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Originally Posted by Henderson Hall
. . .
Then I'd take another look at this tutorial. The tutorial places the song in the key of B, which is not a beginner's key. If your voice can handle it, I'd play the song one half-step higher to the key of C.

I didn't want to derail the "Proposal" thread, in which that response appears.

I think that the only reason "beginners don't play in keys with lots of black keys" is that (because of the way we _write_ music):

. . . "black key" = "sharp or flat" = "slow to read".

There's a pretty standard bias, in talking about fingering (especially for scales):

. . . Use the long fingers (2/3/4) on the black keys, use the short fingers (1/5) on the white keys.

Keys with lots of accidentals - B, Db, E, Eb, Gb, Ab -- have scale fingerings that fit naturally to their accidentals. I suspect (but can't prove) that music written in those keys is actually easier to _play_ (not necessarily to _read_) than music written in "white-key" keys with simpler key signatures.

The OP in the "Proposal" thread was considering learning his piece with a "follow the fingers" approach (rather than using a conventional score). So I was thinking that learning and playing it in B, might actually be easier than learning and playing it in C.

I've never learned via "follow the fingers", I started reading music a lifetime ago. But if I _were_ following the fingers:

. . . Is this idea worth anything, or should we keep introducing key signatures starting at C, and working round the circle of fifths,
. . . in both directions ?

i'm not trying to start a war, just a discussion. Thanks --

Last edited by Charles Cohen; 06/25/22 07:38 PM.

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Keys with 5 black keys are easier - they fit the hand better. Especially if you are playing by ear or can't read music.

Irving Berlin, who wrote hundreds of great songs, could not read music and "wrote" everything in the key of F#. Easier to play on the black keys. He had a special transposing piano for playing with singers. An upright, there was a lever under the keybed that would move the keys right or left to line up under different notes in the action. I have seen it - it used to be in a museum in Philadelphia - might still be there for all I know. So he would still play in F#, but just slide the keys over so it sounded like G. A very low tech mechanical solution that worked great.

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Chopin used to ask his students to play the B major scale first because it is the most ergonomic. I have seen this echoed by some other teachers as well.

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Sometimes - throwing somebody off the deep end can work. Not always though - unfortunately. The idea is getting them used to do something that looks like a barrier, but they eventually find that it is not really a major barrier. I think I would just start somebody off with tunes that use only white keys, and get them used to that. And then get them doing something with say 1 black key. Gradually build up. And after a while, it will be no problem.

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I play by ear, and can play in most keys, although I do have my favorites. I rather enjoy playing is some of the flats/black keys, and have become comfortably familiar with most.

However, E major is a difficult key for me to play in on the piano for some reason, although it is one of my favorite and familiar keys on the guitar.

To me, there is a logic to the interval spacing in all the keys, except E. Something just feels awkward. That said, I can play in E, it is just not as easy to play in as other keys.

I sing a lot with my playing, and it seems the key of F fits my singing voice better than any other key. I do play in the key of F a lot.

Also, Charles mentioned that he had learnd to read music a "lifetime ago". Well, I've been playing by ear all my life. smile

I can read the written score as far as identifying the notes on the lines and spaces. I just can't read music while I play the piano, because I've never really tried much. I'm thinking if I really applied myself, I could learn to read as I play, but for some reason, it just doesn't seem to be a high priority. There are so many challenges remaining in terms of playing by ear, I still have enough to work on, although I could do some multi-tasking, I suppose... smile

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At the first lesson with my teacher sixty odd years ago he expected me to familiarise myself with all common scales and chords by the next week. Fortunately I was up to it more or less and consequently, at least for the purposes of my own music, I have never held any preference in that regard over the years. As I do not have absolute pitch hearing one position is as good as another, not that I use keys much these days anyway. The topic comes up perennially on forums, with many players liking Db and disliking E. This is one of life's little musical mysteries to me. My tuner asserts a passion for Db along with the majority but how could he without knowing what it sounds like ? Is it topographical, haptic, association with pieces perhaps ? B is just the mirror reflection of Db after all but has far fewer devotees.


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A typical major scale has 7 notes. The first key a beginner would learn is C major and songs in that key since you're playing all white keys. A song in any other key you have a mix of B&W. In the beginning teachers would assign pieces with few black keys because students are taught to read and play at the same time. If a piece is in D with 2 sharps, every time you come to the notes F & C on the page, you have to remember to play the adjacent black key. The more # or b in the key signature, you have to remember to play more black keys.

I've seen songbooks with all the sharps & flats notated next to the notes regardless of the actual key of a piece. The whole book is notated as if it's in C major. Having sharps & flats next to the notes is easier to read than having to look at the key signature and substitute the black keys accordingly.

There are people like Pop musicians who don't read music but play everything by ear. Wouldn't matter if a piece is in C# or Eb they'd learn the notes by ear and not look at a page. Of course singers like Elton John can sing a song in just about any key and play the piano accompaniment accordingly. For people who are readers would play according to a page. When asked to transpose a piece to another key, readers would probably write the notes on paper first and read as he play than doing the transposition in his head.

