Key signature?

• Mar 14, 2021 - 08:41

I have two short bird songs from a book published in 1796. There is an asterisk [or something] where a key signature would be. I can't find anything online explaining it.

It's placed on the C line. The music is written in C; however the notation is usually left blank. My best guess is this is someone's idea of how to indicate the Key of C in 1796.

Do you Wizards have a better explanation? I'm guessing it's an asterisk. Do you have a different symbol?

Thanks for helping me puzzle this out. <3

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In reply to by Jojo-Schmitz

Hmm, that seems extremely unlikely to me, actually. What would a Cx key signature mean, and would the song start Cx A D A rather than just D A D A? And I can't imagine anyone in 1796 choosing to invent such a strange key signature, even if they notating bird songs. I think the initial guess that it is rotating the key of C is a possibility, assuming that isn't just how they notate sharps - are there other key signatures for comparison?

In reply to by Marc Sabatella

Thanks, Marc. You're one of the brightest and busiest minds on the team. This one's a doozy. My first thought was the same as yours.

The problem is that standard notation doesn't have a single sharp or flat on the C line. And the key of C# includes seven of the little darlings, not one.

I've only seen double sharps placed before noteheads, not as a key signature. Of all the accidentals, a double sharp comes closest to resembling the image. I've transcribed enough music to know typesetters, and maybe some original composers, shortcut things. It's easier to write a double sharp * than two sharps ##. Not my logic, but I've seen stranger things. Additionally, the book was printed in 1796 with long S's. Maybe music notation wasn't as standardized then.

These are the only two pieces of music in the book. I Googled for double sharp used as key signature, but came up with zilch.

I inserted the double sharp via text and hid the two sharp symbol. They are bird calls and sound okay too.

Do you still think it's a single C#? You're the wisest wizards around. I'm always glad to listen. <3

In reply to by judeeylander

Standard notation today doesn't include a C# only, but who knows about 1796. Modal thinking wasn't so far in the past, and if these were really meant to indicate bird songs, they wouldn't be necessarily be constrained to think in modern tonal terms. So, maybe this is indicating the key is "D melodic minor" or the like. Although that makes way more sense for your first example than the second. Do any of the songs in this book include more traditional key signatures?

I think the most likely is your initial guess that it's a strange way of indicating C major. Second most likely is a key with C# only. But the possibility of C double sharp seems incredibly unlikely to me, there just is no possible logical or musical reason I could imagine for it.

And thanks for the kind words :-)

In reply to by Marc Sabatella

I have the Wizards at Distributed Proofreading eagerly awaiting the results of this query. One of them produced this article with the double sharp indicating a quarter tone, something I know NOTHING about. ;)…

And it's not standard quarter tone notation.

My first guess was that it was a weird way of using an asterisk to indicate C natural. It plays fine either way. They are bird songs written by someone out in the wild of Surinam who heard the songs but never saw the birds. These are also the only two pieces of music in the book. I only have them to compare to each other.

I enlarged the music. The item truly looks more like a badly inked double sharp than an asterisk; however, if you will kindly make an executive decision, the rest of us will gratefully agree. <3

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In reply to by judeeylander

Marc, here are three more scans.

They all look like a double sharp to me. Unless you tell me different, I'm going to stay with what I transcribed: 2 sharps hidden and the double sharp inserted by text.

Always willing to change it; however, it's the best I can make it right now.

Thanks for doing the Sunday Puzzle with me. <3

In reply to by judeeylander

The more I think about it, the more I am completely convinced that there is no possible logical or musical reason anyone would have ever considered a C double sharp as a key signature. It makes no sense - what would one be trying to gain from this? I think you should completely rule that possibility out - it's nonsensical.

The only possibilities that have any logic behind them at all are the "it's a strange way of indicating C major", or "it's just a sharp", or "it's a quarter sharp" theories. At least there could be legitimate rationale for doing any of those things. My money right now based on the evidence is on the regular sharp. Quarter sharp might be believable if this was produced a couple of hundred years later, but it seems pretty unlikely to me someone transcribing bird calls in 1796 would have done this.

In reply to by Marc Sabatella

Your point of view, combined with BSG's perspective about a single accidental sharp sound good together. I've edited the snippets. Thank you, Master Wizard. Wizard Honors, sir! Wizard Honors! <3

Suggested Transcriber Note: The X in the key signature is a very old way of writing C#. The composer was listening to the birds, who know nothing of human notation conventions. The composer wrote down what he heard.

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It is without question a sharp, a single sharp. Sharps often looked like that in the 18th century. The person is trying to say that they heard this excerpt at that pitch with a C# in it, and has no evidence about how the bird felt about diatonic scales or church modes, or whether F's should be sharp, and that's all the writer is saying. It's sort of in A mixolydian, not C of any kind, but, as I said, the ways of the skyway don't include avian discussions of church modes --- they just sing as they do.

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