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Topic: Choosing a key signature

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  1. #1

    Choosing a key signature

    Hey, I have a question. How do you pick a key signature for your pieces?

    I usually start in whatever key I was brainstorming in, and then usually not after long I'll think something like "hmm horns would be GREAT for this line if only the melody was a major third higher....." or something like that, so then I transpose the whole thing.

    But sooner or later I have to commit, and then I constantly second guess myself ("argh, I should've kept it in A!"). Anyway, I was wondering if anyone had any tips. Though I have a feeling there's no formula other than experience and trial and error...

  2. #2

    Re: Choosing a key signature

    While my works are *mostly* tonal, I haven't used key signatures much at all for years, as I use too much chromaticism to make it practical. Nevertheless, I usually have some sort of tonal center (or two), and do sometimes think about transposing a section. Most of the time, I start butting up against an upper or lower limit in one or more instruments, which limits my choices. But there are always more options than simply transposing the entire piece.

    Remember that you can modulate to another key, and still use the same melody... have your cake and eat it too! You can always shift those horns to a counter-melody if you want to put them in a more characteristic range.

    Ultimately to me, it starts to matter when I note that I've become married to the specific tonality I've set up. I know this has happened when I try to transpose a section up or down a major second, and it just sounds *wrong*. My brain responds in one way for one key, and totally rejects an alternate key. But I think it really does come down to trial and error.

    Slightly off-topic, but I happen to notice lately that a lot of my music has been hovering around Eb-major/D#-minor lately. I have no idea why.
    - Jamie Kowalski

    All Hands Music - Kowalski on the web
    The Ear Is Always Correct - Writings on composition

  3. #3

    Re: Choosing a key signature

    You know, I once heard Elton John tell the venerable James Lipton on Bravo that he always uses flat keys cause the sharp keys are trash .

    Any truth in that? Cause it sounds like total nonsense to me. Wow that reminds me of something else--I just read the Beethoven biography by Edmund Morris, and he (Edmund, that is) says that the key of Eb is a very heroic key (which is the key of Beethoven's Third). I'd buy the idea that there's a range where melodies work best, but I can't understand how a particular key in general would be any better than another.

    Maybe he just meant that in the sense that a lot of heroic pieces happen to be in Eb....

  4. #4

    Re: Choosing a key signature

    Because we use the well tempered scale, where the spaces between any semitones are not equal, there is a difference in the sound of the different keys.

  5. #5

    Re: Choosing a key signature

    Hmm, I'm fairly sure nearly everything composed for the past couple centuries is not well-tempered, though someone please correct me if I'm wrong...

    Actually though, you made me think of an interesting question, so I'm gonna start another thread.

  6. #6

    Re: Choosing a key signature

    Actually, well-tempered (or "equal temperment" is what Western music uses, for the most part, and has for centuries (small pitch variation by good instrumentalists notwithstanding). I think Babe's message may have had some misleading punctuation. Well-tempered means each semi-tone is the same size. Still, there are those who like to slice up the octave in other ways. Why not?

    But I do disagree with Babe's sentiment. The keys do still sound different, especially when played by instruments whose timbre changes dramatically over their ranges (i.e., almost all non-electronic instruments).
    - Jamie Kowalski

    All Hands Music - Kowalski on the web
    The Ear Is Always Correct - Writings on composition

  7. #7

    Re: Choosing a key signature

    Ah I was confused, but I've been thoroughly educated by your Wikipedia link.

    But I think maybe you should read it too . So, well-tempered usually means the semitones are different sizes, which is what I thought, and what I think Babe was saying. HOWEVER, equal-temperament can be considered a special kind of well-temperament, which I did not know!

    In any case, I think we're all on the same page now. But I was trying to ask about key signatures independent of range, meaning, if you have a bunch of different pieces in the same ranges but in different keys. Are some keys special?

    On the subject of temperaments, when a Bb trumpet player plays notes based on the D overtone (which should be a bit sharp according to our equal-tempered ears), does he have to do something special? Or do players avoid that overtone? Or is it close enough not to make a difference?

  8. #8

    Re: Choosing a key signature

    I'm confused of who agrees with what and what disagrees with who, so let's try this again.

    I shouldn't have said that there is a difference between each semi-tone. But theoretically, there is a difference between D# and Eb. That's why there is a difference in the tone quality of the keys. Tuning is compromise.


    Here's a couple of links on the deveopment of tuning and scales.

    http://www.jimloy.com/physics/scale.htm

    http://www-personal.umich.edu/~sigli...-00b-intro.htm

  9. #9
    Senior Member Tom_Davis's Avatar
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    Re: Choosing a key signature

    There is also a psychological issue with key signatures. You may find it interesting to read about the affect different frequencies have on the human psyche. Different vibratory centers (keys for musicians) can cause specific physical and emotional reactions from carbon based units (humans and the like).

  10. #10

    Re: Choosing a key signature

    Quote Originally Posted by Guy Smiley
    So, well-tempered usually means the semitones are different sizes, which is what I thought, and what I think Babe was saying. HOWEVER, equal-temperament can be considered a special kind of well-temperament, which I did not know!
    If people are confused by "well-tempered" possibly referring to a tuning system that is not equal, I suggest throwing the term out. Most people *mean* equal-tempered when they say well-tempered. For example, when Babe said "Because we use the well tempered scale..." He could have more precisely said "Because we use the equal-temperament system..."

    The point of this overly-long sidetrack is that Western music has for a very long time been using equal temperament. There is no theoretical difference in the makeup of the different keys when it comes to the frequency ratios between notes. Still, some people do perceive a difference in the aural quality of the scales.
    - Jamie Kowalski

    All Hands Music - Kowalski on the web
    The Ear Is Always Correct - Writings on composition

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