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The Key is the key!


The Star of Munster is a classic Irish reel, normally played in the key of A minor. It falls easily under the fingers and you might wonder why anyone would ever play it in another key. However, on his 1978 album “If the Cap Fits”, Sligo fiddler Kevin Burke recorded a version in the lower key of G minor. In this key he was able to get a lot of extra open strings and drones, and a driving old timey American feel. On his debut album in 1993, fiddler Martin Hayes also recorded Star of Munster in G minor. His version however was very different. Typically of him, the performance is dark and sonorous. He uses no drones, but exploits the different key, for example, by using a short variation phrase which goes up to B flat on the E string. In A minor this would have required an awkward shift in position.

All very interesting, but what’s my point? It’s very easy to learn a tune in one key, and play it that way for the rest of your life, never wondering why it is in that key, and why a different key may open up a whole new way of playing it.

In this this article I want to look at many different aspects of the question, does a tune’s key matter, and if so how and why? Do different keys have intrinsically different moods and feels, and is this to do with individual instruments? What is the situation in different genres of music? What happens with a classical orchestra, and why do composers choose particular keys? What is the People’s Key? And why did Nigel Tuffnel in Spinal Tap call D minor the saddest of all keys?

The Key of a tune

First of all, what exactly do we mean by the key of a tune? You can think of a tune, or a scale, as simply a set of intervals, - the spaces between the notes. No matter what note you start on, providing all the intervals are the same, it will remain the same tune no matter what note you start on. Every key has a home note or tonic, and this defines the key. If generated by a computer, you will hear no difference between a tune played in the key of C and the same tune in the key of C sharp, except that one will appear slightly higher.

However, this was not always the case. Up until the 18thC, western folk and classical music both used untempered scales, based on natural harmonic intervals, which basically come to us through the laws of physics. Also called Pythagorean intervals, they produce simple melodies which sound perfect to the human ear. However, in the context of orchestral music, untempered scales are fatally flawed. Each scale or key has slightly different intervals, and therefore a different character. You would definitely be able to hear the difference between a tune in C and one in C sharp.

The characteristics of keys

In 1682 the French composer Charpentier, in his “rules of composition”, attempted to ascribe emotional characteristics to all of the different keys, describing, for example C major as “obscure and sad”, while D major was “joyous and very warlike” and E flat major was “cruel and hard”. There is no doubt that to any individual, the different keys would indeed have different emotional feels, but to ascribe such specific characteristics to them was highly subjective and problematic.

Quite aside from the characteristics of different untempered keys, as classical music developed these keys started to become increasingly unusable. They did not deal at all well with complex harmony, and did not allow for changes of key within a piece. This led to a dramatic change in approach, with the creation of the tempered scale. Instead of basing scales on natural Pythagorean intervals, the octave was now split completely equally, so that every interval was exactly the same. Either by modifying the instrument itself (for example by retuning a keyboard, or by changing the technique (for example the fingering on a violin), or some combination of both, over a number of years it became possible for most instruments to be able to harmonise together, and change key together. The change in the sound of a tune played tempered or untempered was not so great that it could not be accepted by the human ear.

Untempered scales in folk music

Within folk music, however, there were special problems. Some instruments, such as the Uilleann pipes or Highland bagpipes, continued to be untempered. New instruments such as the accordion were tempered. The two together would often clash very badly. The fiddle lay somewhere in between; it was capable of playing either tempered or untempered, but when a fiddle met an accordion, the fiddler had no choice but to abandon the older (and arguably richer) tradition of untempered scales, and switch to the new, “cleaned up” tempered scale. Accordions would often also dictate the key; even today many Cajun fiddlers tune down to C in order to play with the C diatonic accordion .

Returning to the classical world, composers continued to ascribe emotion to particular keys, even as those differences were disappearing. The German composer Christian Schubart in 1806 made his own list, describing for example C major as “Completely Pure. Its character is: innocence, simplicity, naďvety, children's talk.”. D major was “The key of triumph, of Hallejuahs, of war-cries, of victory-rejoicing. Thus, the inviting symphonies, the marches, holiday songs and heaven-rejoicing choruses are set in this key.” E flat major was “The key of love, of devotion, of intimate conversation with God.” -quite a difference from Charpentier’s “cruel and hard” for the same key.

It seems likely that the idea of characteristics for different keys had become so established that composers remained attached to the idea even after its rationale had largely disappeared. Certain associations with specific previous compositions, along with their associated keys, probably provided an unconscious bias.

Perfect pitch and synaesthesia

For a certain, very limited group of musicians, this was not the case. Perfect pitch is the ability to recognise an individual note by name without any point of reference. A person with perfect pitch could walk up to a piano, having heard no music for hours before, could sing any note and then immediately play the same note on the keyboard, confirming that the note was totally and accurately ingrained in the mind.

