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Thread: Easiest keys? major/minor

  1. #1

    Default Easiest keys? major/minor

    Hi.

    I've been playing about 6 months. I could read music from before (from 3rd grade through college I was a serious voila player, but I drifted away from music, first for work, then for family) but I still get a little mixed up with the clef and having an E string instead of a C string.

    I wrote a few poems and am thinking of turning them into songs.

    I made it through a method book up to 3 sharps and 4 flats and started to get frustrated and put powering through the end of the book on the side and started playing a little Bach and a little Led Zeppelin (ChordU gives good chord estimates).

    I'm not much of a singer, so considering what key I can sing in is kind of irrelevant - I'll try to keep the vocal part in a small range - so I'd like to make the mando part more interesting.

    I can play Tangerine fairly well - uses Am/G/D/C F and E chords (E trips me up, but the rest I can play along), and for non-chord style playing (like the Bach) major and minor keys up to 3 sharps or flats have been ok. So that's like my limits - but I was wondering if I could get an unofficial consensus on what keys people (especially beginners to beginner/intermediate) find the easiest to play.

  2. #2
    Registered User Sherry Cadenhead's Avatar
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    Default Re: Easiest keys? major/minor

    My teacher says G and D major are the easiest. I'm working on C major, which she says is one of the most difficult. Not sure if she is referring to major keys or all keys.
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    Orrig Onion HonketyHank's Avatar
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    Default Re: Easiest keys? major/minor

    Hi, Heady, and welcome! I started with a mandolin about 5 yrs ago and I still consider myself a beginner or maybe a beginner/intermediate player. I still mostly play in first position with open strings, which probably shapes my opinion that the more use of the first fret and the sixth fret there is, the less desirable (to me) is the key. And given a choice, I prefer use of the sixth fret over use of the first. So, to Sherry's G and D, I'll add C and A. But if you start talking about closed positions, I presume they are pretty much all the same as long as you got a good obedient and strong pinkie finger. So give me sharps, not flats.

    ps: I am right now exploring a mandola, so I am having to make adjustments in the opposite direction. Longer lefthand reaches and no E string.
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    Registered User Pete Martin's Avatar
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    Default Re: Easiest keys? major/minor

    My friend, the great swing violinist Paul Anastasio used to tell me "there are no hard keys, just unfamiliar ones". I didnt believe him until I learned to play in all keys myself. Know what? He's right
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  8. #5

    Default Re: Easiest keys? major/minor

    If you know:

    1 the pattern of low octave of the key of G using your first finger on the nut, the root, G
    2 the names of the open strings
    3 the sequence of the major scale: A,A#,B,C,C#,D,D#,E,F,F#,G,G#.

    -then all the major keys are easy.

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  10. #6
    Registered User foldedpath's Avatar
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    Default Re: Easiest keys? major/minor

    There is a loose category of music called "fiddle tunes" that covers a huge variety, many derived from very old sources in the UK and Europe, and then evolving as they made their way through Appalachia and other parts of the US. You'll hear them played in OldTime and Bluegrass jams, in Contra dances, and in Irish and Scottish trad pub sessions.

    Almost all "fiddle tunes" are played in first position on mandolin, just like the fiddle. It's folk music, 'ya know. Aside from being easy to finger, it allows the use of double-stops on open strings, and ornamentation like cuts and rolls (specific to Irish/Scottish trad). So the typical keys for fiddle tunes are based around G, D, and related minor keys Am, Em, Bm. Sometimes Dm or F#m.

    These keys also allow playing with other "folk" instruments like concertina, tin whistles, banjo, flutes, and pipes, some of which are diatonic and not fully chromatic to cover every key.

    Some fiddle tunes are straightforward, like the ones typically in G major. Others are "modal," so you might actually be playing in D Mixolydian instead of D Major, or A Dorian instead of A Minor. Many of the tunes, especially in Irish/Scottish repertoire shift back and forth, like "Kid on the Mountain" that alternates between E Dorian to G Major. There are even tunes with gapped or hexatonic scales where it's hard to figure out if they're major or minor.

    So don't get too hung up on key signatures if you start exploring fiddle tunes. You need to keep your ears open for those changes, regardless of a key signature you might see in sheet music, or the key someone else yells across the group in a jam. But you'll still probably be in first position, and still probably somewhere in the neighborhood of G, D, Am, Em, Bm.

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  12. #7

    Default Re: Easiest keys? major/minor

    I'd add that the key to learn first would be D.

    D is not necessarily the easiest -it's subjective, but it's very common in fiddle tunes and a good start. If you learn D, then G and A are very close, they just start a string down or a string above.

    In the key of A, the strings can sound a bit sqeaky when not played correctly, for unaccoustomed fingers they bite a bit, and A can have notes higher than the 5th fret.

