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I'm sure I could figure this out by trial and error, but maybe someone already has a handle on this....


It seems there must be certain key signatures that work best for different styles/moods/textures. For instance, if I want something dramatic, I would want to choose a key that puts the French horns or other brass in their best registers for "punching" the strings. Or if I want something quiet or mysterious, I would want a key that puts both strings and woodwinds in a comfortable range, so they don't get shrill or harsh when they climb.

See what I mean? Does anyone have a chart or just rules of thumb for this sort of thing? If not, maybe we can get some experimentation going and make a discussion of it....

-Norman

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Although all modern intruments are chromatic and can play in any key, there may be something in what you are saying.

Does anyone know if collected strings sound best in keys like D and G where there are more open sympathetic strings?

Would a large group of strings sound more subdued in a key like Ab major?

There have been whole essays written on the different sounds each string on a violin makes. if you play a note on the A string, and then play the same note on the E string, it sounds different. Often when precise sound is required composers (well, I do)  notate the string they want the note to be played on.

First stop, Second stop and open also affect these sounds.

I say this because the way a string instrument plays a note is variable depending on the key signature. Also note that I don't play a string instrument, this knowledge is coming from string player friends of mine.


The points you make regarding the registers and timbres for instruments are absolutely major parts in key consideration.

I myself have my own way of selecting a key signature; the more warm and rich I want the sound, the more flats I have, and the more open and delicate sounds are left to the sharps. iunnolol.

It may come down to personal preference, I think it was Beethoven who wrote bright pieces in D because he though that was a bright set of notes.

When I hear a piece in my head, I usually can figure out the first note, then figure out the scale from there, and work out my key. Otherwise, since I have played so much rock on guitar, a lot of pieces come to me E, both Major and Minor.

Yes it would, because neither tonic nor dominant notes resonate with any strings in their lower partials.

I suppose "easy keys" being more vibrant applies to all instruments. A Bb trumpet sounds best in Bb, because that's when it resembles a natural trumpet the most. Tell the player to play in C#, though, and apart from adding difficulty you'll probably get passages that are harder to bring forth.

Adrian Allan said:


Would a large group of strings sound more subdued in a key like Ab major?

The thing with key signatures is that some are used more often than others. If you want the music to sound fresh, use a key signature that uses lots of sharps or flats. The key of E used to be my favorite; it was later replaced by A (which differ in only the D#). When I write metal with my guitarist friend, who plays almost exclusively in drop C tuning, we usually compose in either C minor or F minor. We yield better results when we write in F minor.



Raymond Kemp said:

If it sounds right, it is right.

But how do you know before it has been perfomed?

by which time it is too late!

We're talking about the planning stages.

Raymond Kemp said:

But how do you know before it has been perfomed?

 

If it sounds right, then it obviously has already been performed!

OK so far. Now let me rephrase one of my original scenarios....

Let's say I'm composing a piece that is robust and dramatic, with strings and horns. I want the horns to play the 5th of the tonic, and I want them to pierce through the strings when they do that. In some keys, the 5th of the tonic might not be in the best "piercing" range of the horns. Instead, they sound dark. And going up an octave might be too high for them, or going up an octave would sound ridiculous. But there is some key  or range of keys in which the horns can play a 5th and sound very appropriate and forceful.

This is just one example. I could just as easily choose a scenario in which I want woodwinds to sound dark, and there must be a key or range of keys where they do that best.

That was the intent of my original post -- looking for key signatures that match the parts of instruments' ranges that I want to use to best advantage, to achieve a particular mood or texture.

Any thoughts?

I was under the impression that one should always, and in all circumstances, write in D Flat Major.

And yet, no matter hard they may try, no composer has yet succeeded in doing that.

As far as "putting the French horns or other brass in their best registers," I am not sure that has anything to do with the actual key you write in.  

Don't instruct your horn player to play above high C (two octaves above the horn's middle C) is what they usually say.  

 

But my own view is, set the limit that you think sounds right, whatever key you are writing in.  

The question is, I think, more about how far up (or down) you wish to push the instruments, not so much about what key you are writing in.

Keys are supposed to have different moods, but I don't believe that, since no one can agree on what those mood are.  (People only agree on what moods are produced by specific PIECES of music written in certain keys, not on the effect produced by a key "in general.")

The note A flat produces a feeling, or a mood, but what is it?  Keys only produce moods relative to the notes that are actually contained in the piece that is written.    The key of C major has a different mood if the piece being played has a larger or smaller number of G's than E's,  and that is because the only thing that really counts is the "mode," as Olivier Messiaen successfully proved.   And of course, keys only produce moods relative to the shifts made from one key to the other.   It is far more complex than the teachers of composition say.   Rules about keys and key changes don't really mean that much, because if you change a multitude of notes without changing the key, the mood can be changed entirely.   

Who knows?   Even melody and rhythm and timbre may have something to do with "mood"?   I won't even mention harmony in this context.

Oh, yes.  You said, "I'm sure I could figure this out by trial and error. . ."

That may be the only way you can figure anything out at all in music.   You can try applying a general rule, or a suggestion, but ultimately you are going to have to put that rule "on trial" in a particular circumstance, and you will have to see if that move is an "error," or not.   

This might seem shocking, or even counter intuitive.  But it has been proven mathematically that there are more possible note combinations in a ten minute piece of music than there are atoms in the entire physical universe.   Given that fact, it's a wonder that so much of our popular music sounds so similar.

Hmm, that list sounds fairly right.  I don't agree with everything there, but for the most part, I do agree.  As for how I choose keys, it's usually the key the initial idea came to me in.  All my ideas stay in the key they came to me in, unless there is a very good reason for me not to keep it in that key (ex. writing for a beginning ensemble and wanting it to sound in tune).  

