18

I'm wondering if composers write their pieces starting with C major since it's just the white keys, and then later transpose the finished song to the key of their choice?

Or will starting with the intended key from the start produce better results?

Edit: or "A minor" for minor songs

  • 2
    Funnily enough, a student asked me this today! Along with why certain composers worked in certain keys. Thought provoking.+1. – Tim Apr 30 '17 at 14:37
  • Speaking as a composer with a pretty lousy playing technique, I tend to start in E♭ as it just falls more easily under my hands. As I don't have to be able to play the resulting piece, I can later transpose it to wherever I like - usually a specific vocalist's key. – Tetsujin Apr 30 '17 at 16:25
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    Since when has C major been "just the white keys", except for the simplest styles of music? In any case, C major is actually the hardest key for keyboard players, though many the people who write books on how to play by copying-and-pasting from other books don't seem to have learned that fact. – user19146 Apr 30 '17 at 17:46
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    Can't work out why C is the hardest key for keyboard composers, I'm possibly happier in that than other keys. What makes you state that? – Tim May 1 '17 at 12:45
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    @alephzero - can't work out why C is the hardest key for keyboard players, I'm possibly happier in that than other keys. What makes you state that? – Tim May 1 '17 at 13:49
25

I think this is one of those questions where the answer is "it depends."

I would imagine that many composers who are uncomfortable with black keys for whatever reason do compose in C major or a minor and then transpose. On the other hand, composers who are not uncomfortable with black keys or who are writing to fit a particular range are probably more likely to compose in whatever key they want to end up in.

I myself fall into this latter category. I almost never transpose after the fact. If I start a piece out with mostly white keys I'm likely to leave it there. But keys like B major and c# minor actually fit under my hands better, so I often start out and stay in something like that. I also typically go through many modulations in a piece, in which case it hardly matters where I start!

14

Apart from what's already been said, it is somewhat dependent on the instrument the composer is using as a reference point. For example, a lot of guitar-based music - pop and classical, is composed in guitar-friendly keys, like E/Em and A/Am. If it's a sax player, they may well be in other keys rather than C, and that goes for all other transposing instruments too.

If the guy's a keyboard player, and good enough to compose and play, it probably doesn't matter to him what key the piece is in - often inspiration comes when messing about, and it could well be that it happens in E♭, B♭, A♭, D...

If it's orchestral work, then he's thinking and writing in many keys - unless he's 'cheating' and using Sibelius or such like to get the parts in key!

Some well-known composers had preferred keys - I think Cole Porter liked E♭, but don't know why. Others will just write in a key that suits either the instruments in question or the vocalists' voice ranges, straight into that key, as it's easier for most who have reached that level. There will always be those who only play in C, or compose in C, though.

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    Just realised you only asked about piano players! But most of this is relevant, so it'll stay for now. – Tim Apr 30 '17 at 16:34
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I think there is an assumption in the question that the composer is sitting at a keyboard. Why would that be?

I imagine a composer thinking of a tune and then writing it down without reference to a keyboard at all. In that scenario he is free to chose any key he wants and I assume that he choses one that he feels is appropriate to the piece he is composing

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    I rather agree, however you can't really refute the fact that many people do indeed write music “on an instrument”, and more let their thoughts/ideas be guided by what the fingers do than the other way around. – leftaroundabout May 1 '17 at 0:53
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    I think that the assumption in the question is that in this particular case, he's sitting at a keyboard, rather than using any other instrument. – Tim May 1 '17 at 12:47
5

I think that professional composers do not have this big problems writing their pieces in a key with black notes. Some people also perceive a piece in d minor differently than a piece in a minor, for example. On the other hand, I can imagine that many non-professional composers use this technique, but for my part, I never change the key of a piece after finishing it.

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    Beethoven was of the same mind - 'if you can't reach the notes I wrote, don't sing it!' – Tim May 1 '17 at 12:49
4

As @L3b said, there are a few different types of composers, and some are more comfortable with black keys than others. Some compose in an easy keyboard key and transpose, and some are comfortable in any key and would rather choose based on sound. I think most people who consider themselves piano players and compose a lot compose in the same keys they tend to play in, because that's what they are most practiced at and comfortable with.

Modes are also something to consider. A lot of music, especially pop, isn't just in major and minor. Mixolydian (major with a flat 7) is more popular than major or minor in a lot of genres that are derived from blues, so G is also a popular key. And there's a lot more out there in Lydian (major with a sharp 4) than most people realize.

If the composer composes most of their music for jazz bands with wind instruments, chances are most of it will be in B flat, E flat, F, G minor, F mixolydian, etc.

If the composer plays in a guitar-based rock band, they will probably use a lot of E, A, D, and G, and modes (major/minor/mixo) will not matter as much.

Still others, as has been mentioned already, are good keyboard players and feel better in keys that seem weird to non-keyboard-players like me (like C# major or Eb).

