Question for composers

What exactly does it mean that a song is in a particular key? What are the relative merits of one key over another and how different is somethign going to sound played in one key rather than another? Pretty much this thread is for you to go wild on musical theory but in terms that a guy who sang in church but never studied music would understand.

Ok… Any other musicians/composers out there… I am honoring the request to put this in plain terms… I will base my answer on tradition western models of 12 note octaves and 8 note scales, and leave other interpretations alone at this point.

  1. The “key” is a definition of the notes as they relate to each other harmonically. For example, chords are formed from the notes in the key based on harmonic principles. Certain chords sound more final than others. Some chords direct the tension in the music, and therefore should not sound final. A scale, made up of notes in the key, contains 8 notes in traditional western music, but is different in other traditions. So, when a song is in a particular key, that is a definition of the particular set of notes used and how the relate to each other.

  2. As for merits… this gets into some touchy areas… On the practical side - some keys are easier to play in based on the instrument that is playing. For example, most pianists hate C# Major, because most of the playing is done on the black keys of the piano. Vocalists try to stay within certain ranges, based on what are the most comfortable notes to sing.

As for sounding different… there is a long debate amongst musicologists and theorists… I think mlc will probably address this as well. For centuries, people have been split on this topic. Some believe that certain keys have the power to make the listener feel certain things. At one time, there were note combinations that were not allowed in church music because of the implied power of Satan in the sound.

Because music is based on harmonics… there are actual differences in keys. In current western music, the notes have been “tempered.” (Again, see mlc’s post) So, some keys seem to resonate to the listener better than others. Many piano pieces of the Romantic era were written in D minor. The joke in This is Spinal Tap plays on that…(A lovely little ditty in the key of D minor… I call it ‘Lick my…’)

I think the true value in music should be in its power to express what cannot be expressed through words alone. On this point, everyone seems to agree, but if you want more info on the particular debates as to the relative merits of different keys, try doing some research on musical aesthetics.

I’ll move this question over to Cafe Society.

There’s a lot of information on this topic, and a search on aesthetics might help…

I too will limit my answer to the area of Western Art Music (though for interests sake: other cultures (Arabic, and Far Eastern pop to mind) have scale-systems dramatically different from ours - a neat area of study in and of itself)

Back in the day different keys actually did sound different from one another, due to intonation and temperment, and composers did give thought to what key best suited the character of their composition.

Intonation has to do with the systematic way that an instrument is tuned. Loosely speaking, there is some “wiggle” room as to what frequency ration the ear hears as “in tune”, particularly with all the “non-perfect” intervals (2nds, 3rds, 6ths, and 7ths). The root cause of this wiggle room is a discrepancy between sonic ratios, and what our ears hear. For example, the ratio of frequencies that we hear as the most perfect, bell-like major third doesn’t allow the 4 half-steps below it and the 8 half steps above it to have the same ratios, one to the other, and still end up with the octave being an exact doubling of the original frequency. I wish I could draw it out. So you end up having to “fudge” the intervals a bit when tuning a keyboard because keyboards can’t “fudge-on-the fly” like strings, winds, and voice can. The system of intervals by which keyboards are tuned is called “temperment”. The modern tuning of a keyboard is called “Equal Temperment” where all the half-steps have the same interval, purity-be-damned, and it’s a compromise.

However, before equal temperment (we’re talking pre-romantic, IIRC), temperments were experimented with, because they didn’t want to loose the purity of the sound that some keys had.

If you were to take a piece composed in C major and play in on an keyboard tuned in one of these older temperments, it 1.) would sound subtly different than on one tuned using Equal Temperment (the current standard where every half-step on a keyboard follows the same ratio) and 2.) would sound (perhaps not-so-subtly) different if transposed to another key. The further around the circle of fifths (1 sharp, 2 sharps, 3 sharps) the more pronounced the change was. So D minor literally sounded different from G minor, over and above the sonic frequency of the starting pitch.

