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Thread: How and why do composers pick keys?

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    Default How and why do composers pick keys?

    There's obviously the trivial distinction between major and minor keys. But within the major keys for example, why would a composer choose C and not Eb? Is there any truth to the idea that each key has its own emotion? Or do composers just throw darts and use what sticks?

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    Often instrument range, timbre, practicality and dynamics decides the question of key. The musical/emotional intent is also clarified and enhanced with the decisions taken. If a composer wants to exploit idiomatic technique then keys are chosen appropriately, hence keys like D or G major for strings which enable exploitation of open strings in techniques like bariolage and multiple stopping.
    For me personally, there is not much emotional difference in keys that are close together although one can often discern instrumental and concerted resonance in open keys which does have a bearing on one's perception. I have (good) relative pitch but someone with perfect pitch or perhaps synesthesia may feel differently about emotion and any affiliation with pitch.
    Key changes in a piece are often calculated for effect and/or, to move away from tonal centres after too long a time. They are also used traditionally as a functional element in a formal context such as sonata form.
    Last edited by mikeh375; Jun-20-2019 at 16:33.

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    Senior Member Open Book's Avatar
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    How do you even know what key a piece is in (just by listening)? The range of notes you hear could be found in other keys, especially when sharps and flats are applied here and there.
    Last edited by Open Book; Jun-20-2019 at 18:00.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Open Book View Post
    How do you even know what key a piece is in (just by listening)? The range of notes you hear could be found in other keys, especially when sharps and flats are applied here and there.

    Yes, by listening but the music has to conform to certain parameters in order to affirm a key.
    This is done by the 7 scale notes deferring to a hierarchy between themselves which is defined by the key signature and their functional role in relation to the tonic. As a result, the tonic holds a gravitational sway over them courtesy of their compliance. This dominance of the tonic is made manifest by compositional techniques such as cadence, resolution of melodic and harmonic tones, melodic and harmonic contour in general, rate of harmonic change and not corrupting the key signature with too many accidentals that are disruptive to the status quo. In this way, a key will be stable and its tonality becomes apparent over time.

    Keys do indeed have notes in common, and it is this that allows transitions away from the home key for variety without the main key losing its influence if that is the intent.
    In simpler music, these transitions are often introduced smoothly via so-called pivot tones (tones common to both keys) which act as a sort of ambiguous tonal bridge (harmonically and melodically). By applying the techniques above, one can gradually manipulate the music so that a smooth take over is achieved by the new key, shifting the tonal centre away from the original. This sounds long winded (I don't have EdwardB's succinctness:-)however a transition is often fleeting and can happen in a matter of listening seconds.

    A transition in the main will be transitory and often wend its way back to the tonic or become a means of travelling to a new key using the same manipulation of the techniques above. Confirmation with a cadence and/or prolonged passage work in the newer territory puts the new key centre beyond doubt that the music has changed key.

    Sorry if this was too technical or fuzzy (I'm not a pedagogue) and it is certainly not exhaustive, especially when it comes to changing keys but I hope it helps a little.
    Last edited by mikeh375; Jun-21-2019 at 16:40.

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    Well, I had to look up a few terms because I am not musically trained. Well, barely, I know the staff and remember how keys are notated and about adding sharps and flats to go up or down a half tone. It sounds like added sharps and flats produce a tone that is an exception to the declared key and that employing them in certain ways or perhaps in large numbers, they can take over and transition the piece into a new key.

    That's kind of what I suspected, but my ears are not good enough to hear it. I mean I can often hear when something interesting is going on in music, but my ears can't recognize a key when I hear it or know that a transition in key has taken place.

    You write nicely, thanks. Hearing music explained, with the terminology, sounds tantalizing and always makes me wish I understood more. I think I would flunk music theory if I took it, though, because I can't identify tones well. The lectures would be fun but I'd flunk the final audio exam.
    Last edited by Open Book; Jun-25-2019 at 18:35.

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    A lot of Chopin's piano pieces are written in "weird" keys like Eb and Ab, because he had an ergonomic system of fingering, which saw the fingers on black keys whenever possible, and the thumb on white keys. He considered the C major scale a bad place to start for beginners, because of the awkward thumb cross-over. See the book "natural Fingering."


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    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    A lot of Chopin's piano pieces are written in "weird" keys like Eb and Ab, because he had an ergonomic system of fingering, which saw the fingers on black keys whenever possible, and the thumb on white keys. He considered the C major scale a bad place to start for beginners, because of the awkward thumb cross-over. See the book "natural Fingering."


