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I started improvising a nocturne in B major that I think I will write for a piano sextet(string quintet + Piano). But, there is one thing I feel that I need to ask first before I get 25% of the way into the nocturne. And that is, is B major harder or easier on strings than Ab major? I know that the 2 keys are equally easy on piano.

I know there are 2 things that factor in to how easy a key is on strings. Those are positions and the number of accidentals. The natural positions on bowed string instruments tend towards sharp keys being easier. But with the 2 potential keys of B major and Ab major, they seem to contradict on both accounts. Ab major has fewer accidentals than B major. On the other hand, the positioning is more complicated.

B major seems to have a more natural positioning, being a fifth away from E major, one of the easier keys for strings. But there are more accidentals. More accidentals often means a harder key to play in(which is why for chamber works that aren't piano duets, I stay within the confines of 5 sharps to 5 flats on the Circle of Fifths).

The minor key section that is going to appear in the middle of the nocturne to add contrast is related to both Ab major and B major. For B major, it is the relative minor and for Ab major, it is the parallel minor. This really doesn't help when it comes to choosing one of 2 major keys to use. And the 2 keys have similar characters too, often evoking dreamy, nocturnal feelings, especially when slow, as in my nocturne.

So, which key would be easier for the strings? B major, the key I improvised this nocturne in and which gives a very nice plagal relationship to E major(which I will use in my nocturne)? Or Ab major, despite all the flats and less natural positioning?

  • Related question concerning the ease of sharps with string instruments. – guidot Jan 21 at 8:05
  • Those accidentals aren't. They're there on purpose. Accidentals are the ones that change notes from those in the key signature mainly. Key B has 5# against Ab with 4b. Not huge difference, but strings seem to prefer #. And if E is o.k., then B with only one # extra follows well. – Tim Jan 21 at 9:59
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    Huh, I thought A flat major is easier on piano than B major due to readability issues, and I'm a pianist. – Dekkadeci Jan 21 at 12:15
  • @Tim - yep. And the converse of B being only one fifth away from the E string is Ab being four fifths away from the C string. Strings are definitely more sharpy than flatty. – Scott Wallace Jan 21 at 13:24
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The resonance on the strings will be different in those two keys. In B major The tonic note B and the subdominant note E are likely to be more rersonant than the tonic note A♭ and the subdominant note D♭ in A♭ major. I am not sure about what will give the best resonance on the dominant notes F♯ vs E♭.

A♭ major might give a softer sound than B major, but it can depend a lot on how the music is written.

On violin B major is easier to play on the upper strings compared with the lower strings because the tonic B has a good base on 1st finger on the A string. It is the other way around with A♭ major where you have a good base with the first finger on A♭ on the G string.

On the viola and the cello the B major is similar to playing F♯ major on violin, it is kind of like having an extra sharp compared with playing on the violin. A♭ major is opposite in that it is similar to playing E♭ major on violin, so it is like having one flat less compared with violin.

Now I both play the violin and the viola. I think I would prefer B major on the violin and A♭ major on the viola. BUT I am not sure because it also depends a lot on how the music is written. You can write something that is very ackward to play even if the key sig is easy and you can write something that is "fit" or whatever you could call it even if the key sig is not so easy.

If the second violin is playing a lot on the lower strings I might prefer A♭ major as a second violinist. If the first violin is playing a lot on the upper strings I might prefer B major as a first violinist.

Conclusion: All in all I find it difficult to give a simple answer on this matter. If you are going to present the music to amateurs it could be wise to consider a key with less sharps or less flats.

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Both keys are fine for competent string players. 4 flats looks less daunting than 5 sharps, but that is not really an issue as after practice it will become familiar. I would suggest it's more important to go with the key that suits your concept of the piece better.

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