Dear pianists, what do you prefer?

If you had to read a piece where both hands are playing in different keys, would you prefer that

  • Each staff has their own key signature?
  • No key signatures, atonal/enharmonic style writing e.g. G#min against Ebmin one hand is altered to either sharp or flat Ab/Eb or G#/D#
  • With one key signature and lots of accidentals for one of the hands

0 voters

Hoping there’s quite a few pianist here in the forum I’m hoping to get a general idea of pianist/keyboard players preferences:

I could provide examples if you wish.

Thank you for your participation!

Well, I’m not JUST a pianist, so I don’t know if my vote should count. But I voted anyway, for no key sig at all.

When I compose anything the least little bit odd tonality wise, I use no key sig. I think that’s lots easier. I have quite a few compositions that are bi-tonality in nature, and I’ve never even THOUGHT of using two different key sigs.

As a pianist learning a new piece, I prefer no key sigs at all, even in conventional material.

But I’m not going to pretend for a moment that my preferences as a composer/arranger don’t influence my attitude about signatures for piano works. They do, and I know they do, and there’s really nothing I can do about it. So take my vote with several grains of some sort of seasoning.

On another forum I hang out on, these sort of questions are described as “gorilla vs shark” (i.e. which one would win a fight in a hypothetical situation).

IMO it doesn’t matter, so long as the end result is logical.

But “G# min against Eb min” is just being silly IMO, compared with Ab min or D# min which only needs one accidental anyway.

Well exactly, you’ve just described myself… Although I wouldn’t consider myself a pianist, I do spend half my life at it reading music and I have the same issue as you. I prefer none.

Say wot? I think I must have misunderstood your post… Ab min would require 7 flats and D# would require 6, whereas G# requires only 5 and Eb 6 as well. So technically G#/Eb requires less. Am I missing something?

I engraved and published a set of relatively advanced teaching pieces a few years ago, one of which had the hands playing in different keys, and swapping keys (A major/Eb major). The (now deceased) composer first wrote the piece without key signatures, then revised it with. I think the revision was a mistake, though I published it as he wrote it: even though the piece isn’t technically difficult, the task of reading two staves with different key signatures is really challenging, and the only way I can play it is by memorising the notes. So my vote is for option 2. (Though if one staff had a KS and the other had none, I would have no objection.)

For me a key signature suggests, well, a key, and it bothers me when the written music has nothing to do with the parameters implied by the key signature, perhaps barring clearly tonal music which modulates wildly. In most cases, I would infinitely prefer no key signature than to be reading in one key and hearing in an unrelated one.
In the case of Kim Bastin’s example above, if a piece is consistently bitonal and not too complex, reading two key signatures might not be such a bad thing. It’s a little like reading transposing scores. Mostly I’d prefer to stick to option 2, though.

Parsing two flat key signatures simultaneously (or two sharp key signatures) is easier than parsing one sharp key and one flat key. I think that was Rob’s point, and I agree with it.

If each stave is firmly rooted in a (different) key, then two key signatures makes sense. Key signatures shouldn’t be used at all if the music on each stave isn’t vaguely tonal.

You are missing the point that Ab / Eb, or D# / G# only requires ONE key signature and ONE accidental.

But there is a precedent for doing it the hard way … Beethoven’s weird notation in Op 106. As one commentator remarked, “It is worth preserving this notation as a historical curiosity. The annoyance caused to anyone wishing to sight-read this sonata may be safely ignored” :slight_smile:

He wrote a D# major chord a few bars earlier at the start of the clip - the flats seem to be just one of those “WTF moments” in musical history.

I really think it depends on the complexity of the piece. In my estimation (mind you, I tend to avoid this type of music) anything beyond “quite simple” will just be too hard to parse out if you have multiple key signatures and corresponding altered tones in each part. If you want correct performance without frying a brain, I’d just use a single key signature (or no signature at all) and treat it like a 12-tone row where each altered pitch gets an accidental. That way it doesn’t really matter what the key signature is 8 bars earlier, just look at the notes and play them. Now, some people don’t like mixing sharps and flats (that doesn’t bother me) but it’s still much easier to look at a chord and just play the pitches as written (read: altered).

I’d guess the only real benefit to multiple key signatures is for harmonic analysis, as you can more clearly understand what’s going on in each part—that is, when you can step back and stare at it. There’s no benefit for actually performing it unless your processor is a lot more powerful than mine lol. The other use case is if you have multiple instrumentalists, each with their own key signature (but this is obvious). I just can’t shake the feeling that you’re inviting disaster by introducing a difficult (in practice, not conception) complexity to the performer.

Thank you Kim, that’s very useful information. I have written about 17 of these studies so far and have written them in a variety of methods. The two different key signatures looks better in the sense that you can see that each hand is in a different key, but I agree is really challenging to read even for me and I wrote them!

Thank you Vaughan, yes that is the case here. Each hand plays exactly one specific key, hence why the two key signatures looks better! But I also prefer no key signature. I often joke that nobody should be using key signatures in the 21st century … :smiley:

Ah yes! That makes more sense, however Ab minor (relative minor of C_b_) is a real pain to read!

Yes that is the case, they are both deeply entrenched in their own key with no accidentals. However, I’m using the octatonic system of tonal organisation which inevitably contains at least one accidental in every key (the added 8 note). That makes it trickier…

Got ya! That’s sort of one the questions in the survey…

My god! That is just weird…!

Ah thank you Romano! I always appreciate your insights. It is becoming very clear now that no key signature is the way to go. Even in an academic setting, if one is to analyse the pieces, one has the time to figure it out and will always make analytical markings on the score, whereas the performer needs to have it as clear as possible to extract the music from it…

Perhaps if I ever publish these studies in an academic paper I will rewrite them with two key signatures.

You could also use a kind of incipit to indicate how you are organizing the music and then notate it without key signature.

Yes, that’s in the works anyway. Cheers!

Derrek, that is indeed an interesting and elegant solution.