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Scales that use all five black keys have the advantage that the keys are more separated than scales which are mostly white keys. This makes it harder to accidentally hit the wrong key, and easier to feel where your hand is on the keyboard, since the spacing is not uniform.


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Originally Posted by thepianoplayer416
Having sharps & flats next to the notes is easier to read than having to look at the key signature and substitute the black keys accordingly.
I strongly disagree. It's only easier if you're not familiar with key signatures and you don't have the scales in your fingers. Once you are past that stage then it's MUCH easier to only have to read a key signature than having accidentals all over the place.

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Originally Posted by BDB
Scales that use all five black keys have the advantage that the keys are more separated than scales which are mostly white keys. This makes it harder to accidentally hit the wrong key, and easier to feel where your hand is on the keyboard, since the spacing is not uniform.
In addition to this, the keys that have arpeggios with two black keys are much easier for the hand to reach with less stretch. Pop tunes especially (which is what the poster in the other thread was asking for) often have these spread out arpeggios in the bass and these are easier in keys like B or D-flat.

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Originally Posted by Ted
My tuner asserts a passion for Db along with the majority but how could he without knowing what it sounds like ? Is it topographical, haptic, association with pieces perhaps ? B is just the mirror reflection of Db after all but has far fewer devotees.
It's not exactly a mirror image. The scale of B major is a mirror image but the arpeggios are different (the two black keys in the B major arpeggio are closer than in D-flat). You also have to consider typical modulations to related keys. B major typically modulates to E, which has only one black key in the arpeggio, whereas D-flat modulates more often to A-flat, which is just as comfortable. I think that's the main reason many people (including composers) prefer the flat side of the circle.

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Originally Posted by Bart K
Originally Posted by Ted
My tuner asserts a passion for Db along with the majority but how could he without knowing what it sounds like ? Is it topographical, haptic, association with pieces perhaps ? B is just the mirror reflection of Db after all but has far fewer devotees.
It's not exactly a mirror image. The scale of B major is a mirror image but the arpeggios are different (the two black keys in the B major arpeggio are closer than in D-flat). You also have to consider typical modulations to related keys. B major typically modulates to E, which has only one black key in the arpeggio, whereas D-flat modulates more often to A-flat, which is just as comfortable. I think that's the main reason many people (including composers) prefer the flat side of the circle.

Quite right, I was thinking purely combinatorially and physically, not harmonically. People must prefer keys on the basis of something other than their sound if they cannot tell which notes they are hearing. Nothing to stop it being a highly complex interaction of many inputs, habits and associations over a lifetime of course, but however it arises the commonly expressed preference for Db among pianists is still curious, at least to me.

Last edited by Ted; 06/26/22 05:13 AM.

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If I hear two different chords and cannot say what they are does that mean that I cannot say that one chord sounds better to me than the other? Do I need to know the name of a key to say that I like one better than the other? Surely it's the sound of the chord that I like.

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We have to remember much of the music we play has been writtten for other instruments involvement too. And some stuff, like blues or jazz, is eminently suitable for playing in Bb or Eb or even Ab.
But B? Y?

I'm of the opinion that c is not the easiest key to play in. But that too, might depend on the song.

Last edited by peterws; 06/26/22 05:36 AM.

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I think we have the nub of the issue in the opening post, here:
Originally Posted by Charles Cohen
I think that the only reason "beginners don't play in keys with lots of black keys" is that (because of the way we _write_ music):

. . . "black key" = "sharp or flat" = "slow to read".

There's a pretty standard bias, in talking about fingering (especially for scales):

. . . Use the long fingers (2/3/4) on the black keys, use the short fingers (1/5) on the white keys.

Keys with lots of accidentals - B, Db, E, Eb, Gb, Ab -- have scale fingerings that fit naturally to their accidentals. I suspect (but can't prove) that music written in those keys is actually easier to _play_ (not necessarily to _read_) than music written in "white-key" keys with simpler key signatures.

You've highlighted a dichotomy: easy to read, vs. easy to play physically

One could easily move to the usual controversy of whether reading should be taught first or second; whether our notation system is outdated; and other such things. We could also entertain the idea of whether reading music can be taught in a different manner.

The nub of it, however, is reading vs. playing, in how things stand now.

The scenario put out somewhere here, of music starting in C major, then gradually you add a sharp or flat for G and F major - limiting in various ways, and can lead eventually to multiple sharps and flats being seen as scary, and avoided. That could then go in the direction of "how is everything introduced? from what angles?"

Fwiw, in violin, the first keys taught are G major and D major, including written form. You have a particular easy handshape for the two halves of the scale played on adjacent strings, which is the easiest to form: middle and ring finger close together, index and pinky further apart. I don't know if students even notice the accidentals - or if they just fixate on the Tonic, which in beginner music is also the lower string and its open (non-fingered) note. ..... Winds, do they start in C, or one of the flats?

