Music Theory, notation, and nasty modulating key changes

I don’t know if this question has a simple, factual answer. But I’m interested in informed speculation. The situation which inspires this question is a bell choir arrangement of a familiar hymn, which starts in the key of G (1 sharp) and ends in the key of 3 Flats (E flat?)–can’t remember. Should know, but I’m not sure now.

Anyway, for about three measures before the key signature is marked in the music, the music does stuff I can’t describe involving lots of accidentals, and several of us find that our bells make the shift from say B to Bb before the written key change. In fact, it seems like it would make the notation less complicated if the key signature was changed 3 measures earlier.

But I don’t think I’ve ever seen music written that way. Not that I’m an expert or anything.

So the issue I’d like more information/informed speculation on is this: How do composers/arrangers decide where the key change goes, do arrangers ever write the key change before the nasty modulation stuff (rather than after) and do arrangers ever position key change markings in music to facillitate dividing the music into sections–so that what appears immediately post key change is the next repetition of the melody/chorus whatever rather than 3 measures of transitional stuff before the key change?

If this makes no sense whatsoever, let me know that as well, and I’ll try to reframe my wonderings.

WAG here: it isn’t worth the confusion. I play guitar and some songs require a progression of chords (that don’t fit in the same key) in quick succession. “Love Her Madly” by the doors has that bit: Seven horses seem…

[F] to
[D] be
[G] on
[E] the
[Am] mark

I’ve never seen the sheet music but I’m guessing that represents four quarter notes in common (4/4) time. What key would you put that in, remembering that it’s written in Am overall? The F and G fit, but the D and E don’t. So as your OP says, throw in a bunch of accidentals, then resume the key you started in or were aiming toward.

Actually, E major would be the V chord in Am. E(7) - Am is a normal cadence in A minor. (But, yes, you would write in the accidental since A minor doesn’t have it in the key signature.)
I usually see the key signature change in the music where the key change actually happens, even mid-measure sometimes. If there’s transitional keys, sometimes I’ll just see a bunch of accidentals until the target key hits (better than having a different key signature each bar.)

For example, here’s an arrangement of “Anything Goes” I’m looking at. The song is in C, but it veers from key to key. There’s a part where the melodic motif (“In Olden Days A Glimpse of Stocking Was”) is repeated in C for two bars, D flat for two bars, and G flat for two bars, before settling into F for 16 bars. Two key signatures are used: C and F, and the music is very readable.

I’m assuming that a piece in Am is written with no sharps or flats and therefore, if the G# is played/sung, they’re adding an accidental in the sheet music for it.

Yep. You must have responded before I got to my edit. I just wanted to clarify that E major did belong in the key of A minor (since the OP was asking about key changes, the E is not part of any key change.) Sorry if I misunderstood you.

No problem. I was reasoning from the fact that C major’s relative minor is Am, and since E isn’t in the key of C…

That’s about as deep as my knowledge theory goes, however.

Is there any way for us to see or hear the changes you’re talking about? I’m having difficulty envisioning what exactly is happening here. The bells go from B to B flat and the key change is not notated until 3 measures later? Or is there transitional stuff happening here (as described in my example) for 3 measures before the piece settles into the key of B flat?

The way I’m understanding the OP is that 3 measures prior to the notated key change, the bells have an effective key change into the target key but it is notated as accidental when it could more easily be notated as an earlier key change.

On the subject of whether an E major chord is in the key of A minor. It isn’t in the natural A min key (which is what the poster was thinking of), but it is in the melodic and harmonic A minor keys. Either way, in lobotomy boy’s example, there are two chords that are out of key, depending on what form of A minor is used for the piece.

Perhaps the music writer wanted to wait for the key change to resolve to the tonic chord before notating it?

Hard to know without seeing the notes, but a progression of say G-G7-C7-F7-Bbmaj7 would give you lots of accidentals, and a straightforward modulation to Bb. The thing is, placing the key signature change at the beginning of this sequence wouldn’t really reduce the number of accidentals, better to do it when you arrive. I think

There’s no such thing as harmonic and melodic minor keys, only scales. The raised leading-note, in this case the G sharp which appears in the harmonic minor scale and in the dominant chord E, creates the particular relationship between this and the tonic chord Am which already exists in major keys.

If E minor chords were routinely used in the piece rather than this alteration to E major, it wouldn’t be strictly correct to describe it as being in any major or minor key, as the specific relationships between harmonies become fundamentally altered. One composer who made a clear acknowledgement that he was making such alterations to traditional harmonic systems was Benjamin Britten, who wrote a number of pieces which are centered around D while not being either D major or D minor. The titles he gave them specify “String Quartet in D”, “Missa Brevis in D”, “Violin Concerto in D” and so on - not “in D major” or “in D minor”.

