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There are so many songs in pretty odd key-signatures like 4,5,6 sharps or flats. At least this is my impression when I listen to songs on the radio/net while trying to follow them on my piano/guitar. I can understand that some instruments prefer certain ranges of the circle of fifths, nevertheless ...

  • are songs really "written" in the keys you hear on the radio/CD/...
  • why do composers make their lives so difficult, why don't they use "easier" keys?
  • what are the criteria for a composer (today - tempered tuning) to select a key for a song
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There are a lot of good answers already, so I'll just add one thing. A song you hear on a recording may not even be performed in the key you hear on the recording. Post-production, especially in certain styles, will sometimes raise the pitch a little to increase energy both by raising the tempo and through the implication of a higher tessitura requiring more energy. This does not happen so much in reputable classical recordings, but I understand it is very common in some pop styles. –  Andrew Sep 22 '11 at 19:02
    
If you understand key signatures well then Ab minor should be no harder to play than C major. –  Neil Meyer Nov 2 '13 at 16:50

9 Answers 9

up vote 19 down vote accepted

As I'm sure you're aware, you can transpose any tune to whatever key you like.

One reason to choose a certain key, is simply that it sounds good.

It might be that you feel that notes of a certain pitch inherently sound pleasant on your chosen instrument. I happen to like the tone of my guitar with a capo on the 7th string, for example.

Or it might be that due to tempered tuning, the intervals work better for you (the difference between a C and a G is only approximately the difference between a D and an A). Most people can't consciously detect those differences, but there may be subconscious effects.

Another reason is ease of playing. You've asked why composers don't use "easier" keys. Bear in mind that what's easy on one instrument isn't so easy on another. Beginner guitarists don't like C major because they have to play a barre F chord. Beginner pianists love C major because it's all on the white keys. When composing for an orchestra or a band, you have to keep in mind preferred keys on all kinds of instruments -- violins, woodwind, harp, etc.

For songs, there's also vocal range to be considered. This is probably the main reason folk/pop/rock songs get transposed.

Finally there's the feel brought about by the mechanics of playing the piece in a given key on a given instrument. To go from an F to a G on a recorder, you have to lift three fingers. To go from a G to an A, you only lift one finger. You can imagine how the latter would sound cleaner -- and the effect may be more dramatic on other instruments.

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many good thoughts in this thread ... I choose your answer because it summarizes most aspects - Thanks –  MikeD Sep 21 '11 at 15:58
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Thanks, although you should probably wait quite a bit longer before selecting a right answer. –  slim Sep 21 '11 at 16:00
    
I only tend to disagree on "difference between C/G and D/A" in the case of tempered tunig as I asumed in my question; there is no difference, not even a subtile, it's a plain geometric sequence determined by the twelfth root of 2 and the relation between intervals is the same –  MikeD Sep 21 '11 at 16:04
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@MikeD that's correct in an ideal world, but due to pesky real-world physics issues, it's approximate. Google the Railsback Curve, for pianos. I gather that guitars have a similar issue. –  slim Sep 22 '11 at 13:43
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+1 because capo on the seventh fret makes an open C Major sound like a choir of angels. –  christopher Sep 15 at 20:14

I have heard that some keys "sound" different because of slight variations in the frequency spacing between notes, but I cannot tell any difference. Two reasons to select a key for a song are

  • Voice range. The song should be in a range within the singer's ability and where the singer sounds best.

  • Up a half step. In a lot of songs, the key changes up a half step to get some inspiration going. This can result in a whole lot of sharps or flats.

Songs are usually written in the key you hear, but it is possible to electronically change the pitch. Most professional musicians can handle any key proficiently. This makes me jealous. Some music books you can buy have the songs transposed into keys that are easier to play.

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+1 for voice range. I think composers don't necessarily write in those hard keys; they write in something reasonable and then the singer needs it to be transposed. –  Monica Cellio Sep 21 '11 at 15:11
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The answers to this question expand on your first paragraph; you normally don't notice any difference because most music is "wrong" :P –  Matthew Read Sep 21 '11 at 15:13
    
+1 for voice range and modulation ... better to modulate from D to E than from C to C# –  MikeD Sep 21 '11 at 16:00

Key signatures with sharps and flats aren't any easier or harder. On a piano, for example, I find E Major (4 sharps) to be the easiest to play, whereas the composer Chopin taught his students B Major (5 sharps) first since he viewed it as the easiest. C Major, which you might think is the easiest because it's all white notes, is actually quite unnatural. Your fingers are different lengths so playing all the white keys forces your hand to take on awkward positions.

