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Thread: How do you choose a key to write in?

  1. #1
    Registered User
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    Oct 2010

    How do you choose a key to write in?

    How do songwriters generally choose the key the want to write in?

    I mean, EXCLUDING guitar because we love to write riffs in E/A/D

    But lots of soul music is in F, Bb, "the black keys", etc.

    So how do people pick the keys to write in? I'd imagine a lot depends on the vocalist - what he's capable of. But, on another note, how did Bach decide to do one particular invention in Dm and another in E?

  2. #2
    Registered User Malcolm's Avatar
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    Feb 2004
    Deep East Texas Piney Woods
    I have no idea what Bach did. But I would imagine he would use the key that would fit the solo instruments he was planning on using. Fiddles like A lol.

    If I was writing something for Shirley to sing it would be in A, because that is her favorite key. Now if I will be singing it I'd put it in D, as that is my key.

    If I'm just messing around with no vocalist in mind I probably would go with C as when I get to the melody I'm on the keyboard. I would have the story, verse format and lyric flow tied to a cookie cutter chord progression already so I get my melody notes from the chord tones. That means I pick a key when I start using that cookie cutter progression. For the melody I recite the lyric word and play chord pentatonic notes till I find one that will flow with what has been and will be done. C's a no brainer.

    Check out your hymnal - you will find a lot of songs in F or the other flat keys. Congregations sing flat.

    IMO the key depends on the vocalist or solo instrument - horns, etc.
    Last edited by Malcolm; 11-12-2010 at 10:59 AM.

  3. #3
    bitter old fool Jed's Avatar
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    Aug 2006
    New England
    Songwriters concern themselves less with keys and more with sounds. Singers don't prefer a certain key - they have preferences for certain ranges (that happen to either fit in a particular key or not).

    How did Bach decide? The same way the rest of us do - he heard a sound, figure out what the notes were and wrote them in what ever key they fell into. In some cases a songwriter might adjust a key up or down for convenience of writing, playing or due to the vocalist's range - but these are accommodations after the fact. Not something that is chosen from the beginning.

    That fact that you are asking the question implies that you have a preference for one key over another. THis is a bad habit that should be broken at the earliest possible time. There are no easy keys or hard keys on the guitar, piano or voice. There are only keys that we know well and keys that we are still learning. The music doesn't care what key we are in. Why would we limit ourselves to only a few keys?


  4. #4
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
    Join Date
    Dec 2002
    Twickenham, UK
    Quote Originally Posted by DukeOfBoom View Post
    How do songwriters generally choose the key the want to write in?

    I mean, EXCLUDING guitar because we love to write riffs in E/A/D

    But lots of soul music is in F, Bb, "the black keys", etc.

    So how do people pick the keys to write in? I'd imagine a lot depends on the vocalist - what he's capable of. But, on another note, how did Bach decide to do one particular invention in Dm and another in E?
    As Jed says (I seem to start off a lot of my posts like that ), keys for songs will be chosen according to the singer's preferred range.
    The song can be written in any key you like, though. When a singer wants to perform it, they will transpose it if they need to, so you needn't worry about that. By all means choose a key that's comfortable for you to (a) play or (b) sing (preferably both!).
    If you want to experiment with other keys, to find one where a song suits your own range, you can use a capo if you want to retain simple chord shapes. This is why you commonly see singer-songwriters using capos: they want to retain easy chords, with open strings, while using a variety of different keys.

    As you point out, guitar music is generally in keys that are easy on guitar, which tend to be the sharp keys (G, D, A, E).
    Jazz tunes are frequently written in keys that suit horns, which means the flat keys F, Bb, Eb, Ab. (Which may be why those soul tunes get written in those keys.)
    Jazz guitarists can transpose pretty easily to any key (it's only rock players that get nervous in keys like Bb or Eb...), but horn players have more trouble playing in sharp keys. Eg, for an alto sax player, the key of A major is written as F# major for them - 6 sharps! It's not a big problem for a good player, but the fingering is more complicated the more you move away from the sax's "home" key (Bb or Eb). Unlike guitar, where you just shift your patterns up or down the required number of frets.

    As for Bach - and classical composers of that era and before - each key sounded a little different, because they didn't use equal temperament. IOW, not every half-step was exactly the same size, so some keys would sound more "in-tune" than others. Bach did invent (or at least promote) a system known as "well temperament", where all the keys - if not exactly equivalent - at least sounded reasonably in tune, and he proved it by writing a series of pieces in every major and minor key.
    (Before then, in older tuning systems, a few keys would be too out of tune to be usable.)

    Equal temperament didn't fully take over until around the end of the 19th century. By then, composers had got into habits of writing pieces exploiting the perceived characteristics of the different keys. Those habits persisted, even after equal temperament ironed the differences out.
    So you'll still hear classical music experts talking about F major being "pastoral", or whatever. That's only because composers tended choose F major for a pastoral piece, because of its different sound at that time. Once you have a few pastoral pieces in F major, it becomes an accepted convention, and then that's its association for musicians henceforth. Especially if you have perfect pitch.

    In truth, now, there is no objective qualitative difference whatsoever between the keys. They are just higher or lower than each other. (So we can all laugh when Nigel Tufnel asserts that "D minor is the saddest key". It's nonsense. And even in the days when D minor would have sounded different from, say, E minor, any association of "sadness" would still have been subjective.)

    Of course, musicians have preferences based on their instruments. Guitarists will feel that E major sounds very different from F major, because of the resonances of open strings in the former, as well as feel under the fingers of the barre chords in F. But only guitarists will get those associations. (And of course, things change if you tune down a half-step: now Eb major acquires the characteristics of E major, and E major the character of F major.)

    Pianists will have different associations for keys using a lot of black notes - they will probably seem "darker" or "more intense" in some way. Whereas C major will seem to be "simple" and "open".
    (Stevie Wonder has written a few tunes in Eb minor, which seems a strange choice until you realise that the black keys form Eb minor pentatonic: so the riff for Superstition, eg, lies easily under the fingers. He didn't choose it for his voice, which would easily be able to sing the tunes in Em or Dm, keys that other musicians might prefer.)
    A tenor sax player will have similar associations for the key of Bb major, which is the simplest one for him. For an alto or baritone player, that will apply to Eb major.
    Last edited by JonR; 11-11-2010 at 06:21 PM.

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