Just some various thoughts around a theme.

(btw, I'm remembering that some beginner systems start with the 5 black keys only, music that is pentatonic only, with kids invited to experiment and improvise, because nothing can sound bad when semitones are impossible. I don't know if written music goes with that.)

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@keystring
One of my piano teachers did use playing in the black keys for both adults and children. It was done in a duet format, improvisational, in black keys only. For kids, it improved their confidence of black keys; for adults, a chance to be creative—- and it was a lot of fun. 😊. I was beyond any fear of black key signatures, so these were not incorporated into reading the score, other than my standard repertoire. I don’t know what was done with the kids in terms of reading.

There is a older thread in the non-classical forum with a tutorial from a teacher that uses it.


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Regarding the question, "'B' not a beginner's key", I would consider it in two different ways.
- Is "B" a hard key to read?
- Is "B" a hard key to play?

As for the answers:
- "B" is hard to read, because it has a large number of accidentals, i.e., sharps
- "B" is easy to play, because the hand has fingers of differing lengths, and B lays under the fingers more naturally (at least to me).

And how to learn the scales and their fingerings?
- To learn how to play any scale, I teach that any scale is built from two "tetrachords" or 4 note sequences. Numbering the scale degrees from bottom to top, in a major scale, there is a half-step between 3-4 and 7-8 - ALWAYS.
-- So what is a half step? We play a "C Major Scale" by playing only the white keys from C up an 8ve to the next C. "Half-steps" are the interval between adjacent keys on the piano keyboard. A whole step is made of... 2 half-steps.
-- Notice that there is NO black key between e and f, b and c. These correspond to scale notes 3 and 4, and 7 and 8.
--Play the scale using this fingering starting on C:
---LH 4-3-2-1
---RH 1-2-3-4
---This is the learn the notes fingering, NOT a performance fingering, though it could be under some circumstances if it is most effecient in those circumstances.

You can now build a major scale starting on any note on the piano using the same method.
Let's take "B" as our example.

B C# D# E || F# G# A# B

B-> C# is a whole step
C# -> D# is a whole step
D# -> E is a HALF step
and so forth

You might try building a scale a day that way to get the keyboard pattern into your head.
Then you could write the scale out on a piece of staff paper, or use one of the free notation programs

This gets you through learning the notes to all the major scales.
Learning the usual fingerings comes next, and for that, there are other places you can look to find them.

Hope this is helpful.


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Originally Posted by dogperson
@keystring
One of my piano teachers did use playing in the black keys for both adults and children. It was done in a duet format, improvisational, in black keys only. For kids, it improved their confidence of black keys; for adults, a chance to be creative—- and it was a lot of fun. 😊. I was beyond any fear of black key signatures, so these were not incorporated into reading the score, other than my standard repertoire. I don’t know what was done with the kids in terms of reading.

There is a older thread in the non-classical forum with a tutorial from a teacher that uses it.

That sounds about right. The main teacher I'm with does similar, if not the same, and there is also the question of "how can reading be taught / what is the nature of reading piano music." The question I was going to ask, you've already answered it " I don’t know what was done with the kids in terms of reading. " I'm assuming that you could already read music when you came to this teacher. Definitely, sharps and flats should not become a scary thing - but can.

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Originally Posted by keystring
Originally Posted by dogperson
@keystring
One of my piano teachers did use playing in the black keys for both adults and children. It was done in a duet format, improvisational, in black keys only. For kids, it improved their confidence of black keys; for adults, a chance to be creative—- and it was a lot of fun. 😊. I was beyond any fear of black key signatures, so these were not incorporated into reading the score, other than my standard repertoire. I don’t know what was done with the kids in terms of reading.

There is a older thread in the non-classical forum with a tutorial from a teacher that uses it.

That sounds about right. The main teacher I'm with does similar, if not the same, and there is also the question of "how can reading be taught / what is the nature of reading piano music." The question I was going to ask, you've already answered it " I don’t know what was done with the kids in terms of reading. " I'm assuming that you could already read music when you came to this teacher. Definitely, sharps and flats should not become a scary thing - but can.


Yes, my repertoire at the time included pieces in six flats (Albeniz ‘Evocacion’ ) and Rach ‘Elegie.


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Originally Posted by Sam S
Keys with 5 black keys are easier - they fit the hand better. Especially if you are playing by ear or can't read music.Irving Berlin, who wrote hundreds of great songs, could not read music and "wrote" everything in the key of F#. Easier to play on the black keys.
Is it known for a fact that Berlin chose to write everything in F# because he felt it was easier to play in a key with a lot black keys? Since he could not read music, probably have had little musical training or piano lessons, and must have played by ear, I think there could be many reasons why he composed everything in F# other than it can be more comfortable to play in that key.

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