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For example, the gypsy scale, I-♭II-III-IV-V-♭VI-VII. Would you write a key signature for a scale like that, that didn't start on B♭ like scales are supposed to? Or would you just add the flat every time you play that note? Or would you choose the closest usable key signature and just add a flat/neutral to each note that was different? What if a scale has both flats and sharps, such as Hungarian I-II-♭III-♯IV-V-♭VI-VII?

  • Richards answer is correct. It's also worth asking yourself "is the more readable with a non-standard key signature, or with accidentals?". I can't answer this for you, but it's worth considering both ways and seeing what looks better to you. – AJFaraday Sep 23 at 12:06
  • @AJFaraday No, Richard's answer is incorrect, for the reasons in user45622's comment. Having accidentals throughout a piece is virtually always easier to read than using nonstandard, unexpected notation. – Kevin Sep 24 at 15:13
  • @Kevin I respectfully disagree. – AJFaraday Sep 24 at 15:14
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Bartok did use some unusual key signatures for such scales. I don't know if it's a good or bad idea; much depends on how easy it is to read such a piece.

I would probably just find the major or minor key signature that minimized (or nearly minimized) the number of accidentals and use that. One might still change key signatures if parts of the composition are transposed. People can sight chromatically modified pieces pretty well. Short sections in a dominant key are not always resignatured (if that's not a word, it is now.)

Baroque signatures for minor keys are not hard to read and these seem a bit weird at times.

  • 1
    I had to learn some Bartok piano pieces with weird key signatures, and reading the dots with enough confidence that I hadn't accidentally ;) forgotten anything was a trial -- it was like being a beginner again. I'm used to Romantic music with lots of accidentals, so I favour your suggestion. +1. – Rosie F Sep 22 at 6:21
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    +1. The standard key signatures are very deeply familiar to anyone trained in the Western tradition. Reading in them, even with a lot of chromatic alterations, is much easier than reading in a non-standard key signature. – PLL Sep 22 at 10:58
  • Yep, exactly the clearest example. – Carl Witthoft Sep 23 at 13:54
6

It's 2019; feel free to alter traditional notational norms in a way that's most fitting for your music.

Many composers have used non-traditional key signatures that don't follow the standard order of sharps and flats. And I've seen key signatures that use all kinds of accidentals, so don't be afraid to mix sharps and flats.

Here, for instance, is your gypsy scale based on C:

enter image description here

And here's your Hungarian scale:

enter image description here

  • I guess we've come to remember key sigs as they usually are. I had pieces with 4# that were any old where on the stave. Pretty obvious that it meant E/C#m. My finger signs don't tell which notes are #/b, but it doesn't really matter. The number of them is important. Studying your ideas here implicates learning at least another 24 key sigs. Wonder if that's the way to go in streamlined 2019?! Some modal stuff is favoured to not use the parent key sig., but put accidentals instead. That I've never understood. – Tim Sep 22 at 7:33
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    If I were reading the gypsy scale as you wrote it, I'd get tripped up pretty quickly because my immediate reaction would be "Oh, we're in B♭ major or G minor". Then I'd realise halfway through the piece that something wasn't right, and then once I realised the flats were in different spots, I'd be really annoyed at the composer for writing it that way. My preferred method would be F minor, with four flats, and using natural signs to mark the major third and major seventh, or C major, with ♭2 and ♭6 scale degrees clearly indicated by accidentals. – user45266 Sep 22 at 20:36
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    As @user45266 said: Use conventional key signatures only. Why? For the sake of getting your music played as much as possible. It doesn't matter that there are accidentals making an unusual tune. That is just great! But keep the conventional key signatures in order to help the musicians focus on playing the music. – Lars Peter Schultz Sep 22 at 21:30
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    An addition to my former comment: Or only use accidentals and no key signatures. – Lars Peter Schultz Sep 22 at 21:41
  • Another argument for the use of accidentals: Arguably, accidentals sound different than key signatures, when written correctly. Reading a B♭ in the key of C major, it's pretty clear what sound's occuring, but when the key signature has a B♭ major, it's just a normal note. The accidental tells you, "Hey, we're about to get outside diatonic harmony!", and diatonic stuff just sounds different from chromatic stuff. When I read scales like the Harmonic Minor scale, I expect an accidental on the leading tone! – user45266 Sep 23 at 16:45
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If there is a clear sense of a root - perhaps the first note in your examples - then it might be easier for someone reading your piece if you use the key signature (whether major or minor) of that note and use accidentals for the other sharpened or flattened notes. But your first example could - assuming the first note to be C - be written with the key signature Ab Db, this order being as in a normal major or minor key signature.