In even rarer cases, a person can have synaesthesia. With this strange condition, senses are linked so that, for example, a person will consistently associate a particular note with a particular colour. The note G might then be perceived as the colour green, with an A note a completely different colour. With both perfect pitch and synaesthesia, every key could indeed have very different feeling, even with a completely tempered scale. Two contemporary Russian composers both had synaesthesia, and were able to compare notes. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov considered the key of C to be white, while his friend Alexander Scriabin considered it to be red. Both, however, agreed that D major was yellow.

So far, in the classical context, we have mostly considered the orchestra as a whole. Things change considerably when you consider individual instruments, and for modern composers it is often the most dominant instrument which will define the key.

Favourite keys for fiddlers

On the violin, for example, there are four strings which may, either deliberately or inadvertently, ring on their own if the instrument is being played but the string not fingered. This sympathetic ringing will be greater, and have a more potentially positive effect, if the key is close to or the same as the open string in question. The keys of G, D and A therefore will all benefit from ringing of the fifth on the string above if the open string of the tonic is played. In the key of E flat, by contrast, any ringing, or accidental sounding of another open string will create dissonance, and the overall effect will be more muted. Classical violinists tend to use fourth fingers rather than open strings, allowing use of vibrato on all notes, and evening out the sound of all the notes on a scale. Folk fiddlers on the other hand usually prefer open strings where possible, giving each key a distinctive set of characteristics. The open string has quite a different sound to the fourth finger, so by listening carefully it is possible to identify the key of a fiddle tune, with only a vague idea of the pitch, on the basis of where the open strings occur.

The famous Scottish fiddler Scott Skinner in the 19th and early 20thC brought an impressive classical technique into the world of traditional fiddling. In his book “A guide to Bowing”, he set out his own list of key characteristics as related to the fiddle’

C major; Bold, but piercing

A minor; Sad and plaintive

G major; Plenty of body

E minor; Sterile - thin

D major Splendid body

B minor; Rather sad

A major; The Fiddle Key

F# minor; Exquisitely harrowing

E; Brilliant, but lacking in body

F; Thinnish

Bb; Velvet - very rich and fine

Eb and C minor Weird, fascinating and beautifully sad

scott skinner Scott Skinner

He said that “keys, to the composer, are as colours to the artist”. From a fiddler’s point of view, this list of key characteristics makes a lot of sense, and is much easier to justify than the somewhat nebulous lists of previous classical composers. What he refers to as “body” refers largely to the sympathetic ringing of adjacent strings, which we have already described. His reference to A as “the fiddle key” is easily justified. If the two competitors are G and D, A wins out on the basis that the tunes as a whole will usually be higher in pitch, and therefore have brighter feel. It is, however, a rather Scots-centric view. There is a higher proportion of A tunes in Scotland than in Ireland, for example. This probably relates to the pipes. Scottish bagpipes are tuned close to B flat, though in the past this was closer to A and if written, pipe tunes appear in the key of A. The Irish Uilleann pipes, however, are best in or near the key of D, and probably the majority of Irish tunes are in this key.

Another obvious factor to be born in mind is that some keys are easier to play than others. On the fiddle, G,D and A major, played as a single octave and starting on the open string, all have the same easy fingering pattern, and these are the keys that most players would learn first as beginners. Keys with more flats or sharps have different finger patterns, and certainly a beginner would find them more difficult. Many traditional players will never venture beyond a handful of home keys. However, this is not to say that more difficult keys are ruled out. The great Scottish composer William Marshall enjoyed flat keys, and wrote many tunes in B flat and E flat. When asked why he chose such difficult keys, he responded “I dinna write tunes for bunglers!”

In Ireland’s County Clare, flat keys such as F,B flat or even E flat are also not uncommon, giving a particularly wistful feel to some music from that region. Sean McGuire, from Belfast, was a fiddler somewhat in the Scott Skinner vein in that he used a lot of classical technique in his traditional playing, and thought nothing of playing in outlandish keys. It is said that on McGuire’s arrival at a session in Philadelphia, the resident trad fiddler John Vasey, stood up to announce, “There will be no playing in the Flat Keys in this house tonight!”

Key preference in different musical styles

In other types of music, different factors effect the prevalence of keys. In jazz, the majority of the solo instruments (woodwind and brass) prefer flat keys, making this a particular challenge for a violinist. The exception is gypsy jazz which, dominated as it is by guitars and violins, has much more friendly keys such as G and D. In bluegrass and old time music, anything written for or arranged with a 5 string banjo in mind is most likely to be in G, as the fifth, drone string is a G. For most guitarists in these styles, a key change is usually achieved with the use of a capo, and most tunes are fingered as if they were in G, a key which allows them lots of use of open strings, and in which all the open strings are within the key. Interestingly, old time fiddle players are usually far more aware of keys than Irish trad players, since they are far more likely to use a selection of open tunings, and also have to spend a lot of time watching banjo players retune and guitarists fiddling with their capos. For bluegrass and country players, a singer is often an important and sometimes unwelcome part of the equation. The singer is often in a position to choose the key to suit their own voice, often resulting in the backing musicians being forced into keys which would otherwise be avoided. Bill Monroe, the founder of bluegrass, particularly liked to sing in the key of B, and this remains a challenge to bluegrass fiddlers to this day.

