Question for music experts about musical keys

Questions on how we spend our money and our time - consumer goods and services, home and vehicle, leisure and recreational activities
azurekep
Posts: 1179
Joined: Tue Jun 16, 2015 7:16 pm

Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by azurekep » Tue Feb 13, 2018 3:18 am

I've been re-organizing my music collection by genre, subgenre, decade, etc., and one of the things I was looking at was the musical keys for each song. Usually it didn't shed any additional light on the music, but for one genre, the results were pretty striking:

A-flat
B-flat
C
C-minor
C#minor
D-flat
D-flat
D-flat
D-flat
E-minor
E-flat
F#minor

I.e., mostly flat and minor keys I really like the sound of these songs so I'm wondering if the key is part of the appeal.

The significance of minor keys is obvious, but what about flat keys? How does making the key flat (in theory) change the feeling of the song?

You can provide examples if you like. A common example when comparing major vs minor is to use The Police's "Every Breath You Take". It can sound positively creepy and stalkerish when played in a minor key, yet is a nice, reasonably upbeat song in a major key. I haven't seen a similar comparison between flat and non-flat keys.

Seoulseeker
Posts: 36
Joined: Mon Jun 10, 2013 2:03 am

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by Seoulseeker » Tue Feb 13, 2018 8:49 am

It IS kind of cool to mess around with minor and major in songs to manipulate the sound. But the flat keys have nothing to do with it. Flats and sharps are the same - they are just a way to name the key. F sharp Major is the same as G flat major. The exact same thing. You see it written in G flat instead because it's easier to read. (Though perhaps someone writes it in all sharps - I hope not!) For example, the reason we write in the key of E flat (3 flats) is because it's easier to read the music than if we wrote it in key of D sharp. The sound is the same. If you sing the scale between C on the piano and the C above it, along with the tones of all the half steps, which include white keys and black keys, then you are touching on each of the keys. If you go up the scale, the keys go from lower to higher. Your personal ear may like lower tones more than higher tones, or higher more than lower. Some people will like all the different keys. And that doesn't even include the major versus minor. You can play major AND minor in each and every key.

So basically, enjoy your quest of figuring out major and minor, but it's not about the flat versus sharp keys. That doesn't matter.

Ping Pong
Posts: 415
Joined: Fri Feb 20, 2009 12:51 pm

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by Ping Pong » Tue Feb 13, 2018 8:51 am

The key the song is in shouldn’t make a big difference. Oftentimes they pick a key that matches the singer’s optimal vocal range. The flat or sharp that the first note happens to begin on shouldn’t matter either. It’s only flat relative to C major. But relative to the key the song is in, it’s not flat at all. Someone with more knowledge of music will come along to explain it better.

Jack FFR1846
Posts: 7982
Joined: Tue Dec 31, 2013 7:05 am

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by Jack FFR1846 » Tue Feb 13, 2018 8:58 am

What Ping Pong said.

The last band I played in (lead guitar player), the singer determined the key. We'd switch on the fly when the pre-chosen key by the band leader wouldn't work.

Note that so many songs have the same chord progressions that when you recognize this, some amusement can result. I was playing in a church band and recognized identical chords to Led Zeppelin and Pantera songs. Since I wrote my own solos, so started with the Page and Dime Bag solos with just enough changes to keep the hoards from carrying me off to be burned (no harmonics). :D
Bogle: Smart Beta is stupid

goaties
Posts: 272
Joined: Fri Jan 29, 2010 4:15 pm

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by goaties » Tue Feb 13, 2018 9:07 am

It might matter to someone with perfect pitch. I've known exactly one person with this (dis)ability. They actually found it annoying and sometimes confusing when things were casually transposed to another key. Most of us cannot tell the difference whether something is in G or F just by listening. She could.

User avatar
telemark
Posts: 2319
Joined: Sat Aug 11, 2012 6:35 am

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by telemark » Tue Feb 13, 2018 12:27 pm

First, some basics. Generally speaking, higher pitches will sound brighter and lower ones will sound darker. Changing modes (major, minor, mixolydian, octatonic, etc) will have a very noticeable effect. After that it gets complicated: transposing up or down, even half a step, will often result in a different sound, but the effect is ideosyncratic to the kind of instruments being used.

Keyboard instruments, where each note is tuned individually, are the least affected (assuming for simplicity that they're tuned using equal temperament), but there will still be small differences. The bottom notes on a piano sound very different from the top notes, and this effect is distributed throughout the range. Singers can sing any pitch they feel like inside their range, but again the timbre changes with the pitch. With stringed instruments, open string notes sound very different from fretted notes, and the player may have a choice of ways to produce the same note. Woodwinds are a nightmare: there are physical limitations that make them naturally play out of tune, and the player has to compensate for it. There are strong notes and weak notes, bright notes and dark notes, alternate fingerings, etc. Brass players have to deal with valves and overblowing, and then there's the trombone. Some keys are just easier than others and again it depends on the instrument family.

And as noted above, some people have absolute pitch and will notice every little change, but they're in the minority :)

Short form: changing the key could very well make a difference, but I don't know a simple way to think about it.

azurekep
Posts: 1179
Joined: Tue Jun 16, 2015 7:16 pm

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by azurekep » Tue Feb 13, 2018 12:58 pm

Thanks everyone. Interesting and helpful responses.

This came up because I ran my music collection through some DJ software that automatically detected the keys (in addition to BPM, which is what I was really interested in). I hadn't come up with any "patterns" with the keys until last night, but I can see it was a meaningless pattern for my own purposes. Perhaps DJs can make use of it -- ensuring compatible keys from one song to the next.
telemark wrote:
Tue Feb 13, 2018 12:27 pm
First, some basics. Generally speaking, higher pitches will sound brighter and lower ones will sound darker. Changing modes (major, minor, mixolydian, octatonic, etc) will have a very noticeable effect. After that it gets complicated: transposing up or down, even half a step, will often result in a different sound, but the effect is ideosyncratic to the kind of instruments being used.
The genre in question relies heavily on keyboards, but they are synth keyboards, if I'm using the correct terminology. And it uses the higher pitches more so than the lower, and in some cases, the keyboards are used in a percussive way similar to how "Latin piano" uses a percussive piano.

