Why is music written in a particular key?

Image courtesy of Ethan Hein

Why do composers and songwriters write their music in a particular key?

As a composer, instrumentalist or even as a listener, understanding key centers and why they are chosen can be useful. Certain key centers have been historically associated with particular concepts or moods; for example, A and G have been considered “military” keys while E-flat (key of Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony and “Emperor” concerto) is considered royal or heroic. The characteristics of particular keys even works its way into the rock’n’roll parody film “This Is Spinal Tap” in which Christopher Guest’s character describes d minor as “the saddest of all keys.” 

There can be any number of reasons why a musician can elect to choose a particular key center for writing or performing. For many singer-songwriters, the key is often chosen to fit their own vocal range. Instrumentalists who write their own music might similarly be influenced by the strengths or limitations of their instrument. On the piano, the keys of C major and a minor are the most accessible, as their diatonic scales consist of all natural notes. On the other hand, stringed instruments are often better suited to the “sharp” side of the Circle of Fifths, in keys such as G, D, A and E and woodwinds are aligned for the “flatted” keys such as F, B-flat and E-flat.

When writing music, trying new keys can be a good way to break out of ruts, either for finding inspiration for a new piece or fine-tuning an existing one; for example, if a piece feels as if it is missing something, playing it in a different key might shed new light on it and make it feel more complete. For composers who write on and for a specific instrument, breaking out of the commonly used keys for that instrument can be a good technical challenge and a way of exploring new sounds. Guitarists and other stringed instrumentalists in particular can explore new sounds even without the technical demands of non-friendly keys by tuning down or using capos and electronic keyboards can be manipulated to accomplish the same thing.

Following are a few examples of why certain Outside Pedestrian tunes have been written in specific keys.

Instrumental considerations

Since O.P. is a guitar and bass oriented band, much of the music has been written on those instruments. 

Open strings

Anthony Fesmire: The open strings on the guitar have a particular color, brought out in the Em9 chord at the beginning of “The Sound” and the power chords at the beginning of “Dream.”

David Lockeretz: In ‘Marbakki’, by writing it in the key of D and using drop-D tuning, the first three notes are all played on open strings, which fills up space. Filling up space without necessarily playing more notes is a goal with O.P. because there are only two melodic instruments. In ”Marbakki” in particular, there are no harmonies or counterpoint, so being able to play those three notes on open strings is a big part of how the tune sounds. The bass riff in “Northern California Highway Song” has a similar origin. By setting it in g minor, the first three notes – G, A, D – are all open strings, and that fills up the space.

Fretted notes instead of open strings

Sometimes on a guitar or bass, a fretted note offers advantages an open string doesn’t have.

Lockeretz: “Rattlesnakes” is in f minor because even though the melody is pretty intricate, the harmonies are simple and the bass spends a lot of time on that low F [first fret on the lowest string]. Having it as a fretted note, rather than an open string as it would have been in the key of e minor, gives me more choices for articulating it. I can mute with either hand, instead of just the right. Also, the tune was originally written for a pre-Outside Pedestrian band that had an alto sax player and by playing it in f minor, the highest note of the melody was the same as the highest note on the alto, which helped give it the sharpness we were looking for. At one point we tried playing it in d minor and something was missing. It didn’t have the same punch.

Range

Fesmire: Depending on the composition, it may be necessary for chords, melodies, etc. to fall in a low, middle, or high range on an instrument to achieve the proper effect. For example, the A section of “Tower One” uses chord voicings that move progressively higher. In this case, A was chosen as the key center to accommodate the climbing nature of this section.

Other considerations

Key center journey

Not all music stays in the same key from start to finish; in fact, if you find yourself stuck, jumping to a new key center can be a good technique for unlocking new ideas. Sometimes, simply repeating the same material in the new key can be enough to move the composition forward; the jazz standard “What’s New” features an A-A-B-A- form in which the B section is the same as the A, but in a different key.  

Fesmire: If a composition moves through a variety of key centers, the original key will impact those relationships. For example, my tune “Dream” starts in e minor and moves to g minor (an adaptation of the relative major). G was used because of its relationship to E. 

Contrafacts

A contrafact is a piece of music based on a previous work. Charlie Parker was one of the first jazz musicians to extensively explore the concept: His tune “Donna Lee” is based on the old swing standard “Indiana” and another of his signature compositions, “Ornithology” is based on “How High the Moon.” A more recent example is Mike Stern’s tune “One-Liners”, based on the standard “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise.” 

Outside Pedestrian contrafacts include “Tweaked” (based on “Speak No Evil” by Wayne Shorter) and “Jake’s Shuffle” (based on “So What” by Miles Davis). A contrafact does not have to be in the same key as its source material, but it’s a logical place to start. 

Where do you hear it?

Sometimes the seed of an idea comes when the composer is not near an instrument. If the composer is able to keep the fragment in their head, when they get to an instrument (assuming they don’t have perfect pitch) they can figure out the key in which they first internally heard the idea. 

Lockeretz: I came up with the riff for “Big Leo” when I was away from any instrument. When I got a chance to play it, I figured out that I was hearing it in c-sharp minor. I don’t think I’d ever tried writing anything in that key, so I decided to go with it.  

Additional resources

Article about the characteristics of musical keys

Article about why composers might pick a certain key

Article with examples of jazz contrafacts

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