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What is a key, anyway?

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Mrrzy 21 Apr 01 - 09:40 PM
Joe Offer 21 Apr 01 - 10:01 PM
GUEST,Bruce O. 21 Apr 01 - 10:06 PM
GUEST,Dancing Mom 21 Apr 01 - 10:09 PM
GUEST,Bruce O. 21 Apr 01 - 11:54 PM
M.Ted 22 Apr 01 - 02:35 AM
Bert 22 Apr 01 - 03:17 AM
Deni 22 Apr 01 - 03:18 AM
Mrrzy 22 Apr 01 - 11:41 AM
Peter T. 22 Apr 01 - 12:12 PM
The Shambles 22 Apr 01 - 04:51 PM
Peter T. 22 Apr 01 - 05:02 PM
Gary T 22 Apr 01 - 05:26 PM
M.Ted 22 Apr 01 - 06:04 PM
GUEST,Bruce O. 22 Apr 01 - 06:20 PM
M.Ted 22 Apr 01 - 10:38 PM
WyoWoman 23 Apr 01 - 12:03 AM
Kaleea 23 Apr 01 - 12:17 AM
Bert 23 Apr 01 - 12:36 AM
Gary T 23 Apr 01 - 12:46 AM
sophocleese 23 Apr 01 - 11:27 AM
GUEST,Roger the skiffler 23 Apr 01 - 11:35 AM
Mrrzy 23 Apr 01 - 11:51 AM
Peter T. 23 Apr 01 - 11:56 AM
Mrrzy 23 Apr 01 - 02:32 PM
Peter T. 23 Apr 01 - 02:55 PM
The Shambles 23 Apr 01 - 03:14 PM
Mrrzy 29 May 01 - 11:03 AM
Gary T 29 May 01 - 02:17 PM
Dicho (Frank Staplin) 29 May 01 - 03:47 PM
kendall 29 May 01 - 06:22 PM
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Subject: What is a key, anyway?
From: Mrrzy
Date: 21 Apr 01 - 09:40 PM

OK, I've been accused of singing offkey. Sounded fine to me, at the time. Then I learned to hear that it was off, now I can sing on key, say musicians. I haven't got a clue what a key really is... but I think it's why I can't sing along with half of what I used to. Tell me, those of you who know more - now, when singing along, if I want to stay with the artist, I have to start either too low for the low notes or too high for the high notes. It was easier when I sang what I wanted and everybody else cringed. Is that because my ear and voice know what key I'm supposed to be in? What can I do to expand my range, if that's the problem with singing on key? Also, am I allowed to change octaves in the middle to keep with the artist, or do people who can sing hate that? So what IS a key, anyway, and why is being able to sing on one such a curse for me, who really only likes to sing along? Aargh!


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: Joe Offer
Date: 21 Apr 01 - 10:01 PM

Hi, Mrrzzy. In the western chromatic scale, there are 12 set tones (8 notes, A through G and then A again, plus sharps and flats). I guess the best-known measure for setting pitch is A, which is supposed to be the pitch created when something vibrates 440 cycles per second. A in the next octave above vibrates twice as fast, 880 cycles per second. Now, if you sing A at 335 cycles per second, you're off key. We're all quite used to hearing music at the A=440 standard, and we judge something otherwise as off-key.
Now, all this isn't mathematically exact - there are certain deviations in the whole process. If all our notes were mathematically exact, it wouldn't sound right to us, either.
-Joe Offer-


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: GUEST,Bruce O.
Date: 21 Apr 01 - 10:06 PM

Joe, that's only the 12TET scale. There are many, many others. Use Goodle to search on Musical Scales (click). My website has 12TET, 21 tone just intonation and 35 tone just intonation scales.


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: GUEST,Dancing Mom
Date: 21 Apr 01 - 10:09 PM

Actually, a "key" refers to the tonal center of a piece of music, DO (as in DO-RE-ME). If you are singing or playing in the key of C, for example, C is your tonal center, or the 1st note and 8th note of the C scale. A C- major chord would then be C-E-G. It doesn't really sound like you have a problem singing "off key". You may need to explore and find out what keys are best for your voice. If your're singing in a group, it's perfectly all right to drop an octave if you need to. Are you an alto like me? I solved my range problem by learning to sing harmony.But you know, it's not as much about hitting the notes as it is singing for making a joyful noise and singing for the pure love of it.