I think the minor keys in some of these songs balance out the upbeat nature of the songs (fast tempo, high-pitched keyboard) with the end result of a more nuanced and sophisticated sound.

In any case, I will say that reorganizing my music to better label the genres has proven interesting. I've delved a bit into the history of the genres since many I have not experienced myself -- either because they were a different time or they are Europe-specific genres. For some types of music, Europe and America went on a divergent path starting in the 80s and it's been interesting reading how and why that developed.
Changing modes (major, minor, mixolydian, octatonic, etc) will have a very noticeable effect.
Just repeating one of your earlier sentences. One other term I've come across relates to the bass. I don't recall the exact term but it had something to do with octaves (octavic bass?). I find it hard to discern the bass in some songs, even on YouTube tutorials expressly teaching about the bass, so I'm not sure what the octavic (?) bass effect is supposed to produce. Not expecting an answer since I didn't provide enough information, but it shows the sort of things a novice can get themselves entangled with when they try to research beyond their compentency. :mrgreen:

User avatar
telemark
Posts: 2319
Joined: Sat Aug 11, 2012 6:35 am

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by telemark » Tue Feb 13, 2018 1:30 pm

azurekep wrote:
Tue Feb 13, 2018 12:58 pm
Changing modes (major, minor, mixolydian, octatonic, etc) will have a very noticeable effect.
Just repeating one of your earlier sentences. One other term I've come across relates to the bass. I don't recall the exact term but it had something to do with octaves (octavic bass?). I find it hard to discern the bass in some songs, even on YouTube tutorials expressly teaching about the bass, so I'm not sure what the octavic (?) bass effect is supposed to produce. Not expecting an answer since I didn't provide enough information, but it shows the sort of things a novice can get themselves entangled with when they try to research beyond their compentency. :mrgreen:
Sorry, that was just me showing off. The octatonic scale is a scale with eight notes. It just repeats whole step, half step, whole step, half step, whole step, half step all the way up and down the register until your mind turns to mush :oops: Probably not related to whatever octavic bass might be. I haven't heard of it but everything I remember is from 40 years ago so don't take that too seriously.

It's cool that there is software that can do things like that.

obgraham
Posts: 1142
Joined: Mon Jan 28, 2013 7:30 pm

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by obgraham » Tue Feb 13, 2018 2:56 pm

Allow me to digress a little, as I have a question I've asked many "experts" for years without a satisfactory answer. Seems we have a few more experts here, too:

It's often said that in the older days of classical music, the Key was chosen by the composer to reflect the mood he was aiming for. Bach, Mozart, etc., in particular. OK fine -- unequal temperament was the rule then, so each Key was tuned with different intervals, and there were myriad tuning systems.

But in modern tuning, mostly equal temperament, the intervals are exactly the same from Key to Key -- that's the definition of "equal". In this system the keys are the same, but all are slightly imperfect.

But still we hear comments that this or that modern piece, or even a Baroque work played on modern instruments, shows the "mood" or "character" of a particular piece because of the Key. How is that possible in equal temperament?

User avatar
Alexa9
Posts: 1658
Joined: Tue Aug 30, 2016 9:41 am

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by Alexa9 » Tue Feb 13, 2018 3:48 pm

Songs in different keys have a different vibe to them. You notice this when the key is in the song title in classical pieces. Bach's Lute Suites are a good example. A minor brings a different feeling than other minors. Hard to describe what that feeling is. It's just a different frequency. Also many beginner songs are in the key of C so that no black keys are used. The more rare keys have more flats/sharps:
Image
In pop music it's more common to be in a key that fits the singer's voice. You notice a lot of similar chord progressions and keys in pop music.

User avatar
telemark
Posts: 2319
Joined: Sat Aug 11, 2012 6:35 am

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by telemark » Tue Feb 13, 2018 3:54 pm

obgraham wrote:
Tue Feb 13, 2018 2:56 pm
Allow me to digress a little, as I have a question I've asked many "experts" for years without a satisfactory answer. Seems we have a few more experts here, too:

It's often said that in the older days of classical music, the Key was chosen by the composer to reflect the mood he was aiming for. Bach, Mozart, etc., in particular. OK fine -- unequal temperament was the rule then, so each Key was tuned with different intervals, and there were myriad tuning systems.

But in modern tuning, mostly equal temperament, the intervals are exactly the same from Key to Key -- that's the definition of "equal". In this system the keys are the same, but all are slightly imperfect.

But still we hear comments that this or that modern piece, or even a Baroque work played on modern instruments, shows the "mood" or "character" of a particular piece because of the Key. How is that possible in equal temperament?
For what it's worth I mostly agree with you. When I was much younger I thought people who said things like that were full of it, but I'm a little less certain now. One reason is that equal temperament doesn't really exist outside of keyboard instruments. Everyone else mostly does what sounds right to them. Someone tuning a violin or a guitar by ear is going to go for perfect fourths and fifths, not equal-tempered ones. Singers, especially choral singers, generally true up chords as they go along. So it's complicated. But yeah, remarks like that make a lot more sense for performances on period instruments.

User avatar
madsinger
Posts: 914
Joined: Sat Sep 29, 2007 3:26 pm

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by madsinger » Tue Feb 13, 2018 4:00 pm

obgraham wrote:
Tue Feb 13, 2018 2:56 pm
Allow me to digress a little, as I have a question I've asked many "experts" for years without a satisfactory answer. Seems we have a few more experts here, too:

It's often said that in the older days of classical music, the Key was chosen by the composer to reflect the mood he was aiming for. Bach, Mozart, etc., in particular. OK fine -- unequal temperament was the rule then, so each Key was tuned with different intervals, and there were myriad tuning systems.

But in modern tuning, mostly equal temperament, the intervals are exactly the same from Key to Key -- that's the definition of "equal". In this system the keys are the same, but all are slightly imperfect.

