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Topic: Good Keys and Bad Keys

  1. #1

    Good Keys and Bad Keys

    I stumbled across this a while back and I am not sure how seriously to take it:

    "Some keys are just plain difficult to play in.
    • The best keys are: Eb, Bb and F concert.
    • Secondary keys are: G, C and D concert.
    • Notably bad keys are: A and E concert.
    A and E concert are strange keys to the orchestra. Colourful pedal notes allude you when you use these keys. The keys are also out of favour with transposing instruments. E concert transposes Eb instruments to six sharps and Bb instruments to seven sharps. Just a semitone higher than E, Eb concert is a wonderful key for colour, transposes Eb instruments to C and Bb instruments to F."

    [ More at http://www.musicarrangers.com/star-theory/p21.htm ]

    I am in the process of orchestrating a musical, using a fairly traditional pit orchestra (4 reeds, 4 brass, small string section, 2 keyboard, bass, drums and percussion). I have used the guidelines above when I have gotten into trouble (when the ranges of wind instruments get too high or don't sound right). I've seen a lot of numbers in Eb and Bb (concert key) and less often F or C or G (concert key). So I am assuming there is some validity to this theory. I'm just wondering how far to trust it.

    I'm talking about real world composing experience, not academic theory. I usually compose on the piano and pick the key by the way it sounds (and change it only to accomodate the vocal ranges of the characters). They pretty much all sound good on keyboards. I especially liked a song that I had written in C# (which, truthfully, was not all that hard to play on the piano) but I had to change it to Bb because the brass section didn't sound as good as I expected in that key. As ever, when using sample libraries, I wonder if what I am hearing accurately represents how it will sound with real instruments (and real musicians having to play those keys.)


    Allegro Data Solutions

  2. #2

    Re: Good Keys and Bad Keys

    I'm not going to look up the source of the information you have quoted, but I can tell you this:

    1. The flat keys are BEST for brass sections.
    2. G, C and D are excellent keys for woodwinds to play in.
    3. A and E are natural and extremely comfortable for strings sections.

    Whoever wrote the information you quoted knows very little about orchestration, or they may have had a specific instrument in mind for the application of their comments. Obviously, some instruments are designed for specific situations, such as the Clarinet in A and the Clarinet in Bb. Most brass instruments are built in the "flat" keys, but there are exceptions. There are reasons for those differences mainly having to do with fingering (or slide) technique, but the composer needs to indicate which instrument would be more appropriate in each case, although the player may choose to ignore that advice in actual performance.

    There are some keys on the keyboard that are "easier" to play in than others for many people, and that has more to do with the shape of the human hand, but professional musicians are trained to play anything in any key just as well as in any other. As stated above, some keys are easier and more natural for certain sections of an orchestra, but there is no "optimum" key for anything. It just depends on which section of the orchestra you want to be the dominant one at a particular time and place in your music and modulate to a more comfortable key for that section to play in, unless you have some kind of sadistic streak. The accompaniment instruments shouldn't care one way or the other.

    That is my experience in a nutshell. I could go much deeper into this subject, but this is a good, general description of the situation. You must, of course, consult the playing characteristics of each instrument in order to find the more awkward situations that need to be avoided in specific keys and passages for that instrument, including intonation problems, and that cannot be ignored, but there should be nothing you can write for any instrument that falls within its natural range that is any more difficult for them to play than in any other key.

    As far as vocal music goes, there is no "optimum" key, either, but the limitations of the human voice must be taken into account. Many composers write their vocal lines with specific singers in mind, and thus their range may be limited to that specific singer's range and vocal technique, but vocalists generally don't care one way or the other which key they are in, as long as their voices fit into the proper written ranges.