And, as @Jules said in the comments to this answer, some people prefer to use just the black keys, which is a pentatonic (5 note) scale.

I've met a number of composers (particularly in folk and vocal jazz) that do use C major and A minor almost exclusively to compose on keyboard and then transpose, so there are definitely those who prefer the white keys.

People also have different views on transposing. Some think it's heresy, and that changing the key of a song fundamentally changes the way you perceive it because of things like resonant frequency. Some (most) don't.

Basically, the way people compose is all of them.

  • Upvoted for the last paragraph. Everyone's different, and it all depends on what they're used to. I write rock, and as you suggest if I work on guitar the traditional E/A/D/G/maybe a bit of B thrown in for variety is a staple for that. But if I sit down at a keyboard, I often find myself starting in Db or Bb minor. Why? Because that's how my first teacher taught me to use a pentatonic scale (i.e. just the black keys), and as a lot of what I do is still based on pentatonic scales I just find it easier to work that way. – Jules May 2 '17 at 0:16
  • @Jules In hindsight I can't believe I didn't mention the pentatonic scale, but yeah, that is another widely used style of composing on a keyboard. – dogoncouch May 2 '17 at 5:51
3

I think that there are two subtleties contained in your question which I will try seperate out, them being:

Can the composer comfortably play in the key the song will/may end up in?

and

Is the difference in key significant to the composer?

A composer will probably be reluctant to compose a song on a instrument in a key which is difficult to play in. This is especially true if the composition process involves lots of improvisation; fumbling around in a difficult key would regularly interrupt flow. How comfortable a composer is in a given key depends on their instrument and virtuosity.

Your assumption about composing in C/Am on the piano (or any other keyboard instrument) because its the easiest to play would make sense in this case. When I compose on the violin for example, the songs will often be in D or A because these keys are simple enough for me to improvise in at my skill level. If I wanted, I could take a song I've improvised on the violin and translate it to a different key, but I would have to relearn it on the violin because the fingering and bowing (for string changes) would be different.

The second point about the keys being significant to the composer is more nuanced. When I compose on the piano, which I am far more technically competent than on violin (and hence more comfortable with black keys) the key I compose in is really important because every key is subtly different, to me.

This may not be true for everyone because, I would suspect, its related to having absolute pitch verse relative pitch. To me, a song in a different key is in a small way a different song. I have even translated songs to different keys as a way of exploring its mood and temperament in the same way I might change the rhythm or pace.

Other reasons the key may be significant is if you are singing a vocal line over the top, the key you sing in can drastically change how easy or hard a song is to sing. Singers are often changing the keys of songs in order to accommodate their vocal range and ability.

Its probably also worth pointing out that the experience of playing on each of these instruments is very different to me. For me, playing a piece of music on the violin consists of fingering and bowing coming together to make a song and is hence very technical and rigid (key-wise). Whereas for piano I have moved from worrying about fingers on notes, to notes in a more general sense (I think notes and fingers work it out on the fly). This gives me the freedom to experiment more and so I can compose within a key of my choosing. Although keys with lots of black notes can become cumbersome compared to C/Am, I actually find the different feel adds to the creative process.

As an aside, my piano teaching growing up used to talk about each of the keys having a different personality and that A or D were hymnal keys (sounding like religious music suitable for worship), which I found kind of funny since many hymns are actually written in Eb and Bb (although our definition of frequency for each pitch has changed over time).

2

The choice of the key will definitively be influenced by how the fingering of the specific key works in relation to what the music is trying to achieve. The composer will have to consider how the efficiency of the hand movements is influenced by the choice of keys.

There is also the choice of the enharmonic keys, like B Major and Cb Major, where a choice would have to be made between five sharps and seven flats. Here the fingering is the same because the notes are the same but there is a real paradigm shift that needs to be made between thinking in terms of flats and in terms of sharps.

Seeing that pianist have to learn the fingering for all the keys as soon as possible most composers will assume that the skilled pianist will not be deterred by any key the composer may choose and would rather choose the most appropriate key for his composition.

It is at least in a trivial manner true that beginner music is done in C Major but C Major fingering is probably not the easiest, is just a convenient starting point to start teaching piano when the pupils scale knowledge is still lacking.

1

For me, I always start out in the key that I want to have the piece end up being in. That way, I don't have to go through the effort of trying to transpose it all later. I don't find it any more difficult to start on a key that's all white notes, and I don't really see the advantage that this would give.

Starting with the intended key may produce better results in that it helps you feel the piece of music that you are writing better. For example, when I start writing a piece of music, I often choose the key that I feel best suits the licks/motif I want in the music. So, if I start off in the beginning writing in the key I want, then it's easier to just keep things sounding in that key. Transposing the piece to a whole new key at the end would just throw me off.

Of course, this is just me -- other people may feel differently.

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