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So... the key signature largely doesn't matter does it?
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robkramble
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9th March 2012
Old 9th March 2012
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So... the key signature largely doesn't matter does it?

Blasphemous title, but hear me out; assuming you knew all the scales to begin with, you could write the same tune in C Major as in D Major and there'd be no discernable difference, considering it all just boils down to the set ratios of semitones and how you use them for effect. A fifth in both keys will sound the same relative to the tonic.

So why would someone decide to write in a certain key signature over another one? Orchestration/range of instruments or something? Random mood that day? They don't know any scales except C Major?
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9th March 2012
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Vocals and instruments sound different in different registers, and some keys are easier to play certain parts in.
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Theoretically, you're right. In practice, wrong.

They all sound different to me. More to the point, for any given vocalist or instrument, the timbre is going to be different in different keys. Imagine playing the same tune on a guitar at the nut, or at the 7th fret. Sounds radically different. Or me singing something in C or in G. Radically different and maybe impossible in one key. Even a piano's gonna sound different between Bb and the F above it.

But they really do seem to have different characters. Ab vs. D, really not the same thing at all.

I take a lot of time figuring out keys, taking into account all of the above. Even a tone or semitone can change the feel entirely. Trust your ears not your brain.
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9th March 2012
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As IMO a good example, you can check the evolution of the song "Norwegian Wood" by The Beatles (takes are in youtube and Anthology 2, CD1). It was written in D, and they attempted to record it several times in D.

The song is there in the early takes, it´s obviously a good melody, but it doesn´t sound good. It´s the Beatles, it´s their guitars, voices and gear, and the song just doesn´t work.

Then they put capos on their guitars, play it in E, and the song just takes off, sheer magic. All they change is the key from D to E, quite near, but it´s the difference between an ok song sounding like a bad demo, and a classic. To my ears at least.
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10th March 2012
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eh. could be the singers range. sometimes a melody you have in your head is already in a pretty defined key.

I agree above that certain instruments sound different depending on the key. For example when writing from guitar my songs tend to be in E, D, or A. On keys it would be Db, Gb, F, etc.
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10th March 2012
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It's helpful to consider the totality of the song. How high do you want the highest part to go? Where is the sweet spot for the bass line? And as has been said, key is often dictated by a vocalist's sweet spot or comfort zone. I've had it happen where the climax of a song involved a deep bass tone -- but too low and the moment would lack punch, too high and it would lack power. Thus certain keys didn't work (like maybe F or G), but that sweet B two octaves below middle C felt just right. So, I recommend letting the important elements or moments determine the key. Also it's good practice to pick a key at the outset and compose within it. That way you'll be making good key-sensitive decisions throughout.
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10th March 2012
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Equal temperament / tuning systems affect how different keys sound. There are "better" major 3rds than other major 3rds on a piano, for example.
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10th March 2012
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Thomas303 View Post
Equal temperament / tuning systems affect how different keys sound. There are "better" major 3rds than other major 3rds on a piano, for example.
Ah, no. What makes equal temperament equal is that all major 3rds are the same. There are cases like high notes on trumpets where this can be somewhat true, but it is absolutely false regarding piano.

People like to use this subject to pat themselves on the back, eg there shouldn't be a difference but I hear one...I call BS, people write in certain keys on certain instruments mostly because they are more proficient in those keys. If you practice transposing on keys enough, range is about the only real factor regarding keys.

Except of course the fact that D minor is the saddest of all keys....
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10th March 2012
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Thomas303 View Post
An Introduction to Historical Tunings

Is a great read for learning about this intonation and ratios between intervals.
I think you might want to re-read that, he is talking about alternatives to equal temperament.
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10th March 2012
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Thomas303 View Post
Just Intonation Explained

And this one too, Gann's music is also quite wonderful too!
Right, again though this is about the difference between equal temperament and other alternatives like just intonation or mean tone etc.

This is an interesting intellectual pursuit, but it's important to understand that the tuning other than equal have to be relevant to a specific key, so while it can be interesting with a synth, or to tune a piano for all songs played in C, it doesn't work in the real world unless you can have 12 pianos on stage or a guitar with moving frets...
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Quote:
Originally Posted by unitymusic View Post
That's not entirely true. I would think anyone trying to do stuff outside of equal temperament would want there to be a distinction between the sound of keys.
OK for the sake of clarity what may not be entirely true is an assumption that "just-temperament-types" generally tend to think that the idea of just temperament is to move some intervals closer to their pure ratios AND to move others away from it? That's news to me, but to be fair I don't run with just-temperament-types. In fact I see the whole thing as an excuse for generally intelligent people to avoid actual practice, and as an ostensible escape hatch for them when their musical skills are shown to be suspect...Just my opinion/experience. Hard work beats talent that wont work hard.

