Topic of the Week-The Meaning of Key Signatures


The above is an interesting finding of which are your favourite keys according to your horoscope. (Just for fun but you can still find them out.)

A key signature is a musical notation which is a set of sharp or flats symbols placed together on the staff. It’s a common misconception for students : The more the sharps or flats in the key signature, the more difficult to play the piece. What students care about is the numbers of sharps or flats but not the key itself. The importance of a key is to let people know the intended tone colours and emotions of the compostition. You may have your own interpretation of emotions to different keys but in general the keys relate to most people, e.g. major keys relate to happiness and pleasure while minor keys are more like depression and lament.

The following artcle is about affective key characteristic and it’s from Christian Schubart’s Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst (1806).

C major: Completely pure. Its character is: innocence, simplicity, naivety, children’s talk
C minor: Declaration of love and at the same time the lament of unhappy love. All languishing, longing, sighing of the love-sick soul lies in this key
Db major: A leering key, degenerating into grief and rapture. It cannot laugh, but it can smile; it cannot howl, but it can at least grimace its crying.–Consequently only unusual characters and feelings can be brought out in this key
D major: The key of triumph, of Hallelujahs, of war-cries, of victory-rejoicing. Thus, the inviting symphonies, the marches, holiday songs and heaven-rejoicing choruses are set in this key
D minor: Melancholy womanliness, the spleen and humors brood
D# minor: Feelings of the anxiety of the soul’s deepest distress, of brooding despair, of blackest depression, of the most gloomy condition of the soul. Every fear, every hesitation of the shuddering heart, breathes out of horrible D# minor. If ghosts could speak, their speech would approximate this key
Eb major: The key of love, of devotion, of intimate conversation with God
E major: Noisy shouts of joy, laughing pleasure and not yet complete, full delight lies in E Major
F major: Complaisance and calm
F minor: Deep depression, funereal lament, groans of misery and longing for the grave
F# major: Triumph over difficulty, free sigh of relief uttered when hurdles are surmounted; echo of a soul which has fiercely struggled and finally conquered lies in all uses of this key
F# minor: A gloomy key: it tugs at passion as a dog biting a dress. Resentment and discontent are its language
G major: Everything rustic, idyllic and lyrical, every calm and satisfied passion, every tender gratitude for true friendship and faithful love,–in a word every gentle and peaceful emotion of the heart is correctly expressed by this key
G minor: Discontent, uneasiness, worry about a failed scheme; bad-tempered gnashing of teeth; in a word: resentment and dislike
Ab major: Key of the grave. Death, grave, putrefaction, judgment, eternity lie in its radius
Ab minor: Grumbler, heart squeezed until it suffocates; wailing lament, difficult struggle; in a word, the color of this key is everything struggling with difficulty
A major: This key includes declarations of innocent love, satisfaction with one’s state of affairs; hope of seeing one’s beloved again when parting; youthful cheerfulness and trust in God
A minor: Pious womanliness and tenderness of character
Bb major: Cheerful love, clear conscience, hope aspiration for a better world
A quaint creature, often dressed in the garment of night. It is somewhat surly and very seldom takes on a pleasant countenance. Mocking God and the world; discontented with itself and with everything; preparation for suicide sounds in this key
Bb minor: A quaint creature, often dressed in the garment of night. It is somewhat surly and very seldom takes on a pleasant countenance. Mocking God and the world; discontented with itself and with everything; preparation for suicide sounds in this key.
B major: Strongly colored, announcing wild passions, composed from the most glaring colors. Anger, rage, jealousy, fury, despair and every burden of the heart lies in its sphere
B minor: This is as it were the key of patience, of calm awaiting one’s fate and of submission to divine dispensation

Translated by Rita Steblin in A History of Key Characteristics in the 18th and Early 19th Centuries. UMI Research Press (1983).

Another version of emotions of the keys is in Chinese. But in fact the colours of keys stated here are not that scientific and I should have another post about the colours of keys later. Different composers seemed to have various associations of colours to the keys.


