Would a studio orchestra prefer the key of F or G?

The source of my question is an odd one…

I like listening to the Seeburg 1000 background music service arrangements, on seeburg1000.com, mainly because it’s soothing music, but also because I like to follow along with the bassists on some of the light rock and jazz tunes.

I have noticed an odd thing: many of the tunes are in Gb…Nobody likes Gb.

I can only assume that the record player is playing either too slow or too fast, and that all of those “Gb” songs were really in either F or G. So, the question is, all things being equal with an orchestra that has to crank out dozens of recordings each week, what key would be most likely between those two keys? Or is my assumption that “nobody likes Gb” in error?

For the definitive answer to whether they are playing slow or fast I am waiting to hear a song that has a scratch or pop in the record. The records were played at 16 2/3 RPM, so it would be trivial to time the period of the scratch and find out the real truth.

FWIW, this list suggests G major is about twice as popular as F major among symphony composers, anyway - with F# (or Gb) major in last place…you can work out the relative popularities of the relative minors.

At first I definitely would have assumed F, since flat keys tend to be easier on transposing instruments (which tend to all be in flat keys, like Bb or Eb or F.) Plus there at least exists a trend of slightly speeding up tracks to get a brighter sound, but not really one of slowing it down.

But if the instrumentation is more string-oriented, then I could see G being preferable. It’s easy to use open chords in standard tuning. And jazz wind soloists tend to be rather good at playing in many keys.

Heh! I was about to suggest splitting the difference and writing it in F# :slight_smile:

ETA: Hmm, no symphonies whatsoever written in C# major / A# minor.

Studio musicians must be good at sight reading in any key. One I used to know (he played guitar on The Monkees recordings and a lot of other stuff you may have heard) told me that it was frequently the case that the musicians set up, sat down, the music sheet music was handed out, and the conductor waved and said “One. Two. …” The musicians considered it a lucky day when the sheet music got passed out in the hallway while waiting for the studio and they got a quick look at it before the recording session started.

But there are in the enharmonic keys of Db major and Bb minor (which contain two fewer accidentals in the key signature, so why write it as C# major or A# minor when you can write it with 5 flats instead of 7 sharps.) That said, we do have F# major but not G flat major. I would have expected more in G flat major (that’s actually a key I’m reasonably used to playing in and reading. For whatever reason, as a piano/keyboard player G flat major reads to me easier than F# major.)

I’m a sharps person myself. I play a few things in flat keys (D minor often, and one in C minor) but most of what I write (= piano pieces) is in sharps (G, D, E, A, B minor, E minor, F# minor, C# minor, B major, and yes F# major).

Yeah, I’m not entirely sure why. I certainly play more music in your typical “sharp” keys like E, A, G, and D (probably because those are your most common rock keys–though I
did play with one band that tuned down to Eb, so I would be playing Eb, Ab, Gb, and Db), but from my earliest training, I always found flats easier to sight read, for some odd reason.

I guess as a keyboard player you’re used to transposing/playing in most all keys?

I mean, a rock guitarist tuned down a half step is still thinking/fingering “G” chords/scales (taking advantage of open strings etc) even if actually sounding in Gb - but you are actually switching from 1 sharp to 6 flats relatively easily?

I’d imagine an electronic keyboard could just transpose for you, similar to the way a capo can on a guitar (?) - do you ever do that??

They may be remastering these recordings.

That sometimes shifts it down a half step.

If you want to feel the melody, try Db or Gb. Just ask Andrew Lloyd Weber. All those black keys lock you into a pentatonic feel that automatically produces great tunes.

A previous thread explored the theory that different keys are associated with different characteristics (the effect of which may be reduced or eliminated in equal temperament). This may consciously or unconsciously influence composers. There are analogous considerations in oriental and Indian classical music.

This page lists some of these associations. There are enough utter contradictions that either different guys tuned up differently, or else they were each following their personal imagination rather than some traditionally prescribed theory.

I prefer flat keys when playing the piano, or a Bb instrument like the tenor saxophone or the cornet. When I play the flute I like sharp keys better.

Not sure why.

I used to, but I don’t anymore unless I have a real good reason to (like some blues keys I prefer when a minor third or flat fifth is on a black key, so I could slide into a white key using the same finger, rather than playing that grace note with two fingers). I certainly do not play all keys equally well, and it also depends on the style of music I’m playing as to what keys feel more comfortable. For example, I’m not especially comfortable with Db or Gb blues, but do something more major pentatonic, and it’s great!

And, you know what, Andrew Lloyd Weber may have something to do with the Db and Gb I play. Back in high school, I played piano and keyboards for a Broadway review at my parish, and we did a few Weber tunes that were in those heavily flatted keys.

Plus, who was it, was Gershwin? Somebody of that era. I seem to recall a prolific composer during that time period who composed almost everything in F#/Gb because that was the easiest for them, I assume because of the pentatonic layout of the black keys. I also know my jazz piano teacher when I was in high school had a student like that, too, who, when left to his own devices, just liked picking out songs in F#/Gb.

