 at 8:24

Playing a single pitch has no emotional impact. The way we understand pitch information is not dependent on frequency. A C and an F# sound the same in isolation. However, the CHANGE between two pitches ("interval") translates into something we all attach some feeling/emotion to, and each different interval translates to a different feeling. If you play the same piece of music starting from any given note, all of the interval information is completely unchanged and so we recognize it as the "same".

(Intervals can manifest "horizontally" as the difference between two adjacent pitches in a melody line or "vertically" as the difference between pitches that sound simultaneously within a chord.)

It's kind of like how we only feel changes in speed, but not how fast we're going at any given moment...

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  • I think everyone with absolute pitch (including me) will object to your statement that "A C and an F# sound the same in isolation." – Dekkadeci Dec 31 '19 at 8:44
  • Yes, my answer disregards people with perfect pitch. But it's true for the vast majority of people that C and F# have no perceivable difference in isolation. – ahazybellcord Dec 31 '19 at 14:35

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