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Keys - Is there truly a difficulty?
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Pete_Violin
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September 27, 2019 - 7:26 am
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Which key do you find a more difficult key to play in?  And why?

 

 

 

 

First, the theory - To make this is truly a theory topic.  LOL!!

These are key signatures.  It wasn't always this way.  Back in the day, music was written without a key signature.  All the accidentals were written directly in the music.  Composers soon came to realize that this was cumbersome, not only to write, but to play for the musician.  Key signatures were introduced to notate where to sharp or flat a note based on the key the piece is written in.

This became the standard and now virtually all music (there are some exceptions) is given a key signature.  What would we do without them, right??

If you play music long enough, you will begin to notice a pattern.  The sharps or flats in the signature are not arbitrarily written.  They conform to a pattern.  The order they are placed is B, E, A, D, G, C, F.  All key signatures follow this pattern.  If you look at a diagram of the Circle of Fifths, it makes perfect sense (read it counter clockwise. And yes, there is no F♭.  Think about it.) 

I discussed in another topic the rules of music theory.  In that discussion, I talked about having rules that everyone can follow, consistently.  It's like driving a vehicle.  A red light means stop, right?  We all know that. But imagine if you went to another town or state or country where red did not mean stop.  It is similar with music.  I know that every time I see the key of A major, there are 3 sharps written in the signature and in the same order.  Every time.  Imagine if that was somehow placed in a different order randomly.

So ends the theory, now the practical...

The question I have in regards to key signatures is how we, as musicians, approach them.  In the example above, I have a key signature with no sharps or flats and a key signature with 7 sharps.  When I speak to other musicians, there seems to be this feeling of dread when a key signature has several sharps or flats.

So why are the key signatures such a source of anxiety?  For me, there are many aspects of a piece that make it more or less difficult.  Some of it is my level of playing.  I don't know everything and I only have just under 2 years of violin playing.  Some of us with 10, 15, 20+ years experience do not have the same challenges as me.  Or they may be playing pieces of various complexities.  But when we have a piece written in a specific key, the experienced player plays the same key as I do.  It seems to me that the areas such as shifting, intonation, tempo, etc. play an equal, if not more, importance in the level of difficulty of the piece.

Do you consider the key signature to be a huge part of the difficulty?  Why or why not?

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GregW
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September 27, 2019 - 8:49 am
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Yeah I think that would be like trying to brush my teeth with my left hand (right handed) at this point in my studies.  Just something I haven't encountered yet.  It hurts just looking at it.  Dm to A is about the range of tune keys Ive ventured so far.  Im thinking as I type this that shifting in to other positions pretty much a requirement for some keys...is that correct?  I really don't know without asking here or Google or taking a few months to try and figure that out blurry_drunk-2127

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starise
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For me at least, some of it is familiarity. Most beginning pianists can probably relate to beginning on the white keys in C because it was relatively easy at the time, though a few preferred the black keys. If I don't learn scales in the most common keys, I find I'm not prepared to play songs in those keys.

As an example I was asked to accompany a vocalist this week on a song called " The Old Rugged Cross" in Db. Not as difficult on piano if you break down the chords, Db, Eb, Ab, Bb. The song does have some half step twists in it though. If you can pinpoint the chords you have the basic structure of the song.This works best mostly in improvisation or in circumstances where you don't have the notes. I guess this is how I've learned many tunes.

On violin however it would be a minefield for me. Beginners usually take some time to acclimate to basic intonation. I'm still using an app called Intonia and seeing myself drift here and there when playing in G. After you learn the key of G, playing Gb seems"wrong" until your brain gets the hang of it. Not to mention associating the right fingerings with the notes which are very small differences from G to Gb. This is why I think violin is probably one of the best instruments for developing your musical "ear". I'm using an Android app called "tuner pitched" that I really like. My clip on tuner was off too far to be worth using. I don't think we can underestimate the value of a good accurate tuner. Many of them tell you you're in tune when they have a wide margin for what's considered to be "in tune". If you learn out of tune you'll play out of tune.

I think learning the scales in different configurations takes most of the anxiety away for me. I don't claim to be well versed in all of the scales. The nice thing about classical music is they give you the music. Just a matter of learning it. I made that sound too easy didn't I?

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GregW
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September 27, 2019 - 9:44 am
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Its not so much the scale part..coming from guitar we would practice chord progressions using circle of 4ths and cycle through each key..play scales and such..it's putting it into practice on the fingerboard of violin thats daunting to me at this point.  There just hasn't been a need for it, other than learning, in what we play.  Bluegrass I think would require more of this due to singers but I don't know that from experience..just theorizing.