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: GUEST,Bruce O.
Date: 21 Apr 01 - 11:54 PM

There are lots of ways to say what a key is, and there are lots of places none of those definitions work. Bronson's 'Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads', for example adds the 'authentic' and 'plagal' designations. key is tonal center for plagal, but is the low note of the scale for authentics. Final note of the tune is usually the key, except:

#1- there's a final flare of 1 or 2 short notes after the key. #1 is taken care of in the ABC player program ABZWEB12.EXE on my website.

#2- the tune is a circular mode. There seems to be no straight forward way to figure out what is a circular mode. E.g., The Scots "White Cockade" looks like phrygian mode from final note, but it's a circular major that doesn't end on the final. If you find a tune that looks like it's scored as Locrian mode, it's undoubtably a circular major mode that ends on the 7th of the scale. Most of this, and much more, is in the music section on my website. In COMBCODE.TXT there are over 6500 tunes coded by stressed notes, keys, and modes, there being 179 different modes in all. Major and minor are the 1st 2.


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: M.Ted
Date: 22 Apr 01 - 02:35 AM

When someone says you are off-key, you should think of "key" as the white or black lever on the keyboard instrument, which is to say that your pitch doesn't match the pitch of the piano key--in practical terms, this means that you are singing something that conflicts with what the others are singing--why it conflicts is something that one can only tell by listening to you--

All of the questions that Bruce so ably raises don't really have to be understood or dealt with to solve the problem that you have--what will help is to spend time at the piano figuring out what your range is where in that range your voice sounds the best and most natural.

Biggest mistake that people make is that when they sing, they try to imitate the sound of someone else's voice singing the song (usually a recording artist who has made the song popular) rather than singing it in their own voice--


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: Bert
Date: 22 Apr 01 - 03:17 AM

The key of a song is the note that the song ends on (usually). Known in the tonic sol fa notation as "Do".

The 'base' key of western tonic notation is "C" and the notes in that scale are CDEFGABC; the tonic sol fa represenation of which is "Do Re me fa So La te Do".
The spacing of these notes in the equally tempered scale is "Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Semitone"

when you start (and finish) on a different note but keep the same relative spacing between the notes you are singing in a different key.

In the equally tempered scale the notes are separated from one another by a semitone which is the previous note divided by the twelth root of 2.

Now all of this is just a fiddle (or scam, not the musical instrument) Music is what you hear, and no theory or math can alter or improve your hearing. So this is why, although I've got a tin ear I can uderstand some of the theory even if I can't hear it.

Get yourself a keyboard (or any stringed instrument) and do the "Do, re, Me" thing (That's "Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Semitone") starting in different places and you'll get the hang of it. Note that the distance between any to adjacent keys (or frets) is a semitone.

And get yourself a music teacher and don't listen to bozos like me who don't know doodly squat what they're talking about.


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: Deni
Date: 22 Apr 01 - 03:18 AM

like Dancing Mom, I solved the contralto 'problem ' by singing solo or harmony. Maybe occasionally you could use pitch pipes or an instrument to start a song in a key which suits you and watch everyone else trying to fit in!

Church music is often pitched in keys difficult for an alto to sing comfortably.


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: Mrrzy
Date: 22 Apr 01 - 11:41 AM

Thanks so far for a lot of information, but there are things I don't get; for instance, if A=440hz then how can I sing A=335 and be offkey, why isn't 335 some other note? Also, I can't sing harmony because I can't sing, I sing ALONG. I can only sing harmony, that is, if harmony has been sung (to wit, I can sing along with the memory of a song, and thus appear to be singing.) I sing really well, say some people, and when singing from memory can sing in a manner that allows the song to be sung within my range without having people cringe. Used to be I could do that and people who could sing would cringe (nobody in my family, so no models, quoi). When they cringe, I'm offkey, (they say), when they don't cringe I must have "transposed" into a key I can sing in?? Is that what I can do without knowing it? But when actually hearing it, the artist "starts off too low" and I run into trouble somewhere.

