Key (music)

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In music theory, the key of a piece is the group of pitches, or scale, that forms the basis of a music composition in classical, Western art, and Western pop music.

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The group features a tonic note and its corresponding chords , also called a tonic or tonic chord, which provides a subjective sense of arrival and rest, and also has a unique relationship to the other pitches of the same group, their corresponding chords, and pitches and chords outside the group. [1] Notes and chords other than the tonic in a piece create varying degrees of tension, resolved when the tonic note or chord returns.

The key may be in the major or minor mode, though musicians assume major when this is not specified, e.g., "This piece is in C" implies that the key of the song is C major. Popular songs are usually in a key, and so is classical music during the common practice period, around 1650–1900. Longer pieces in the classical repertoire may have sections in contrasting keys.

Overview

Methods that establish the key for a particular piece can be complicated to explain and vary over music history.[ citation needed ] However, the chords most often used in a piece in a particular key are those that contain the notes in the corresponding scale, and conventional progressions of these chords, particularly cadences, orient the listener around the tonic.

The key signature is not always a reliable guide to the key of a written piece. It does not discriminate between a major key and its relative minor; the piece may modulate to a different key; if the modulation is brief, it may not involve a change of key signature, being indicated instead with accidentals. Occasionally, a piece in a mode such as Mixolydian or Dorian is written with a major or minor key signature appropriate to the tonic, and accidentals throughout the piece.

Pieces in modes not corresponding to major or minor keys may sometimes be referred to as being in the key of the tonic. A piece using some other type of harmony, resolving e.g. to A, might be described as "in A" to indicate that A is the tonal center of the piece.

An instrument is "in a key", an unrelated usage that means the pitches considered "natural" for that instrument. For example, modern trumpets are usually in the key of B, since the notes produced without using the valves correspond to the harmonic series whose fundamental pitch is B. (Such instruments are called transposing when their written notes differ from concert pitch.)

A key relationship is the relationship between keys, measured by common tone and nearness on the circle of fifths. See closely related key.

Keys and tonality

Perfect authentic cadence (V-I [here in V-I form] with roots in the bass and tonic in the highest voice of the final chord): ii-V -I progression in C
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. Ii-V-I turnaround in C.png
Perfect authentic cadence (V-I [here in V-I form] with roots in the bass and tonic in the highest voice of the final chord): ii-V -I progression in C Loudspeaker.svg Play  .

The key usually identifies the tonic note and/or chord: the note and/or major or minor triad that represents the final point of rest for a piece, or the focal point of a section. Though the key of a piece may be named in the title (e.g., Symphony in C major), or inferred from the key signature, the establishment of key is brought about via functional harmony, a sequence of chords leading to one or more cadences, and/or melodic motion (such as movement from the leading-tone to the tonic). For example, the key of G includes the following pitches: G, A, B, C, D, E, and F; and its corresponding tonic chord is G—B—D. Most often at the beginning and end of traditional pieces during the common practice period, the tonic, sometimes with its corresponding tonic chord, begins and ends a piece in a designated key. A key may be major or minor. Music can be described as being in the Dorian mode, or Phrygian, etc., and is thus usually thought of as in a specific mode rather than a key. Languages other than English may use other key naming systems.

People sometimes confuse key with scale. A scale is an ordered set of notes typically used in a key, while the key is the "center of gravity" established by particular chord progressions. [2]

Cadences are particularly important in the establishment of key. Even cadences that do not include the tonic note or triad, such as half cadences and deceptive cadences, serve to establish key because those chord sequences imply a unique diatonic context.

Short pieces may stay in a single key throughout. A typical pattern for a simple song might be as follows: a phrase ends with a cadence on the tonic, a second phrase ends with a half cadence, then a final, longer, phrase ends with an authentic cadence on the tonic.

More elaborate pieces may establish the main key, then modulate to another key, or a series of keys, then back to the original key. In the Baroque it was common to repeat an entire phrase of music, called a ritornello, in each key once it was established. In Classical sonata form, the second key was typically marked with a contrasting theme. Another key may be treated as a temporary tonic, called tonicization.

In common practice period compositions, and most of the Western popular music of the 20th century, pieces always begin and end in the same key, even if (as in some Romantic-era music) the key is deliberately left ambiguous at first. Some arrangements of popular songs, however, modulate sometime during the song (often in a repeat of the final chorus) and thus end in a different key. This is an example of modulation.