But on topic, regarding equal temperament, it is a fact that all major 3rds are the same. In fact all intervals are the same in all keys, THAT is the whole idea behind equal temperament. In practice sure you have rote use of just intonation or stretch tuning a piano, but these are not the same as an attempt to institutionalize just intonation and more about performance or tuning practicalities...

Back to really on topic, the biggest difference between one key and another is going to be with vocals, or other instruments with a limited range. Also sub bass instruments have a limited range where they really boom through a subwoofer etc. These things can make a very big difference in a song/style. EG if a metal guy uses a baritone guitar but plays ukulele range you can see where he might not be getting much out of the bari gtr. OTOH they use bari guitars to be able to move to keys that can be more meaty with the distortion.
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13th March 2012
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Every key has a different vibe. Just try to play a certain song in a different key. It changes the atmosphere. Also the frequencies change. Plus what the others said about range and easier to play
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13th March 2012
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I think the key needs to suit the vocalist first and foremost.

THAT is the main thing most listeners key into. If the vocals are flagging, the rest of the band doesn't matter.
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14th March 2012
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Transposing a song by a semitone isn't very noticeable. Once you've moved about three semitones, however, the change is substantial.
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14th March 2012
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Quote:
Originally Posted by hunterw View Post
Transposing a song by a semitone isn't very noticeable. Once you've moved about three semitones, however, the change is substantial.
Transposing a song a semitone can make a huge difference if you're a vocalist. It's bizarre but it's really true, even if the song is still totally within your range.
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Quote:
Originally Posted by RyanC View Post
Right, again though this is about the difference between equal temperament and other alternatives like just intonation or mean tone etc.

This is an interesting intellectual pursuit, but it's important to understand that the tuning other than equal have to be relevant to a specific key, so while it can be interesting with a synth, or to tune a piano for all songs played in C, it doesn't work in the real world unless you can have 12 pianos on stage or a guitar with moving frets...
Generally, music in just intonation played on acoustic instruments either doesn't modulate (as in Indian music), or does so on a limited basis.

The equal temperament conventions of having the same notes in each octave and being able to modulate to any degree of the scale for a piece, just are not conventions in JI.

Particularly, when you have a JI scale, that means the notes are all coming from a specific fundamental. It does not mean that the leftover differences relative to the octaves, and the intervals between the scale notes when used over another root are also JI intervals - they generally aren't.

Usually, a change of the fundamental in a JI piece played on a fixed tuning instrument like piano or fretted guitar is accomplished through planning of specific notes that either can be duplicated in the first key(fundamental), or can be omitted from the set for the first key and left in reserve for the modulation. Sometimes by inconsistently tuned octaves, like one low note and a few higher ones that suffice to outline the secondary key.

Maybe that sounds like a lot of work if you aren't used to it, but it's not that big of a deal considering that you have to retune the piano anyway, and it is a real world method in use for key changes on these instruments without using multiple pianos, etc.
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15th March 2012
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Quote:
Originally Posted by robkramble View Post
Blasphemous title, but hear me out; assuming you knew all the scales to begin with, you could write the same tune in C Major as in D Major and there'd be no discernable difference, considering it all just boils down to the set ratios of semitones and how you use them for effect. A fifth in both keys will sound the same relative to the tonic.

So why would someone decide to write in a certain key signature over another one? Orchestration/range of instruments or something? Random mood that day? They don't know any scales except C Major?
First off, love your profile picture, flylo is the bomb!

Music takes a whole different weird level to somebody with perfect pitch hearing. I'm not perfect pitch, but I'm learning and already starting to feel the difference b/w keys. Like it was said before: Ab is a completely different key than D
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15th March 2012
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Too much intellectual talk about keys. A key doesn't exist in the real world, it's something academic.
The real thing are frequencies. If you change a key signature from C to D, what you're doing is making everything vibrate faster. You're body reacts different, your bones, your organs, everything changes. Harmonics are nothing alike...
If a guitar is made of a certain wood it may sound better at some frequencies that other guitar of a different wood.
We all resonate different.
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15th March 2012
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Quote:
Originally Posted by pinkheadedbug View Post
Transposing a song a semitone can make a huge difference if you're a vocalist. It's bizarre but it's really true, even if the song is still totally within your range.
Indeed. And songs really sound different in other keys. I'm in a Genesis tribute band and we have to play most songs in lower keys as they are other wise too high to sing for our vocalist (well actually, he can sing everything original key, but he cannot do that for the whole performance—but neither can Phil Collins since the late 80ies). We actually dropped songs because they sounded outright bizarre and unrecognisable though we actually just dropped them by one or two semitones (the max we lower is three semitones).
Songs sound unfamiliar and actually lose some of their quality and sometimes power when the key is changed. Though there are songs where it doesn't matter much.