    G is really nice on the fingers, and when they come down on the heavier strings, the strings seem to hold their position. G also (to my old ears) has a richer, more forgiving tone, but sometimes the notes in a tune go below the bottom root note which would be below the fourth string, zero fret G. So G is maybe the second key to learn.

    Bm, which is D's relative minor, would be the minor key that you'd learn pretty much at the same time, it's the mode of B aeolian, along with E dorian and A mixolydian- they all use the same notes, so your fingers will be landing on the same places. They just have melodies that centre around different places.

    But it's a lot simpler than it sounds -just let your fingers do the thinking!
    Enjoy!

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    Default Re: Easiest keys? major/minor

    Ignorant (but I hope practical) response : if you think in terms of frets and strings, not sharps and flats, all major keys on the mandolin have the same scale patterns and the same chord patterns as every other major key. Because its tuned in 5ths all the way up and down, the mandolin is a computer that tells you in any given key WHERE the notes are, even if not WHAT they are--and where your I, IV and V chords are, even if not what the notes in the chord are.

  14. #9

    Default Re: Easiest keys? major/minor

    I think like Pete says there are just unfamiliar keys. Take a tune you know well and work it out in a different key, then do another. It gets easier and it’s good practice for when the singer wants a different key than you know. I think it also depends on the genre you want to play as well, you mentioned Bach and Rock so determine what those require. You also mentioned writing your own song so you have to do what you think sounds good and what key you can sing in well.

    Like belbein said, the mando is so logically laid out that many times I don’t know exactly what key I’m in but I can hear it sounds good.

    Take a few lessons and get some direction, there are tons of options and I would recommend a few live lessons, many pros are doing lessons thru Skype and other platforms so there’s no reason to not invest in yourself.
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    Registered User DavidKOS's Avatar
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    Default Re: Easiest keys? major/minor

    Quote Originally Posted by Pete Martin View Post
    My friend, the great swing violinist Paul Anastasio used to tell me "there are no hard keys, just unfamiliar ones". I didnt believe him until I learned to play in all keys myself. Know what? He's right
    I agree. All keys are equally hard or easy, depending on how much you have practiced your scales in all keys with both open string and closed position fingerings.

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    Mandolin user MontanaMatt's Avatar
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    Default Re: Easiest keys? major/minor

    Not B maj...
    I'm not sure why, but it still frustrates me.
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  18. #12

    Default Re: Easiest keys? major/minor

    Quote Originally Posted by MontanaMatt View Post
    Not B maj...
    I'm not sure why, but it still frustrates me.
    Yeah that is a tough one, no open strings.

    I’m getting very comfortable in just about any key - my group defines “hard” as anything other than D...the mando players won’t even try a different key than they know, some of the guitar guys just capo.

    I learned Belmont Rag in F and find it lays out very nicely, my jam group does it in D...which I do not think is “easier” to play it’s just more familiar (Pete Martin) to them so I figured it out in D...whatever, it’s all good, makes me a more flexible player...and keeps me from getting kicked out of the jam...ha!
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  19. #13
    Registered User belbein's Avatar
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    Default Re: Easiest keys? major/minor

    I'm not sure that what I wrote above is clear, so I want to illustrate. Sorry about the crummy drawing. I've highlighted the major scale pattern. The ones I haven't highlighted appear different because the picture cuts off part of the fret board. But if you started the C scale on the 4th string, 5th fret, it would be exactly the same pattern as the major scales I've highlighted, just further down the fretboard:

    Click image for larger version. 

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    Chords are based on the notes of each key, which means the chords in each major key are based on the same scale patterns of each other major key.

    Click image for larger version. 

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    The illustration is for a pentatonic scale with chords delineated on it because I couldn't find a major scale. But the point is the same: once you recognize that all scale patterns are the same (majors like majors, minors like minors, etc.), then it stands to reason that all of the chord forms and chord progressions are the same in each type of key. The only difference is where they start and end. The I chord in G is also the I chord in Bb; the IV chord in G is also the IV chord in Bb, etc. All major scales use the same scale patterns and the same chord forms and the same chord progressions because they're all based on the same patterns of notes.

    Now, if you're saying: "This is too simple to be true!" and "Why is this so easy and yet it seems so hard in all of the descriptions of keys and degrees and tones and semi-tones and tonics and intervals?" Because some people--and I have undying respect for them--have an intuitive grasp of musical theory. Their minds work in the scientific and mathematical clouds, and good for them. But you don't need musicological mathematics to learn the patterns and employ them on your instrument. And you don't need to accept that it's just hard because you haven't studied it hard enough. All those brilliant musicians like Doc Watson and Robert Johnson and so forth didn't know all that scientific musicology stuff, and they still were better musicians than nearly all of us because they intuited this.

    Sorry. Didn't mean to lecture.
    belbein

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  21. #14

    Default Re: Easiest keys? major/minor

    Quote Originally Posted by bigskygirl View Post
    Yeah that is a tough one, no open strings.