Using the piano (which I don't of course play) as an example, I can start picking out a song I know, and then get to a note that doesn't exist on the keyboard; I thn know I've started "wrong" and try again, and get it OK. But I don't necessarily hear it as wrong till I do it right, and then I can hear that it's flat or sharp (my initial attempt). To digress slightly, I assume I don't have perfect pitch from that, is that in any way related?


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: Peter T.
Date: 22 Apr 01 - 12:12 PM

My theory (I have had the same problem) is that when you are a non-expert singer, you are continuously altering the pitch of what you sing so as to make it sound good in your head. What sounds "good" is a mixture of the relationship between each set of notes, what works for your voice, and how the "original" sounded on a record or whatever. As soon as you sit down at an instrument, or have someone else play along with you, you discover that you are very innaccurate unless you have an almost perfect ear. I notice, for example, that I can sing jazz songs absolutely fine, with all sorts of things that Ella Fitzgerald does, Frank Sinatra does etc., as long as I don't have someone with an instrument around checking up on me. Which means that I am deluding myself!!!! I am constantly sharping and flatting things as I sing -- god only know what key I am often in, probably some weird thing if it was actually transcribed. But it sounds perfectly accurate to me. The problem is that it isn't!!!!! That is why they get to front big bands, and I don't.

yours, Peter T.


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: The Shambles
Date: 22 Apr 01 - 04:51 PM

Technical question coming up. What is the difference between a key and a mode?


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: Peter T.
Date: 22 Apr 01 - 05:02 PM

Major and minor keys are two modes that became popular, and were cleaned up a bit. The key of C is Ionian mode. The other keys in the same mode (e.g. D) need to have sharps and flats to keep the spacings between the intervals correct for the same mode (e.g. in D, two sharps), which is why there are key signatures.

yours, Peter T.


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: Gary T
Date: 22 Apr 01 - 05:26 PM

There may be a note at 335 Hz, but by definition it isn't A. The point, though, is that some tones blend pleasingly to the human ear, while others clash gratingly. If you sing a tone that clashes gratingly, it's a sure bet you're off key. It may be a little off or a lot off from the desired frequency (440 Hz is a frequency), but if it's off it will sound dissonant to most people.

Many of us have vocal ranges that can't follow a song in the key it's commonly performed in. There's no simple solution. You can harmonize (sometimes), change your vocal range, or get the song played in a key appropriate for your range. How easy or possible these options are varies with different folk's circumstances.

If you really get to where the note you want is not on the keyboard of a properly tuned piano, I don't know what to tell you, other than it could be a case of "misrerembering" the specific note.


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: M.Ted
Date: 22 Apr 01 - 06:04 PM

I think that Joe picked a number out of the air to use as an example of a note that was the wrong one when someone is singing a 440 A. The music system we use is calculated relative to a fundamental pitch, and at various times, that value has changed--I am told that the movement has been upward, and that since the time of Beethoven, the standard has moved upward about a half step, so that our present day C would have been a B in his time--

We can sit here and discuss modes and keys and absolute pitch and all all day, but all of it is a theory problem, rather than a practical one, which is what Mrzzy has--please read what I said above!!!

Your best hope is probably to find someone who is a fairly informal vocal music teacher(a choir director for a church, for example) and tell them that you want to find your natural singing voice and learn to a bit of sight reading and such--you want to sing, and you need to learn some basic singing skills, like matching pitch, and how to follow, and such, you can't learn it from an internet forum, even one where people are as knowledgable and sympathetic as they are here--


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: GUEST,Bruce O.
Date: 22 Apr 01 - 06:20 PM

Experimental results of pleasing two note combinations (consonances) are given in Juan Roederer's 'The Physics and Psychophysics of Sound'. Within 75% confidence limits, any two notes are consonant if the ratio of their frequencies is between a minor third (6/5 ratio) and a major 5th (3/2) ratio. It's easy to apply the same ratios again with the higher of the two frequencies to find the range of frequencies that a third note can have, so you have a chord. 335 Hz and 440 Hz fit well within the limits of a consonance.


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: M.Ted
Date: 22 Apr 01 - 10:38 PM

What does he think about those Bulgarian women's choirs that regularly harmonize in seconds and even minor seconds?


