First of all, please excuse me for my bad musical vocabulary usages.

I'm working on an information-system for music, and I'm trying to understand some basic concepts in order to move on in my project.

One of the features that I've got is key. this key could have value of the following list:

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Well, my question is:

If a symphony has the key "CMinor", can it also have another key?

According to Wikipedia , the famous 5th Symphony for Beethoven is from CMinor key. so can I say for sure that it doesn't have anyother key value?

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    Usually the key a symphony is "in" is just the first and last key used. In the middle it could change between any number of keys. That is also true of other musical works besides symphonies. Usually rock songs are in just one key, but classical, jazz, show tunes, and sound track music often changes keys. – Todd Wilcox Feb 8 '16 at 11:54
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    You need to have some music theory background. Because even the composer doesn't change the key signature he could run around. I heard a comment from professor R. Greenberg that changing the key makes the music more interesting. – Nachmen Feb 8 '16 at 12:12
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    If you took a short symphony - Mozart or Haydn perhaps, and studied it, you would find many changes of key - often just modulations. But you'd need to be able to recognise what clues are there to be able to do this. Changes of notes via accidentals, new key sigs etc. In itself the skill to do this will take at least a couple of years to hone. Compiling a list of keys is really only of academic interest, and not particularly helpful to many. Musicians will play in whatever key the piece is at that moment, and change when it tells them to, maybe not even thinking what the current key is. – Tim Feb 8 '16 at 14:15
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    A couple of other points - 1) sometimes it's not really clear what key a passage of music is in - there are situations where you could view it from one perspective or another. 2) The set of tonalities that can be described by the key system is wide, but not every piece can be well-described as being in any minor or major key (even including some pieces that are not atonal). – topo Reinstate Monica Feb 8 '16 at 15:03
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    @WilliamKinaan - there have been several studies, etc. on key structure and what chords/notes tend to occur in keys. Such as en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Markov_chain#Music . These approaches might be of use to you. Just a thought! – Andy Feb 8 '16 at 17:07

Every symphony ever written has more than one key -- usually several different keys.

A symphony may have the name of a certain key in its title, but this only refers to the main key that occurs throughout its structure. Each symphony will have many changes to different keys. Each symphony will tend to be unique in how it uses multiple keys. Different symphonies throughout history have had different structures altogether.

You can easily construct a database that categorizes the titles of symphonies based on the main key in the name of each symphony. That may be sufficient for your purposes. But if you truly want to understand and categorize all the keys involved in each symphony, that is a more complex subject.

Encyclopedia Britannica opens its lengthy article on the symphony by saying:

Symphony, a lengthy form of musical composition for orchestra, normally consisting of several large sections, or movements, at least one of which usually employs sonata form.

To gain a better understanding of the complexities involved, you may look to studying about what a key is, what a symphony is, and how it is constructed; this depends in part on what we call the sonata form. If you want to understand these matters, they come under the category of musical form and analysis. Form and analysis is a university course that is taught at the end of about two years of study in the music theory curriculum. It goes without saying that to understand all the keys in a symphony you need to be able to read music and to analyze and study the sheet music for the symphony.

On this site we frequently receive questions from young people who are learning computer programming, database development or the like who are doing school projects and want to create computer software to express musical ideas. These young people do not understand what a complex subject music is. To understand these concepts, you must be a student of music.

If your goal is to study database development, and you need to find a suitable subject for building a database for a school project, then perhaps you should choose a different subject area than music around which to build a database.

If your primary aim is to study music and become a musician, that is the purpose of this site, Music Practice & Theory. We are happy to help you with that.

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    There's some valid advice there, but 2 paragraphs of answer and 5 paragraphs of advice not specific to the question seems a bit too much. It almost comes across as a rant. – JBentley Feb 8 '16 at 16:11
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    @WheatWilliams thanks for answering. Developing a simple prototype for a project in order to get funded by someone, after than consulting musical experts, is also an option :) , don't you think? – William Kinaan Feb 8 '16 at 16:48
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    I wouldn't necessarily say EVERY symphony. The vast, overwhelming majority of them, for sure. But I wouldn't discount the possibility that a work of music titled a "symphony" exists which does not change keys. (Off the top of my head, The Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony" is pretty tonally consistent. Is that really technically a symphony? Well, they call it one in the title, so what official rule exists to deny that claim?) Not disagreeing with you per se, just pointing that all generalizations are false and all. – Darrel Hoffman Feb 8 '16 at 19:50
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    @KyleStrand, sonata form defines the usual structure for using multiple different keys in different sections of one movement of a symphony. – user1044 Feb 8 '16 at 21:30
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    @DarrelHoffman, I disagree strenuously. The questioner wants to learn about actual symphonies, not other kinds of music that the public might misunderstand to be a symphony. To be sure, categorizing things in databases is about adhering to clearly defined and proper nomenclature and definitions of terms. Furthermore Richard Ashcroft, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are perfectly clear on the concept that their song "Bitter Sweet Symphony" is, in fact, a song. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bitter_Sweet_Symphony – user1044 Feb 8 '16 at 21:52

