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Thread: Why are some songs not written in the key they are in?

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    Default Why are some songs not written in the key they are in?

    I’ve noticed several songs in the Mike Marshall lesson plan are not written in the proper key. An example is below. It is written in C but is in A. All the sharps have to written in as a result.
    Is this common in bluegrass?
    Thanks for any insights.Click image for larger version. 

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    Last edited by David Bellino; Oct-29-2022 at 2:53pm. Reason: Clearer info.

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    Default Re: Why are some songs not written in the key they are in?

    That is puzzling. The tune is clearly set in A, but not transcribed so. There should be three sharps to the left of each staff to indicate this, as F#, C#, and G# are notes in the A scale. Sheet music with no accidentals indicated is in C, but this is not. I don't believe what we see here is common at all, bluegrass or otherwise. Very odd, indeed. The person credited with the transription made a grievous error, methinks, and should be embarrassed to have his name associated with this. I'll give him credit for beings consistent and persistent, though.
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    Default Re: Why are some songs not written in the key they are in?

    Could be getting people to think modally?

    Here’s an interesting Devil’s Dream exercise in modes.
    You basically stay in the same key but begin the tune on different notes in the scale,
    Enjoy!
    https://www.dropbox.com/s/f63owgfo4q...alFun.pdf?dl=0

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    Default Re: Why are some songs not written in the key they are in?

    Notation programs have the key of C as a default, i.e., no sharps or flats. If one enters only the tablature notation, the program will produce corresponding standard notation in C natural.
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    Default Re: Why are some songs not written in the key they are in?

    Quote Originally Posted by Peter Coronado View Post
    Notation programs have the key of C as a default, i.e., no sharps or flats. If one enters only the tablature notation, the program will produce corresponding standard notation in C natural.
    That makes sense. Thanks. A secondary question would be why would Mike allow this? I’m just in the beginner module (new to mando) but am already versed in reading (though I suck at it), but this has occurred several times already.

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    Martin Stillion mrmando's Avatar
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    Default Re: Why are some songs not written in the key they are in?

    I knew this guy, Sheamus O'Rork, who was studying composition at Cornish College of the Arts and directed our mandolin orchestra for a short time. Sheamus said his teachers told him that contemporary composition theory entails throwing key signatures out the window, along with the rest of conventional western harmony, and just notating the notes you want the musicians to play.

    But how this applies to folk or country music is anyone's guess.

    Last edited by mrmando; Oct-29-2022 at 6:28pm.
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    Default Re: Why are some songs not written in the key they are in?

    I just took a look at a few of the scores Mike’s Beginning and Intermediate sections, and I don’t find any mistakes in notation/staff. For me it’s always been just trying to hit the notes with precision and at a decent speed (in the fast ones). I don’t read, but I’m pretty sure if he felt was necessary for teaching a tune, he’d have fixed it. You could also send ArtistWorks a note; they’re a very obliging group of folks in my experience.

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    Default Re: Why are some songs not written in the key they are in?

    I’d guess it’s simply a matter of someone learning to use a notation app that doesn’t have the music “theory” background to know they should change the default key. The example cited was possibly created by a student. (MM often reposts student submissions in the Artist Works “additional materials” section, and that one was transcribed by someone else. I just checked and it is part of the Study Materials for that tune - just guessing it was at hand, though the gay it was added “with chords” may suggest the “chordless” version was raising questions.)

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    Default Re: Why are some songs not written in the key they are in?

    There are enough other mistakes on this page to betray the inexperience of the transcriber.

    I'm sure that there's no on-purpose "why", no intentional reason for the lack of a key signature.
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    Default Re: Why are some songs not written in the key they are in?

    This may just get me another “time-out” on this forum, but I’m sort of getting used to that, so here goes. The O.P. isn’t asking a legitimate question. Here is his question:
    “I’ve noticed several songs in the Mike Marshall lesson plan are not written in the proper key. An example is below. It is written in C but is in A. All the sharps have to written in as a result.
    Is this common in bluegrass?”
    There is no such thing as “….the proper key”. A song can be transposed into any key by raising or lowering each note. i.e. In going from A Maj. To C Maj. I’ve noticed several songs in the Mike Marshall lesson plan are not written in the proper key. An example is below. It is written in C but is in A. All the sharps have to written in as a result. A good example is “Arkansas Traveler”. It was originally written in D Maj. But today is very often played either in G Maj. or in a capo 2 position and played in open “C”. I don’t know why people do this. For me it is much easier to play that song in D Maj. In a straight forward manner.
    Is this common in bluegrass to transpose by adding 1 1/2 steps to the tonic and each note in the scale, or instead of A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#, the scale becomes C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. Is transposition “common” in bluegrass? Oh YES!!!
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    Default Re: Why are some songs not written in the key they are in?

