Too many keys make door stay closed.
-Chinese Proverb (not really)
Depending on your level of involvement with music, you’ve at least heard about musical keys. I don’t mean your piano. I don’t mean the makeshift percussion in your pocket (or are you just happy to see me). I mean the restful sound of the (typically) last note or chord played in a song. That peaceful ending called the resolution.
If you know nothing about theory, I recommend this book:
Harmony And Theory For Musicians.
Did you know there are twelve basic keys; minor and modal versions notwithstanding? What the hell are you supposed to do with them all?
There are a few basic reasons people pick keys. One is out of negligence – that’s just the key they wrote the song in or the only key in which they know how to play. Another is instrument-specific. Some instruments, including the human voice, sound better in one key over another due to how their registers output timbre. Or, if you’re an EDM artist, maybe you want your sub to sit in a certain range between 30-50Hz; the right key will help you there. A less common reason to pick one key over another is due to it’s inherent absolute quality i.e. for people with “perfect pitch”. I’m told A major sounds brighter than Eb major, for instance.
However, there are certain advantages to sticking to just one musical key for your composing, performing and audio work. I’d like to give you five right now.
5 Reasons To Stick To One Musical Key
- Your writing will improve.
This is if you do ear training. Some ear training advice is to play intervals and chords in all keys. I think this is advanced advice. What I suggest you do, and what’s helped me, is just pick one key. Pick one in which you can comfortably sing; or at least vocalize. Singing what you’re trying to hear is building another neural pathway. “As they say, if you can sing it, you can hear it.” What is the purpose of ear training? To write and perform better. The better you can hear the qualities, and hence emotions, of musical elements the better you can evoke those feelings in listeners. So do your ear training in one key only and you’ll be on your way to better melodies and chord progressions.
- Your playing will improve.
Naturally, if you walk to school or drive to work down the same route every day, repetition will make you more efficient. The first day you’re distracted by the novel stimuli. After awhile you start to zone out and before you know it you’ve arrived at your destination. Similarly, if you’re playing the same chords and scales on your instrument (or programming them in your DAW) you’ll become quicker and better at establishing what you’re trying to say. In contrast, if you’re always in a new key, constant technical variation takes mental resources that could be better spent being musical. During woodshedding or experimentation, playing in different keys is great. When you’re trying to increase efficiency in communicating an idea, simplified repetition is best.
- You’ll sing better.
I know not everyone is a singer. But like I mentioned above, singing is an important part of being a musician. Just because you have no ambition for being a front person or an American Idol contestant doesn’t mean your vocal cords are redundant. Singing helps you to internalize the sound of music. Alternatively, if you are a singer, having a home base key that you’re very familiar with is a great start. Having a home key should go hand-in-hand with knowing your range, fach and stylistic preferences. By doing so, you’ll be able to decide which key in which to perform as to bring out, not only the best in your voice, the best in the song and the feeling of the listener. This is way better than randomly guessing where to transpose a song based on the popular version of it or from where it was written.
- Your creativity will blossom.
In some ways it might seem that autopilot-like efficiency would be the opposite of creativity. That would be true if it wasn’t for our ability to recognize contrast and get bored. They say animals never get bored. Well, you’re a special type of animal my friend. By doing the same thing all the time, you’ll start to seek out new ways of doing them. This is especially true of creative type people. Always staying in one key necessarily limits your options. Cliche time: limitations breed creativity. You should always be looking for ways to limit yourself when creating. Given that most instruments only have so many places to play a C chord, finding various articulations becomes the challenge. Listen to a band like Steely Dan and watch for the ways they bring back repeated parts; there’s almost always some subtle variation. They don’t radically change the part they just make subtle alterations to hold interest and portray development. By always using the same chords you’ll eventually think of new ways to utilize them.
- You’ll be more self-reliant.
I don’t know how far back it goes, probably before Punk, but theory hate has always been around. Believe it or not, when I started play guitar I used to think chords were for pussies. I literally thought that. I could not conceive that Metallica would use fucking chords. It wasn’t until I started playing “Master of Puppets” that my retarded view was eviscerated by the very first musical event of the song. Granted, it’s more of an extended interval (root-fifth-root power chord) but it was still multiple notes played at once. I eventually realized that almost all music, in some way, is, or can be made to be, polyphonic and layered in harmonies. Therein lies the problem – comprehension. There’s only 12 notes but I’ll be damned if they aren’t put to some creative use. Understanding progressions, resolutions, modulations and all that Jazz is taught at University level for a reason. By sticking to one key, you’ll be forced to transpose eventually. Transposition means, unless your ear is fantastic which, if you don’t do ear training and hence know theory, it’s probably not, knowing roman numeral analysis. It means knowing accidentals, intervals and every other thing theory entails. It’s way more than knowing the white keys make a C major scale. By going so deep into the muck of theory, you won’t have to ask your older, more knowledgeable, bandmate for answers anymore. Especially for EDM guys, who seem to hate theory the most, this is critical. EDM people typically produce alone. Who you going to ask at 3am on a Tuesday which note fits with what and how to make it resolve without sounding like shit? If you’ve been playing awhile, this might no longer be an issue. I’d be damn surprised, though, if these types of problems don’t crop up in every writing musician’s life more than once – at least for almost a decade. So ya, it might seem ironic but, sticking to one key will improve your theory tenfold.
I have to give credit where it’s due. There’s another site which proposed this idea first. Since I’ve implemented it, I’ve reaped the former benefits. The one thing I didn’t mention in my video was that, even for audio-based musicians, remaining in one key is great especially if you use harmonic EQ. If you don’t know what that is then hmu and I’ll make a video on it.
Thanks for watching and reading. I hope it was helpful. Please sub on YouTube, share with your friends and I’ll see you next week.