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Sharps are from Saturn, flats are from Neptune
Do you perceive sharps and flats as good or bad?
Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 (1 votes) 
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KindaScratchy
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July 3, 2012 - 1:23 pm
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In the chat room last night, the discussion turned to how a couple of us, myself included, think of sharps as good and flats as bad. I was glad to hear that I'm not the only one, but I wonder where that perception came from.

I've also had this discussion with my husband and, as he rightly pointed out, the sharp of one note is the flat of the next higher note, so why would it make a difference?

It just does, I say.

Maybe it's because most of my musical background is with the guitar, for which most music is written in sharp keys. Or at least it is for the type of music I like: American and contemporary folk, country, bluegrass, celtic, etc.

But what determines what key a composer selects? Is it the primary instrument(s) that the piece is written for or is it a function of the musical genre?

Last night we also speculated whether key perception and preference could even be a male/female thing.

So, I'm wondering if anyone else has a preference for sharp or flat keys. And maybe someone better versed in music theory can explain why certain keys are selected and what influences a listener's or player's perception of the key.

dunno

When the work's all done and the sun's settin' low,

I pull out my fiddle and I rosin up the bow.

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DanielB
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July 3, 2012 - 2:38 pm
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Well, your husband is right about the sharp of one note being the flat of the next higher note.  More or less.

Presuming "equal temperament" on the tuning/intonation, then they should be the same.  That is the most common modern convention, and if we assume that is being used, then your husband would be right.

However, there are other ways of figuring the "correct" notes in the octave, more used in older music like classical, romance, baroque and etc.  Some people feel they simply sound better than a simple bit of decimal/digital math.  This is why sometimes if you use your electronic tuner to watch the notes when a very good player of such music is playing on a video or other recording, you may notice that they will consistently be a bit "out of tune" on certain notes when playing in certain keys.  That gave every different key signature a slightly different sound.  The difference is subtle, but definitely there.

So composers at least used to write with that in mind, since a melody played in one key might sound a bit more sad while it would sound a bit more "triumphant" or joyful in another key.  Some modern composers still follow that idea of different keys having different colours or flavours to them.

You play guitar, and the guitar and similar fretted instruments are impossible to tune for a 100% equal temperament.  So on guitar, each key you play in actually does have a subtle difference in how a melody or chord pattern will sound.  It is also why different voicings played up the neck can have a slightly different feel to them than when they are voiced in chords down with the open strings.  You may notice it even more if you play against a piano or even more with most electronic keyboards which are usually very "equal tempered".  If you tune your open strings to the notes on those keyboards, and then check notes up the neck against that same keyboard, some of your notes on the guitar will sound very slightly "out of tune".  But your guitar still sounds in tune when you play play.  Because it *is* in tune, just by a slightly different logic.

Back in the era of instruments like harpsichords (for example), sometimes the C sharp and D flat (again, just for example, other notes might be similarly affected) would actually even have separate keys to be played, so an octave on those keyboards might have more than 12 keys!  confused

So there are some differences in some cases.  But in current modern music they will be much slighter than they would have sounded centuries ago.

With modern compositions, the key signature is usually picked because some keys are easier to play on some instruments, or the piece may be being written for or by someone who prefers to sing or play in a particular key. 

How is that for a whole lot more information than you wanted?  LOL  This is the sort of thing that scary people like musicologists might stay up nights arguing over. 

On one last point of trivia that might be slightly interesting to think about.. Bach's piece "The Well-Tempered Clavier" (most common English title for it) was intentionally written to be played on a keyboard that was tuned with something fairly close to the even temperament system in common use today, hence the title.  But many of his other pieces were not.  If you could put Bach into a time machine and bring him forward to hear some of his pieces (other than that one and a few others) being played on a modern electronic keyboard (or even most pianos these days), he might wonder why the modern instrument was "out of tune".  roflol

"This young wine may have a lot of tannins now, but in 5 or 10 years it is going to be spectacular, despite the fact that right now it tastes like crude oil. You know this is how it is supposed to taste at this stage of development." ~ Itzhak Perlman

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eoj02
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July 3, 2012 - 4:56 pm
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First let me say that as I read the initial post, I expected the first and most thorough response to be from Daniel.  I was pleased to see I was not let down.  It was also written quite well.

However I do have something to add.  I am teaching someone who already plays the violin how to play the guitar.  Huh, opposite of me.  Anyway, when explaining the notes and frets on the fingerboard, depending on what the last note was I mentioned changed the name on the flat/sharp.  If I said here is the G, I would then say here is the G sharp or here is the G flat.  If I said here is the A, I would then say here is the A flat or here is the A sharp.  Also, if the first note were an F sharp, then I would continue saying sharp.  I think it was just a mental thing to make explaining it easier.