ETA: Sorry, not Gershwin. Irving Berlin is the one I was thinking of. Here’s a source:

Oh, forgot to answer this. It really depends. If I’m playing something major pentatonic, then G and Gb are both pretty natural to me. But I’ll do much, much better with G blues vs Gb blues. The minor third and flat five both fall on white notes there, so those sliding types of licks I was talking about before have to be played with two fingers. And I just don’t get a chance to practice Gb blues at all. But E vs Eb blues is okay. I prefer E because I’m more used to playing it, but Eb works out okay, as you do have than nice Gb slide into G (minor third into major third), plus all your black keys are in-scale as a minor pentatonic! Just add the A natural/B double flat and you’ve got the standard blues scale. So if you don’t know what to play, just hammer on the black keys! :wink:

Assuming equal temperament Why does a composer write in Db major rather than C major, or vice versa? I understand that playing some instruments, e.g. piano, might feel different in the different key; is that all there is to it?

Again assuming equal temperament, I don’t get it. Do people have, perhaps subconsciously, a “perfect pitch” which makes the slightly higher-pitched melody sound different?

Where the open strings lie on stringed instruments, and the timbre of other instruments depending on where on the instrument you’re playing does make some difference. Also, the tension of the strings if you detune them can alter the feel and timbre of the instrument. As a keyboardist (without perfect pitch), I personally really can’t tell when I sit down if somebody detuned my instrument by anywhere up to a full step or so unless I’m playing to something or have recently heard a reference pitch.

Also, when reading those “C major is completely pure. Its character is: innocence, simplicity, naïvety, children’s talk” type of descriptions especially from the early 19th century, remember that pitch standards could vary wildly. In 1806, the best I could find is that A above middle C could be tuned anywhere from 400 Hz to 450 Hz, which is basically a range of over a full step from a slightly sharp G to a slightly sharp A. So his key of C can be anywhere from our (approximately) current key of C to our (approximately) current key of B-flat.

More importantly, in those particular descriptions, they would not have been talking about equal temperament, anyway, so perhaps “C major” regardless of actual pitch standard, might feel “childish/innocent” to a particular composer based on whatever the most common tuning temperament was of the time, as that particular keyboard instrument would have been most consonant in C, as that’s what the tuning ratios would have been based off, so a key like Db major would have a lot more dissonance in intervals that are supposed to be consonant.

Wow, this is all cool stuff. Since the music was all likely done with minimal time investment by a musician sweatshop (I imagine), there probably isn’t any nuance–Gb wasn’t being chosen for any artistic purpose, and it is likely that they had many arrangers at work. I’m going with the popularity of G.

Please continue with the discussion of different keys, it’s quite fascinating.

I often wonder the same thing. My wife, a classically trained pianist of many years, tells me it is indeed so, that these keys have their unique sounds.

As a bassist, I can’t fathom any difference in keys. “Oh, we’re playing in F#? I guess we are.” For the guitarists in the crowd, the strings on a bass are all tuned to 4ths, even if the bass has six strings (BEADGC), so unless you really need open strings there is no preferred key; all patterns work everywhere. The only real issue is when the lowest root gets close to the headstock, like E and F, which messes up some patterns.

Does she have perfect pitch? Even if she doesn’t, over the years from talking to various musicians, it does seem some are more “pitch sensitive” than others. For me, the best I could say is that if a song is played a half-step down from the original key, it will feel “mellower” to me, and if it’s played a half-step up from the original key, it will feel “brighter” to me. But I personally would need a pitch reference. Some people also have a decent “pitch memory,” which isn’t quite the same as perfect pitch, but experienced musicians who play daily will often be able to develop pitch memory. I know that when I was playing daily, I’d be more likely to tell if I accidentally left my keyboard transposed down a half step and forgot about it, than I’d be able to today. These days, I’ll leave a guitar in E-flat and not notice for days until I try playing along with a recording.

I mean, I could come up with a list of keys and their flavors to me, based on my personal experiences with playing in those keys and the types of music I’ve played in those keys, but I bet it would be different than another musician’s description of those keys. For example, yes, I’d say C is childish and vanilla (because as a keyboardist, it’s the first key you learn, and I associate it with simplicity), but D flat sounds even more innocent and “sweet,” as does G flat. E is aggressive; G is bright. F is also cheerful and innocent. But I think all those, for me, are based on, well, a lot of guitar music is E. G is a simple key like C, except with a sharp, and a lot of country music is G, so I think of “bright” and breezy for those reasons. My associations with F are probably based on Schumann’s “The Merry Farmer,” etc. Also, key signature-wise, it’s a straightforward key.

I wonder if folks who play with transposing instruments similar find that their key of C sounds “simple” and “naive” and “childlike” even though their “C” may be a concert Bb or Eb.

That describes her.
She can’t just start singing a F# note on demand (at least she doesn’t think she can), but if I hit a random note on the piano while she is in the kitchen, she is quite capable of saying “Eb”, and that’s cool enough for me.