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#507256 - 02/13/09 03:30 PM choosing a key
tekkie Offline
Full Member

Registered: 08/06/08
Posts: 38
Loc: California
Hi,

I'm wondering how a composer goes about choosing a certain key. I can tell the difference between major and minor, and even the difference among some modes, but I'm not able to characterize the difference between one major key and another.

I've heard some keys are better than others when there's a voice part or certain other instruments, but my question is for piano solos. Does it have to do with familiarity, or maybe they write in one key, and then transpose it around to find what sounds best?

Thanks.

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#507257 - 02/13/09 03:34 PM Re: choosing a key
signa Offline
8000 Post Club Member

Registered: 06/06/04
Posts: 8482
Loc: Ohio, USA
it's subjective, because some composers just like certain keys better than others or certain motifs came out of a composer's mind happened to be in certain key.

i don't think they're much different though.

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#507258 - 02/13/09 03:52 PM Re: choosing a key
sotto voce Offline
6000 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/15/06
Posts: 6163
Loc: Briarcliff Manor, NY, USA
tekkie,

This topic has surfaced here before; this is probably the most recent discussion:

http://www.pianoworld.com/ubb/ubb/ultimatebb.php?/topic/2/19177.html

Steven
_________________________

"There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats."
—Albert Schweitzer

Chopin: Allegro de Concert Op. 46
Schumann: Toccata Op. 7
Fauré: Ballade Op. 19

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#507259 - 02/13/09 04:22 PM Re: choosing a key
bernardk Offline
Junior Member

Registered: 02/13/09
Posts: 8
Loc: KY, USA
I would imagine that it has something to do with the differences in tone for each note. Maybe one person is more in tune with a certain pitch. I know that there are courses out there that teach absolute and relative pitch, and describes the differences in each note. One example is this course: PurePitch

If I listen closely, I can tell some of the differences in notes.
_________________________
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#507260 - 02/13/09 04:29 PM Re: choosing a key
tekkie Offline
Full Member

Registered: 08/06/08
Posts: 38
Loc: California
Steven,

Thanks for that pointer. I'm surprised there seems to be consensus that different keys within the same family (e.g. major) bring out different emotions. I would've thought since the interval relationships are all the same, that there would be no difference. In fact, it seems like one could take any key, and change its color by maybe changing the contour of its melody. For example, by going from low to high, that would feel joyous, whereas the opposite would feel melancholy.

Could it be that the list on the yale.edu site where they try to classify key color came from a time when there wasn't equal temperment. I'll see if I can correlate that list with some well-known pieces.

I hadn't thought of the possibility that signa raised - where the starting point is a motif. I could see using that to determine the key based on the fewest accidentals.

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#507261 - 02/13/09 05:41 PM Re: choosing a key
tomasino Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 03/24/05
Posts: 2039
Loc: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Raising or lowering the general tessitura by more than a step or so will definitely change the timbre of a piece. We can test this easily by listening to song literature, which is often transposed up or down to suit the limitations of the singer. If you have a chance, listen to just the piano of the same Schubert song in different keys. There will be a marked difference in sound and effect. It's clearly not a matter of the tuning, as all intervals are equally spaced. It is the difference in timbre of higher or lower notes. I can think of no other explanation.

Tomasino
_________________________
"Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do so with all thy might." Ecclesiastes 9:10


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#507262 - 02/13/09 06:45 PM Re: choosing a key
tekkie Offline
Full Member

Registered: 08/06/08
Posts: 38
Loc: California
I went to SheetMusicDirect.com, where they let you transpose a piece into different keys. I transposed Schubert's "Ave Maria" from Bb Major to D Major (up a Major 3d). Although it sounded a little different, I couldn't detect a change in emotion. I tried other keys, and had the same result.

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#507263 - 02/13/09 08:27 PM Re: choosing a key
Mankeh Offline
Full Member

Registered: 05/14/08
Posts: 86
I'd have to disagree, Ave Maria feels strange in D major, but it all depends on how often you listened to it. Because I've learned the accompaniment I struggle to get used to the new key.

Anyway, some keys are chosen because the technical aspects. Alla Turka is much easier to play in A minor than in Bb minor for example as the fingering is more difficult for that key. However, the Minute Waltz would be much more difficult in C major than in Db Major. I do think tone plays a part in it as well.

Having done a little composing myself I've found composing in a new key gives me new creativity.

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#507264 - 02/13/09 08:51 PM Re: choosing a key
majones Offline
Full Member

Registered: 12/21/07
Posts: 331
Loc: Deep East Texas Piney Woods
My take on which key would depend more on who will be using the piece than on which major / minor scale sounds best. If I was to be the vocalist I'd write it in D major, as that is what I like to sing in. If you are not sure who will be singing the song Church hymns favor the flat keys, because, people (congregations) sing flat. Check out your hymnal, I bet the number of flat key signatures will come as a surprise.

Horns also like the flat keys, violins like to keep it in A major, banjos and guitars like G. And of course I like C on the piano. But, I must defer to the other people or instruments I'll play with.

The emotions of the scale were mentioned and yes there is emotions involved.
Major is happy, or at least attractive.
Minor is said to be sad, I do not hear that much sadness, perhaps startled. Dorian mode is a great attractive minor sound I think that is why jazz uses it so much. Here again some would say Dorian, being minor, would be sad, I don't hear sad. Phrygian is exotic, Spanish. Lydian is dreamy. Mixolydian has a Latin (Mexican) feel. Aeolian IS sad and Locrian being diminished is tense and dark. So if you need a mood, help yourself.

I ramble.

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#507265 - 02/13/09 10:20 PM Re: choosing a key
DameMyra Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 12/21/04
Posts: 1940
Loc: South Jersey
 Quote:
Originally posted by Mankeh:

Anyway, some keys are chosen because the technical aspects. [/b]
Schumann's Toccata was originally in D major. When he revised it he changed the key to C. I'm sure it was for technical reasons. (It's so difficult as it is, I can't imagine it being playable in any other key.)
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#507266 - 02/14/09 12:44 PM Re: choosing a key
rrb Offline
Full Member

Registered: 12/17/08
Posts: 212
Loc: Bend, USA
And it might have been hard for Chopin to write a 'black study' in C-major.

I do believe there is such a thing as key color. Sound and the way the ear perceives it is extremely complex. There was a discussion in the composers forum about the use of synthesizers, why they have not replaced mere wood and wire. The answer is that the sound of even a violin is more complex by far than a sound anyone can create artificially. The sound of a piano is at least one order more complex.

I'm aware this does not answer the question. Perhaps it's subjective. To me there is a world of difference between C-major and G-flat major, though why this is I do not know.
_________________________
Rob

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#507267 - 02/15/09 08:52 PM Re: choosing a key
Mocheol Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 12/16/08
Posts: 527
Loc: Dublin, Ireland
Its well known that certain keys have specific effects.

C sharp minor for example
is frequently utilized for compositions attempting to convey feelings of sadness or pathos.

There are no hard and fast rules but in general happy compositions stick to major and sad to the minor keys .

Its a question of appropriateness taking into account time signature, and what the composer wishes to achieve.

All composers have an objective and key selection is probably the most important ingredient as it literally sets the whole tone of the work.

Some very simple melodies transpose successfully but in the main to alter the key of a piece generally will violate the composers original intention to the detriment of the work.
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vcz

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