    And as far as a sample library being able to represent what a REAL performer would sound like, that is an extremely subjective judgment that is open to as many interpretations as there are ears that hear it. The quality of the samples regulates how good it sounds, and the proficiency of working with MIDI data has a great deal to do with how realistic the recording may sound, but there is no correlation with the real world in that regard, as far as I can tell. Many human performers can mimic what they hear in a computer-generated recording, unless it is too bizarre. But computer-generated recordings should be able to give a good general idea what it may sound like when performed by humans, but those recordings are based on what the composer WANTS to hear, not necessarily how the performer may reproduce it. The only way to bring a close correlation between computer and human performers is lots of experience with hearing both, and there is no substitute or shortcut for that experience.
    Arvid Hand

  3. #3
    Senior Member Frank D's Avatar
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    Apr 2006
    Suburban NYC

    Re: Good Keys and Bad Keys

    Hi Gents,

    One aspect to remember with show/pit music is the generally modulatory nature of it. If you examine actual show scores, a piece may start off in the "easy-for-brass-reeds" key of F Maj (and not bad for string players as well) and 30 bars into the arrangement, it modulates to Gb Maj ... still OK for the Bb instruments (Ab Maj), but not a great key for strings. But these scores are loaded with such diverse and "uncomfortable" keys. Look at Les Miz or Sweeney Todd or Into The Woods ... lots of multi-flat/sharp keys.

    Further, within the reed section, you will often have multi-instrument chairs that may have, for example, flute/picc (C-instruments), alto sax (Eb), clarinet (Bb), Alto flute (G). It's not uncommon for a single player to play three or four of these instruments within a single number, even without concert transpositions.

    What you initially listed is a guideline only. If I am writing an arrangement for primarily winds, yes, if all other things are equal (non-extreme registers, etc), I'd probably choose F minor instead of E minor for a wind-dominate chart. If it were primarily strings, I'd keep the E minor to get some open strings in the voicings.

    Hi-Lo notes your vocalists can sing comfortably will determine best keys for your singers; not how many sharps/flats are involved. Every song's melody range is different; key is virtually insignifficant.

    If you have seasoned pit players, just write idiomatically for the various instruments/voices and they will work their magic.



  4. #4

    Re: Good Keys and Bad Keys

    A lot depends, too, on whether or not you're writing for professionals or beginners. Any professional musician should be able to play perfectly well in any key.

    Speaking as a violist, I agree that the best keys for strings are those that allow them to use open strings when needed; for example, C major, D major, G major, F major, and so on. If you're writing for non-professionals, it's best to stick to those keys as much as possible. But part of professional training is learning how to deal with every key. If I'm playing something in G-flat major, I don't even think about it, I just play it.
    Dan Powers

    "It's easier to be a composer than it is to compose."
    --Ray Luke (1928-2010)

  5. #5

    Re: Good Keys and Bad Keys

    Please do the rest of us a favor and DO NOT base how easy/hard a key feels off of what it's like on the piano. C# may be easy on the Piano, but it's horrible on the flute (and presumably other similar winds).

    I can't begin to tell you how many times I've played a flute part where all I could think is that the arranger obviously never played a woodwind in his life and just did everything at a keyboard.

    Being in a concert band, I play mostly in flat keys. (we were sight reading something that suddenly changed to B, and everyone screwed up because we never see #'s. ) None of them are horribly bad. Gb (a key which is very easy on the piano) is definitely NOT ideal as far as player comfort or sound quality goes, but is manageable for short periods of time. The keys I enjoy playing on flute the most in no particular order are:


  6. #6

    Re: Good Keys and Bad Keys

    First, my real world composing experience for anyone but myself is ~ none.... but this thread is interesting. I can speak only for my own observations on guitar.

    For stardard tuned guitar, open strings are always nice to have for ease and for creating chord voicings with a dark timbre. C, A, G, E, D are the easiest.