In rock and popular music some pieces change back and forth, or modulate, between two keys. Examples of this include Fleetwood Mac's Dreams and The Rolling Stones' Under My Thumb . "This phenomenon occurs when a feature that allows multiple interpretations of key (usually a diatonic set as pitch source) is accompanied by other, more precise evidence in support of each possible interpretation (such as the use of one note as the root of the initiating harmony and persistent use of another note as pitch of melodic resolution and root of the final harmony of each phrase)." [3]

Instruments in a key

Certain musical instruments play in a certain key, or have their music written in a certain key. Instruments that do not play in the key of C are known as transposing instruments. [4] The most common kind of clarinet, for example, is said to play in the key of B. This means that a scale written in C major in sheet music actually sounds as a B major scale when played on the B-flat clarinet—that is, notes sound a whole tone lower than written. Likewise, the horn, normally in the key of F, sounds notes a perfect fifth lower than written.

Similarly, some instruments are "built" in a certain key. For example, a brass instrument built in B plays a fundamental note of B, and can play notes in the harmonic series starting on B without using valves, fingerholes, or slides to alter the length of the vibrating column of air. An instrument built in a certain key often, but not always, uses music written in the same key (see trombone for an exception). However, some instruments, such as the diatonic harmonica and the harp, are in fact designed to play in only one key at a time: accidentals are difficult or impossible to play.

The highland bagpipes are built in B major, though the music is written in D major with implied accidentals.

In Western musical composition, the key of a piece has important ramifications for its composition:

Key coloration

Key coloration is the difference between the intervals of different keys in a single non-equal tempered tuning, and the overall sound and "feel" of the key created by the tuning of its intervals.

Historical irregular musical temperaments usually have the narrowest fifths between the diatonic notes ("naturals") producing purer thirds, and wider fifths among the chromatic notes ("sharps and flats"). Each key then has a slightly different intonation, hence different keys have distinct characters. Such "key coloration" was an essential part of much eighteenth- and nineteenth-century music and was described in treatises of the period.

For example, in tunings with a wolf fifth, the key on the lowest note of the fifth sounds dramatically different from other keys (and is often avoided). In Pythagorean tuning on C (C, E+, G: 4, 5, 6), the major triad on C is just while the major triad on E+++ (F) is noticeably out of tune (E+++, A+, C: 4 18, 5, 6) due to E+++ (521.44 cents) being a Pythagorean comma (23.46 cents) larger sharp compared to F.

Music using equal temperament lacks key coloration because all keys have the same pattern of intonation, differing only in pitch.

Related Research Articles

In music theory, a diatonic scale is any heptatonic scale that includes five whole steps and two half steps (semitones) in each octave, in which the two half steps are separated from each other by either two or three whole steps, depending on their position in the scale. This pattern ensures that, in a diatonic scale spanning more than one octave, all the half steps are maximally separated from each other.

Just intonation Musical tuning based on pure intervals

In music, just intonation or pure intonation is the tuning of musical intervals as whole number ratios of frequencies. Any interval tuned in this way is called a just interval. Just intervals consist of members of a single harmonic series of a (lower) implied fundamental. For example, in the diagram, the notes G and middle C are both members of the harmonic series of the lowest C and their frequencies will be 3 and 4 times, respectively, the fundamental frequency; thus, their interval ratio will be 4:3. If the frequency of the fundamental is 50 Hertz, the frequencies of the two notes in question would be 150 and 200.

Key signature Set of musical alterations

In musical notation, a key signature is a set of sharp, flat, and rarely, natural symbols placed together on the staff. Key signatures are generally written immediately after the clef at the beginning of a line of musical notation, although they can appear in other parts of a score, notably after a double barline.

In music theory, a scale is any set of musical notes ordered by fundamental frequency or pitch. A scale ordered by increasing pitch is an ascending scale, and a scale ordered by decreasing pitch is a descending scale.

In music, the tonic is the first scale degree of the diatonic scale and the tonal center or final resolution tone that is commonly used in the final cadence in tonal classical music, popular music, and traditional music. In the movable do solfège system, the tonic note is sung as do. More generally, the tonic is the note upon which all other notes of a piece are hierarchically referenced. Scales are named after their tonics: for instance, the tonic of the C major scale is the note C.

Transposing instrument Musical instrument for which notated pitch differs from sounding pitch

A transposing instrument is a musical instrument for which music notation is not written at concert pitch. For example, playing a written middle C on a transposing instrument produces a pitch other than middle C — that sounding pitch identifies the interval of transposition when describing the instrument. Playing a written C on clarinet or soprano saxophone produces a concert B, so these are referred to as B instruments. Providing transposed music for these instruments is a convention of musical notation. The instruments do not transpose the music, rather their music is written at a transposed pitch.

