Robert Estrin - piano expert

How do composers choose the key signature for music they are writing?

Learn how and why composers choose a key when writing a new composition

In this video, Robert tells you how composers choose a key when writing a new piece of music.

Released on October 19, 2016

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, this is Robert Estrin with and We have a viewer question from Gary who asks, "How do composers determine what key to write pieces in?" You might think, boy, you know, there must be something to this. Well, there is quite a bit actually. If you go back far, you know, there was a time at which tuning was not standardized.

That is to say that even in Bach's time, even though he wrote in all the major and minor keys, they didn't all sound the same. This is true on keyboard instruments, because tuning technology had not developed to the point of true equal temperament. Sure you had the Well-Tempered Clavier because you could play in all the keys, but F-sharp minor had a different quality of sound at the intervals than, let's say, C-minor did.

Now, if you go back further, there were drastic differences in tuning. So, also instruments have different sounds in different registers. So if you go back far enough, indeed, there were differences in the sound of one key compared to the next because of the state of the development of instruments and the state of tuning in keyboard instruments. Now, flash forward further, when equal temperament was there, instruments had been perfected to a great extent, much more than they had been in the Baroque era certainly.

Why and how the composers choose a key? Is it just like a coin toss? It doesn't matter. Quite to the contrary, you know, the key that a piece is played in has to fit in the right register. Just imagine, for example, that you're writing a piece for a singer, for a soprano. And if you wrote it too high and there's straining, they would sound very uncomfortable. Too low and there's not enough power. Well, the same thing is true if you're writing for a French horn or a flute. You know, after all, the tone of a flute in a low register is dramatically different from a high register.

So if you chose to write something in G or write something in D, that difference could be dramatic in the tonal implications for the instruments you're writing for. Same thing with a symphony orchestra. You wanna have a certain quality of sound. Well, they talk about some keys have a darker or brighter sound. Well, it really comes down to the instrumentation and the octave that you're writing in. But you might find that, for example, even if you're writing for strings, that if you're writing a certain key, you have to make a choice of either writing in this octave up here or this octave down there.

And maybe either one of those is not really what you had in mind, maybe right in the middle. Therefore, you'd have to choose a different key just to accommodate the sound you want out of the instruments you're writing for. And I think that's the primary reason for composers choosing keys, unless you go back further when tuning wasn't standardized and instruments were in their infancy in regards to development. Excellent question. Keep them coming in. Again, Robert Estrin here with and See you next time.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Tosh * VSM MEMBER * on December 12, 2018 @1:22 pm PST
I'm interested how a violinist, for example, should accommodate a tempered pitch instrument like a piano, when playing together. For example, should the violinist also play in tempered pitch? Or can the violinist ignore the tempered pitch of the piano and just play in true expressive pitch? Having asked those questions, I'm also wondering if the accommodation just happens automatically for the technically adept and musically sensitive violinists...and if so, what type of accommodation actually occurs? I've asked these questions before of other experts but have never been given satisfyingly logical answers. Hope you can clarify all this for me. Thanks.
Robert Estrin - host, on December 13, 2018 @5:46 pm PST
This is a complex question. Generally, I think you hit the nail on the head when you suggested that accomplished players find ways of making the intonation work when playing instruments or voice which can accommodate different tunings on individual notes along with instruments with fixed, tempered tuning. A great deal also depends upon how the piano is tuned. Different size pianos have more or less stretch tuning in order to accommodate the sound of overtones of lower notes and how they blend harmonically with higher notes on the instrument. There is so much to consider that we must be in awe at great instrumentalists who solve this seemingly unsolvable problem of making the tuning sound right in these situations!
Rae Richen * VSM MEMBER * on January 18, 2017 @11:03 am PST
Robert, when I play the violin in a key related to the open strings, (EADG minor or major) there is a lot more sympathetic vibration possible in that instrument, and therefore more possiblities for tonal color in the piece. Pieces written for brass instruments when played on the violin, viola or cello don't have that quality. But when the brass players in our house play those same pieces, they can make every brass instrument sitting in the house resonate. If I put a brick on the sustaining pedal for the piano, any instrument in the house can get that sympathetic vibration from the opened strings on the piano though the piano is not being played. Composers must think of this quality when they decide on a key for a certain instrument as well.
Ken Cory on October 19, 2016 @9:04 pm PST
I'm with Briana and Juanita that there's something more to choosing keys. Something cultural and psychological. D minor is the key of grief just ask a klezmer clarinettist. Then there's B minor, which the key of night and the key that many composers chose to write their masterpieces in. A quick inventory of my personal take on keys: C major = simplicity. E major = power. G major = sunshine. A minor = speed. Bb Major = comfort. C minor = earth. D major = Christmas. I'd be interested in hearing if other pianists have similar feelings about keys.
Kikki on October 21, 2016 @7:57 am PST
I am a violonist and I agree with this suggestion. I thought that the choice of key had also a lot to do with the character and atmosphere that the composer wants to convey in his piece. Could Robert Estrin elaborate more on this dimension and corroborate the perception of Ken Cory about the character of each key? This may help in the individual in the interpretation of that piece. Thank you.
Robert - host, on October 21, 2016 @4:51 pm PST
There are many perceptions of keys. These feelings towards different keys are undoubtedly indelibly etched into our psyches from years of exposure to pieces that elicit strong emotions as well as the traditions of keys that continued long after all keys had the same intervallic relationships when tempered tuning and instrument development matured.
Oluwaseun Collins on October 19, 2016 @10:00 am PST
Quite eye opening. Thanks.
Bettie Downing on October 19, 2016 @8:46 am PST
BUT if the composition is only for piano why choose a key with 6 sharps?
Robert - host, on October 19, 2016 @12:03 pm PST
While the difference of a half-step isn't much, there is a difference in tone between B-major and C-major. So, composers sometimes choose keys which may be less familiar to you in order to get exactly the register of the piano they desire.
Saxon * VSM MEMBER * on October 19, 2016 @10:40 pm PST
I think for pianos, the raised black keys could also be useful for some pieces that could leverage on their raised position on the keyboard to have an easier fingering than using all white keys. Please correct me if I'm wrong. :
Juanita on October 19, 2016 @7:58 am PST
Excellent (succinct, accessible, knowledgeable) explanation, as always. However, what about the great pianists who chose to write in less common keys; what would their reasoning/inspiration be?
Briana LeClaire * VSM MEMBER * on October 19, 2016 @5:08 am PST
So you're saying Nigel Tufnel was being a little pretentious when he called D minor the saddest of keys? *grin* Thanks for the excellent explanation. I've done a little arranging for four women's voices and for strings, and have never considered anything other than range or instrumentation. It was very interesting to learn the reason a Baroque composer might choose one key over another is completely different.
Ed Baran on October 19, 2016 @3:35 am PST
Thank You Robert! I'm retired now and find myself enjoying music even more than when I was a music major in college eon years ago. I am currently a "substitute" guitar player for the Shriners Big Swing Band. Your explanation of "key signatures" was very informative. That explains why everything in big band music is in Bb, Eb, etc. Open strings on the guitar make that instrument sound richer, fuller, and "easier to play". So keys of C, E, A, D, G are the favorites among guitarists, but we sometimes have to sacrifice for the saxes and trumpets - LOL!
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