But still we hear comments that this or that modern piece, or even a Baroque work played on modern instruments, shows the "mood" or "character" of a particular piece because of the Key. How is that possible in equal temperament?
If you are talking about playing the music on an mean-tuned (equal temperament) keyboard, I agree that the key is not that critical (to the extent that the piece does not "sound too high" or "too low" to the listener).

However, in orchestral classical music, the instruments are not mean-tuned. When a violin tunes the four strings to G-D-A-E, these are (hopefully) tuned as open fifths (not mean-tuned), and if a piece is played in "A" versus "A-flat", the strings around them (the ones not being played) will vibrate differently, and the overtones will sound different. Clarinets, in classical music, are most often pitched in "b-flat" or "a". The harmonics and overtones that ring in the instrument are different, even if the "same pitch" is being played.

For most people (and if I'm being honest, usually me as well), they won't notice these differences. But some listeners do discern this sound, and most often, the player themselves will hear this much more clearly.

-Brad.

obgraham
Posts: 1142
Joined: Mon Jan 28, 2013 7:30 pm

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by obgraham » Tue Feb 13, 2018 4:15 pm

Thanks for those answers, especially Brad. I hadn't considered the influence of a played note or string on the nonplayed ones. I am mostly interested in historic organs, and that is a factor there too, despite the efforts of the digital crowd to ignore it.

One final thing -- "mean-tuned" is not to be confused with "meantone", a tuning scheme which is not at all equal in temperament.

turnturnturn
Posts: 28
Joined: Mon Feb 16, 2015 4:18 pm

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by turnturnturn » Tue Feb 13, 2018 4:17 pm

In his book Lies My Music Teacher Told Me, Gerald Eskelin has a discussion of tuning and temper that I, as someone with little musical training, found fascinating.

le_sacre
Posts: 50
Joined: Tue Jan 05, 2016 2:20 am
Location: San Francisco, CA

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by le_sacre » Tue Feb 13, 2018 5:03 pm

There's a fairly strong tendency to select a key for a composition in part based on the practicalities of playing in that key on the intended instruments. Because of the open strings, keys with sharps tend to be easier for string players to play, so you get a lot of orchestral and string music in C, G, D, A, and E (and their parallel minors: A, E, B, F#, C#). Wind instruments, owing to their traditional construction conventions, tend to be a bit easier to play in the flat keys (and their parallel minors). Probably for lots of reasons but also because general playing proficiency and mechanical flexibility of instruments have improved, more modern music is more likely to stray away from those "easy" keys.

So part of your music collection's bias toward flat keys could stem from a bias toward music with wind instruments, or more modern/advanced music with strings. For more popular studio-produced music, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that a lineage of songwriter/producer/studio traditions comes into play. For hip-hop and other music that does a lot of sampling, it could be biased toward the original keys of popular sources, or maybe common backing/rhythm tracks that musicians got used to.

Anyway, I too find that for me different keys have distinctive "feels" to them regardless of instrumentation. It could be interactions with the instrument ranges, associations with instruments or particular pieces (even culturally inherited through composers influencing composers over generations), and the general pitch awareness others mentioned (lower pitches sounding warmer/darker), or it could be all in my head. But for me, C major is bright and kind of pedantic, D major is sunny, F major is triumphal, C# minor is mysterious, G minor is rich and warm (while F minor is kind of mellow and warm), C minor is kind of regal, etc.

Cheyenne
Posts: 422
Joined: Sun Jun 14, 2015 6:46 am

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by Cheyenne » Tue Feb 13, 2018 5:06 pm

The ancients Greeks believed that the different modes (or keys) influenced the listener in different ways and specific modes were used to treat specific ailments.

MP173
Posts: 1926
Joined: Fri Dec 07, 2007 6:03 pm

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by MP173 » Tue Feb 13, 2018 5:09 pm

I took up guitar 17 years ago at ago 45 with no formal training previously.

The concept of keys, chord changes, etc has always intrigued me. Why do certain notes or chords sound good with others? After all these years I still do not have the answer, nor do I have perfect pitch, but I can generally replay certain things I hear...if I am patient. Perhaps not exact, but I do "hear" the progressions or the scaled notes. I often sit behind the organist at church and am amazed as he plays so effortlessly.

Regarding your question of the bass octaves...last winter instead of guitar, I moved to bass for several months. The four strings of a bass are tuned as the bottom four of the guitar (deepest sound) thus making it somewhat easy to move around the bass fretboard. Note I said "move around", not necessarily "play well". Bass octaves (I believe) will refer to playing the note at (typically) a higher octave.

Someone please correct me if this is incorrect, but I believe you have 3 octaves on a bass, when beginning with the lowest E (open E string), then an octave higher when the 2nd fret on D string is plucked and finally the 9th fret on the G string. So one could play the bass arrangement based on any of these three starting points.

A very good example of playing a higher bass sequence is the beginning of the Tom Petty/Heartbreakers song "American Girl" in which Ron Blair started at a higher pitch. It adds a great deal to the beginning of the song.

Again, full disclosure....I am not a trained musician but enjoy listening and attempting to figure out what the musicians are doing.

BTW I am reading a book on Steely Dan...wow those guys (RIP Walter Becker) had some very interesting musical compositions. Often light and breezy with very dark lyrical content.

Please, keep this thread going with more input...I am enjoying it.

Ed

User avatar
madsinger
Posts: 914
Joined: Sat Sep 29, 2007 3:26 pm

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by madsinger » Tue Feb 13, 2018 5:15 pm

obgraham wrote:
Tue Feb 13, 2018 4:15 pm
One final thing -- "mean-tuned" is not to be confused with "meantone", a tuning scheme which is not at all equal in temperament.
Thank you for your correction!

As le_sacre (Stravinsky fan?) pointed out, strings are often in "sharps" and wind instruments in "flats". For this reason, many orchestral pieces are in sharp keys and many "wind band" are in flats (where there are wind instruments and no strings). As a trumpet player, I've played in both groups for years, and have ended up playing the "same" piece half a step apart! Most notably, "Stars and Stripes Forever", for marching band, it starts in E-flat, but for orchestra, it is usually half a step lower in D. Let me tell you, I sound a whole lot better in the band version (which I played for years from memory) than I do in the orchestra version (which almost killed me the first time I read it!)