Jon Corelis said:

There's a fanciful but interesting list of supposed key moods in Christian Schubart's Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst (1806).  The original is available in Google Books, and an English translation of that particular passage is available in several places on the internet, including here.

Personally, I aways search for the Goldilocks key:  not too high, not too low, but just right.

Studying underneath a musicologist in the greater Boston area, I've been encouraged to grow in knowledge within this life I lead, as such: I've investigated various synthetic relationships and organic relationships with regards to answering the question what key or keys are best to utilize for a certain affect/effect. I've concluded that assigning an affect/effect to a given pitch, interval, chord, scale/mode, or a combination thereof is useless.

Illustrating the above point, I once wrote a computer program that:

  1. calculated the visible light frequencies for human beings from their corresponding wavelengths.
  2. calculated the audible frequencies within a temperament given an origin pitch.
  3. calculated corresponding frequencies audible:visible.

Using the data from the aforementioned program:

  1. I first superimposed a color wheel onto a pitch wheel based upon the data collected.
  2. I then superimposed the above created wheel with a basic emotion wheel.

As a theorist and composer, I found the above sojourn to be stimulating on an intellectual level, yet lacking in objectivity and universality. I, however, as a theorist and composer, didn't find the above sojourn to be stimulating on an emotional level. Since the sojourn didn't resolve the problem --- "narrowing choices within music via an objective universal color-pitch-emotion wheel", then I found edification impossible.

I, at present, believe that the experience of color and pitch and emotion is too individual for an objective universal model to be constructed. I, at present, believe that the best approach is:

  1. Understanding the overtone series in relationship to instrument construction on a basic level.
  2. Understanding what is and what isn't complex and difficult for each instrument.
  3. Understanding what is and what isn't idiomatic for each instrument.
  4. Understanding that if the work is for people --- not to compose for computer.

e.g. If during a symphonic composition I desire to have a darker sound and I desire for the strings to be included in this section, then I'd select a key signature that didn't utilize open strings, which are the key signature of 5, 6, 7 's or 5, 6, 7 's. I'd desire to write the composition in flats, as flats have a psychological effect on performers which results in a darker emotional presentation. I'd desire for the key signature to be 6 ♭'s, as this places standard orchestral instruments in the following manner:

  • C Instruments: 6 ♭'s
  • B Instruments: 4 ♭'s 
  • A Instruments: 3 ♯'s
  • F Instruments: 5 ♭'s
  • E Instruments: 3 ♭'s

In this case I wouldn't write for instruments in "A", such as the clarinet in "A" --- too bright for desired darkness both in instrumental color and key color. I also wouldn't write for instruments in "E♭", such as the clarinet in "E♭" --- too bright for desired darkness in instrumental color and not key color. In a standard orchestra, I'd be using an English Horn, Horns in F, and Strings (for a dark melancholy sound).

Thanks. Not being a string player myself, I appreciate your taking the time to detail what others have hinted at in regard to open strings and the use of flats or sharps for various applications and effects. I suppose the rest is just a matter of experimentation.....



Gordon Francis Blaney Jr. said:

Studying underneath a musicologist in the greater Boston area, I've been encouraged to grow in knowledge within this life I lead, as such: I've investigated various synthetic relationships and organic relationships with regards to answering the question what key or keys are best to utilize for a certain affect/effect. I've concluded that assigning an affect/effect to a given pitch, interval, chord, scale/mode, or a combination thereof is useless.

Illustrating the above point, I once wrote a computer program that:

  1. calculated the visible light frequencies for human beings from their corresponding wavelengths.
  2. calculated the audible frequencies within a temperament given an origin pitch.
  3. calculated corresponding frequencies audible:visible.

Using the data from the aforementioned program:

  1. I first superimposed a color wheel onto a pitch wheel based upon the data collected.
  2. I then superimposed the above created wheel with a basic emotion wheel.

As a theorist and composer, I found the above sojourn to be stimulating on an intellectual level, yet lacking in objectivity and universality. I, however, as a theorist and composer, didn't find the above sojourn to be stimulating on an emotional level. Since the sojourn didn't resolve the problem --- "narrowing choices within music via an objective universal color-pitch-emotion wheel", then I found edification impossible.

I, at present, believe that the experience of color and pitch and emotion is too individual for an objective universal model to be constructed. I, at present, believe that the best approach is:

  1. Understanding the overtone series in relationship to instrument construction on a basic level.
  2. Understanding what is and what isn't complex and difficult for each instrument.
  3. Understanding what is and what isn't idiomatic for each instrument.
  4. Understanding that if the work is for people --- not to compose for computer.

e.g. If during a symphonic composition I desire to have a darker sound and I desire for the strings to be included in this section, then I'd select a key signature that didn't utilize open strings, which are the key signature of 5, 6, 7 's or 5, 6, 7 's. I'd desire to write the composition in flats, as flats have a psychological effect on performers which results in a darker emotional presentation. I'd desire for the key signature to be 6 ♭'s, as this places standard orchestral instruments in the following manner:

  • C Instruments: 6 ♭'s
  • B Instruments: 4 ♭'s 
  • A Instruments: 3 ♯'s
  • F Instruments: 5 ♭'s
  • E Instruments: 3 ♭'s

In this case I wouldn't write for instruments in "A", such as the clarinet in "A" --- too bright for desired darkness both in instrumental color and key color. I also wouldn't write for instruments in "E♭", such as the clarinet in "E♭" --- too bright for desired darkness in instrumental color and not key color. In a standard orchestra, I'd be using an English Horn, Horns in F, and Strings (for a dark melancholy sound).

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