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How Does a Song’s Key Affect its Sound?

Performing to a certain key is a mainstay of music education. Whether you are learning to sing or play an instrument, your instructor will insist that you stay faithful to the key. There are various reasons why it is crucial to recognize, find, and stick to a key when learning music. First of all, it is a matter of tonality, which is something that all humans, and even many animals, enjoy hearing. When it comes to sound, we like the idea of stability, and this is why we prefer to hear music that is played or arranged around a key. Second, music is traditionally easier to listen to when it is on-key; we will discuss certain exceptions later in this article, but they involve intellectual and cultural nuances.

During the Baroque period, composers and musicians noticed that on-key performance was something that developed naturally. Music that was played in Ancient Greece for religious and social celebration purposes was believed to have come from sacred Muses. Thinkers such as Pythagoras assigned mathematical meaning to the concepts of intervals, melodies, and harmonies; they believed that acoustics reflected the sounds of the cosmos, which is why they studied measurements that would later become notation.

When ancient priests sung poetry at a funeral in Greece, they adhered to a key because they assumed it would please their pagan gods. They also played instruments such as the lyre, the pan pipe, and the aulos, which were probably not easy to play, thus forcing performers to find ways in which they could deliver on-key sounds. More importantly, these ancient musicians realized that reaction to tonality was crucial in terms of performance. Getting back to funeral music performance in Ancient Greece, we can safely assume that musicians did not play in major key signatures because the occasion did not call for joyful celebration.

Choosing Musical Keys is a Matter of Emotion

The practice of on-key singing and instrumental performance boils down to cultural conditioning. The ancient musicians of Greece wanted to keep the right mood through ceremonies; to this effect, they stayed on major keys during jubilees and on minor keys through solemn funerals. A pan flute player jumping from a minor to a major key in the midst of a funeral would have been admonished, chastised, and probably thrown out of the ceremony.

Getting back to the Baroque composers and their subsequent colleagues of the Romantic period, we can hear emotional intent becoming far more sophisticated for the purpose of storytelling. Quite a few instrumental opus works from these periods are better at telling stories than operas. When we hear a masterpiece such as Ein Heldenleben by Richard Strauss, we are given cues related to the journey in the life of a hero, and these cues move as follows:

  • The hero triumphantly disposes of his or her adversaries in the key of B major.
  • We get to learn about the hero’s companion in the key of G flat.
  • We are treated to G flat when the hero retires.
  • We are spared a funeral march because Strauss felt it would have been too much of a downer, but he briefly considered including one that featured a range of minor keys.

Emotional intent forms the basis of on-key performances. Through centuries of cultural conditioning, we have learned to assign emotions to specific keys, and this is not limited to Western culture. When we hear the folkloric music of Ghana, which thrives on minor keys, we can understand how it evolved into the blues sung by African slaves indentured to work in American fields.

Common Emotions in Music

Through centuries of musical tradition, we have become accustomed to the following inferences as they relate to associating music to emotions. It is important to discuss the C tonality, which we consider to sound friendly and easy to perform in any situation. Why is the third note in the musical scale a keynote? This has more to do with ancient notation and numerology than with sound itself. In early versions of the piano, the white keys were tuned to key of C; in turn, this came from ancient beliefs that gave fundamental importance to the number three.

It does not take long for someone who wants to learn guitar to play C chords. Guitar tutors know that students will smile once they figure out how to strum to the key of C; this is a matter of familiarity because rhythm guitar players have been playing in this fashion since the days of ragtime. When we hear the C signature key being played on any instrument, it familiarity evokes warmth. Even hip-hop producers who come up with melodies and beats will sit down at the keyboard and start off with C before thinking about other tonalities.

What’s funny about C is that mathematicians in Ancient Greece should have seen that it can be measured in the same way as F or G, but they were not impervious to the fact that singers gravitated to C because it was easier to do so in a vocal range sense. We think that jumping from C minor to C major is comfortable, but it shouldn’t be any easier than going from Eb major to F minor.

With this in mind, the different musical notes bring out different feelings when we play them. It’s not exactly the same for every person, but it’s usually not far off.
Imagine you want to paint a picture of sky. You’ll need some blue paint, or maybe some orange to paint a sky at sunset. Now imagine you want to make a happy song.

You’ll need some Do, Mi, Sol or some Fa, La, Do. Imagine you want your melody to be bright and playful – you’ll need some Sol and La. Or if you want it to be restful, try some Mi and Do. It’s not always the same for everyone…what do you think the notes sound like?

With the above in mind, here are some emotions associated with the Solfege Hand-Signs:

  • Do: Strong
  • Re: Rising
  • Mi: Peaceful & Restful
  • Fa: Thoughtful & Inspiring
  • Sol: Grand & Bright
  • La: Happy, Sad & Playful
  • Ti: Piercing
  • do: Solid & Strong

As you can see from the associations above, this can change the character of a musical piece.

Going Off-Key: When Pitch and Tune Do Not Match Ideas

Centuries of music have conditioned us to react positively to on-key singing and instrumental performances. Even if we do not know much about music, we can recognize when performers go off-key; perhaps their instruments were not tuned or they struck an incorrect note by accident. We have these ideas about key signatures and how they should transition; if we are thrown off these ideas, we will experience an unpleasant sensation.

When Yoko Ono released her Plastic Ono Band album in 1970, some critics believed that she could not sing in key, but she actually sang off-key for the purpose of letting listeners know about the dissonant and powerful vocal range that women can emit when giving birth. Years later, avant-garde German band Kraftwerk decided to inject rhythm and melody into off-key industrial noises; they took a bouncy approach to musique concrete, and along the way they inspired the future genres of hip-hop and electronic dance music.

Some musicians are able to trick us into believing that they perform off key. Bob Dylan, for example, consistently hits all the notes he composes, but he has a terrible singing voice that makes us think he can’t hold a tune. Frank Sinatra did not have the most attractive singing voice, but he was a master at jumping through notes with ease while always staying on key. Finally, the late American composer Glen Branca believed that heavy distortion noise from electric guitars did not need to be on key in order to be enjoyed; he was more interested in accidental rhythms, and his compositions sounded more interesting than terrible. The guitar players of New York noise band Sonic Youth were enthralled by Branca, and they adopted a style of playing heavy distortion in key, eventually becoming a highly influential name in modern rock.

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