Composer’s Corner – Entry 4 – Let’s Talk Keys… Specifically Those Of A Sharp Nature

The wonderful world of composing has a wide array of tools that are available to us that allow us to make beautiful music. We chords, modes, rhythms and keys. Ah yes….. keys. That dreaded four letter word that most musicians should know but aren’t 100% confident with. There is good reason for that to. Instruments have certain tonalities about them that make it easier (or harder) for them to excel in certain keys.

For example, an Eb Alto Saxophone is a lot more comfortable playing an Ab scale then say a Violin whose strings are tuned to C,G,D,A. Both are well capable of playing the scale just fine but it might be easier for the Saxophone to sight read a piece in Ab then a Violin.

There is a school of thought that there are keys out there that are better suited for a Concert Band vs an Orchestra simply because of the instrumentation. Concert Bands have a history for exceling better in flat keys while Orchestras excel more in sharp keys.

As a composer this bugs crap out of me.

Primarily as a concert band composer I want to be able to use keys such as E major, B minor, and C# Lydian, but ensembles tend to clam up whenever they see sharps. As a musician I can understand that reading sharp keys can be “scary” but with a little practice and patience, sharp keys can be such a wonderful thing.

Does this mean I’m going to start composing in all sharp keys? Probably not.

If I’m writing a piece that will be sight read by a band at a contest, I will probably not choose a multi-sharp key. That’s not the correct time and place for it. If a professional/college level band commissions me, I’m going to want to use those sharp keys more often then not.

Here is a breakdown of the concert (non-transposing) sharp keys that are available and my reaction as a composer vs my reaction as a musician .

  • G Major
    • Composer: Great key! A very bright and happy key.
    • Musician: 1 Sharp? No Problem!
  • D Major
    • Composer: Another great key! I can turn off the flats like a light switch and do some cool tonality composing with it!
    • Musician: 2 Sharps? Ok I might have to hit the practice room once. More then likely going to forget the C# and have to circle it in my music
  • A Major
    • Composer: They all tune to A so why not play in A Major? It’s the key of earth! Long like 440Hz! (For examples of this see my second symphony after I’ve had a chance to post it!)
    • Musician: 3 Sharps? Why didn’t he just write this in Bb? He obviously made a mistake and accidently transposed the entire piece down a half step once he was finished… We will correct this by missing both G# and C# multiple times during rehearsals!
  • E Major
    • Composer: In my opinion one of the most underrated keys out there! Can you say SPACE CHORDS. Also congrats if you can play this, you can play C# minor!
    • Musician: Seriously why does he just not transpose it down a half step to Eb?!?! He hates us right now doesn’t he?
  • B Major
    • Composer: This key can throw off an audience big time. Especially if they band tunes to A and Bb…. Perfect for scary music!
    • Musician: So. Many. Sharps. My brain can’t handle this right now.
  • F# Major
    • Composer: Lucky number 7! If Scriabin can compose in this key, so can I!
    • Musician: *Sobs in corner of practice room*

Whether you like them or not, sharp keys are as important to music as flat keys. If we conquer our fear of them, we will quickly see that they are just as beautiful and easy as flat keys!

Now if excuse me… I have piece in B Major to write… (kidding)

Until next time
-Robert