-Brad.

User avatar
madsinger
Posts: 914
Joined: Sat Sep 29, 2007 3:26 pm

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by madsinger » Tue Feb 13, 2018 5:19 pm

le_sacre wrote:
Tue Feb 13, 2018 5:03 pm
Anyway, I too find that for me different keys have distinctive "feels" to them regardless of instrumentation. It could be interactions with the instrument ranges, associations with instruments or particular pieces (even culturally inherited through composers influencing composers over generations), and the general pitch awareness others mentioned (lower pitches sounding warmer/darker), or it could be all in my head. But for me, C major is bright and kind of pedantic, D major is sunny, F major is triumphal, C# minor is mysterious, G minor is rich and warm (while F minor is kind of mellow and warm), C minor is kind of regal, etc.
(curious...is your username a nod to Stravinsky? :happy )

I have never "felt" these differences, but my wife agrees with you that these keys have "moods". I'm kind of sad that I seem to lack this ability.

-Brad.

Cheyenne
Posts: 422
Joined: Sun Jun 14, 2015 6:46 am

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by Cheyenne » Tue Feb 13, 2018 5:26 pm

I took up guitar...
With the guitar certain keys sound much better than others due to the sympathetic vibrations of the open strings. Most music that has been composed for the guitar (I'm speaking of solo classical guitar here, but the same applies to the other types with the same tuning) was written in the keys of E, e minor, A, a minor, D, d minor, G and C reflecting the open strings of E, A, D, G, B, E. The key of C works well because (delving a little into music theory here) the 3rd and 5th notes of the C major chord (or triad) are E and G (both open strings). And the key of B doesn't work quite as well because the 3rd and 5th notes of the B major chord (or triad) are D# (not very resonant) and F# (also not very resonant). Of course one tires of hearing music played in the familiar keys all the time so it's sometimes refreshing to hear a piece played in an uncommon key, resonant or not.

User avatar
Epsilon Delta
Posts: 7430
Joined: Thu Apr 28, 2011 7:00 pm

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by Epsilon Delta » Tue Feb 13, 2018 6:20 pm

There is also musical tradition. A musician sees a certain key and thinks "that should be melancholic" so he plays it that way. And then the people listening to him learn the same thing.

User avatar
LadyGeek
Site Admin
Posts: 48670
Joined: Sat Dec 20, 2008 5:34 pm
Location: Philadelphia
Contact:

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by LadyGeek » Tue Feb 13, 2018 11:11 pm

To keep this actionable,* how can this concept be applied to music you like (or not)?

* General discussions tend to lose focus and become non-productive. "Actionable" discussions are directly connected to your (or your friend's or family's) life as a consumer, i.e. you can act on it.
Wiki To some, the glass is half full. To others, the glass is half empty. To an engineer, it's twice the size it needs to be.

User avatar
CyclingDuo
Posts: 1787
Joined: Fri Jan 06, 2017 9:07 am

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by CyclingDuo » Tue Feb 13, 2018 11:43 pm

azurekep wrote:
Tue Feb 13, 2018 3:18 am
I've been re-organizing my music collection by genre, subgenre, decade, etc., and one of the things I was looking at was the musical keys for each song. Usually it didn't shed any additional light on the music, but for one genre, the results were pretty striking:

A-flat
B-flat
C
C-minor
C#minor
D-flat
D-flat
D-flat
D-flat
E-minor
E-flat
F#minor

I.e., mostly flat and minor keys I really like the sound of these songs so I'm wondering if the key is part of the appeal.

The significance of minor keys is obvious, but what about flat keys? How does making the key flat (in theory) change the feeling of the song?

You can provide examples if you like. A common example when comparing major vs minor is to use The Police's "Every Breath You Take". It can sound positively creepy and stalkerish when played in a minor key, yet is a nice, reasonably upbeat song in a major key. I haven't seen a similar comparison between flat and non-flat keys.
Professional musician here, so here's my pro tip.

Organize your music by composer in alphabetical order. Anything beyond that is bordering on OCD...

Forget bordering. It is OCD.

Walk into the greatest music research libraries in the world. How is their music organized? 8-)
"Everywhere is within walking distance if you have the time." ~ Steven Wright

azurekep
Posts: 1179
Joined: Tue Jun 16, 2015 7:16 pm

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by azurekep » Wed Feb 14, 2018 12:00 am

In the interest of keeping the thread actionable, I will create a list of some of my favorite songs in certain genres and see if either the major vs minor or the "feels" mentioned by le_sacre make any pattern.

If they do, that will only be relevant to my own tastes, but it may indicate that key does in fact play a role in people's preferences.

Stay tuned.

User avatar
whodidntante
Posts: 4194
Joined: Thu Jan 21, 2016 11:11 pm

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by whodidntante » Wed Feb 14, 2018 12:11 am

No, you shouldn't pay off your mortgage. :happy

jalbert
Posts: 3825
Joined: Fri Apr 10, 2015 12:29 am

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by jalbert » Wed Feb 14, 2018 1:05 am

If you shift everything up by the same interval, the melody and harmonic relationships stay the same but the texture gets thinner and the tone less dissonant. This effect is very subtle if the interval is small.

The reason is that a note played on a musical instrument includes a a fundamental frequency as well as an overtone series of higher frequencies at diminishing amplitude. If a lower note is played, more of the harmonic series falls in the human audible range, resulting in a thicker texture and less pure tone.

A piano has the additional effect from each key of the lower register striking a single large diameter string, two narrower strings in the middle section, and three narrower strings in the upper section. Piano manufacturers create scale designs that try to minimize the tonal differences resulting from these differences, but they cannot be eliminated completely. This also contributes to tonal differences.