If a particular key seems easier to you, that mostly just means you've had more practice with it (either mentally or physically). With more practice you'll be able to just look at a key signature and begin playing without needing to think about it; you'll play the right flats/sharps automatically.

With guitar in particular there are certain shapes that are harder to play than others, but you can use a capo or an alternate tuning to make that problem disappear. Thinking that songs should be written to fit one's current tuning and experience would be silly, since there is so much variety out there and most music uses more than one instrument!

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I agree that for transposing instruments (esp. fretted) like g, mand, etc. the performance is maybe not so much of an issue ... still reading 6 sharps seems more difficult to me than 0 or 1 –  MikeD Sep 21 '11 at 16:07
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I think reading 6 sharps is pretty easy, think about it this way: only one note does not have a sharp. It's precisely the keys which have 3 or 4 sharps/flats I find most difficult. Especially minor keys which get extra alterations. Also agreed with Matthew about E Major being relatively easy to play on the keyboard as compared to C Major for instance. Though that would also depend on the intrinsic difficulty of the piece. –  Raskolnikov Sep 21 '11 at 19:20

I would compose in whichever key is easiest for you to work in and get your ideas across. Then you can transpose the song to another key if necessary depending on who you are playing with. If you're working with professional musicians, they should be able to play in any key even in the "hard ones." If not, then you may need to put the song in an "easier" key, which most people generally feel are ones with fewer sharps and flats. However, the most important thing is that the key work for your vocalist--figure out the range of notes of your melody and put the song in a key that it is singable for your vocalist or the vocal type you plan to use whether it's soprano, alto, tenor or barritone voice. If you're not sure what's singable, ask someone to try it out and it'll become immediately obvious. Good luck!

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Many guitarists don't care about sharps or flats -- or even know they're there -- they just care what's easy to finger. E major is a popular key for guitarists. Four sharps, but if you're just strumming chords, or following a tab, you might never realise. –  slim Sep 21 '11 at 15:41

To answer your specific question:

  • are songs really "written" in the keys you hear on the radio/CD/?

the answer is, "usually not."

The way it's been done for centuries:

1) The song gets written. Key is irrelevant. It may be written down in one key, but nobody pays attention to that.

2) A singer decides to perform the song. The singer transposes the key of the song to the best one that fits the range of his or her particular voice. When other singers perform the song, they chose different keys at will.

3) If the song gets published, it may be written out in one key or another at the discretion of the publisher. The key it's published in is usually one that's been chosen by a popular singer who had a hit with the song.

This changed a bit in the 20th century with the advent of recording and radio broadcast. At that time the public got accustomed to hearing a certain song in a particular key because they listened over and over again to a certain popular recording by a certain pop star.

Any instrumental musician worth their salt can play any song in any key. Your idea that some keys are harder to play in than others is illusory. Proficient musicians learn to play anything in any key.

To this day, in jazz, any song can be played in any key at any time. Get a bunch of jazz musicians together to perform, give them a list of songs, and on the spot, usually with the guidance of a lead singer, they will select different keys for each song just for that one performance. If the sheet music is written out in a certain key, the jazz musicians and the singer will transpose to any different key they agree on while they are reading the sheet music written in one key.

The big exception to this is rock music based around guitars. Rock music played on guitars is almost always written in the keys of E, A, or D, because rock guitarists tend to write an entire song around the capabilities of the guitar, which favors certain open strings as pedal points. Rock musicians generally don't learn to play any song in any key like musicians in other genres do. But for the other 99.9999% of music in the history of the world, any song can be transposed to any key at any time.

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One problem with this "question" is that the person asking really asked several questions in one. I answered one of his questions thoroughly and in-depth, and somebody voted me down! First, an editor should structure the question better or split it into multiple questions, and second, I don't see why my answer deserved a "down" vote. –  Wheat Williams Sep 24 '11 at 23:06
    
Maybe you got downvoted for (perhaps not deliberately) singling out rock guitarists and being demeaning towards them. Classical guitar parts make use of open string pedal points (Romanza being a popular example). Jazz musicians would be foolish to eschew the opportunities offered by open strings. Folk and blues musicians built parts around open strings since before rock existed. Rock guitarists learn movable scales just like jazz guitarists do. Anyone can buy a capo ;) –  slim Sep 27 '11 at 13:55
    
Agree with Wheat's last main paragraph, except lots tune down one or two semitones (frets), which puts the finished work into keys strange for guitarists! –  Tim Oct 5 '12 at 4:54

Well if you have horns, there are Eb instruments and Bb instruments that are common and "easier" for beginners. Piano beginners use C often, guitarists use E and A often since those are easy chords in an open position. So, many times, a key is chosen by the instruments and levels of the players.