    !
    Open E is in the key of B major.

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    Registered User belbein's Avatar
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    Default Re: Easiest keys? major/minor

    Quote Originally Posted by David L View Post
    Open E is in the key of B major.
    I'd love to know what this means. Isn't "E" in every key that ... has an E in it?
    belbein

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    Default Re: Easiest keys? major/minor

    Quote Originally Posted by belbein View Post
    I'd love to know what this means. Isn't "E" in every key that ... has an E in it?
    bigskygirl said "no open strings" for the key of B. DavidL pointed out that E is in the key of B, so there is indeed an open string in the key of B, because E is one of the open strings.

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    Default Re: Easiest keys? major/minor

    Ah! I get it. Seemed a lot more mystical several hours ago.
    belbein

    “Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”

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  27. #18

    Default Re: Easiest keys? major/minor

    Quote Originally Posted by jefflester View Post
    bigskygirl said "no open strings" for the key of B. DavidL pointed out that E is in the key of B, so there is indeed an open string in the key of B, because E is one of the open strings.
    Of course...totally forgot about that and one of my favorite tunes to play is Rebecca...
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    Default Re: Easiest keys? major/minor

    Quote Originally Posted by Heady View Post
    Hi.

    I've been playing about 6 months. I could read music from before (from 3rd grade through college I was a serious voila player, but I drifted away from music, first for work, then for family) but I still get a little mixed up with the clef and having an E string instead of a C string.

    I wrote a few poems and am thinking of turning them into songs.

    I made it through a method book up to 3 sharps and 4 flats and started to get frustrated and put powering through the end of the book on the side and started playing a little Bach and a little Led Zeppelin (ChordU gives good chord estimates).

    I'm not much of a singer, so considering what key I can sing in is kind of irrelevant - I'll try to keep the vocal part in a small range - so I'd like to make the mando part more interesting.

    I can play Tangerine fairly well - uses Am/G/D/C F and E chords (E trips me up, but the rest I can play along), and for non-chord style playing (like the Bach) major and minor keys up to 3 sharps or flats have been ok. So that's like my limits - but I was wondering if I could get an unofficial consensus on what keys people (especially beginners to beginner/intermediate) find the easiest to play.
    My first instrument was the guitar which I started learning close to 62 years ago. As I already knew the rudiments of music theory, and at least the principles of SN (you don't really know SN until you can play an instrument) I learned the keys in systematic fashion, starting in C and traveling in both directions along the circle of fifths: C, F, G, Bb, D, etc. I relied a lot (far too much) on sheet music for the piano so I tend to favor flat keys like Bb and Eb.

    When I got started on the mandolin ten years later I didn't approach it systematically; I just started playing. My main motive was to play fiddle tunes in their proper range and without awkward string crossings, so the first tunes I learned were a few of the tunes on Howdy Forrester's Fancy Fiddlin' album: Brilliancy in A (which I recorded with a BG group in 1969!), Rutland's Reel in am, and High Level in Bb. In the beginning I avoided open strings completely which was a great help in learning moveable forms. But still, for lack of material, I'm not completely comfortable in Db and Gb (which I think of as F#, esp. in blues). The one song I do in Db is I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.

    I've found that F and Bb are chock full of possibilities combining first and second positions. F is the most common key among my original compositions (about 20%); it has a nice physical feel on both guitar and mandolin. I have comparatively few originals in Bb but I enjoy playing tunes like Sailor's Hornpipe, Zambesi, Slow Poke, Blues for Dixie, and What a Friend We Have in Jesus in these keys. A couple of years ago I wanted to work up a version of the Tennessee Waltz in D but realized that I had far too many songs in that key. So I changed it to F and worked it into a waltz medley: Tennessee in F, Missouri in D, and Kentucky in Eb. (In order to include all three standard modulations I would have to add something in G.)

  29. #20

    Default Re: Easiest keys? major/minor

    Quote Originally Posted by ralph johansson View Post

    ...I've found that F and Bb are chock full of possibilities combining first and second positions. F is the most common key among my original compositions (about 20%); it has a nice physical feel on both guitar and mandolin. I have comparatively few originals in Bb but I enjoy playing tunes like Sailor's Hornpipe, Zambesi, Slow Poke, Blues for Dixie, and What a Friend We Have in Jesus in these keys. A couple of years ago I wanted to work up a version of the Tennessee Waltz in D but realized that I had far too many songs in that key. So I changed it to F and worked it into a waltz medley: Tennessee in F, Missouri in D, and Kentucky in Eb. (In order to include all three standard modulations I would have to add something in G.)
    Yes for me I’d say that Bb is the most exciting of all the keys. On the second and first strings it’s kind out laid out like a standard FFcP 1st finger but with the extra 7th on the open 2nd string and a spicy sounding note on the 1st string open. Gm is it’s relative minor so loads of fun there, and possibilities to learn a minor scale layout on the 3rd and 4 th strings which have lots of symetrical 2fret jumps, easy to learn... but darn it if there’s a lot of stretching to do!

