Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Warning About Fake Books

I talked about fake books in the last newsletter,
and I mention them in all my workshops. I even
encourage people to go out and buy them, as they
are great motivational tools. I mean with 800
songs on your piano's music rack, why bother with
television? (OK, there's all those curling matches
going on in the Olympics right now, but they will
be over by next week).

But there's a warning that needs to be sounded
regarding the fake books. Warning, warning,
warning. DO NOT buy any music book that is
intended for B flat or E flat instruments, fake
books or otherwise. It will say right on the cover
if it does.

Oh Lordy. Now I'm going to have to explain this.
This is tricky territory. If you play trumpet or
clarinet or tenor sax or soprano sax, you will
want the B flat version of a music book. But B
flat is not for piano players. Why not? OK. When
one of the above mentioned instruments sees a C
note in the music and fingers a C note on the
instrument (what he has been told is a C anyway),
the note that comes out is a B flat.

And why is that?

Oh rats, I knew you would ask. See what I started
here? I've got to put an end to this inquiry.

"Because it does."

There, that's all you need to know. And likewise
when an alto or baritone sax (there may be others)
fingers a C, out pops an E flat note.

How did this happen? I'd rather not even think
about it. I know it's insane. But using the B flat
and E flat versions of the music is the only way
these particular instruments can read the music
and still be in the same key as everyone else.

So look for the label "For C Instruments." That's
you Mr. or Ms. Piano Player. Or if there is no
indication at all on the cover, then you're
probably going to be safe.

Maybe we'll chew on this topic in a little more
detail later, if anybody is interested. In the
mean time, please direct your questions, comments,
responses, etc. to the blog page so that everyone
can benefit.


  1. Ok, one exception: If the piano is the only instrument playing and a singer can't reach the notes...Playing an Eb book is a lot easier on these singers and my ears.
    Gaylord Rohloff

    1. Thanks for your suggestion. It is very important information for the people who are playing piano. thanks for sharing this. looking for the latest style leather jackets like Casino royale tuxedo with fashionable designs with high quality and durability.

  2. Looking for your opinion of vocalists who insist a song be transposed either higher or lower for a myriad of personal reasons. For example, a female at a memorial service who wanted a very popular church song composed in G to be transposed up a half step to A flat. I refused to do it. The flavor and intensity of the music was violated (to my ears). She did it in the original key, and complained afterward that her "voice" would have sounded better a half step higher. Is there any opinion out there about musical integrity and respect for a composer's intentions? Ms. Piano Lady

  3. Hi Robert,

    I realize that an instrumen like a sax or a clarinet have a natural key of Bb (where I am useing the lowercase b to represent the flat sign.)
    I am not sure why this came about but it is (as you say) just the way it is. However, I don't see at all why there would be a problem playing music on a piano from a fake book written for a sax. It is just that if you and a sax player got together there would be a conflict if you both played from the same book. If you are playing with a guitar or a mandolin or an accodian or a violin (and there are no horns of any kind in the ensemble) you would be playing in the key of C wherever the book had no key signarture, in the key of F where it had one flat, and in the key of G where it had one sharp etc.. I think you warning should have a little more explanation. Now it may be that a book written for a sax will have the music written so that it will jibe with the piano -- so in order to play along with the piano player who is playing in C you would want the notes transposed down two semitones and it would have a key signature (and therefore would have the sax playing a key that is not idea for a sax). If fake books for a sax are all written in a transposed manner, then I could see why you would not want to purchase one for playing piano or guitar for which the natural key of a song is one that has no key signature. If this is the case, then perhaps you should explain this in your letter. During Christmas I was visited by a lady who could not play the sax by ear and could only play from her book by note. I play the guitar by ear and I had no problem playing the chords along with her. But we were playing most of the Christmas songs in the key of Bb. I had to move my kapo up and use the fingering that I would ordinarly use for G without a kapo (on the open strings). This sort of proves to me that had I sat down with her book on the piano ( and did not have to accompany her) that I would have been just plaing in the key of C.
    So what's the problem?