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There's an important point specially when playing strings: chords voicings.

For example, Dm is usually referred as the minorest or saddest key. Im totally agree. And this is mainly because playing a basic Dm on guitar gives you that figure

Dm

where the third is in the first string, so the last one you strum. That gives you in the ear a strong last feeling where the third (the minorizer note) is accentuated.

That does not occur with any other basic/elemental chord figure I can think of now and hence the different feeling compared to, say, Am.

For the opposed reason (expected major third), basic plain D major is usually the dullest of the chords in my ears.

If you play a lot the guitar you will notice after some time that playing in different keys (without using fret trasposing), gives you different melodic ideas. That is because equal temperament is not exact but also because every way of playing chords has different accentuated sounds dependeing on fingering.

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Wow, a good point on Dm! –  anatolyg Sep 16 at 15:37

why do composers make their lives so difficult, why don't they use "easier" keys? what are the criteria for a composer (today - tempered tuning) to select a key for a song

You should be familiar with all the key signature to such an extent that no one is harder or easier than the other.

are songs really "written" in the keys you hear on the radio/CD/...

It all depends on the instrument. Guitar are special in that they almost always want the tonic of the scale in the bass. That is why a whole lot of classical guitar music is played in E minor / Major or D minor / Major.

A major scale will almost always sound major regardless of with note you start on. So the practical considerations are usually what makes the difference.

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Here's all the reasons I know of for composers to pick a certain key.

Physical limitations

Some instruments have/had physical limitations. For example, certain harps cannot play all keys and antique horns and trumpets only had certain pipe fittings they could use that tended to be tuned toward the flat side of the circle of fifths (Bb, Eb, etc). Triangles are only available tuned to certain notes, etc.

Considerations for stringed instruments

Guitarists who use traditional tuning will love a piece written in E because they will be able to use many open chords.

Hendrix and Cobain notedly tuned themselves one half step flat so they could play pieces in Eb. Punk music commonly uses drop-D tuning which bottoms out at D natural.

The same sorts of constraints apply to other stringed instruments such as the violin, where the composer may have chosen A, E, D, or G to allow the use of open strings or certain double stops.

Form

Some works are part of a larger form, e.g. a movement in a sonata. The first and last movements will typically be in the same key and inner movements will be in a prominent secondary key area, usually V in classical and V or VI in romantic music.

Tesatura for a vocalist

Some works are intended for a specific vocalist and either challenge their upper and lower ranges or linger around certain notes in the vocalists' "sweet spot." The range and therefore the key was selected for optimum performance.

Symbolic meaning

In the old days before equal temperament, not all keys sounded the same, and took on a certain character and meaning by convention. Some examples:

  • Mozart used the key of D major to represent magic and the divine supernatural
  • Wagner used the key of F# to represent disturbed emotional states
  • The key of F major is associated with hunting horns and the outdoors, and is frequently used in pastorales

Ease of play

A key with a lot of black notes is a lot easier for a pianist to play-- there is more tactile variety in the fingers which allows them to know where the keys are without looking.

Horn players generally prefer songs written to the flat side, e.g. Bb and Eb, as they are easier to play in tune.

Clarity of notation

Sometimes a key will be chosen because it is easier to notate. F major is a lot easier to write in than F# major.

Some twentieth-century composers got in the habit of writing everything in the key of C and using only accidentals so that the performer would not have to remember the default sharps and flats at any given moment, which allows the composer to switch keys more frequently without confusing the performer too much.

Consonance with samples

EDM and other modern genres use a lot of sampling (borrowing waveforms from other songs) and choose the key so that the surrounding material is consonant relative to the key of the sample.

To accompany other sounds

Opposite of the above; music composed for sound tracks may be put into a certain key to accompany the rest of the sound going on at the moment in the scene. For example, in The Hobbit, parts of the sound track accompany dwarven signing, or in in the 1979 film Tess, Sarde's sound track accompanies a wedding party.

Color and sound

Lower keys just sound, well, lower. Sometimes the overall color and sound of the work is the most important.

As an exercise

Sort of an edge case but listed here for completeness. Some works, most notably the 12 fugues and preludes of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, attempt to use certain keys to complete an exercise, i.e. the composer has an opportunity to try is hand at every key, the performer has an opportunity to play in them, and the listener has a chance to hear them (of particular interest when the instrument is not equally tempered).

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very rich, well structured and informative answer ... thanks a lot –  MikeD Sep 16 at 14:10

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