    Quote Originally Posted by JiminRussia View Post
    There is no such thing as “….the proper key”. A song can be transposed into any key by raising or lowering each note.
    Yes, but in this case the key signature is not in the proper key. The tune is obviously in A major, but with the wrong key signature (no sharps). OP is not asking about transposing to a different key.

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    Default Re: Why are some songs not written in the key they are in?

    This one appears to be a poorly written transcription.

    However in other cases with bluegrass, music written for guitar or banjo will commonly be written in the key of C or G with capo instructions. This is most common with fiddle tunes in the key of D or A which will be written in C or G with instructions to capo the second fret. In the arrangement shown the capo would have to be on the ninth fret to play in A on guitar which would be weird and difficult.

    Similarly in jazz it is common for arrangements to be written in C actually played in Bb or Eb for the horns or woodwinds that are built to those keys.

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    Default Re: Why are some songs not written in the key they are in?

    Quote Originally Posted by mrmando View Post
    I knew this guy, Sheamus O'Rork, who was studying composition at Cornish College of the Arts and directed our mandolin orchestra for a short time. Sheamus said his teachers told him that contemporary composition theory entails throwing key signatures out the window, along with the rest of conventional western harmony, and just notating the notes you want the musicians to play.

    But how this applies to folk or country music is anyone's guess.

    I can’t ready notation (well), so take the following with a grain of salt.

    As someone who has contemplated learning notation, if all music was written this way (without need to modulate how one interprets a note on the staff based on the key signature or prior accidentals), the prospect of learning to read notation would be a lot less intimidating.

    The key signature - and the “stickiness” of accidentals - seems like a relic of the past. An optimization for the author of the notation, not for the reader. I do like knowing what key a song is written in, but the key signature doesn’t even communicate that well since there are multiple keys with the same number of sharps or flats!

    Those folks at Cornish sound like they may be on to something.. although I imagine their motivation for forsaking with key signatures are different than mine :D

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    Default Re: Why are some songs not written in the key they are in?

    Quote Originally Posted by joh View Post
    The key signature - and the “stickiness” of accidentals - seems like a relic of the past. An optimization for the author of the notation, not for the reader. I do like knowing what key a song is written in, but the key signature doesn’t even communicate that well since there are multiple keys with the same number of sharps or flats!

    Those folks at Cornish sound like they may be on to something.. although I imagine their motivation for forsaking with key signatures are different than mine :D
    Heh ... well, conventional western theory has its own language, and is just a particular way of interpreting and arranging sounds. You can play music without speaking that language.

    I got the opportunity to sit in on fiddle with Vigilantes of Love at a Seattle gig. I was down in the basement of the venue rehearsing a song with Jake, the bass player, to make sure I knew the progression. I think the song was in A and included a C# minor chord, but when we got to that chord Jake called it a "D flat." You would never say that if you'd been trained in conventional ideas about key signatures — but not being trained doesn't mean you can't play bass in a nationally signed band!

    When you have particular musical training, you will sometimes be in situations where you're playing with others who don't have that training, and you have to figure out a common language. I was in another band with Jeff, a classically trained bass player, and a bunch of folk musicians. Jeff and I would roll our eyes at them and they'd roll their eyes at us. We tried, but I don't know that we ever succeeded, in getting the primary guitarist to correctly refer to sus chords as "suspended" rather than "sustained."
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    Default Re: Why are some songs not written in the key they are in?

    Quote Originally Posted by mrmando View Post
    Heh ... well, conventional western theory has its own language, and is just a particular way of interpreting and arranging sounds. You can play music without speaking that language.

    I got the opportunity to sit in on fiddle with Vigilantes of Love at a Seattle gig. I was down in the basement of the venue rehearsing a song with Jake, the bass player, to make sure I knew the progression. I think the song was in A and included a C# minor chord, but when we got to that chord Jake called it a "D flat." You would never say that if you'd been trained in conventional ideas about key signatures — but not being trained doesn't mean you can't play bass in a nationally signed band!

    When you have particular musical training, you will sometimes be in situations where you're playing with others who don't have that training, and you have to figure out a common language. I was in another band with Jeff, a classically trained bass player, and a bunch of folk musicians. Jeff and I would roll our eyes at them and they'd roll their eyes at us. We tried, but I don't know that we ever succeeded, in getting the primary guitarist to correctly refer to sus chords as "suspended" rather than "sustained."
    In that same vein I worked for a while with a singer who thought Key meant the chord. She would ask me "What are the keys to this song?" wanting to know the chords. She would move the capo to fit her voice. She has a great voice and sense of rhythm but when working with other musicians I had to translate to keep everyone together.