    I use G too much--- it's attractive because it gives access to the lowest tone for the Eminor tonic. But, this is completely ignoring the need to sit with other instruments. Aside from the related intuition gained from acoustics research, recording, and signal processing geekery (EQ related), I'm an orchestration noob.
    "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." – Henry Thoreau

  7. #7

    Re: Good Keys and Bad Keys

    "A lot depends, too, on whether or not you're writing for professionals or beginners. Any professional musician should be able to play perfectly well in any key."

    Absolutley right. I've done music for theatre for 30 years -starting out as a player and gradually moving to writing. The main determinant for the keys in a musical are the singers' voices. The band (orchestra) should be able to accommodate any key - keys are all equally difficult across the board - some are just more rehearsed and played by certain ensembles.

    Every instrument seems to have its "difficult" keys but with sufficient woodshedding this difficulty all but disappears.

    If you are scoring the overture or the entr'acte or the walk-in/walk-out music (without voices) any key will suffice. In these situations I try to write for the most facile execution.

    Best of luck!
    In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.

    http://reberclark.blogspot.com http://reberclark.bandcamp.com http://www.youtube.com/reberclark

  8. #8

    Re: Good Keys and Bad Keys

    Quote Originally Posted by ejr View Post
    I stumbled across this a while back and I am not sure how seriously to take it: ...

    I don't know if Mr Paparone is as internationally reknowned as he makes himself out to be, but his writings on the site you have quoted seem full of infuriating, rather trite and often naively plainly wrong "absolute rules" that make me worry that anyone paying him the requested $250 a month he asks for is just being ripped off.

    You can write in any key for any instrument ... what you need is not arbitrary absolute rules such as these, but a rich understanding of underlying issues such as the technicalities of each instrument you choose to write for so that you can make each part playable for it's target instrument.

    If you've got real players lined up to play your music, I'm sure they'll gladly talk for hours at end for no charge whatsoever on all aspects of their instrument's technique.

    But beware of anyone trying to give you just rules to work by, rather than knowledge and understanding.


  9. #9

    Re: Good Keys and Bad Keys

    I'm not really sure why a composition's key is an issue in the case of how much prettier a melody would be if it were in this key or that key. If the key you choose suddenly doesn't appeal to you anymore, simply transpose up or down a couple of keys. Your composition, your choice. True, you don't want to write a tune too high or too low or where an instrument's solo passage has too many notes close to either end of that instrument's range (brass and woodwind players really, REALLY hate that). I'm a pianist. We keyboard players also cringe when learning a high-tempo composition written in a key that is difficult to play in.

    In the end, I guess it depends on the willingness of the composer to write in a key that prospective performers would be comfortable with. I'm willing to be flexible, but there may be circumstances where I'm reluctant to compromise.
    "The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese." -Steven Wright, comedian

  10. #10

    Re: Good Keys and Bad Keys

    First of all, he has a point about the keys. Though he seems to forget that a lot of music today is NOT written in any key, which also means that the performers are getting used to the idea of plenty of accidentals (just look at any of my music! ).

    That said, idiomatic writting for all instruments makes sense, doesn't it? Not, however, for such superficial 'rules'!

    Now, onto something else from his website:

    Quote Originally Posted by Joe Paparone website
    Composing is the easiest thing in the world to do. But I have 35 years experience as an orchestrator and arranger behind me.

    To bring out the best in a progression and an orchestra and to write a truly great melody of high art you need to become an arranger and an orchestrator first."

    "First you become an arranger, then an orchestrator, then a composer" - Joe Paparone.

    "Too many impatient composers learn the other way around. That makes them depressed and frustrated with their talent.

    They have drawers full of half finished songs. Not me. I can fix any problem and write to any level and I consistently create great stuff.
    Composing the easiest thing to do?!?!?!
    Arranger -> Orchestrator -> Composer?!?!?!
    I consistently create great stuff: YAY for humble people!

    I can't begin to imagine why a person is saying those things (actually I can, but let's not get into this).

    I'm sorry but my experience, my academic background and my morality dissagrees with the above quote wholeheartlily!

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