The People's Key

G is sometimes referred to as “the people’s key”, and a survey of all the songs on Spotify did indeed show G major to be the most common key (10%), closely followed by C, D and A. Contemporary songs are mostly written on guitar or keyboard, for both of which G is one of the easiest keys, though some guitarists regard E as the People’s Key. Surprisingly, in fifth place is C sharp major, and you have to wonder who could possibly choose this as the starting point for a song!

Key changes

There are some circumstances in which the key is particularly important because of its relationship to another key. In an old time picking session, players will often choose to stay in the same key for a number of consecutive tunes, in order to save the banjo players having to retune or, if scordatura is being used, the fiddle players. However, in a performance or recording situation, or in an Irish session where a number of tunes are being played in a medley, a well chosen key change may add lift, excitement and drama as one tune moves to the next. One of my favourite reel sets is Catharsis (Gm) leading into Dinky’s (A major) and finally Mitton’s Reel in B flat. When placed together like this, the set is much more than the sum of its parts. Another reel, the Pinch of Snuff, has become a bit of an oddity in that it is usually played as a cycle of keys, from D to G to A, back to D up an octave and then all the way round again. A short, simple and very repetitive tune is thus transformed into something packed with interest and variety.

How do you decide which key changes are most effective? Moving up a tone is a simple and usually effective strategy. G to A, for example, will in most cases raise the average pitch of the notes in a tune and, probably more importantly, even if the root note or tonic chord is not heard, the ear will register the rise in key, ad result in a feeling of “lift”. People often refer to the “brightness” of keys, and state that the higher the key, the brighter it is. However, the truth is really not that simple. Few people would disagree that A sounds brighter than G. An A tune is, on the fiddle, likely to use a lot of open A and E strings, and much of the melody is likely to be on the upper rather than lower strings. But what about the key of E? The tonic, if played on the E string, is obviously higher than A, but if the overall range of the tune is around an octave, it will have to be lower, rather than higher than the key of A, since , in first position, you will soon run out of notes above the E string. You will also have far fewer ringing or droning strings.

Some musicians have found a way of dodging these limitations- using the convenient fingering of conventional keys, while at the same time raising the overall pitch, thereby benefiting from the increased brightness, volume and excitement of the overall sound. This is done by simply tuning up the fiddle higher than standard, and doing the same with any other instruments in the band. This was the common practice with the pioneering bluegrass band Flatt and Scruggs, who tuned up just under a semitone, so that their G note was almost G sharp. Some Irish musicians, including the fiddler Frankie Gavin and the band Dervish commonly tune up a semitone. The limitations of this practice, however, are obvious. The fiddle will not safely tune up much above a semitone, and, unless the whole world also tunes up, the likes of Frankie Gavin will always have to tune down again when playing outside their own circle of musicians.

We’ve talked about the relative difficulty of keys, their suitability for different instruments, the effect, on fiddles, of open strings, and whether or not keys have any intrinsic characteristics regardless of instrument. Let’s now return to where we started, and consider whether key has any bearing on phrasing, ornamentation and variation. The ornament known as the roll ( a turn, to classical musicians) is, on the fiddle, most easy and effective starting on a first finger, going up to the third, back to the first, down to the open string, and back up to the first finger. The jig Morrison’s, in the key of E minor, makes good use of two such rolls as the opening phrase, on the D and A strings. Try shifting it down to D minor, or up to F minor, and the ornament becomes more difficult and not nearly as satisfying. Shift up a fifth to B minor, and the second half of the tune goes outside first position. Shift down a fifth to A minor, and the tune is playable but, because it is now a lot lower, has far less sparkle and brightness. Thus a simple but important ornament more or less dictates the key. The fact that most trad players will not venture beyond first position, also dictates limitations to key if the highest note is a B on the E string.

In conclusion, it is clear that in early music, because of the untempered scale, every key was intrinsically different, no matter what the instrument, because each key had a different set of intervals. With the arrival of the tempered scale, the situation became more complex and subtle, but overall, keys across music as a whole became less distinctive. When considering individual instruments, however, the difference between keys remains significant, especially for stringed instruments where the open strings greatly influence the sound.

It seems that most traditional fiddle tunes have a standard key which suits the fingering, the range, and ornamentation, and decades or centuries of compromise with other instruments have also helped to cement these keys. If you are looking for an easy life, there is no reason why you should ever question this. However, if you are bored with a particular tune, are looking for a challenge, or want to create your own distinctive version, perhaps for a recording or performance, there is a great deal to be learned and achieved by trying out different keys. Almost every detail of the tune from pitch to tone to fingering, ornamentation and variation will all magically change, maybe even for the better!

This article first appeared in Living Tradition magazine


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