    Another time a bunch of hippie or hipster guys barged into a regular jam session, sat down, played a song and their ringleader announced "Since we don't know anything about music, have invented all our own tunings and stuff and you guys know how to play you need to follow us since we cannot follow you and we will lead all of the songs." A guy with a very loud Mastertone banjo announced "Cripple Creek" launching into it and burying that nonsense.

    The idea of keys becomes irrelevant at certain high levels in jazz or classical music. Those players are at a very advanced level and grown past it. Some of the music they play can be really strange also. I have heard some top level professionals in workshops say they do not know how to read or any theory. They are mostly trying to shut down any picky detail questions that will sidetrack the workshop. They know what keys are and how to improvise within a key. They also started playing at about 7 years old and grew up with it. Knowing a bit about keys is sure helpful to me in being able to play along with unfamiliar music in jam sessions. It seems to be more than for the convenience of notation. As you say, there is an established language for communicating about western music. It took a long time to develop and is not totally orderly but does make things easier if you understand it.

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    Default Re: Why are some songs not written in the key they are in?

    Quote Originally Posted by David Bellino View Post
    I’ve noticed several songs in the Mike Marshall lesson plan are not written in the proper key. An example is below. It is written in C but is in A. All the sharps have to written in as a result.
    Is this common in bluegrass?
    Thanks for any insights.Click image for larger version. 

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    What is this from? Are you taking lessons with Mike? Who is Glen Allen? I can’t imagine that Mike wrote out this transcription or approved it. I don’t think it is from any of his books or is it? Strange to notate that way.
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    Default Re: Why are some songs not written in the key they are in?

    I had a chat here on the Cafe with someone who said he'd studied with Herschel Sizemore or some other big-name bluegrass mandolinist who played and taught strictly by ear. That person said something like, "After you've played a while you'll discover that certain tunes have a commonality of notes."

    Yeah ... because they're in the same KEY and use the same SCALE (two terms this individual didn't seem to know).
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    Default Re: Why are some songs not written in the key they are in?

    Actually, it is probably easier to read normal tonal music when there is a key signature. The advantage is that if the composer throws in a note that is NOT part of the scale that the piece is written in -- which is done rarely and for deliberate effect in a tonal melody -- that note gets written with an accidental, which gives a very good visual cue to the musician that this note is weird.

    For instance, F# and C# are in the D major scale. If a tune in D major is notated with its key signature, the sharps appear at the beginning; every F# and C# in the tune has no accidental; and if the composer uses a minor third or flat seventh, THAT note gets a natural symbol. In contrast, if there were no key signature, every F# and C# (the usual and expected notes) would get a sharp symbol, and the oddball F or C notes would have NO symbol, which is a lousy visual cue.

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    Default Re: Why are some songs not written in the key they are in?

    Their motivation for forsaking key signatures -- you almost don't want to know. You have stumbled onto a bitter religious war that has consumed the classical music world for around 100 years.

    Atonal music was originally seen as a rebellion against the traditional "rules" of harmony and melody in the Western classical tradition. Its proponents claimed that tonality and harmony were artificial restrictions on musical creativity, and that composers were free to use all 12 semitones in the octave and treat them all equally. That's an oversimplification, but it is a reasonable description of the basic idea.

    After a few decades, atonality became religious truth in a great many academic music schools. If a student composer wrote a piece that used traditional harmony or tonality, they would be flunked. If you wanted to graduate, you had to write atonal music. Period. The school that was mentioned in this thread may be one of these places. In the world of classical music now, those writing tonal music (such as Philip Glass) are seen as the rebels.

    The big problem is that atonal music sounds like crap. The YouTube video in the thread is accurate. I will not be surprised if the banjo break turns out to be taken from an actual Schoenberg composition.

    Atonal music sounds like crap because harmony is not artificial. It is based on the harmonic or overtone series, which is a physical reality for all vibrating objects. Because harmonics are real, our ears are very well designed to recognize and analyze them. Atonal music is incompatible with our ears.

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    Default Re: Why are some songs not written in the key they are in?