You can hear the effect if you sit at a piano and play an octave or fifth in the upper register. If the piano is in tune, it will be a very consonant interval. Play an octave at the low end, and it is fairly muddy by comparison. Play a fifth at the low end and it is even dissonant. But the effect is much more subtle if you are just changing keys by shifting an interval narrower than an octave.
Last edited by jalbert on Wed Feb 14, 2018 3:05 am, edited 1 time in total.

azurekep
Posts: 1179
Joined: Tue Jun 16, 2015 7:16 pm

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by azurekep » Wed Feb 14, 2018 2:31 am

Re: the test, I looked at 19 songs in 18 genres. I didn't really discern a pattern, but I'm going from memory on some of the songs.

(I deleted the song list since it was no longer applicable.)
Last edited by azurekep on Sun Feb 25, 2018 1:34 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Jags4186
Posts: 2546
Joined: Wed Jun 18, 2014 7:12 pm

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by Jags4186 » Wed Feb 14, 2018 5:48 am

Everything a musical lay person needs to know about keys can be explained in this incredible 6 minute lesson by Dr. Leonard Bernstein. I highly recommend everyone watch this:

https://youtube.com/watch?v=Gt2zubHcER4

Now for those wondering how the mood of a song can be changed by switching from major to minor, my favorite example is the Mozart D Minor Concerto.

Go right to the 3rd movement, listen to all of its minor intensity, and then get smacked with a major coda which completely changes your emotional reaction to the piece.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=Yha-5o9Ds20

On a side note, Mozart basically invented the piano concerto. What’s interesting about this is that most concertos have a big “solo” section called a cadenza. Mozart never wrote out the solos and left it for the performer, usually himself, to improvise on the spot the cadenza. Because of this, later composers offerred to fill in their own solos. The above performance features a solo written by Beethoven which is the most commonly performed one. You can find many different recordings though with completely different solos written by other composers, and even some original ones if you look around hard enough. Who says nothing changes with classical music?

User avatar
telemark
Posts: 2319
Joined: Sat Aug 11, 2012 6:35 am

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by telemark » Wed Feb 14, 2018 7:45 am

Jags4186 wrote:
Wed Feb 14, 2018 5:48 am
Everything a musical lay person needs to know about keys can be explained in this incredible 6 minute lesson by Dr. Leonard Bernstein. I highly recommend everyone watch this:

https://youtube.com/watch?v=Gt2zubHcER4

Now for those wondering how the mood of a song can be changed by switching from major to minor, my favorite example is the Mozart D Minor Concerto.

Go right to the 3rd movement, listen to all of its minor intensity, and then get smacked with a major coda which completely changes your emotional reaction to the piece.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=Yha-5o9Ds20
Which brings up another point: it's a rare (and probably very short) bit of music that stays entirely in one key all the way through*. When we say something is in a particular key we usually mean that it starts and ends in that key, with excursions into other keys along the way.

* the famous exception would be Ravel's Bolero, which he described as "an exercise in monotony." And even that jumps briefly into G major at the end.

investingdad
Posts: 1428
Joined: Fri Mar 15, 2013 10:41 pm

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by investingdad » Wed Feb 14, 2018 11:06 am

I'm a novice for sure, but I've documented my experience on here about taking up violin as an adult.

What I've discovered in the little over a year I've been playing is...

- sympathetic string vibrations are my friend. It's how I check that I'm playing in tune. The associated ringing from the notes one octave apart on open strings are rewarding to play.
- keys of C major, G major, and D major are the easiest to play when first starting the violin
Last edited by investingdad on Wed Feb 14, 2018 1:26 pm, edited 1 time in total.

User avatar
madsinger
Posts: 914
Joined: Sat Sep 29, 2007 3:26 pm

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by madsinger » Wed Feb 14, 2018 11:25 am

telemark wrote:
Wed Feb 14, 2018 7:45 am
* the famous exception would be Ravel's Bolero, which he described as "an exercise in monotony." And even that jumps briefly into G major at the end.
Actually, it jumps from C Major to E Major, which is a big jump for the ear (major third), and an even bigger jump harmonically (4 more sharps!)

-Brad.

User avatar
Hyperborea
Posts: 729
Joined: Sat Apr 15, 2017 10:31 am
Location: Osaka, Japan

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by Hyperborea » Wed Feb 14, 2018 12:38 pm

Well, it's pretty well known that D minor is the saddest of all keys. https://vimeo.com/92699399

I agree that the keys some kinds of music are in is based on what is easiest to play on the instruments used. You will find a lot of traditional music on the guitar in the keys of E, A, and D because those can be easier to play. Lots of blues is in those keys. They also allow for the use of open strings and open string chords which can have a more ringing tone.
"Plans are worthless, but planning is everything." - Dwight D. Eisenhower

azurekep
Posts: 1179
Joined: Tue Jun 16, 2015 7:16 pm

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by azurekep » Wed Feb 14, 2018 12:47 pm

telemark wrote:
Wed Feb 14, 2018 7:45 am
Which brings up another point: it's a rare (and probably very short) bit of music that stays entirely in one key all the way through*. When we say something is in a particular key we usually mean that it starts and ends in that key, with excursions into other keys along the way.
That answers one (unasked) question I had. In Windows, when you go under Properties to view/enter tags for a music file, it doesn't list "Key", it lists "Initial Key." I always wondered about that.

Interestingly, my tagger and DJ programs simply list Key.

Does that mean Windows is more musically on the front lines than the actual music programs? :D

A separate note about the minor vs major. I would have thought "Rapture" by iio/Nadia Ali was minor based on the vocals. The underlying music may explain why it's major instead. I'll have to listen more closely myself to check out if this is true, but I certainly thought from memory, this song would have been minor. For anyone interested:

iio ft. Nadia Ali - Rapture

If you prefer to watch it live and speculate on whether Nadia is anticipating a wardrobe malfunction: * :mrgreen:

iio ft Nadia Ali - Rapture/The End (Live) medeley

* Actually, not so much a wardrobe malfunction, just clothes a bit too small, probably.