It's not clear what your goals and requirements are for this information system -- and that has a huge bearing on the answer.

If, for example, your software is trying to analyze the harmony inside of a single piece, then yes, symphonies definitely will modulate (change keys) all over the place, as Wheat Williams describes in his excellent answer. And this will be extremely important to understand.

If, on the other hand, you are trying to classify music by the key that it is written in, it is probably sufficient to pick the main key that the piece is in (which could possibly be none, as others have mentioned). While the symphony will visit other keys -- sometimes closely related keys, and sometimes more distantly related -- it will (usually) keep returning to the main home key as a sort of touchstone, or a "global constant" (to use a programming term). Tonality, like many aspects of music, tends to be rather hierarchical in nature.

So before we can give you a useful answer, we need to know what you are trying to do with your system.

EDIT: Another way of stating my answer, triggered by Kyle's comment below about schema: From a DB perspective, you're modeling the relationship between a piece of music and its key as a "has-a" relationship, and you are asking about the cardinality of this relationship. But semantically, a musician will think about music, not as having a key, so much as being in a key, or visiting another key. So you will need to determine the desired semantics of the "has a key" relationship that is of interest to your application, before its cardinality can be determined. IOW, what is the "key" value actually supposed to represent? For what is it meant to be used?

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    We also need to know who is going to be generating the database entries. If it's the OP, they'll clearly need to learn more about classical harmony; otherwise, it's probably possible to generate a schema by asking questions like this one. – Kyle Strand Feb 8 '16 at 23:55

A composition like "Symphony in C minor" refers to a key in the piece, with which key the composition starts and with which it ends. There is a certain number of notes and chords in that key, so if a whole composition was built only on that key, it would sound repetitive. That's why during the composition changes keys. Usually it's more than one, but it really depends on the length of the composition.

Concerning your comment:

so each musical work has at least one key, but it could have many as well. right?

The answer is yes, but there is something more to it. There are also compositions without any key. These kind of compositions belong to atonal music

Atonal music is a generalizing term used to define music that seems to lack a clear tonal center.

how can I know all the keys for a specific symphony, say 5th or 9th symphony for Beethoven

One way would be to harmonically analyze the symphony and see what is going on. But this would require harmony knowledge and quite some time. Other than this, there might be some online guide to those symphonies, since they are so well known

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  • You need to look for an analysis of that symphony. There are some famous symphony that was analyzed the go step by step through the whole symphony. You need to search on the internet. – Nachmen Feb 8 '16 at 12:16
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    @WilliamKinaan Note that "Dies Irae" does not refer to one specific piece of music. A few different types of church music, including a requiem, may have a section called "Dies Irae". There are also some pieces that are just called "Dies Irae" all on their own. That's the same problem with searching for "symphony number 9". There are many ninth symphonies by different composers. Include a composer name if you have it for classical music searches. – Todd Wilcox Feb 8 '16 at 16:41

This is actually not a simple question, but neither do the answers give an accurate picture of historical practice during the common practice period.

The Beethoven Fifth is a good example: we regard it as a "C-minor symphony" because its first movement is in C minor. Within that movement, C minor is, as we often say, the tonal center: it's the key to which we ultimately relate all the other harmonic events within the movement. The second theme (as it's frequently but imprecisely called) appears first in E-flat major, the "relative major" of C minor; that is, the major key counterpart to C minor whose scale contains the same notes (or "pitch classes") as the natural minor form of the C minor scale. When, toward the end of the movement, the second theme reappears, it does so in C major, the "parallel major" of C minor. Nevertheless, despite visits to other keys, some of which Beethoven establishes quite convincing, the movement begins and ends in C minor: it's the gravitational field that pulls everything towards it.

