A Key Question…

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I found myself in a Facebook chat the other day with a newly-appointed chorus director who had found herself flummoxed at how to explain to one of her singers how you know which note is the key note. I told her that the correct answer in rehearsal is ‘Good question!’ to give yourself time to gather your thoughts.

So this post is for the singer in Sian’s chorus who asked – and for anybody else who has ever wondered, as I know it is a perennial question. It’s also one where there is a very easy answer that does you 90% of the time, but you need quite a lot more detail to be right 100% of the time.

Possibly the first thing to note is that it is a question that is most likely to be asked by people in a cappella traditions who find which note to start singing on from reference to a single pitch, usually given by a pitch-pipe. If you work in an accompanied tradition, knowing your key note is still useful information, but it doesn’t have quite the same central importance as you find yourself picking your notes up from the instruments a lot of the time.

The pitch that is given at the start of a song is called the ‘key note’ or ‘tonic’ and it is the note that represents a sense of ‘home’. If you were singing scales to note names it would be ‘doh’, or to numbers it would be 1. You’ll find that you can identify it by ear quite instinctively: if you try listening to 15-20 seconds of a song on the radio, then singing ‘doh’, you’ll find you know the answer without trying more often than not.

Since the tonic represents a sense of home, the quick-and-dirty way to identify it from the sheet music is to look at the last note in the bass. This works for the song Sian was working with, for instance (the Sweet Adeline anthem ‘How We Sang Today’). If you’ve got a good, solid sense of home at the end of the song, you can rely on this method. But if you’ve got anything that feels jazzy or non-standard, then it may not; likewise if you’ve changed key during the song, it will tell you the key note at the end rather than at the start. So it’s not foolproof, but it’s easy and the obvious place to look first.

The in-depth, always-right answer comes from interpreting the information given by the symbols at the start of each line of the score, called the ‘key signature’. This gives you the ‘setting’ for the key – which collection of notes you need to use for the music to sound right. If you think of it in terms of a piano keyboard, if there is no key signature at the start, you can play the music using just the white keys. If there is a key signature, it tells you that you need to replace certain notes with either the black note to the right (a sharp - # - which sounds a half-step higher) or to the left (a flat - b - a half-step lower).

So the way to read a key signature to find ‘doh’ is as follows:

  • If there are no sharps or flats, it will most likely be C major, but may be A minor)
  • If there are sharps, the key note will be the note above the final sharp sign (for a major key) or the note below it (for a minor key)
  • If there are flats, the key note will be the same note as the penultimate flat sign (if a major key) or two notes down from it (if in a minor key)

So for example:

Now, I hear you asking, what’s the deal with major and minor keys?

Most music in the western classical and popular traditions comes in one of two ‘flavours’ or ‘feels’ – major and minor. As the names imply, pieces in major keys are significantly more common, and they tend to have more positive and straightforward expressive effects than the more melancholy minor keys (hence: ‘How strange the change from major to minor’). Think of the difference between ‘We’re Off to See the Wizard’ and ‘Brother Can You Spare a Dime’.

Each major key uses the same set of notes as the minor key whose tonic is two notes down, so they share the same key signature. So, the way you decide which of the two possible key notes to give is, first, to check the bass note at the end – as above, that will tell you most of the time. But to be sure, you need to use your ears – is this a major or a minor feel?

So let’s apply all this to the song Sian was asked about. Here is the end of ‘How We Sang Today’.
'How We Sang Today', by Vicki J Uhr: bars 32-36'How We Sang Today', by Vicki J Uhr: bars 32-36

First off, we note that not only does the bass finish on a B flat, the lead has a huge great post on a B flat – both of these are giving the idea that that might be our key note, especially since it is a clear and straightforward feel to the ending.

If we cross-check with the key signature – it’s flats, so we look at the second-to-last one, which is a B flat. So if it’s a major key, doh will be B flat and if it’s a minor key doh will be G. Well, not only do the bass and lead give us a strong indication of how to choose between these two, the whole feel of the song is bright and major, so that clinches it.

This seems like quite a lot of words to explain how to pick which single note to give at the start of a song! But I’ve included quite a lot of the ‘why’ as well as the ‘what’, because I know that adult learners like explanations as well instructions. And like so many things in music, things that might look at first like ‘rules’ turn out to be merely useful generalisations, and you end up having to make contextual judgements from multiple sources of information. But there is at least plenty of information, and people’s intuitive judgements are often pretty reliable if you trust them.

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