There is transitional stuff happening for 3 measures (as described in your example) before the piece settles into the key of B flat. I don’t know exactly what goes on or how to label it, although the last measure is one of those patterns where the notes descend from high to low, in a rapid series of eighthnotes. The earlier/ higher notes are in groups or chords, the later/lower ones are not.

Because of the way that handbells are played*, I am aware that the B below middle C becomes B flat 3 measures or so before the key change is written in the music. I am less certain what goes on higher up. There are numerous A naturals and A flats after the key change. There is a strong possibility that the bunch of accidentals involved in the transitional stuff include notes which are not really part of either key, but I don’t have a copy of the music.

*In other words: for this particular song, I play the A, B and Bflat right below middle C. I do not play A flat, which means post-key change I have to consciously tell myself not to play things which look like A but do not have naturals written by them, have not been highlighted in my color, and maybe even have x’s marked through them to make it easier.

Even if I had the music with me, I doubt I could look at the notes and figure out what the chords were–just not my talent/interest. But what I was pondering–and I’m probably wrong–was that in some ways writing the key change at the beginning of the sequence would help my brain, because then I’ d know what bell I wanted to end up with in my hand, rather than switching bells for the transition and wondering what I need to end up with.

However, that may very well be a fluke of which bells I’ve got, and the exact details of this transition rather than a generally useful principle. Playing handbells makes one very aware of what goes on in your own bells, and maybe a little aware of your neighbors, but it’s harder to recognize the big picture.

That’s one of the things I love about playing handbells - even experienced musicians who can play huge, complex things have to come to terms with being only a few notes in a bigger piece. It was quite fun to watch even some of our university music profs. spaz out because they wanted to play more than just the notes they had in their hands…

On the OP, usually, the key change is only notated once you’ve arrived, on the logic that you’d still have accidentals written in if the transitional measures were written in the new key rather than the old key. This way, you can explore a new key for only a couple of bars and head back without changing the key signature. Depends on the composer, and there are doctoral theses written on why composers notated things the way they did…

Just a minor hijack to say I find these types of threads fascinating - and I barely understanding half of what I am reading.

Being musically illiterate is definitely limiting. But it is not my profession, and I devote as many “WordMan time units” to music as I can already - probably too many as it is! And in my simplistic little rock / blues world, I can communicate with my band mates well enough to get done what we need to…not to mention all the “street smart rock guitar” stuff that I have learned that has nothing to do with musical notation that has required a big investment of time…

I guess my point is that I am far enough along in my music life to recognize that I am highly unlikely to learn music theory to the extent folks on this thread know it. And while I am at peace with that and understand the trade-off choices I made along the way - reading threads like this highlight what I am missing.

sorry for the hijack - that is all; carry on…

That’s more or less exactly why I started this thread. I am a reasonably talented amateur. I took piano lessons for 10 years or so, I sing, and I play handbells. Handbells can be played by people with no experience reading music, provided that the music is simple enough and clearly enough marked and directed. On the other hand, it can be highly complicated. And last night, as I pondered what I could write in my music which would mean “When you pick up the B flat for these transistional notes, plan on hanging on to it until the end of the song” so that the next time we play the song I won’t have to stare at the post-transition key signature trying to figure out what bells I need to have in my hands, I decided to see if I could get some insights on how key changes work. And I’ve gotten some.

This reminds me of when a high school I was teaching in had just received a delivery of a set of Boomwhackers, intended for use with the younger kids, which we got unpacked and started fooling around with during a break between lessons. The class teacher ended up abandoning her plans for the subsequent lesson with the 15/16 year olds, as they spent the time figuring out how to play the Star Wars theme on them, with a rare level of concentration and teamwork.

I can’t wait for the first time somebody works them into a ‘serious’ piece - can you imagine the fun of using a boomwhacker instead of a bow for a few bars, and then smacking the concertmaster in the head? Not to mention what would it sound like to play a note a fifth up from the boomwhacker? Would you get sympathetic resonance?

Well, that’s what I think about when I’m playing the latest groan and squeak from someone who takes themselves too seriously, anyway…

Le Ministre, out of the closet theory geek

Righto, misunderstanding on my part.

But isn’t it E minor that is part of the A minor key, not E major?

No, in classical theory, E major (7th) is the chord expected in the V-i cadence (which is a fundamental building block of Western music) for piece in the key of A minor. If you’re playing something modal, like in A aeolian, you will see an Em-Am cadence. But the sound of an Em-Am cadence is very “weak.” It doesn’t have the tonal pull the leading G# gives it.