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: WyoWoman
Date: 23 Apr 01 - 12:03 AM

But if what you're asking is, as a singer, how to stay in tune, well, that's a different question altogether.

You might need to just sit down in front of a keyboard and practice matching your tone to a single note you're playing. It is easy to get lost when several notes/chords are being played at once, so starting simple, matching one note, then another, is excellent practice. I envision an ocilloscope (sp?) sometimes when I'm singing, and imagine the vibrations above or below the line if I"m not matching the tone, or I imagine my voice being a laser going right into the tone -- various mental tricks to "nail it."

Until you learn to do this consistently, then learn to pick out the melody, or harmony if that's what you're going to sing, you'll probably find staying on key a somewhat transitory experience.

This ain't easy. I've sung soprano I and II for years, but my voice is deepening and my range expanding -- in part from singing blues and popular music that is generally pitched much lower (remember, the vocal cords are like any other muscle and CAN be stretched and built up to reach greater heights or find new depths, within reason) so now I"m singing alto and even tenor some and it's the very dickens for me sometimes to find those harmonies, even though I read music, because my ear is so trained to seek out the soprano line . ...

WW


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: Kaleea
Date: 23 Apr 01 - 12:17 AM

A mode is a selection of tones, arranged in stepwise motion, that form the basic tonality of a composition. It is moveable, that is, it can be used beginning on any note. A key, is a scale consisting of a selection of tones based on specific notes and beginning on a specific note. Therefore the "Do Re Mi " (or "Do a deer") song can be considered to be based upon a mode and can begin with any note in the music alphabet, while the key of (for example) A flat major must begin upon the note A flat. If you have the means, get a competent voice instructor. I once had a square dance caller come to me for voice lessons because he was considered "tone deaf" by those who attended dances where he called, and he could not match pitch at all. I had him come twice per week for over a year and I assisted him such that he could sing along with the music recordings they danced to. It was not easy, but quite an accomplishment for him as well as for me. There is hope for the less musically gifted! That hope is found in proper training.


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: Bert
Date: 23 Apr 01 - 12:36 AM

In the absense of the one and only Skiff - I'll say it.

"Give me a key and I'll play in any flat"' - TA DA!!


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: Gary T
Date: 23 Apr 01 - 12:46 AM

A thought on learning to match a note precisely--use a chromatic electronic tuner, see where the needle indicates a given note from the instrument you're matching, and watch the needle while singing the note to get immediated feedback, independent of your own ear, of how accurately you're hitting the note. This would probably work best with an analog needle type--LED indicators or even an electronic "needle" wouldn't be as responsive.


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: sophocleese
Date: 23 Apr 01 - 11:27 AM

This weekend a friend and I were sitting down, her with mandolin and me with recorder. She played some tunes which I then tried to pick up on recorder. I realized that for me to do that I have first to be able to sing them and then I can find them on the recorder. The tone of the strings is different from the tone of the recorder even if the pitch is the same. One of the things as a singer that I am more conscious of having to do is to pick the pitch not the tone of the voice. I'm a good mimic so if an alto is straining at a pitch I adjust my voice to mimic that strain at that pitch even if its one where I don't normally have any strain. Sometimes when you're shifting pitch around you're trying to fit the quality of another singer's note, not the pitch, into your own voice.


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: GUEST,Roger the skiffler
Date: 23 Apr 01 - 11:35 AM

Actually, Bert, my motto is "when in doubt, change key"! Usually mid-song!
RtS


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: Mrrzy
Date: 23 Apr 01 - 11:51 AM

The reason I can hit a note that doesn't exist on the piano is that I have an excellent ear for the relative change between 2 notes, without any concomitant excellence in detecting single notes. So I can easily start off wrong, and end up with a note that isn't playable by a single piano key because the piano moves up a whole tone here, or something. That note probably doesn't exist on our scale, but does in reality as any frequency can exist. People who can sing REALLY cringe when I sing one of those.

If I change keys in mid song, is that horrible?


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: Peter T.
Date: 23 Apr 01 - 11:56 AM

If someone is trying to accompany you, it is hell. yours, Peter T.