Back in the day, there was actually some thought given to the aesthetic character of each key. I don’t have any cites for the specific but to some, D-minor might have been considered best suited to somber religious themes, while A-minor might have a regal character, etc… A search in a music library would return the actual “characters” attributed to different keys in different systems, times, and places.

A demonstration of intonation would be to play a Major 3rd on a violin. As you slide your fingers about, there’s a point at which the two notes, played together, produce other harmonics - you can actually hear overtones and sub-tones, as if a ghost were playing a cello next to you. It’s wild! And the effect is even more pronounced on an electric violin with distortion, btw. However, if you compared those notes to the same major third on a piano, there would be a reasonable difference between the two, owning to the piano’s equal temperment.

On another note (pun noted (damn!)) – To augment something that **Misery’s Company ** mentioned, different keys also have different characters based on the acoustics of the instrument they’re played on: E major (or minor) on a guitar allows the guitarist to get the lowest tone their instrument will produce (never mind different tunings for a sec), with a lot of open, ringing strings. Open strings sound different that fretted strings, and so the character of the key is different than were they to play an F# chord (same fingering, basically), where no open strings are ringing. If this chord is the root chord of the piece, then that “open-ness” is going to be associated with the root of the song, and hence the song will acquire that sound’s character.

Another university-trained composer chiming in here (well, I assume the other posters studied music at a high level, based on their replies).

I can’t add to the replies, because it says it all, basically. What I can say is since the day I started composing tonal music, I’ve always been able to tell the different “feels” of each key. It’s become instinctual and second-nature to me now. I don’t sit down and say, hmm, I want to write a new song for my musical, gee, what key should it be in? I just sit down and “know” what key to write it in, and that’s that.

Of course, I have to take into consideration the range of whoever’s going to sing it, but that has become second-nature to me as well.

I was once in a boyband (please, don’t ask) and had written a song in E major. My singer couldn’t hit the highest note in the song in E, so he asked me to transpose it to D major. Well, he was able to hit the note, but the song never, ever sounded the same to me. It was easy to do on the computer: I just bumped it down a tone in the sequencer - but when I’d play the piano part live with the other parts I’d sequenced, I played it in E major and let the computer do the transposition for me. I refused to learn my own song in a different key.

I’m sure most people didn’t notice any difference between Madonna’s version of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” and the original versions, but the song had to be transposed down from D flat to B flat so that she could hit the notes. (D flat being the “special” key of ::shudder:: Andrew Lloyd Webber.) I definitely noticed the difference. Some of the other songs had to be transposed down for the movie version of Evita as well. I’m not sure which others, not having seen the score for the movie, but I’m sure at the time I noticed something was amiss, having listened to the original B’way recording countless times.

In any case, I’m of the belief that each key has its own “feel” and “mood.”

  • s.e.

D minor is the saddest of all keys!

Hey, thanks y’all. Very enlightening revelations here. scott evil was in a boyband?!? This is a story I want to hear.

As to the questions I asked, I’m still mystified. Maybe this is something I need to have an IRL musician sit and play notes for me to get. I guess I don’t understand why, say, a D played in the key of C is different than a D played in the key of F sharp, or why the interval between a D and a G would be different or that the two notes would “relate” to each other differently based on the key in which the piece was written.

Actually, for all practical (i.e., non-professional, non-public-performance) purposes, there is no difference between a “D” in the key of C major or a “D” in the key of F# minor. They’re both the note “D”.

I think maybe the previous answers may have been too academic to explain this to a layperson. As one layperson (albeit one who once played and sang in high school and college) to another, all a key is is a diatonic scale that begins on a particular note. All diatonic scales (what most people consider “scales”, per se)consist of eight notes, from the root note (“C” in the case of the C major scale) the sequence is: 1-1-1/2-1-1-1-1/2 (whole step-whole-halfstep-whole-whole-whole-halfstep). This is, in C major, C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C.