    Many musicians do not read music, but that doesn’t mean they can’t play just about any song without having to have the notation. Some play just by ear, and are very accomplished. The Nashville number system is used a lot in Nashville and other areas. That allows you to play the song in any key and at a basic level just need to know the key or the 1chord. With that you can change keys without having to rewrite the music. The progression is the same, just in a different place. This can be helpful for improvising. There are a lot of records that have been made with just the chart. Many of the players in this area and in bluegrass are excellent at playing by ear and the chart just keeps everyone working in the same framework. I have used number charts for over 40 years and it makes playing in a group much easier for me than any other method. A great number of players are incredible musicians but may not be great at reading music. I think the best explanation of reading sheet music as opposed to number charts or playing by ear is that sheet music gives you what the author wanted in great detail and doesn’t leave much room for personal interpretation. The other ways are very open to improv and can offer the opportunity for personal expression. This is not exactly what the post is about, but just another viewpoint.
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    Default Re: Why are some songs not written in the key they are in?

    Quote Originally Posted by David Bellino View Post
    I’ve noticed several songs in the Mike Marshall lesson plan are not written in the proper key. An example is below. It is written in C but is in A. All the sharps have to written in as a result.
    Is this common in bluegrass?
    Thanks for any insights.Click image for larger version. 

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    Notation, standard or tab, is NOT common in Bluegrass. The reason for the absence of a key signature is ignorance. There are plenty examples of bad notation on tab banks. I've seen Sweet Georgia Brown notated with four sharps because that version, in G, started on the E 7 chord. With the result that the accidentals increase in number the closer you get to the root chord! A more subtle example is one version of Birdland Breakdownin d minor (one flat) where the A7 and E7 chords act as dominant and secondary dominant, yet the c# and g# notes are notated as db and ab. And, on Mandozine, the Moonlight Waltz, starting "as if" * in dm, has a db over the A7 chord in violation of the simple rule that different scale notes are to be notated on different lines or spaces.

    * "as if", because there never is a full d minor cadence in that tune.

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    Default Re: Why are some songs not written in the key they are in?

    None of the pipe music I've read has key signatures but it assumes two sharps as if you're playing in D. Even when you're playing in A. Then you have a flattened 7th.

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    Default Re: Why are some songs not written in the key they are in?

    Quote Originally Posted by Bren View Post
    None of the pipe music I've read has key signatures but it assumes two sharps as if you're playing in D. Even when you're playing in A. Then you have a flattened 7th.
    My two daughters are both pipers, Bren, and like you I have worked a lot from pipe notation which, as you say, generally has no key signature indicated though the F and C notes are sharp while the G remains natural. This gives they key of D major and the mode of A mixolydian (5th interval start on the D major scale). One of my daughters told me that when learning to read notation they did not read below the G on the treble clef as this is the lowest note the Great Highland Bagpipe plays!
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    Default Re: Why are some songs not written in the key they are in?

    I don't think of songs as having their own designated keys. The key is whatever the singer likes to sing it in.

    So writing the sheet music in C makes perfect sense to me. A tad less scribbling, and singers are free to call the key.

    But reading above, it sounds like maybe bluegrass tunes do have designated keys — what you call "the proper key" in your original post. That would explain why folks have to resort to singing high-lonesome-style — a sound notoriously not found in nature.
    Last edited by Charlie Bernstein; Oct-31-2022 at 9:54am.
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    Default Re: Why are some songs not written in the key they are in?

    Quote Originally Posted by Charlie Bernstein View Post
    I don't think of songs as having their own designated keys. The key is whatever the singer likes to sing it in.

    So writing the sheet music in C makes perfect sense to me. A tad less scribbling, and singers are free to call the key.

    But reading above, it sounds like maybe bluegrass tunes do have designated keys — what David calls "the proper key." That would explain why folks have to resort to singing high-lonesome-style — a sound notoriously not found in nature.
    But, again, that's not what this thread is about. Devil's Dream is not a song but is a fiddle tune and it is notated here in its actual, traditional, key of A major albeit without key signature. Luckily, there are not outside, non-scale, notes, such as flatted sevenths or thirds, in this tune.

    I've seen worse examples. On Banjo Hangout someone once published Earl Scruggs' solo on Doin' My Time in standard, without key signature, to make standard look bad. The song is in the key of B, five sharps, and the omission of signature of course made it much harder to see at a glance which notes were scale notes or not. Also, since Scruggs capoed at the fourth fret, it should have been notated in the key of G.

    Or, better, not notated at all. I do suppose someone with a thorough knowledge of banjo idiomatics could devise some less linear kind of notation, but that would be a waste of time. I once wrote a guitar tune in open G tuning and tried to put it down in notation and the result was probably unreadable to everybody else.

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