But of interest, Nadia is of Pakistani descent and cites Pakistani music as an influence. I wonder if certain foreign music is minor-ish by definition. FWIW, I thought the style was Middle Eastern-ish, so MidEast and South Asian music may have different tones and moods than American ones that factor into the minor vs major categorization.

Jags4186
Posts: 2546
Joined: Wed Jun 18, 2014 7:12 pm

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by Jags4186 » Wed Feb 14, 2018 1:14 pm

Hyperborea wrote:
Wed Feb 14, 2018 12:38 pm
Well, it's pretty well known that D minor is the saddest of all keys. https://vimeo.com/92699399

I agree that the keys some kinds of music are in is based on what is easiest to play on the instruments used. You will find a lot of traditional music on the guitar in the keys of E, A, and D because those can be easier to play. Lots of blues is in those keys. They also allow for the use of open strings and open string chords which can have a more ringing tone.
Musical facts: D Minor is the saddest key and 11 is one louder than 10.

User avatar
madsinger
Posts: 914
Joined: Sat Sep 29, 2007 3:26 pm

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by madsinger » Wed Feb 14, 2018 3:15 pm

azurekep wrote:
Wed Feb 14, 2018 12:47 pm
A separate note about the minor vs major. I would have thought "Rapture" by iio/Nadia Ali was minor based on the vocals. The underlying music may explain why it's major instead.
This song is basically a three chord piece in e-minor:

https://www.songsterr.com/a/wsa/nadia-a ... ds-s228978

The "B" section (second melody) is basically harmonized in C major, but that is achieved by simply moving one note in the e-minor chord. While there is a "minor" section and "major" section, I would say this piece is mostly a minor piece --- starting and ending in the same minor key, with a small journey into a closely related major key. As others mentioned, most music wanders through different "modes" (major/minor/other...), but "popular" music tends to hang around a single tonal center and mode.

But, as with most creative endeavors, there is ambiguity and interpretation in this.

-Brad.

MrBeaver
Posts: 239
Joined: Tue Nov 14, 2017 4:45 pm

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by MrBeaver » Wed Feb 14, 2018 5:50 pm

This actually is somewhat of an interesting rabbit hole to go down. But your dataset is likely too small to draw many conclusions. Try these links:

https://insights.spotify.com/int/2017/1 ... ignatures/
http://jes2s.com/September2014/musical-keys.html

Certain non-uniform distributions of keys in modern music are primarily driven by the prevalence of the guitar. For styles where open chords are more common, G, D, C, A, E are more common. For styles where there is no guitar, or closed form chords are more common (Jazz, Funk), this relationship is not nearly so strong.

Most interesting (to me) tidbit? K-Pop appears to be the style with the least preference for any particular keys.

TSR
Posts: 721
Joined: Thu Apr 19, 2012 9:08 am

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by TSR » Wed Feb 14, 2018 6:04 pm

I haven't seen this answer yet, so forgive me if I'm covering old ground.

Piano players are more comfortable playing in flat keys than sharp keys, so you get a lot of jazz and classical in F, Bb, Eb, Ab, and all of their relative minors. These just tend to be easier hand positions than the sharp keys for most players. The opposite is usually true of guitar players -- open chords and the more "sharp" keys tend to be easier.

As a mediocre piano player and a pretty good guitar player, I get a bit befuddled when someone wants to play in Eb, or even the relatively tame Bb, but even good piano players are always annoyed when someone wants to play in E (which has a lot of lovely open strings on the guitar).

It is possible that the "preference" you are expressing is not toward the keys themselves, but rather toward the kind of person who is writing. So you may prefer songs written by piano-type composers rather than more guitar-type composers, even if the songs are ultimately played on other instruments. Just a thought.

jalbert
Posts: 3825
Joined: Fri Apr 10, 2015 12:29 am

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by jalbert » Wed Feb 14, 2018 8:22 pm

Piano players are more comfortable playing in flat keys than sharp keys, so you get a lot of jazz and classical in F, Bb, Eb, Ab, and all of their relative minors.
There is a massive amount of classical piano music in key signatures with 1-4 sharps.
Risk is not a guarantor of return.

azurekep
Posts: 1179
Joined: Tue Jun 16, 2015 7:16 pm

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by azurekep » Wed Feb 14, 2018 10:05 pm

madsinger wrote:
Wed Feb 14, 2018 3:15 pm
azurekep wrote:
Wed Feb 14, 2018 12:47 pm
A separate note about the minor vs major. I would have thought "Rapture" by iio/Nadia Ali was minor based on the vocals. The underlying music may explain why it's major instead.
This song is basically a three chord piece in e-minor:

https://www.songsterr.com/a/wsa/nadia-a ... ds-s228978

The "B" section (second melody) is basically harmonized in C major, but that is achieved by simply moving one note in the e-minor chord. While there is a "minor" section and "major" section, I would say this piece is mostly a minor piece --- starting and ending in the same minor key, with a small journey into a closely related major key. As others mentioned, most music wanders through different "modes" (major/minor/other...), but "popular" music tends to hang around a single tonal center and mode.

But, as with most creative endeavors, there is ambiguity and interpretation in this.

-Brad.
Thanks for that. It makes a lot more sense.

azurekep
Posts: 1179
Joined: Tue Jun 16, 2015 7:16 pm

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by azurekep » Wed Feb 14, 2018 10:37 pm