Key signatures containing both sharps and flats may look a bit odd but they also exist. Your 'Hungarian' scale could thus have the key signature Eb-Ab-F# or F#-Eb-Ab. (It wouldn't have Ab-F#-Eb) By the way, in more complicated modes, for example D, E-quarter-flat, F#, G, A, B-quarter-flat, C#, there is the same problem: to show the quarter-flats in the key signature or just write them as accidentals.

[As a footnote I was going to ask where you got the names 'gypsy' and 'Hungarian' from.]

  • I got the names from Wikipedia. Also, what is a quarter flat? Is that a semitone? – コナーゲティ Sep 22 at 3:27
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    @コナーゲティ I assume Old Brixtonian actually means E-half-flat, i.e. a quarter-tone (or demi-semitone) below the note E. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quarter_tone for notation examples. – Your Uncle Bob Sep 22 at 3:37
  • Yeah I know about quarter tones, I assumed that's what be meant. A quarter halftone seems a bit unnecessary – コナーゲティ Sep 22 at 3:39
  • @コナーゲティNo. It means 'flattened by a quarter of a tone'. Half a semitone. Not possible on a piano. There are symbols meaning 1/4 flat, 3/4 flat, 1/4 sharp and 3/4 sharp. These preserve the conventional 'grammar' of music whereby you call a note "A#" in one context and "Bb" in another. D 3/4 sharp is called "E 1/4 flat" in another context. – Old Brixtonian Sep 22 at 3:39
  • But you said half a flat. A flat is already half of a tone, so a quarter flat would be 1/8th of a tone. – コナーゲティ Sep 22 at 4:13
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I would use the key signature corresponding to the root of your scale. Use the minor key signature if your scale has a primarily minor feel and the major key signature if it has a primarily major feel or is ambiguous about its major/minor tonality.

The reason for this is that clearly indicating the tonal center of your piece will make it much easier for readers to interpret it. Your piece will have lots of accidentals this way, but those are easier to read than a piece that makes it difficult to discern the function of different notes at a glance.

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Would you write key signatures for non-conventional scales?

Yes I would, as it will be easier to me to write and to read it - and probably to others.

But I wouldn't use the Roman numbering like you did in your question.

For example, the gypsy scale, I-♭II-III-IV-V-♭VI-VII.

e.g. the gypsy scale I would notate as Phrygian with an augmented 7th and with relative names:

mifa-sila-tido-rimi

(I think I would even renounce an analyse in RN)

  • But for that gypsy scale there will still be one line/space for each note/letter name, as in standard notation, so would be written out simply, on a standard stave? – Tim Sep 22 at 11:19
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From a typographer's point of view, I would ask myself what the typical reader expects the most:

  1. If it's a book about gypsy music, or a songbook of gypsy songs, or sheets for a gypsy band, I would stick with the non-western scale. Because here the reader expects to see a gypsy music.

  2. If it's for someone else, maybe for a conventional band that will accompany you, or for a generic book or songbook or stuff, or a single short piece to be published seperately (maybe on the internet even), I would choose the most fitting western scale and use accidentals as needed. Because here seeing a gypsy key would confuse the reader and (maybe even more importantly) even make him play the wrong notes.

    Note that especially with 2 flats for instance, people could automatically expect them to be Bb and Eb, without even checking the actual location of the flat signs in the staves.

Bottom line: As always in typography, choose one and stick to it; consistency is important, and here maybe even more important than making the right decision.

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