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KindaScratchy
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July 3, 2012 - 8:36 pm
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Thanks for the explanations, Daniel and Joe. Both help with understanding keys and the differences in sound.

But...do you have a preference for either sharp or flat notes/keys? Do you see one as good or bad?

When the work's all done and the sun's settin' low,

I pull out my fiddle and I rosin up the bow.

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eoj02
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July 3, 2012 - 9:08 pm
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mainly when playing with a piano, i try to find the key they like due to the fact that the fingering is harder in some.  When playing with singer, well, you have to play the key they want.  With a guitar, G or D are winners.  But they can Kaypo to most any key. 

really what you call the note is really up to you, and what key you play in as a soloist is really up to you if you are the one making the calls.

On the violin, i really just find the shapes for whatever key the song is in.  I'm sure Daniel's reply will be better, but i still play the violin like i played the guitar.....  Sloppy

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Mad_Wed
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July 4, 2012 - 5:33 am
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Hee-Heee. I love all notes equally LOL! rofl Can't say the same about all of the intervals facepalm

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DanielB
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July 4, 2012 - 7:25 am
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With the bit of talk about tempering I was mostly trying to explain that the sharp of one note is only always equal to the flat of the note above it in one specific tempering system.  It does happen to be the one that is currently popular, but that doesn't mean it was the one mainly in use in the past or that there is any guarantee it will be what is always in use in the future.  So that answer is "Yes, sorta" rather than a simple and absolute sort of yes.

KindaScratchy: I am not sure if I understand the idea of either sharps or flats being bad or one being worse than the other.  To me, the key of F isn't any harder to play in than the key of G, or really any harder to read.

On the other hand, if someone hands me a sheet of music that I am expected to play from the written score in either the key of G flat or F sharp?  I'm going to figure they really just don't like me much.  dazed

Or maybe they are just way too keen on showing off their virtuosity or something. LOL

Personally, I think it would have made more sense for notation if each note had it's own name.  Like if instead of ABCDEFG we had ABCDEFGHIJKL.  It would only be 5 more letters to learn and we could throw away the whole idea of key signature.  Instead of a key signature, the composer could just write the letter of the note they were considering tonic/root at the beginning of the piece to give players a hint as to what to expect so far as chords and etc. 

But that isn't the way it happened, so we work with what we have.

"This young wine may have a lot of tannins now, but in 5 or 10 years it is going to be spectacular, despite the fact that right now it tastes like crude oil. You know this is how it is supposed to taste at this stage of development." ~ Itzhak Perlman

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eoj02
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July 4, 2012 - 9:10 am
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I've wondered about naming each note as well.  It would have made all of this so much easier.

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KindaScratchy
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July 4, 2012 - 6:30 pm
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I agree about the naming thing, though the horse is way too far out of the barn to change that now. 🙂 That would be like the movement to simplify English spelling. Sounds like a good idea, but it's way too late for that.

When I started this thread, it was intended to be a little tongue in cheek and calling sharps good and flats bad was definitely hyperbole. I was sincere, though, in that I do prefer sharps over flats. While rationally I know that it shouldn't make a difference, somewhere along the line I formed that opinion.

Good point, BTW, about the "color" of a key. I know that minor keys can sound ominous or sad and major keys can sound joyful or triumphant. I never really thought about sharp and flat keys having a mood, but it makes sense.

I think my sharp/flat opinion has been influenced by a number of factors:

1. I have the most experience with sharp keys, therefore sharps naturally seem easier to me than flats.

2. The music that I like tends to be written in sharp keys (the color thing).

3. The words have positive and negative connotations in other contexts. Knives are supposed to be sharp. Smart people are referred to as sharp. A snazzy dresser looks sharp. If you leave the cap off the soda bottle, it goes flat. If you fail at something, you fall flat on your face. You don't want a flat tire.

How's that for over-thinking things? My only defense is that as a communicator, I have a professional interest in the many meanings of words, images and sounds. And music is another form of communication.

done

When the work's all done and the sun's settin' low,

I pull out my fiddle and I rosin up the bow.

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Late bloomer
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July 5, 2012 - 4:11 pm
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Mad_Wed said
Hee-Heee. I love all notes equally LOL! rofl 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I agree with MAD,

I cannot abide with unfair note profilingamuse

No matter where you go, there you are!

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Fiddlerman
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July 5, 2012 - 6:21 pm
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I bet Naska has a favorite note but she doesn't want the other notes to get sad. 😉

"The richest person is not the one who has the most,
but the one who needs the least."

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Mad_Wed
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July 9, 2012 - 5:58 am
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Fiddlerman said
I bet Naska has a favorite note but she doesn't want the other notes to get sad. 😉

BaaaHaaa! roflol How did You know!?!

/now some of them are sad and requesting the answer from me /

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