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The debate of whether F# or Gb is a better key is very prominent, but I'd like to discuss the keys of B and Cb.

As a guitar player, I would much rather have the key of B to play in. As a trombonist, the same key makes me cringe wildly. And as a pianist I am impartial to both, although playing in Cb is more comfortable and easier with accidentals.

String players have told me that they would rather play in B, and that seems reasonable to me, as a guitar player myself I can understand that string players often prefer to play with sharps instead of flats in their repertoire.

The brass players I've talked to have told me that, while they fully expect a chart to be written in B major, they would much rather play in the key of Cb major.

I have also had this discussion with my piano teacher, when pitting G# minor against Ab minor. I don't know how common each key is, but he did say that he prefers Ab minor, and the biggest reason why is that when you have a dominant seventh in the key of G#m, it's D#7 which has a nasty Fx. Compare that to the more lenient Eb7 of Abm.

What are your thoughts? I assume that in a popularity contest, because Cb is such an obscure key, B will win, but I wanted thoughts on the playability, practicality and convenience of each.

** I am talking in the context of 12-TET, and not an other tuning where the difference between two semitones is varied for each key.

  • Quickly want to add that in most orchestral music that is in the key of B major, if there is a harp part for it it would be written in Cb, as it is considered the home key of the instrument.
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    By ”playing” do you mean reading music, or is there a difference for playing by ear too ? – piiperi Reinstate Monica Jan 8 at 6:06
  • @piiperi Seeing as the OP's established the context of 12-equal temperament, we're comparing different notations for the same pitches. So how would that affect playing by ear? – Rosie F Jan 8 at 8:13
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica - playing by ear, I think most players won't necessarily be thinking in a key, but if they do, yes, good point. – Tim Jan 8 at 8:36
  • For a lot of people, writing a piece in either Bb or C would be a better bet, but wonder how that would affect some listeners. It probably would affect players adversly. But if someone with absolute pitch was introduced to a new piece in Bb or C instead, what difference would it make? None? – Tim Jan 8 at 8:40
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    @Rosie I don't know, that's why I asked. Or does the OP use the word "play" as a synonym for "read"? Maybe. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Jan 8 at 9:01
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Brass players are more at home in flat keys because their instruments are built that way: with fundamentals of F, Bb and Eb. (Yes, I know: trumpets in A, C and D, trombones in G and probably others also exist!) Guitars have a slight bias towards the sharp side. (Yes, I know: capos!)

On a piano any key is fine, but I can't think of a piece in Cb. Can anyone? Plenty of pieces visit Cb (Bolcom's Graceful Ghost springs to mind) but they don't often start and end in it. So it's rather an unfamiliar key. I could play scales of Cb faster thinking of them as B!

If it was at all interesting a piece of music in seven flats would soon need double flats, and along with the double-flat signs there would be the signs to cancel the double and return to single-flat. Big chords with mixtures of those accidentals are a pain to sight-read: the bars get cluttered, like a street full of bike lanes and No Right Turns.

It's odd that Cb major is such a warm, squashy key when B major is such a glittery one.

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    How to explain your last para? Would you have to know which key it was to get a warm, squashy OR a glittery feeling..? – Tim Jan 8 at 8:42
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    A very interesting question @Tim. As a pianist, there's definitely a psychological difference between extreme sharp keys and their enharmonic flat equivalents. I was told by my teacher that a professor at one of the academies asked a teacher to get their pupils to learn the Bach C# major prelude and fugue - but to get half of them to learn it in Db (it's sometimes published in that key). He was able to tell when listening to their performances which key they had learnt it in without knowing in advance. – Peter Jan 8 at 12:14
  • @Peter - Would it be because the pupils' mistake rate was higher in one of C sharp major or D flat major? – Dekkadeci Jan 8 at 16:57
  • @Dekkadeci I doubt it - these were academy students. It's more to do with how you play it. In C# I would use a more staccato touch. But it was a long time ago - I heard about it in the early 1960s and it was old then. – Peter Jan 10 at 11:08
  • @Peter Yes - I'd play it with more staccato too, though I'm not sure why. (Perhaps because C# is colder and more fragile, Tim!) I hadn't heard that story about the students and Bach since the early 70's. Excellent! – Old Brixtonian Jan 10 at 17:48
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I much favour keys with small accidental count.

In this case:

Cb has 40% extra accidentals with respect to B. Those extra accidentals are millions of times rustier inside my brain than for example the tone Bb, as I never use them (other than literally as accidentals, i.e. passing tones or other melodic devices). As a result, the difficulty increases much more than by this 40%.

As you add accidentals one by one (for example, keys C, F, Bb...), the difficulty delta is higher, because the accidental added is less and less common. The tone Bb is present in plenty of key signatures... the tone Db (for example) is present in very few of them.

That's me...

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As a saxophone player (it's a monophonic instrument, so I am largely unaffected by chords, unless I am playing multiphonics or "virtual" chords in my head during solos), I found it slightly easier to play key signatures that have flats rather than sharps when I was a beginner, because of the mechanics of my instrument. To give you an example (pictures taken from The Woodwind Fingering Guide, I flipped them for your convenience, so that you can see which keys are higher and which are lower on the instrument when it is played; blacked-out keys on the diagram represent those that are pressed):

A4: A4 tenor sax A♭4/G#4: A♭4/G#4 tenor sax G4: G4 tenor sax

Explaining the example... If I am moving from A4 (a higher note in terms of sound) to A♭4 (a lower one), I have to press 2 more keys below A4, so my downward motion reflects the equivalent motion in sound. If I am going from G4 (a lower note) to G#4 (a higher one), I have to counterintuitively press 1 more key below G4, contrary to the motion in sound.

There are, naturally, some exceptions to this:

  • the more "unusual" notes like C♭4 (enharmonic of B4, upward motion on the instrument) and E#4 (enharmonic of F4, upward motion)
  • low-end notes requiring the left little finger (B♭3, B3 and C#3; the left hand is above the right on the saxophone, but it doesn't feel as much of an upward motion, because it's handled by the little finger when all the fingers on the right hand are already down, which makes it feel more like a "cherry on top" than an actual proper movement)
  • some upper-register and altissimo notes
  • some of the more unorthodox trill, alternative and microtonal fingerings

But, overall, as a saxophonist you quickly learn that playing a flat means going down the instrument, towards the bell, and playing sharps involves (at least for me) some mental gymnastics (they become less and less problematic with time) that translate sharps into flats. I still find it easier to play scales descending and play the occasional D4 instead of an F4 when I see an E#4 and am very tired/drunk. Your mileage may vary though.

I think that might be the case for many instruments that do not use a linear structure (like the piano) or a matrix (like guitar) to represent notes. To all oboe players out there: I can feel your pain.

P.S. My personal "favourite" on the saxophone is D#4 → E#4, which involves lowering/lifting 3 fingers to go down/up 1 tone, 1 "unnecessary" accidental (F natural is so much nicer than E#) and a note (D#) which likes to sound muffled/split in the 2nd octave of the instrument's "normal" range. If you are exhausted and trying to translate sharps into flats while playing a fast passage involving this switch, you can miss the timing or play something else note-wise entirely (if this switch is for the 3rd octave of the instrument's "normal" range, it becomes even more problematic and is considered one of the most difficult ones for the instrument, so you really don't want to play it with "unnecessary" sharps).

Update: this information is based on my personal experiences of playing "regular" B♭ and E♭ saxophones. There are horns out there that feature a linear fingering design.

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