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One thing I've noticed is that music written for strings, such as violin concertos, are a lot more likely to written in a key like D or A major than something like F or Bb major. I recently saw a comic that confirms my suspicions:

People call it the music version of xkcd

Now, this does include both major and minor keys; a minor key has three fewer sharps than its parallel major key. But even if we shift over everything by 1 or 2 positions on the circle of fifths (as an average between 0 and 3), there is still a very obvious bias towards keys with sharps. Why does this phenomenon occur?

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FWIW, it's a bit misleading to put the minor keys together with their parallel, rather than relative, major variants. –  leftaroundabout Apr 28 at 0:47
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Hence my caveat at the bottom. –  Tony Apr 28 at 1:09
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You mentioned "music written for strings", the chart is about conciertos. I did a brief check on string ensembles by Brahms, Schubert, and Schoenberg and I find plenty of keys with multiple flats. Also for Mozart, if you look at the Violin sonatas as well, i get the impression about half of them are in a key with flats. So I guess I'm saying, maybe this comic has a point, however, if you're seriously interested, you should try to systematically research it. –  Roland Bouman Apr 28 at 7:50
    
The same sort of phenomenon appears in guitar led songs. Mostly in sharp keys (unless the guitar is tuned to Eb...) Whereas a lot of sax led songs are in flat keys. –  Tim Apr 28 at 14:11

4 Answers 4

up vote 21 down vote accepted

Sharp-keys are in some ways nicer to play than flat ones.

The preference for these keys is perhaps most extreme in folk styles: going through two collections of celtic-style fiddle music[978-1-85720-202-1],[1-871931-04-5], I found the distribution to be this crass:

  • ♭♭ : 5
  • ♭  : 5
  • ♮  : 7
  • ♯  : 57
  • ♯♯ : 70
  • ♯♯♯: 9

In particular D major is really a great favourite. In fiddle playing, this is also easy to explain: you want to use empty strings much more than in classical music. With more than two ♭s that's simply impossible on the high violin strings, but even for B♭, F, and C major the empty strings occur mostly on thirds. That is problematic, because these notes are the ones you need to do most intonation-adjustment on (upwards for leading notes, down for chords/double stops). In D major OTOH you have the fundamentals of the primary chords on the empty strings, which is perfect for droning etc.; while the thirds are all fingered and can be moved as necessary.

Now, empty strings are somewhat shunned in much of classical music, but in particular for solo playing (think the Bach Cello Suites!) they also have quite a significance. These are actually something of a counterexample though, with both Suite IV and V featuring 3 ♭s. However, since it's totally solo, you can much better "cheat": instead of adjusting the thirds, you adjust everything around them...

Otherwise, it's certainly a bit of a self-fulfilling truth: because the simple tunes are mostly in those keys, those are best practised, hence even advanced players may be a bit more firm in them than in ♭-heavy keys.

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I think this is the way to do it, take a corpus of music and simply count. Your numbers certainly seem to suggest a strong preference for 2 sharps. One question though - wouldn't the consideration for playability with regard to the open strings apply equally well to D minor? Yet we see only 5 works with 1flat. –  Roland Bouman Apr 28 at 7:56
    
Yes, I'd reckon so. Personally I certainly find the minor keys till C or F to be quite nicely playable on the cello. But in folk playing in minor keys you use parallel major chords quite often (and major dominants much less), so I reckon the minor keys should be considered more like "use the major relative key, but end on the Tp" here, rather than "flatten the third, sixth and seventh degree". –  leftaroundabout Apr 28 at 8:05
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One reason for this bias in folk could be the use of wind instruments that have a fixed key: a wind player should own a range of instruments in different keys but the most common key for a tin whistle or low whistle is D. Unlike a classical flute, these instruments do not have extra holes for playing in other keys. –  steve verrill Apr 28 at 8:06
    
@steveverrill: true, though at least for the tin whistle I reckon it's more the other way around: because the fiddlers like D major, let's build the whistles in that key! –  leftaroundabout Apr 28 at 8:08
    
Great answer. Would you cite the names of the two collections used? –  dumbledad Sep 16 at 8:19

For stringed instruments such as the violin, playing in sharp keys (more accurately, 0 to 4 sharps) means making multiple main notes of the tonality coincide with open strings. This amplifies the instrument's show-off potential in two ways:

  1. In fast passages, fingering is simplified because any time the melody touches on one of the four open strings, nothing needs to be fingered. Likewise for passages of triple and quadruple stops.
  2. In expressive melodic passages, the sound is enriched by the open strings vibrating in resonance with the melody. For instance, play an A on the D-string of the violin (with a bit of vibrato if you like). You will see the A-string start to vibrate. Likewise, if you play a D on the A-string, the D-string will resonate (at its second partial) and the G-string will also resonate (at its third partial). These resonances linger slightly after a different note has been stopped on the original string and help to connect one note to the next.

D minor also works nicely for violin music in this regard (consider Bach's famous Chaconne from Partita no. 2). B minor also works, hence the three data points at B.

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The answer is, because for sharps one can re-use the same string as for the natural note and just slide the finger for a half note shorter, so they are significantly easier than flats, where you have to use another string and finger string distance minus one half tone (minor fifth).

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That is true for the open strings.It's as long as it is short for other notes. –  Tim Apr 28 at 14:07

The answer is a relatively simple answer: it is easier for the violin an cello to play in those keys because of how the strings are configured. Look at this picture of a G scale on the violin:

enter image description here

As you can see, the G major scale fits very nicely on as the open strings notes make the scale extremely easy. Also because of the open string notes, many other sharp keys are easy to play like C, D, and A. It is also easy to use G#, D#, A#, and E#(F) because they are easy to grab because they are right next to the nut on the fingerboard. When it comes to flat keys, they can be played on the violin and cello, but they lose open string options. For example, if you were playing in Ab major, the only open string you could take advantage of is G because Ab major contains Ab, Eb, and Db.

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playing Devil's advocate here - you state its also easy to play G#,D# and A#.Then you say in Ab there's Ab and Eb,(and Bb) which are the same notes ! And where did E# come from (often called F) ?! –  Tim Apr 28 at 7:21
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@Tim Actually, these notes are only the same on instruments with keyboards, and only since the well tempered clavier was invented. (I.e. Beginning of the 18th century.) –  11684 Apr 28 at 7:32
    
The differences are minimal though. –  11684 Apr 28 at 7:37
    
And with vibrato it's difficult to hear the actual note anyway. –  Tim Apr 28 at 8:00
    
@Tim the point kind of got lost, but I was trying to say that it is easy to use the open string and the notes right above them, but it is harder to grab the flat notes. I.e. if you want to play a Db you most likely wouldn't play it from the D string because it is higher on the finger board, but it would be easy to play D# on the D string. –  Dom Apr 28 at 12:19

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