When you begin the scale on “D” (thus the key of D major), the notes are D-E-F#-G-A-B-C#-D, because the diatonic scale of the key has to remain in the 1-1-1/2-1-1-1-1/2 sequence. This continues up the keyboard.

The “key signature” on the written music indicates which key the piece is played in by noting the sharps and flats used throughout the piece. So a key in D major would have the F line and C space on the staff notated with sharps, indicating that F and C are played sharp throughout.


Oh, the two notes sound exactly the same, but depending on what key you’re in, they feel totally different in the context of a song.

It’s hard to explain in words, but if you have a keyboard, play a C and an E together. Notice how they sound. There you have a major third.

Now play a C# and an E together. It’s exactly the same E, but its relationship with C# is minor. You have a completely different sound.

Now, if you’re playing over a C chord, the “E” will be interpreted as a major sound. If you’re playing over a C# chord, hitting the “E” will have the characteristics of being minor.

Well, actually a d played in the key of c is part of the key. A d played in the key of f sharp is a non-harmonic tone, meaning that it is not a part of the scales. You might think of it as a color note. So, indeed the sound/feel of the note d would be different in the two keys.

So, without going to deep into the physics of it, the interval between a d and a g is not different based on the key you are in, but the relationship of the two notes to each other is different. Think about it this way. Your grandmother is named Jane. Her sister is Mary. Mary and Jane are still the same physical people with the same unique personalities, but to you, Mary is a great aunt and Jane is a grandmother. But your second cousins view Mary as the grandmother and Jane as the great aunt. At the same time, your cousins half brother is not [i[really* related to either Mary or Jane, but could still be treated as if he was, or he could be someone that was not included in the mix at all.

Hopefully that helps? :slight_smile:

The note relations described above can be summed in one word: context. As any word, face, sound, or visual image requires context to be recognized and can seem different in differing surroundings, so with any tone in the spectrum. The tempering of tunings by its nature blurs the context of tones.

If you really want to see complexity, look into the history of musical instrument construction, and see the elaborate constructions of different klaviers in thier early history, built to allow “just” tuning in different keys. This “just” tuning would require that the D in the key of G would be in fact a different frequency than the D in the key of A, requiring an extra string and an extra key for it when you change key from one to another.

Eventually, and after much heated debate, the compromised “even” temper became standard. There were also many efforts to produce fretted instruments with just tuning for many keys. No major survivors there, either. (There are a few being produced today for academic reasons.)

If you wish any deeper explanation, I am sure you can rely upon me or some of the other posters here to provide it, but be warned it will require a bit of mathematics and comes with history expandable to fill volumes (all interesting, I might add…)

      • Another way of explaining / demonstrating it: MIDI creation programs often let you set the key of a song without altering the song. Like, to play a song three notes higher, (whatever the song is) you set the key of the song to +3, and all the individual notes are played “3 notes higher”. So the whole pitch of the song goes up, but it still sounds like it should.
        …Some songs just sound wrong with the key shifted; you can tell it’s the same notes, but it just doesn’t work; certain harmonies are lost.
  • You can usually do this more easily with a computer or synthesizer than you can with real instruments, because the computer can play keys that don’t exist on the real instrument. The black keys on a piano (usually) have spaces in between them -they are in sets of 2 and 3-, but the PC can “play” a sharp note/black key where one doesn’t really exist on a piano, if you get what I’m sayin’. - DougC

I thought you folks might enjoy reading this.

This was written by a concert pianist who hosts one of my favorite websites. I’m a pianist myself (though not of any high caliber), and I agree with some of his descriptions.

I also disagree with Fretburner – to me, e minor is the saddest key. D minor is…kind of cheap. Or something. :wink:

Thought you might like to read the related thread in B and E sharp

I’m not getting this part, DougC. Because the interval between E and F or B and C is the same as C and C sharp, or any other of the half-steps. Are you saying the MIDI program is playing quarter-steps or something like that?

Although I think these topics are addressed in the thread hammerback linked.