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Pete_Violin
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GregW said
Yeah I think that would be like trying to brush my teeth with my left hand (right handed) at this point in my studies.  Just something I haven't encountered yet.  It hurts just looking at it.  Dm to A is about the range of tune keys Ive ventured so far.  Im thinking as I type this that shifting in to other positions pretty much a requirement for some keys...is that correct?  I really don't know without asking here or Google or taking a few months to try and figure that out blurry_drunk-2127

@GregW 

It is even worse than trying to brush your teeth with the wrong hand.  It would be like brushing teeth with your feet.

The question of whether you should switch positions in any key depends on how many octaves you're playing and where you begin the scale.  For example, the key of A major can begin on the G string, first finger, the A string, open, or on E string, 3rd finger (all in first position).  If you begin playing on open A string, and you are only playing one octave, you play it entirely in 1st position.  But if you add just one octave you will need to shift positions to reach the 2nd octave.  

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Pete_Violin
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starise said
If I don't learn scales in the most common keys, I find I'm not prepared to play songs in those keys.

This goes to what I was trying to explain to @jennifer aola.  She asked about the importance of learning scales.

After you learn the key of G, playing Gb seems"wrong" until your brain gets the hang of it. 

This is an important point.  It is something called mindset.  We all come into music with different backgrounds and preconceived notions.  The idea that certain keys are difficult, certain types of music are hard... these are, for the most part, things we tell ourselves.  If I say to myself, "I am going to have trouble learning this piece." I probably will.  We set our own limits.  We tell ourselves our own stories, which then become our reality.  That can be changed.

Just a matter of learning it. I made that sound too easy didn't I?

Violin (all string instruments) are difficult, but not impossible.  If this was easy, everyone would do it.  I did a little research on how many violin players there are in the world.  It turns out only about 1% plays violin.

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Pete_Violin
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GregW said
Bluegrass I think would require more of this due to singers but I don't know that from experience..just theorizing.

@GregW 

I don't know either.  I can tell you that when you play with a choir, such as the orchestra I am playing in, the choir is the star of the show. The orchestra is the support.  We accompany the choir.  So the choice of music is based on the choir, not the orchestra.  And as you know, the human voice is more adept to music than instruments, even though the violin is often compared to the human voice.

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BillyG
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September 27, 2019 - 11:18 am
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🙂 Nice explanation, and good question @pete_violin - and indeed the mention of dread as you say - "When I speak to other musicians, there seems to be this feeling of dread when a key signature has several sharps or flats" is something I have heard often expressed.

You ask: "is the key signature a huge part of the difficulty?" - For my own account, no, not really, there are to me, much more complex issues in the approach to playing.  My own approach regarding key sigs is quite simple (well - it seems simple to me - but I have come to this instrument from previous exposure to piano and fretted instruments - so - it may seem clear to me - and maybe obscure to others - if so - sorry !!!).  So (in the case of a slew of sharps which is my "Rule 1") - I'll simply take the rightmost sharp, add a full tone (i.e. two semi-tones) to arrive at the intended key - i.e. in the 7-sharp example the final sharp is on B, a full tone up is C#.   So, that's my first step in playing in a "foreign to me" key. 

Very often that's enough, but, if it's a really unusual key for me to use, in this case, I'd find the C# and build a scale across the strings (either up or down - well - both really) using the generic 2,2,1,2,2,2,1 rule ( or T,T,S,T,T,T,S where T=tone, S=semitone, or W,W,H,W,W,W,H - where W = whole tone/fingering step, H = half tone/fingering step).   I'll also look closely at the actual score and make a decision about what mode the piece is most likely in - the C# signature, could be an A# minor for instance, or a D# dorian and so on - so I would re-do my "major scale" play-through again, but starting and ending where possible, on the home note of the modal scale.   

Then, it largely falls into place - I have the scale fingering and mode "in place" so to say - and I am then sort of decoupled from the stave-lines which "lose" their importance (in the sense of which are sharpened etc) and with my fingers now having the message, the stave-lines just become an indicator of the intervals between adjacent notes on the score.....  and then if there happen to be any accidentals in the scored piece, its just a half-finger-position different - I don't have to stop to think - like - oh it's natural (or whatever) on the E etc.... 

I tend to play largely in first position, with typical key sigs of G,D,A,C, much less commonly B,E,F.   In fact, Bb and Eb are pretty much as usual to me now as the first set I mentioned.    Anything outwith that well-used (to me) set of keys, I'll run through the process I described above.   Oh, and if I am moving between different pieces, set in quite different keys (like from a piece in say G, to one of the flattened ones I mentioned), I'll take a minute just to get the fingers and brain into gear and run through a scale.