Perfect fifth musical interval

In music theory, a perfect fifth is the musical interval corresponding to a pair of pitches with a frequency ratio of 3:2, or very nearly so.

In a musical composition, a chord progression or harmonic progression is a succession of chords. Chord progressions are the foundation of harmony in Western musical tradition from the common practice era of Classical music to the 21st century. Chord progressions are the foundation of Western popular music styles and traditional music. In these genres, chord progressions are the defining feature on which melody and rhythm are built.

Chord (music)

A chord, in music, is any harmonic set of pitches/frequencies consisting of multiple notes that are heard as if sounding simultaneously. For many practical and theoretical purposes, arpeggios and broken chords, or sequences of chord tones, may also be considered as chords in the right musical context.

Modulation (music)

In music, modulation is the change from one tonality to another. This may or may not be accompanied by a change in key signature. Modulations articulate or create the structure or form of many pieces, as well as add interest. Treatment of a chord as the tonic for less than a phrase is considered tonicization.

Modulation is the essential part of the art. Without it there is little music, for a piece derives its true beauty not from the large number of fixed modes which it embraces but rather from the subtle fabric of its modulation.

Circle of fifths Relationship among the 12 tones of the chromatic scale, their corresponding key signatures, and the associated major and minor keys;geometrical representation of relationships among the 12 pitch classes of the chromatic scale in pitch class space

In music theory, the cycle or circle of fifths is the relationship among the 12 tones of the chromatic scale, their corresponding key signatures, and the associated major and minor keys. More specifically, it is a geometrical representation of relationships among the 12 pitch classes of the chromatic scale in pitch class space.

A secondary chord is an analytical label for a specific harmonic device that is prevalent in the tonal idiom of Western music beginning in the common practice period: the use of diatonic functions for tonicization.

Letter notation

In music, letter notation is a system of representing a set of pitches, for example, the notes of a scale, by letters. For the complete Western diatonic scale, for example, these would be the letters A-G, possibly with a trailing symbol to indicate a half-step raise or a half-step lowering. This is the most common way of specifying a note in speech or in written text in English or German. In some European countries H is used instead of B, and B is used instead of B.

In music theory, a dominant seventh chord, or major minor seventh chord, is a seventh chord, usually built on the fifth degree of the major scale, and composed of a root, major third, perfect fifth, and minor seventh. Thus it is a major triad together with a minor seventh, denoted by the letter name of the chord root and a superscript "7". An example is the dominant seventh chord built on G, written as G7, having pitches G–B–D–F:

In music, transposition refers to the process or operation of moving a collection of notes up or down in pitch by a constant interval.

The shifting of a melody, a harmonic progression or an entire musical piece to another key, while maintaining the same tone structure, i.e. the same succession of whole tones and semitones and remaining melodic intervals.

Richter-tuned harmonica

The Richter-tuned harmonica, or 10-hole harmonica or blues harp, is the most widely known type of harmonica. It is a variety of diatonic harmonica, with ten holes which offer the player 19 notes in a three-octave range.

Adungu

The a'dungu, also called the ekidongo or ennenga, is a stringed musical instrument of the Alur people of northwestern Uganda. It is an arched harp of varying dimensions, ranging from seven to ten strings or more.

Diatonic and chromatic Terms in music theory to characterize scales

Diatonic and chromatic are terms in music theory that are most often used to characterize scales, and are also applied to musical instruments, intervals, chords, notes, musical styles, and kinds of harmony. They are very often used as a pair, especially when applied to contrasting features of the common practice music of the period 1600–1900.

In music theory, the word inversion has distinct, but related, meanings when applied to intervals, chords, voices, and melodies. The concept of inversion also plays an important role in musical set theory.

In music, the dominant is the fifth scale degree of the diatonic scale. It is called the dominant because it is next in importance to the first scale degree, the tonic. In the movable do solfège system, the dominant note is sung as "So(l)".

References

  1. Pouska, Andrew. "Keys in Music | Harmony". StudyBass.
  2. Willi Apel, Harvard Dictionary of Music (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), 450.
  3. Ken Stephenson, What to Listen for in Rock: A Stylistic Analysis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 48. ISBN   978-0-300-09239-4.
  4. Kent Wheeler Kennan, The Technique of Orchestration, second edition (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970), 1952; ISBN   0-13-900316-9.

Further reading