At the multi-movement level, the symphony's key is also important. According to the convention in multi-movement works like symphonies, string quartets, and the like, the minuet or scherzo--the 3/4-time dance(-like) movement that normally appears in the second or third position--also is in the tonic key; and, in the case of a minor key symphony, the middle section of them movement (called the "Trio") will appear in the parallel major key. This is what happens in the Beethoven Fifth. (Another good example of this is the Menuetto of Mozart's 40th.)

As a C-minor symphony, of course, we should expect that the symphony to end in that key. Yet that's not how Beethoven ends this one: rather, he ends in a famously triumphant C-major (emphasized at the end by an obsessive affirmation of the key). Without our expectation of the C-major ending, we'd have a very different piece on our hands, wouldn't we?

The bottom line is that the tonic key of a large-scale piece like a symphony is of vital importance for how we understand what it's about. While Beethoven Fifth is relatively straightforward, there are other pieces (like Beethoven's Seventh) where the composer does some wild, unexpected, clever things with the key relationships. But in all cases, at least until the early twentieth century, the stated key of a symphony is almost always a vital reference point.

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If a symphony has the key "C Minor", can it also have another key?

I think the misconception you are having is that certain instruments are transposing by their nature. The Bb clarinet for instance when it plays a C what you are actually hearing is a Bb.

So if the strings play in C major, the Bb clarinet would have its score written in D Major. This is not a different key per se it is just a way to get the concert pitch of all instruments in the same key.

So when the clarinet plays the tonic note of its scale- the D- and the instruments that play their music at concert pitch play the tonic of C major you are in fact hearing the same note.

I think this may the root of your problem.

There is also the issue of modulations. Music rarely consists of one key. It modulates often to the Relative Keys, Dominant and Sub Dominant. You are under no obligations as composer to stay in the same key and it often makes sense to modulate to other keys.

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If you know the basics of reading music, you could probably get a score of any piece written before 1900 from the IMSLP and quickly page through it looking for key changes. For example, if you scan the score for Beethoven's Fifth, the first movement is in C minor, the second movement is in A-flat major, the third movement has sections in both C major and C minor, and the finale is in C major.

However, a quick scan like the one I just did will only account for the "official" changes of key signatures, i.e., the ones that the composer wrote into the score. In the case of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, for example, there's an extended section during the finale where one of the themes in C minor from the third movement is re-stated. But the score never changes keys; it's all done with accidentals. It's also not always easy to tell whether a piece is in a major key or the corresponding relative minor unless you're already familiar with it (or are willing to do a close reading.) Basically, this method is quick, but it would not necessarily give you a complete list of the keys used in a given piece.

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Good luck with your software. Your list is rather incomplete, as it only lists majors and minors. (I'm not sure how much this matters but you should definitely be aware of this limitation.)

On the other hand you seem to be aware that B# major for example is essentially never used as it needs five double sharps. Most "black note" keys use whichever of flat/sharp that will give the smallest number of non-natural notes in the key signature. An exception is that Db major (five flats) is sometimes written as C# major (7 sharps) because certain instruments prefer an all-sharp key signature.

Each possible key signature has a fixed number of sharps or flats. But then there are 7 modes for each key signature. For example, if we take the natural notes (no sharps or flats), we have the Ionian mode C major CDEFGABC, the Aeolian mode A minor ABCDEFGA and five other possible (but less common) modes, depending on which note is the tonal centre (which note of the scale feels like "home" for the piece) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mode_(music)

A computer might be able to pick out the correct key signature (number of sharps and flats) if all 7 notes are present and their are no additional notes (absent notes and accidental notes will confuse it.) But it's going to have difficulty picking out which of the 7 notes is the tonal centre.

As an example, according to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_No.5(Beethoven) the main key is C minor. This has a key signature with 3 flats. Its relative major (i.e the major key with 3 flats) would be Eb. Relative keys have the same key signature (i.e. they contain the same notes)

Additionally, the second movement is in Ab major, which has four flats (one more than C minor) so is a completely different key signature.

There is also a trio section in C major. C major is the parallel major of C minor (parallel keys are ones with the same tonal centre.) C major has no flats or sharps.

So you can see, there are quite a variety of keys in this long piece. A simple pop song might have only one key (but there are many that have several, especially those that use the trick of a key change on the last chorus.)

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