Then there are certain keys that instruments and the human voice sounds best in. They suite the timbre of the instrument better or are easier to play. Most songs are usually written in A, C, D, F, G, Bb or Eb major as these keys for example suite horns/strings better, suite most voices best or are the easiest to play in (keyboards, guitar etc).
Keys like F#, C# and B major are more uncommon.
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16th March 2012
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Thanks for the interesting points.

So, in conclusion, you don't need to give a toss about differentiating key signatures when you're writing instrumental electronic music where "natural" sounding vocals/instruments isn't necessary?
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16th March 2012
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Quote:
Originally Posted by robkramble View Post
Thanks for the interesting points.

So, in conclusion, you don't need to give a toss about differentiating key signatures when you're writing instrumental electronic music where "natural" sounding vocals/instruments isn't necessary?
Music is essentially about "moving" people...Manipulating emotion in some way. While theoretically (and I say this tounge-in-cheek) it doesn't make much of a difference what "key" you play in, certain sounds seem to "emote" better depending on their actual pitch.

While some may disagree with me (and this may be an overly academic example), I feel this has to do with a variance of factors beyond pitch (such as the envelope and resonance of a given sound). While the real magic of "electronic" music comes from the apparent mutability of said characteristics, I think it would be accurate to say that most of what we as people understand as emotion in music comes from such factors. An upright bass sounds like an upright bass, and an upright bass (or bass vocal), heard perfectly in a perfect space, balanced perfectly with every other instrument in an orchestra, will be more naturally moving than any other instrument/sound. An electric guitar, recorded to analog tape at 2x speed and slowed down can sound an awful lot like an electric bass - and yet it still has quite a different effect.

All of this is to say, there are immeasurable effects on how we perceive music. While pitch is probably the most obvious, it is also the most "relative". Most people can't tell if you're playing A440 or A444. However, there is a REAL PHYSICAL DIFFERENCE, even in electronic music. Every person's ear resonates at a slightly different frequency. They have a varied transient response, and their brain interprets things slightly differently.

It's probably similar to the claim that scratch-made bread tastes differently in different locations in the world, even if made by the exact same person, by the exact same process. The different molecules in the air lend a very slightly different flavor and texture to the finished product. Combine this with memories and emotions, and you have a whole other thing altogether.

Previous posters are very correct when they say that just-tuning systems sound substantially different from equal-tempered systems. Anyone who can't hear a noticeable emotive impact needs to get their ears checked. That isn't to say that equal-tempered systems are useless - in fact, it's to the contrary. But by now I'm rambling.

At any rate, the only real answer is to try and play things in different keys. Try different tunings perhaps. Hell, try modulating your tuning slightly on different instruments at varying points during a song. A perfect 5th here will sound much better vs an equally-tempered 5th, and an equally-tempered augmented 6th might be just what the doctor ordered to get the point across. I would venture (and perhaps hope) to say that there will never be a way to simplify music (correctly) down to its fundamental elements - it is simply too complex (much like the "science" of acoustics). Make your music in whatever way it does it's job (emotes) the best.
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16th March 2012
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Even in electronic music, the key will make a difference.

For example, if you have a resonant filter at 1000 Hz, it's going to respond differently if you play a melody in A or you play it in C.

Saying that the key makes no difference is like saying the BPM makes no difference. If you change the key the melody is going to be higher or lower - that's going to make it sound different, just as if you played it slower or faster.
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Sure it matters since different keys correspond to different sound characteristics... you rise the song 1 1/2 step and the singer's voice sounds strangled or the bass lacks punch...

When I transpose a song I need to work on the arrangement to compensate this shift of frequencies
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22nd March 2012
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Quote:
Originally Posted by robkramble View Post

... assuming you knew all the scales to begin with, you could write the same tune in C Major as in D Major and there'd be no discernable difference, considering it all just boils down to the set ratios of semitones and how you use them for effect. A fifth in both keys will sound the same relative to the tonic.


Yes, exactly. There's would be a *discernible* difference for someone with perfect pitch, and trained musicians might notice something was different from the original, but you can pick any song & transpose it to any key, and the song will still be easily identifiable.


There's a great explanation of it in this book:

Amazon.com: How Music Works: The Science and Psychology of Beautiful Sounds, from Beethoven to the Beatles and Beyond (9780316098304): John Powell: Books
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