  4. I have an opinion with regards to Ms. Piano and her concerns about musical integrity and respecting the "composer's intentions". I am not a published song writer but I have written a number of songs and I would not feel disrepected if I scored a song in C and the artist who performed it preferred to transpose my score to F as long as there were not a lot of "liberties" taken with the melody (other than a little note bending or a tag at the end.) I think with compositions of Classical numbers "musical integrity" includes performing it in the key it was written in, but for most modern compostion the key it is performed in is not relevant. A perfect exaample is the song "White Christmas" composed by Irving Berlin. Irving Berlin composed ALL of his songs in the key of F# but when they were published they were published in a key that was compatible with the average singer's voice. White Christmas was published in the key of C. But it was transposed for Bing Crosby to a key (I forgot which key) that was best for his voice. I am in a harmonica band that is composed of mostly chromatic harmonicas with a natural key of C. Although, a chromatic harmonica can be played in all 12 keys, it is very difficult to play (by ear) most songs in any key other than C, F, or G (and C#, F#, or Ab with the slide lever in.) In fact 2 out of 3 players can play only in C and C#. Consequently, all songs other than solos are played in C or C#. The easiest key to play "All the things you are" in on a C chromatica is Ab. Since I play by ear I don't have any idea what key that song is writen in, but I always play it in Ab. I also play piano (by ear) and, if I were accompanying a singer, I would feel my priority should be playing in a key that was the most comfortable for the singer and I would not feel that I was giving any disrespect to the composer if I played in a key other than the key it was published in. In fact, since I play by ear and have only relative pitch (not absolute pitch) I am ignorant of what key any particular song was published in, unless I have the sheet music for it and happen to recall the key. The only time I have been "accused|critisized" of a violation of "musical integrity" is in my playing the George M. Cohen song, "Give My Regards To Broadway", where I actually play one note "wrong" deliberately, because I like the corresponding chord sequence better with that note. And I actually feel that Cohen only used the note he used there to make the song more "diatonic" and simpler to play. The note I play is better! The song from Evita, "Don't Cry for me Argentina" was written to have a Tango rythm but when Madonna sang it in the movie she did not adhere to the Tango rythem and I don't think Weber had any problem with that. -Richard

  5. This post raised a lot of questions. I like that. So here is my take.

    First let's take a look at the relationship between a piano accompanist and a singer. And even this won't be cut and dry as the relationship is different for classical musicians as opposed to pop.

    In both cases, the pianist is subservient to the singer. It may not be right, it may not be fair, but that is how the culture works. Thus you, the piano player, serve at the pleasure of the singer, which among other things means you adjust to the singer's key.

    To be versatile, you must learn to transpose any song to any key. That's the bad news. The good news is you only have to transpose the chords, not the melody as the melody is the singer's exclusive territory.

    But merely playing the song from a B flat or E flat music book, won't do it in most cases. You would have to be very lucky to nail the singer's exact key. Plus it's a hokey alternative. It's only one step away from changing keys by pushing a button on an electronic digital keyboard. Yuck. (Although I do it sometimes.)

    What about accommodating a singer's unreasonable request? Here's an example that actually happened to me. I had to accompany a singer for a wedding. The song was chosen by the bride, and we had to learn it from a recording. The record was in B flat, which would not work for my singer. So we tried F. Much better. But still a little too low. Okay, let's try key of G. That's pretty close, but the singer complained that it was a little too high for her. And she was right.

    So what does that leave us with? The dreaded key of F sharp. I had never played anything in that key to date. So I insisted we play in either F or G, her choice, and I argued that my playing would sound a whole lot better in one of those keys.

    She argued it wasn't all about me. She was right. But I still would have insisted on doing it in my choice of key. After all it was still real close to her ideal range. But then she pulled her trump card. She reminded me that we were married to each other. Oops.

    So I learned it in F sharp, and rationalized that it was a learning experience for me. (It was.)

    But this was an example within the realm of pop music. What if the piece were classical? That's a different story. After all, the diva in an opera cannot insist that the orchestra play the score in a different key just because of her. In classical music there are strict categories of vocal ranges such mezzo soprano, soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass. If you sing classical, you sing in one of those zones. And you sing in the key the piece is composed in. It's up to the composer to remember what the vocal range for each type of singer there is and to make sure the score does not take the singer out of that range.

    Next, does a composer of pop/jazz music have a problem with singers singing their songs in different keys? Not if they are sane. Composers want their music heard no matter what the key. If you prohibit a popular singer from changing keys, you are essentially prohibiting him/her from recording your song. Thus no royalties for you.