MrBeaver wrote:
Wed Feb 14, 2018 5:50 pm
This actually is somewhat of an interesting rabbit hole to go down. But your dataset is likely too small to draw many conclusions. Try these links:

https://insights.spotify.com/int/2017/1 ... ignatures/
http://jes2s.com/September2014/musical-keys.html
Interesting. Good to see that "Inspirational" is pretty low on the minor-key usage scale ;) Same with Country, which proves that the old "Woe is me. She done up and left me for good" can be, and is done, frequently in major keys.
Certain non-uniform distributions of keys in modern music are primarily driven by the prevalence of the guitar. For styles where open chords are more common, G, D, C, A, E are more common. For styles where there is no guitar, or closed form chords are more common (Jazz, Funk), this relationship is not nearly so strong.
This is starting to make sense to me. I used to play the guitar and the issue of playability is coming back to me. Having to stretch one's fingers in inhuman poses was no fun. However, much of the music on my workout list is electronic-oriented. Little of any guitar. And while synth keyboards are used, it's unclear how they correlate with piano. One difference for sure though is that some of the harder-to-play notes could probably be programmed. YouTube vids I've seen re: making electronic music show that the bassline, drum grooves, and some of the strings and keyboard sounds are/can be programmed, especially if they're too fast to play manually. The automation probably allows the creators to expand their repertoire and do less avoiding of the "hard" notes.
Most interesting (to me) tidbit? K-Pop appears to be the style with the least preference for any particular keys.
Isn't the only criterion for a K-Pop song to wear a bright pink dress? :mrgreen:

User avatar
telemark
Posts: 2319
Joined: Sat Aug 11, 2012 6:35 am

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by telemark » Thu Feb 15, 2018 6:49 am

madsinger wrote:
Wed Feb 14, 2018 11:25 am
telemark wrote:
Wed Feb 14, 2018 7:45 am
* the famous exception would be Ravel's Bolero, which he described as "an exercise in monotony." And even that jumps briefly into G major at the end.
Actually, it jumps from C Major to E Major, which is a big jump for the ear (major third), and an even bigger jump harmonically (4 more sharps!)

-Brad.
Yes, good catch. Thanks.

Jags4186
Posts: 2546
Joined: Wed Jun 18, 2014 7:12 pm

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by Jags4186 » Thu Feb 15, 2018 7:14 am

TSR wrote:
Wed Feb 14, 2018 6:04 pm
I haven't seen this answer yet, so forgive me if I'm covering old ground.

Piano players are more comfortable playing in flat keys than sharp keys, so you get a lot of jazz and classical in F, Bb, Eb, Ab, and all of their relative minors. These just tend to be easier hand positions than the sharp keys for most players. The opposite is usually true of guitar players -- open chords and the more "sharp" keys tend to be easier.

As a mediocre piano player and a pretty good guitar player, I get a bit befuddled when someone wants to play in Eb, or even the relatively tame Bb, but even good piano players are always annoyed when someone wants to play in E (which has a lot of lovely open strings on the guitar).

It is possible that the "preference" you are expressing is not toward the keys themselves, but rather toward the kind of person who is writing. So you may prefer songs written by piano-type composers rather than more guitar-type composers, even if the songs are ultimately played on other instruments. Just a thought.
It depends on the type of music being played. Much of piano has to do with how comfortable a piece fits beneath your fingers. In that respect, lots of sharps and flats are good for a piano player. If you hold your hand out in the air pretending your holding it above the keyboard, you’ll notice that your 1 and 5 fingers (thumb & pinky) are naturally lower than your 2-4 fingers. If you place your hand on a keyboard, the most natural position would be on E, F#, G#, A#, and B. This of course is why the C# major scale is the easiest to play on the piano. Comfortable hand position with tons of room for your thumb to cross under/hand to cross over. The most unnatural position would be all white keys—C Major—the most difficult scale to play.

Of course once you modulate beyond a regular major scale, things change. Depending on what’s being asked of the performer, different keys present their own technical challenges. E minor is awkward to play in. E major should be no sweat. Many great great classical piano pieces are written in C Sharp Minor (same # of sharps as # major).

Now the reality is, there are many keys which aren’t used much. I’m sure there isn’t much modern music written in Db, A#, etc. So asking someone to play in that means they aren’t quite as sure of themself as they would be in C, F, or D.

scrabbler1
Posts: 2230
Joined: Fri Nov 20, 2009 2:39 pm

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by scrabbler1 » Thu Feb 15, 2018 10:29 am

When I was a kid and into my 20s I played the piano and guitar a lot. I took piano and guitar lessons after my parents realized at age 5 I had perfect pitch, but I never had any interest in making a career out of it.

In one of my early days of taking piano lessons, I was taught a lot of music theory, even as a 9-year old. I recall the Circle of 5ths diagram posted by Alexa9 earlier. The music theory was probably the best part of my music instruction I learned because when I advanced to the guitar from the ukulele (my hands grew in size), I was able to transpose guitar chords pretty easily to make songs more playable and singable. (I despised those "bar chords" which were a PITA to play.) The capo also helped a lot to make songs more playable.

I played a lot of ragtime on the piano years ago. The songs which had a lot of black keys due to the key it was written were a little tougher to play than those in C-major, F-major, or G-major, all of which have relatively few black keys. Think of a popular Scott Joplin song such as "The Entertainer, "(theme from "The Sting"). The music theory and my perfect pitch enabled me to slightly simplify some of the Rags I played to make them more playable by retaining the key notes in more difficult chords to play.

But having perfect pitch was not all it was cracked up to be. I could hear when recorded songs were "off" a little bit. When I finally owned my first piano about 30 years ago, I bought and kept a tuning wrench nearby and if I heard a bad note, I would stop playing to tune the bad string. Even some electric keyboards were out of tune, driving me crazy when I tried to play them.

I would also notice when singers sang their songs in different, usually lower keys, than they had before. Adele is one I have noticed since she had her throat surgery.

azurekep
Posts: 1179
Joined: Tue Jun 16, 2015 7:16 pm

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by azurekep » Thu Feb 15, 2018 12:05 pm

Jack FFR1846 wrote:
Tue Feb 13, 2018 8:58 am

The last band I played in (lead guitar player), the singer determined the key. We'd switch on the fly when the pre-chosen key by the band leader wouldn't work.
Last night, I was listening to Stevie Ray Vaughan -- some live songs from YouTube. On one song, I realized Albert King and Stevie sort of negotiated the key they'd play. Actually, what really happened is King mentioned a song whose title he couldn't remember, but he remembered the key! It was B-flat. Stevie agreed to fill in on the song:

Stevie Ray Vaughan & Albert King - Ask Me No Questions

My DJ software picked it up as B-Flat minor. (The minor being a given on blues guitar.)