( Oh, and for readers - if you're unaware - there's a similar but different sort of rule for determining  the key from a signature with a slew of flats - which is (my "Rule 2"- which is - "other than the single flat on B - which is F major, the rule is - go to the second flat from the right-hand end, and the line or space it is on is the flattened key" )  - e.g.  for Db major signature the second flat from the right is on D - so the key is Db...   In general, I don't have an internal "mental map" that says "this number, and pattern of sharps/flats is such and such a key" - well - other than G, D, A which are immediately recognizable just because they are so common to me - so for the higher-numbers of sharps/flats, I'll use the rules I mentioned - it takes no measurable time at all to work out or think about what key it is - the answer is there.  But that's just the way it works for me - others will indeed just as quickly recognize the number and pattern as representing a particular key.

dflat-1.JPG

Oh - and as for the left-to-right order of sharps and flats on the stave lines - for those who don't know this one - one simple aide-memoire/mnemonic is "Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles' Father" for flats, or its reversal "Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle" for sharps (there are other mnemonics around as well, some quite funny!) - it is also interesting to reflect (and with reference to the CO5ths) why, for the sequence of flats we appear to step round in 4ths, and for the sequence of sharps, it's fifths....   🙂  

Hmmm...   apologies for what turned into some kind of novel - it's just that there are so many different approaches to such things, and clearly explaining one's own understanding and way of doing things can become wordy.....

Zzzzzzzzzzz   TL:DR  roflol

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Pete_Violin
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@BillyG 

I really appreciate your describing, what to me is a way to simplify the approach to a key signature.  I, too, have learned your Rule 1 and Rule 2 and it works every single time.  

I also like to stay away from things that over complicate music.  Your way to break down the key and how you determine how that applies to the score is awesome!  Some of it is new concepts to me, so I will need to play around with it.

Mnemonics never work for me.  I just remember BEADGEF.  The Circle of Fifths is quite helpful, although it is packed with mystery.  It is like a magic key to music.  So simple, yet so meaningful.  

Thank you for your post.  Very insightful.

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GregW
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Good stuff @Billyg and @pete_violin.  Its a another good example of the different music styles and what's required of those in it.  Like I said about what I'm doing..I just haven't needed to think about this too much.  I sorta do, I mean a key change is a key change and the process applies, but there are some keys that fall nicely in 1st position and as you know most folk/traditional stuff lives there.  As stated, unless you get into some vocal tunes.  But even then what Ive found so far is those traditional type tunes fall into fiddle friendly ( 1st position) keys. And I haven't done much ( if any) of what most would call bluegrass type stuff.  Yup happy and more than enough to keep me busy for a while.  

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AndrewH
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From the perspective of a more experienced classical player who has practiced literally all of the major and minor scales, there are three reasons a key with more than 3 sharps or flats can be more difficult:

1) Can be more difficult to read quickly, especially if accidentals used include double-sharps or double-flats. Often, in those cases, double-sharps and double-flats are still easier to read than enharmonic equivalents because the enharmonics would break the contour of the line. But even experienced players have seen them infrequently enough that we can get thrown off a little. That said, if all the notes are in the key the music is written in, reading is not especially hard because, as Billy describes, intervals become more important than the key signature.

2) Intonation is slightly more difficult because the instrument doesn't ring the same way it does when the key includes open strings.

3) Certain keys may require more awkward string crossings, 4th finger extensions, or shifting at awkward times. Keys that don't include open string notes take away a fingering option in fast passages -- although I almost never use open strings on longer notes, fast passages may be much easier to play if an open string is an option, not only because it avoids the 4th finger but also because an open string note is an opportunity to shift positions.

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BillyG
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September 27, 2019 - 2:15 pm
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🙂 Thanks @AndrewH - yessss indeed - the double flat/sharps of course - would mess up - well - sort of - my simple approach.   It HAD crossed my mind - but is something I have never yet had to encounter.  

And agreed on your point (3) - or at least from what I can currently manage to do - yes - in the more esoteric (to me) keys pinky extension often ends up (for a full tone up) a tad flat unless I'm really concentrating !!!!!

Appreciate your feedback !  thanx_gif

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AndrewH
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One more thought on intonation: what I wrote above was on reading in keys with 4+ sharps or flats. Intonation is also harder to practice in those keys because there are few (or no) notes that can be checked against open strings or harmonics.

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