Notation question: what key signature to use?

Discussion in 'Playing and Technique' started by rednoise, Aug 12, 2019.

  1. rednoise

    rednoise Member

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    I'm notating a simple rock song that's in the key of A (monophonic bass line only.) The chords are mostly A, G and C and the melody has many C and G naturals in it. If I use the key signature of A, which most accurately indicates the true tonal center I have to use a lot of accidentals all the way through to cancel out the sharps. If I if I use no key signature I'll only need to use a couple of accidentals, which will make it more readable by the person I'm doing this for, who is not a strong reader or player. On the other hand, this makes it look like it's in the key of C, which is not the case. Similarly, I could use the KS of D major which fits in with the somewhat Mixolydian flavored chord progression, but doesn't reflect the tonal center.

    I run up against this in many bluesy or modal things, where the "proper" key signature may be messier than using a "wrong" one. What's the best or most common practice? Is it about accuracy of presentation or readability?
     
  2. amstrtatnut

    amstrtatnut Member

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    Sounds like you are in A minor. It will look like C with no sharps or flats. If tonal center is A then your reader ought to pick up on that.
     
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  3. cameron

    cameron Member

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    When the A chord is played is it played as A major or minor? Everything you've said about the song makes it sound like it's in A minor. But of course lots of rock songs will play A major alongside C and G.
     
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  4. rednoise

    rednoise Member

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    It's not A minor. There are C#s in the vocal and guitar parts. Maybe that's an incentive to write it in A major even though I have to cancel out almost all the G#s and many of the C#s.

    A more generalized version of my question is, how best to notate modal music? With the key signature of the tonal center, or that of the Ionian mode it's derived from?
     
  5. Tomo El Gato

    Tomo El Gato Member

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    I'd say whichever signature will end up with the least accidentals.
    For modal music in particular - the key signature does not have to indicate the tonal center.
     
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  6. FwLineberry

    FwLineberry Member

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    This is the problem with using a notation system that is firmly entrenched in key based music. Very little "folk" music is truly key based in the sense that the notation was designed to reflect. A perfect example of this is that there is no visual difference between using no key signature and using a C major/A minor key signature.

    I generally use a key signature that indicates the tonal center of the piece unless there are extenuating circumstances. Any competent reader should have no problem negotiating a key signature and accidentals. In your case I would notate it with an A major key signature.

    There are arguments for and against on all sides, though.

    Ultimately the purpose of the written music is so that the music can be performed accurately, not as some sort of theory lesson or political statement. To that end, If I'm notating for a specific reader, I'll do whatever is needed to facilitate their playing of the music. Sometimes this results in multiple versions of a piece. I'll do whatever is necessary for the player in one version and do a "correct" version for general public consumption.

    .
     
  7. cameron

    cameron Member

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    Which would require fewer accidentals, notating it in A major and marking where it strays from that, or notating it in A minor and adjusting from there?
     
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  8. Jim Soloway

    Jim Soloway Member

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    Why not just notate in the key it's actually in? If you give the chart to someone who reads, it won't be a problem. If you give it to someone who doesn't read, it won't make a difference what key you use.
     
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  9. SecondFloorTones

    SecondFloorTones Member

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    I would go with whatever gives the least accidentals. I’m probably wrong.
     
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  10. rednoise

    rednoise Member

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    You make some good points. This song is mostly a repeated G -> A with a B section that's C -> A - common progressions in rock and folk. I'm doing this for a novice bass player friend of mine, so I want it to be easy for her to read and nobody else is likely to use it. Turns out that the part uses the fewest accidentals if I use the key signature of C. So I think I'll use that and make a note that the tonal center is A.

    If I was making a multiple instrument score that would be read by several instruments I'd have to re-think this. Seems like the key signatures should be consistent between parts. I'd probably use A major in that case.
     
  11. rednoise

    rednoise Member

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    I'm giving it to someone who reads just a little bit, so I want make it easiest for them while not being too misleading with the technicalities.
     
  12. JosephZdyrski

    JosephZdyrski Member

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    That’s what I would do too. I kinda don’t mind being wrong though lol.
     
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  13. Jim Soloway

    Jim Soloway Member

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    A guitar player? It so (and his reading is that weak), you'd probably be better just giving him tab.
     
  14. rednoise

    rednoise Member

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    I'm giving her both standard notation and tab, one above the other as produced by Musescore. I can indicate rhythms more precisely with notation, and I'm trying to get her more comfortable reading it. The tab is more about suggested fingerings.
     
  15. Motterpaul

    Motterpaul Tone is in the Ears

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    The trad is to write it in the key in which it sounds (A) but there is no law against doing it otherwise. If it has a lot of F# (A-dorian) you could write it in G major, or if it has a lot of F# and C# you could go with D major (2 sharps)
     
  16. maydaynyc

    maydaynyc Supporting Member

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    could it be that the G-A part is actually A Mixo, which would be notated as D major (2 sharps) and the C-A could be more c major/Amin so not sharps/flats. I think changing keys would give you the fewest accidentals and communicate the tonality change best, if the player understands key sigs and modes.
     
  17. rumbletone

    rumbletone Silver Supporting Member

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    If you’re using traditional notation, I recommend notating the traditional way. If it’s in A major, then the key signature is that of A major. Yes that means more accidentals, but that’s because you composed with lots of accidentals. I say this in part because, as a player, if I’m reading a chart in A major I expect a C natural (or G natural) to be notated as an accidental, especially if the tonic chord and the vocal melodies have the (naturally occurring in the key) C#s in them.

    I do think there is a time and place to notate it from a ‘modal’ perspective (and I’ve done it in orchestral pieces that truly were modal), but if it’s as you describe it’s not ‘modal’ as I would use that term. It would be way more odd/unusual to provide a key signature with a C natural for a composition in A major and then notate the C#s as accidentals. It’s in A major - so notate it that way!
     
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  18. handtrix

    handtrix Member

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    Write out what you think the seven notes are; from the three that you have posted, that are within the octave.
     
  19. Thumpalumpacus

    Thumpalumpacus Member

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    I'd write it in Gmaj, you'd obviate needing to strike the sharps -- instead adding them in -- and ease both your workload and that of the reader.
     
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  20. gennation

    gennation Member

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    Write it in the key where it resolves to. That way your chart show the correct notated names based on the relationship to the resolve point.
     

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