User avatar
Hyperborea
Posts: 729
Joined: Sat Apr 15, 2017 10:31 am
Location: Osaka, Japan

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by Hyperborea » Thu Feb 15, 2018 12:24 pm

azurekep wrote:
Thu Feb 15, 2018 12:05 pm
Jack FFR1846 wrote:
Tue Feb 13, 2018 8:58 am

The last band I played in (lead guitar player), the singer determined the key. We'd switch on the fly when the pre-chosen key by the band leader wouldn't work.
Last night, I was listening to Stevie Ray Vaughan -- some live songs from YouTube. On one song, I realized Albert King and Stevie sort of negotiated the key they'd play. Actually, what really happened is King mentioned a song whose title he couldn't remember, but he remembered the key! It was B-flat. Stevie agreed to fill in on the song:

Stevie Ray Vaughan & Albert King - Ask Me No Questions

My DJ software picked it up as B-Flat minor. (The minor being a given on blues guitar.)

You'll get this sort of negotiation/discussion/direction when playing blues. They might call out a well known song but if not then they will call out a key, form (12 bar, quick change, etc), and known rhythm (box, flat tire, Jimmy Reed, Rhumba, etc.). They count it in and everybody finds a place. There will be some signalling during the song for solos, breaks, and ending usually by the caller of the song. There will possibly be some negotiation between two guitarists about which part they are taking (e.g. high road vs low road). You can hear some of this calling and negotiation live and in recordings (take us home, from the top, etc.).

Oh, and blues is not always in a minor key. You get some major blues too. Listen to BB King for a fair bit of major blues or mixing of the major-minor in one song.
"Plans are worthless, but planning is everything." - Dwight D. Eisenhower

MP173
Posts: 1926
Joined: Fri Dec 07, 2007 6:03 pm

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by MP173 » Thu Feb 15, 2018 5:26 pm

Great discussion.

I took a short class in music theory years ago...just enough to know a little bit.

Let say a song has a key signature of 1 sharp.... G major. But, if it is started in Em, is it still technically in the key of E minor or is it G major key? Same with C and Aminor. Which key is it and is it determined by the tonic or the signature? HOpe this makes sense.

Ed

User avatar
madsinger
Posts: 914
Joined: Sat Sep 29, 2007 3:26 pm

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by madsinger » Thu Feb 15, 2018 5:49 pm

MP173 wrote:
Thu Feb 15, 2018 5:26 pm
Great discussion.

I took a short class in music theory years ago...just enough to know a little bit.

Let say a song has a key signature of 1 sharp.... G major. But, if it is started in Em, is it still technically in the key of E minor or is it G major key? Same with C and Aminor. Which key is it and is it determined by the tonic or the signature? HOpe this makes sense.

Ed
The "short" answer can usually be found by looking at the first and/or last chord of the piece. If they're both the same (i.e. both e-minor, or both G-major), then you can probably call it that. I usually look at the last chord, because this "settled" chord at the end often defines the key for me. This is not always true, of course --- in Baroque music, it was common for a piece to be "minor" throughout, and then at the end switch to a major key. (The most common term for this is the use of the Picardy Third: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Picardy_third )

The longer answer, is that most pieces of music wander around harmonically. They may start in one "key/mode", move around, and may or may not return back to the key they started in. A piece of music does not have to be in a single key/mode throughout.

-Brad.

jalbert
Posts: 3825
Joined: Fri Apr 10, 2015 12:29 am

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by jalbert » Thu Feb 15, 2018 6:11 pm

It was not uncommon for some rock or other popular music to be recorded at a slightly slower tempo than desired for the final product, and then the mastering tapes sped up a little to bring it to tempo, while also shifting the key up. As a result, the keys for many pop recordings you listen to are not always reliable indicators of the keys used for the composition.
Risk is not a guarantor of return.

User avatar
telemark
Posts: 2319
Joined: Sat Aug 11, 2012 6:35 am

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by telemark » Thu Feb 15, 2018 6:24 pm

MP173 wrote:
Thu Feb 15, 2018 5:26 pm
Great discussion.

I took a short class in music theory years ago...just enough to know a little bit.

Let say a song has a key signature of 1 sharp.... G major. But, if it is started in Em, is it still technically in the key of E minor or is it G major key? Same with C and Aminor. Which key is it and is it determined by the tonic or the signature? HOpe this makes sense.

Ed
Great question. E minor only has one sharp (F) in the key signature, but in practice you will usually find the D and maybe C also being sharped as accidentals. Oversimplifying vastly, this is because we're conditioned to expect a dominant-seventh to tonic chord resolution at the end of every phrase and it doesn't sound right without the leading semitone (D# resolving to E), and if you don't sharp the C you get a funny-sounding jump up to the D#. And sometimes the D and C are left alone for what is called the "natural minor". This is more common in some kinds of folk music.

If you take the standard seven-note diatonic scale you can theoretically pick any note as your tonal center and have a different mode (see http://www.tonalcentre.org/Diatonic.html for an introduction. The Phrygian mode was probably more popular in the 12th century than it is now, but I was told once that some of the Beatles songs are in the Mixolydian mode (sorry, I don't know which ones).

How do you know what the tonal center is for a given bit of music? Well, erm. Sometimes it's obvious, sometimes it isn't. Some musicians treat it as a game. Haydn liked to write teasing introductions where you wouldn't know what key you were in, and then he'd finally settle down and take off with a melody.
Last edited by telemark on Thu Feb 15, 2018 6:43 pm, edited 1 time in total.

bondsr4me
Posts: 928
Joined: Fri Oct 18, 2013 7:08 am

Re: Question for music experts about musical keys

Post by bondsr4me » Thu Feb 15, 2018 6:26 pm

This is a very interesting ( and highly confusing ) enjoyable thread.
I can’t read music. I can only play by reading TAB.
I haven’t touched my pedal steel for quite a while, I seemed to have lost interest.
Learning to understand the “why” of things in music would be helpful and probably fun too.
I envy musicians and I wish I could have started when I was younger.

Don

Post Reply