    It can be argued that certain keys give a tune different nuances when the chords are voiced on the piano. And I go along with that. But remember, this is not about the piano player. It's about the singer. You are just a hired hand, a true second class citizen.

    [See the continuation of this article in the next comment.]

  6. [This is a continuation from the previous comment.]

    Here is why we have B flat and E flat versions of song books. Again by example, when my wife Pam and I play together, she on clarinet and I on piano or guitar, in order to be in the same key, she has to play in a key that is a full step above the key I play in. Thus if we are reading from the SAME piece of sheet music, one of us has to transpose. I either have to transpose down a whole tone, or she has to transpose up a whole tone. (It's usually her). But if we want to read the melody and chords of Body and Soul, and be in the same key, she reads from the B flat version of the Real Book (which has the song in E flat for her while my C version of the same Real Book has the song in D flat for me. She reads literally, I read literally, and neither of us has to transpose.

    I suppose if you never plan on playing tunes with other people, it doesn't matter which version of the book you have. But bear in mind, these standard songs all come with a certain "standard key." And that's the key 95% of the players learn them in. And some day you might want to jam.

    Thus I suggest you learn these songs in the standard key which means if you are a guitar or piano player, you learn them from the C version of the book.

    Further I suggest you learn how to transpose WITHOUT having to resort to electronics or capos.

    And leave the B flat version of the song books to the clarinet, trumpet, and tenor and soprano sax players.

  7. Just a short comment on your first section:
    It seems you agree with me with regards to "respecting the composer's choice of keys". it is important for classical music, but irelavant for pop tunes where the singer is boss. You mention that you rarely improvise in F#. Irving Berlin never learend to read music and he composed and played exclusively in the key of F#. When he became wealthy he had a mechanic rig his piano with a sliding keyboard that moved the keys relative to the strings so that he could play in any key without relearning the fingering. This is somewhat like using a kapo on a guitar. I never used a kapo on a guitar until I was inflicted with arthritus and am no longer able to play full bar chords -- with nylon strings the kapo tends to cause your strings to go bad and resist "perfect" tuning (especially if you forget to remove it when you are done playing.)
    So now I am limited as to what keys I can play in on the guitar, especially when playing in the classical style with the melody integrated with the chords rather than single note play.

  8. I think I have a better understanding now on your advice on purchasing "Fake books" which prompted my e-mail to you. Apparently the Christmaas Song book that my friend brought with her on Christmas (to use in playing her Sax) was not a Bb book or the songs in it would have been transposed in a way that would make it compatible with the standard notation in a regular C song book. This is what confused me.
    I do not often play from written notation except when I am playing a song on my chromatica in a key other than the one I have practiced it in. I play the piano almost exclusively by ear (except for classical songs I have memorized note for note) and therefore there is no need for me to actually "transpose" in the true sense of the word (good thing because I have never learned to do this -- I am still challenged by site reading in the written key.) In playing by ear you can really play (at least for accompanement with chords only) in any key (even F#) without much difficulty as long as you have had a little time to practice it before you have to play with a singer. Of course, you are limited to playing songs that you can sing (or at least hum) yourself. I should actually purchase a used Fake book in Bb, just so I can get a better understanding of the problme you warned us about. I have been toying with the idea of buying a clarinet and learning to play it so I would have a leg up in already having a compatible book. -Richard

  9. I thinks it's very important for piano players to learn how to transpose... especially if you're an accompanist.

    Certain keys just sound better.

    For an example, play a song in the Key of C Major.

    Now transpose it to Db Major.

    Db Major has a "roundness" in tone, that can't be sounded in C Major!

  10. I have my students use a Bb or Eb Fake books, then either transpose, OR write out the chords in another key. This does wonders for them, they become an arranger and understand transposition!

  11. How do I interprit chords that are written in a box with a diagonal line having a chord above & below ?

    Regards Anonymous

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  27. Being able to transpose any song into any key is essential for versatility. The bad news is that. The good news is that the melody is the singer's property and simply needs to be transposed for the chords. What then does that give us? The dreadful F sharp key. Up until now, I had never played anything in that key. I so demanded that she choose whether or not we play in F or G, claiming that my playing would sound much better in one of those keys. Accounting And Bookkeeping Services

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