    I've played plenty of Chopin over the years and never would have guessed at this MR. I was intrigued enough to quickly peruse my music (Ballades, nocturnes, Preludes, Sonatas, Waltzes, Mazurkas, Rondos) and superficially it looks like the flat keys just edge it, only just mind, as there are plenty of pieces in sharp and natural keys too. I'm with Mr. Frederick about C maj being an awkward key to start with, I find B major is rather nice as the fingering fits the keyboard layout well and the crossover from 3rd to thumb from Dsharp to E is a little easier imv. The 3rd finger is raised more on the black D sharp and does not impinge as much on the 4th's crossing...I'm not a teacher though and this might horrify some!
    Didn't Debussy once imply that something like fingering is unique to the individual?
    Last edited by mikeh375; Jun-26-2019 at 10:03.

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    Most composers write music in the key that originally comes to them. If a melody comes to them in Eb, the work is composed in Eb, etc. I'm not convinced that Chopin wrote in a certain key for technical reasons when he could play equally well in any key. He would encourage his students to play Bach's WTC daily, not only because he loved the music but also to strengthen the wrists. He seemed to write in every imaginable key, major and minor, as the music came to him and that's where he composed it.

    Chopin also had his students practice Bach every day in order to exercise, warm up their fingers and perfect their technique. Many of Chopin’s contemporaries declared just how attached he was to the works of Bach. He was obsessed with the preludes and fugues of Bach. He had memorized the 48. He played them all the time and they covered every key. He played them at concerts and at more intimate settings. Bach, Händel, Chopin and Beethoven were generally known to be endowed with perfect pitch.
    Last edited by Larkenfield; Jun-26-2019 at 10:07.
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    great composer/pianists are often also great improvisers so choice of key isn't always related to how they hear it at its inception, sometimes music is just 'found'. Also, not every composer has perfect pitch, but will have favourite keys to play and improvise in. (I realise you are not actually saying anything to the contrary Lakenfield).
    Last edited by mikeh375; Jun-26-2019 at 10:08.

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    There’s no one reason why a composer would pick one key over another. Plenty of composers have chosen odd keys for the challenge of it, and yes of course some just prefer certain keys over others for inane reasons. Many different reasons, really.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Larkenfield View Post
    Most composers write music in the key that originally comes to them. If a melody comes to them in Eb, the work is composed in Eb, etc. I'm not convinced that Chopin wrote in a certain key for technical reasons when he could play equally well in any key. He would encourage his students to play Bach's WTC daily, not only because he loved the music but also to strengthen the wrists. He seemed to write in every imaginable key, major and minor, as the music came to him and that's where he composed it.
    I agree completely. I would say, not altogether whimsically, that often the principal idea picks the key, not the composer.
    Last edited by EdwardBast; Jun-27-2019 at 02:16.

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    Quote Originally Posted by ECraigR View Post
    There’s no one reason why a composer would pick one key over another. Plenty of composers have chosen odd keys for the challenge of it, and yes of course some just prefer certain keys over others for inane reasons. Many different reasons, really.
    What would make a certain key "odd"?
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    Quote Originally Posted by Open Book View Post
    What would make a certain key "odd"?
    Maybe not odd (not to me anyway), but more unusual are keys that mix sharps and flats, for example a key signature with b flat and perhaps G sharp. Bartok has used this kind of signature as have others to define a synthetic mode/scale the piece is in. For something truly odd and unworkable, what about F double sharp minor.

    @EcraigR, there are plenty of reasons as to why a composer would choose a key as you can see from the responses.
    Last edited by mikeh375; Jun-27-2019 at 14:12.

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    There is vocal music that can be sung by more than one type of voice. Like in Mahler's "Des Knaben Wunderhorn", certain songs can have been done by mezzo sopranos and baritones. I have no idea if Mahler intended this flexibility. Would the song be in the same key for both voice types? And if the key has to be changed to accommodate various voice types, do the performing musicians arrange that?
    "No one chooses the tuba" - Alexander von Puttkamer

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    Quote Originally Posted by Open Book View Post
    There is vocal music that can be sung by more than one type of voice. Like in Mahler's "Des Knaben Wunderhorn", certain songs can have been done by mezzo sopranos and baritones. I have no idea if Mahler intended this flexibility. Would the song be in the same key for both voice types? And if the key has to be changed to accommodate various voice types, do the performing musicians arrange that?
    In the case of the Mahler that kind of flexibility is built in — middle range female voice to middle range male voice (could) mean using the same key transposing by an octave. If a change has to be made and it's just a pianist and soloist, the pianist will do it (or find a ready made transposition in a different key.) Good accompanists can often transpose by sight.

    Transposing orchestral accompaniments is a more complicated and expensive proposition. I've been paid to make whole sets of orchestral parts for an aging tenor who couldn't handle the high notes of his younger days, and for a countertenor performing Berlioz's Les nuits d'été. The orchestra management paid in the first case. I don't remember whether the countertenor paid or the hosting orchestra in the second case.
    Last edited by EdwardBast; Jun-27-2019 at 18:43.

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