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: Mrrzy
Date: 23 Apr 01 - 02:32 PM

What about if I'm singing alone but people are listening? If I were singing with someone, they'd have forwarning, OR we'd be in a key I could sing, is my theory. Does it really clash? Anyway, I think what I do is switch octaves in the same key, so I go higher for the too-low and lower for the too-high, but I think I'm in the same key, since I come back to the same place...


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: Peter T.
Date: 23 Apr 01 - 02:55 PM

Again, I think you (one -- I do this) is tempering the scale as one goes to make it sound right, and often that it just to make it right for the next few notes. I would try it with a piano or a patient friend, and I think you would be suprised how far off you can go. I did it recently and was amazed, though I was able to get back to the tonic (that seems to hang on while the rest goes off into 4 flats and has to be winched back in again). I also shift octaves when things get tough. One thing I have learned is that the flashy parts stick in the head and stay in tune with each other, but it is getting the ordinary stuff to stay in tune a cappella that is so hard. That may be just me.

I know that singing harmony the other person has a different version of how the key holds together -- they need to be able to anticipate a fraction, and they will temper to you for awhile, and then lose their temper. I have a patient teacher, but I know that he holds back his criticism. I remember someone being interviewed about Emmylou Harris who does a lot of duets with all kinds of singers, and they were wildly impressed by her patience and ability to quickly adjust to the wanderings of the singers she was with. I imagine that is why brothers and sisters sing well together -- some subsconscious synching going on.

yours, Peter T.


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: The Shambles
Date: 23 Apr 01 - 03:14 PM

Thanks.


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: Mrrzy
Date: 29 May 01 - 11:03 AM

OK, I'm going to try another way: I'm going to list some songs somebody out there ought to know, and you tell me a) what key the song is in, and b) what is the first note of the song (and key, if that is a separate question, which I have a feeling it is...). Then we'll see if I can get a handle on this concept...

Anyway, here is a list:

Anything from Blood on the Tracks; how about If You See Her, Say Hello, She Might Be In Tangiers. I'm not specifying artist here, you cognoscenti you
Anything from Cisco Houston singing Woody Guthrie
Anything from Kate & Anna McGarrigle's Dancer With Bruised Knees album
Anything on any Clancy Bros. & Tommy Makem album
Anything on any Ed McCurdy album.

Thanks, all...


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: Gary T
Date: 29 May 01 - 02:17 PM

Hmmm. Not quite sure I follow your latest question, Mrrzy. As far as the songs you listed, someone who had those specific recordings could tell you what key each used on that recording--I believe that's what you're looking for. (Sorry I can't help you there.) In the greater sense, any song can be done in any key, so it's not that the SONG is in a given key, but the RENDITION is in a particular key.

The "switching octaves in the middle of a song" thing you described above tells me that you're singing along with a rendition that is in the wrong key for your voice. If you want to sing along with a particular recording, you're stuck. If you want to sing along with a recording, you might be able to find a rendition by a different artist using a different key. If you just want some accompaniment, you may be able to find a musician friend who could accomodate you in an appropriate key for your voice.

My impression is that virtually all popular music (of Western civilization) will use only the notes of our musical definitions and standards. This means that the notes of any song, regardless of key, should be there on the piano keyboard. Certainly, if the note is or is not there in one key, that same note correspondingly will or will not be there in any and all of the other eleven keys. If you're finding it's there in one key but not in another, there is some fundamental problem with consisitency in singing the tune--the key and/or the starting note simply does not affect that.

I was told that unaccompanied choirs tend to unwittingly go increasingly flat as they proceed through a song. The simplest way to avoid this is to have instrumental accompaniment. Perhaps a helpful musician to accompany you while singing would solve the problems you encounter.


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: Dicho (Frank Staplin)
Date: 29 May 01 - 03:47 PM

The correct answer to Mrrzy's question was given by MTed and GaryT, since he has apparently been accused of singing "off-key." The discussions about "Key", however, are dammed interesting and I hope more are coming. I have learned something here.


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Subject: RE: What is a key, anyway?
From: kendall
Date: 29 May 01 - 06:22 PM

I have the same problem with church hymns, almost always in the wrong key for me.


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