  30. #21

    Default Re: Easiest keys? major/minor

    Physically Bb is the most difficult for me due to the stretches in 1st position. Db and Ab don’t get much use so unfamiliarity is an issue.
    Play it like you mean it.

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    Default Re: Easiest keys? major/minor

    Quote Originally Posted by foldedpath View Post
    There is a loose category of music called "fiddle tunes" that covers a huge variety, many derived from very old sources in the UK and Europe, and then evolving as they made their way through Appalachia and other parts of the US. You'll hear them played in OldTime and Bluegrass jams, in Contra dances, and in Irish and Scottish trad pub sessions.

    Almost all "fiddle tunes" are played in first position on mandolin, just like the fiddle. It's folk music, 'ya know. Aside from being easy to finger, it allows the use of double-stops on open strings, and ornamentation like cuts and rolls (specific to Irish/Scottish trad). So the typical keys for fiddle tunes are based around G, D, and related minor keys Am, Em, Bm. Sometimes Dm or F#m.

    These keys also allow playing with other "folk" instruments like concertina, tin whistles, banjo, flutes, and pipes, some of which are diatonic and not fully chromatic to cover every key.

    Some fiddle tunes are straightforward, like the ones typically in G major. Others are "modal," so you might actually be playing in D Mixolydian instead of D Major, or A Dorian instead of A Minor. Many of the tunes, especially in Irish/Scottish repertoire shift back and forth, like "Kid on the Mountain" that alternates between E Dorian to G Major. There are even tunes with gapped or hexatonic scales where it's hard to figure out if they're major or minor.

    So don't get too hung up on key signatures if you start exploring fiddle tunes. You need to keep your ears open for those changes, regardless of a key signature you might see in sheet music, or the key someone else yells across the group in a jam. But you'll still probably be in first position, and still probably somewhere in the neighborhood of G, D, Am, Em, Bm.
    "double stops on open strings", isn't that a bit of an oxymoron? ... Of course, using double stops more extensively, in thirds and sixths, will force you out of first position. I sometimes play San Antonio Rose in Ab (so as to keep that key alive). On the bridge, in Eb, I use double stops a lot, beginning with g+bb, with the g played at the 12 fret on the lowest course, then moving towards the nut.

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    Default Re: Easiest keys? major/minor

    Quote Originally Posted by bigskygirl View Post
    Yeah that is a tough one, no open strings.

    I’m getting very comfortable in just about any key - my group defines “hard” as anything other than D...the mando players won’t even try a different key than they know, some of the guitar guys just capo.

    I learned Belmont Rag in F and find it lays out very nicely, my jam group does it in D...which I do not think is “easier” to play it’s just more familiar (Pete Martin) to them so I figured it out in D...whatever, it’s all good, makes me a more flexible player...and keeps me from getting kicked out of the jam...ha!
    BEGIN anecdote: In a jam about 25 years ago there were two guitarists, me and another guy who really knew the BG lead guitar tradition inside out. I called Beaumont rag in F because that's where I learned it in 1969 from a County collection of Texas fiddle tunes. The other guitarist clamped on a capo at the 5th fret and I played the song open, exploiting all the nice closed chord forms that key offers (for accompaniment). Afterwards he expressed surprise that I could handle such a difficult key uncapoed. I simply explained that F was the 2nd key I learned, because it has only one flat. But we came from very different backgrounds - when I really got into BG and similar music I had already been playing the guitar, in other idioms, for about 7 years, and until then I had never used a capo. And he, on the other hand, was used to exploiting the open strings effects that a capo transports to other keys than C, G, A, or E. So yes, it's all about familiarity. END anecdote.

  33. #24
    Registered User foldedpath's Avatar
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    Default Re: Easiest keys? major/minor

    Quote Originally Posted by ralph johansson View Post
    "double stops on open strings", isn't that a bit of an oxymoron? ... Of course, using double stops more extensively, in thirds and sixths, will force you out of first position.
    Poor choice of words on my part. Should have been "double stops along with open strings."

    Like the ubiquitous "A modal" or "A5" 2200 fingering, where you press down both the G and D courses (all four strings) at the 2nd fret with just the tip of the index finger.

    That can be used as-is for a chord (technically a dyad?) that works in either major or minor tunes. Or the 2200 double-stop can be used as a drone underneath fingered melody notes on the A and E strings (either open or fretted), since your other fingers are freed up. Very useful for playing fiddle tunes in the common keys, when you want to throw in a brief bit of harmony within the melody line. There's a similar use for X220 for Em/E dorian tunes.

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