Topic of the week- Sight Reading Tips

Many students have difficulties in sight reading. To an extent, the reason why they don’t have such ability is contributed to 1) Lack of Sight reading practice. 2) Never Look Ahead, 3) Mixed up the playing with Performance and Sight-reading.
For the first reason, this is perhaps one of the biggest reasons for why students can’t perform well in sight-reading. If you can spend time to play a lot of unfamiliar music, the case will be definitely changed. ( so if you don’t have an idea of what to play, an experience teacher can help you make a systematic plan.)
Secondly, looking ahead is very important technique in sight-reading. Students tend to focus on the notes that they are playing without having a whole picture.
Lastly, there should be huge differences between performance practice and sight-reading.
Performance Practice
1. No mistake is allowed so you should practice until all things are correct.
2. Listen to the sound and look at your hands while playing.
3. All details marked in the music should be noticed. ( articulation & dynamic)
4. Plan your fingerings and follow it from time to time.
5. Do not omit anything. ( notes/ performance direction.)

Sight-reading Practice
1. Mistakes are allowed. Just keep it on and do not stop.
2. Always look ahead and never look at your hands.
3. Having a whole picture is more important than strictly following all details in the music.
4. Try to get the most notes and keep a steady pulse.
5. Omitting elements in the music is allowed so no panic.

Topic of the Week- Phrasing

Phrasing is a difficult habit for beginners to deal with. Nevertheless,  some students which are already studying “performance level” have difficulties to manage a phrase. Don’t think that the habit of phrasing will come naturally and easily by playing and practicing piano for years. When I was watching competitions in school music festival, I could always observe that students have no idea of what is a phrase (and of course, they did not receive any prizes). In fact. teachers have the responsibility to teach students to make good use of combination of arms, wrists and fingertips.

1)  You can develop your habit by very short slurred groupings and practice “Down-Rotate-Float” movement. The following is one of the examples of short phrasing exercise.

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2)  Listen carefully to the tones that you are producing. Do notes link to each other tightly with similar tone quality using one wrist movement? Or you are applying accents / up-down motions from time to time?

3) Singing is probably one of the most useful methods. Try to sing along with your piano playing so that you can notice any differences in between.

4) Listen to pieces played by strings. You can search it in Youtube and I show the following video to my students very frequently. Many of them understand what is a phrase and legato playing immediately after watching it.

Here is the recommended video, “Vocalise” Op.34 No.14 by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943).

Collapsed knuckles

Students, please read it.

Recently I have been impressed by the improvement in my students’ ability to keep their first knuckle joints firm while striking piano keys. I thought it was time to celebrate that!

A while ago I had written about the meaning of the bridge photos that I show on my home page. There is something significant about the arch shape that can be found in the construction of many bridges. (All bridges?) Sometimes the arch appears on the underside of the roadway, sometimes over it in a network of cables. I am neither an engineer nor architect — and I last studied physics long ago when disco was becoming popular — yet something about that common arch shape suggests to me that it is there for a purpose. That purpose, I imagine, has something to do with how the bridge can sustain the force exerted upon the structure when it carries a heavy load. Our hands seem capable of mimicking that same shape.

When we play the piano, we need our shoulders, arms, wrists and hands to be able to move freely. And that great weight of our arms needs to be directed into the piano keys by way of our fingertips. If knuckles collapse, then they are absorbing some of the impact and our playing isn’t really efficient mechanically.

Unless we really make an effort to correct this problem of collapsing knuckles, it becomes part of the student’s habit of playing. Tone is inconsistent, and it is usually harsh in loud passages. Students may even experience fatigue in their hands because of the downward pushing they tend to exert.

I make it a point to discuss with young students and their parents that this condition of “wobbly knuckles” is something that cannot improve overnight, but that it takes months and months of focussed intension to make playing with firm knuckle joints a habit. I used to fall into the trap of thinking, “That’s just because the child is so young, and those knuckles will firm-up over time.” But that doesn’t seem to be the case. I frequently remind my students that firm knuckles take a while to develop, and I often use humour if I notice the “wobbly” syndrome recurring.

I’ve been delighted by the progress made by a number of my students this year. When I asked one student how he managed to improve so much with his finger shape, he said, “I just think about it”. Point taken. Kids can think about it, and they do make improvements — sometimes faster than we might expect.

Have a look at these two examples of left hands playing a B-flat Major scale. I chose this key because finger 2 has a greater tendency to collapse on a white key if it follows finger 3 having just played a black key. But these two students did a fantastic job of keeping their knuckles firm. Give them a round of applause!

Student #1

Firm Fingertips #1

Student #2

Firm Fingertips #2

So that’s the reason behind the bridge pictures on my home page. Or maybe those bridges symbolize a journey that my students and I are taking. Some bridges are there to overcome obstacles, some are there to signify passages to new levels of achievement. That’s okay, too.