Differences in Keys

Posted In: Coffee Break

  • Participant
    Nancy Edwards on #252888

    What is the difference in major and minor keys that have the same number of sharps or flats? For example, F major and D minor. How do you know if the key is the major or minor just by looking at the key signature?

    Participant
    harpist123 on #252891

    You can’t determine key signature by ONLY looking at the key signature. But if you spot the first and last note of the melody as F, it is probably in the key of F major. And likewise, if the first and last note is D, than it is probably in D minor. (But if those notes aren’t evident as such, you might find them in the accompaniment instead, or if chords are indicated you might see the first and last chords are either F or D.) I would add that if a key signature is given and you adjust your pedals or levers accordingly, it will play correctly in either the major or minor key 🙂 And then when you hear the piece you can probably determine by the “sound” if it sounds major or minor…There’s other note-determining techniques that can be utilized within the piece itself to determine if it’s a major or minor key. But wasn’t sure if you wanted to delve that far into it…such as, the positioning of half and whole steps between notes of the corresponding scales of F major and D minor 🙂 etc…

    Participant
    charles-nix on #252892

    You can not tell only by looking at the key signature. That does not tell you the mode, which is the order of half and whole tones that make up the scale. Major scales are W-W-H-W-W-W-H. Minor (natural minor) are W-H-W-W-H-W-W.

    For most Western “classical” music composed roughly 1650-1900, and a majority of 20th century music, you can look at the lowest concluding _bass_ note of the piece. For all folk and pop music this is also true. For all hymns this is true (well, I know of one exception).

    For a concluding bass note of F with a key signature of one flat (B), you have F major. For a concluding bass note of F with a key signature of four flats, you have F minor. D minor will conclude on D.

    Music majors/music theorists will know exceptions–but this will get you what you asked (until it doesn’t) and by the time you are playing music that doesn’t follow this rule, you won’t need to ask the question.

    Participant
    Alison on #252951

    You look for the accidentals, which shift or modulate the piece into the minor key. So Handel’s Theme and Variations has a key signature of Bb major (2 flats) but immediately plays F#, which tell you it’s already in G minor and indeed G is the tonic in the phrases. Only when the F is natural in the second section do we hear the Bb major as the tonic key.

    Similarly a piece set in F major with some C#’s written in, like the very elementary Allegretto in Scholomitz’s beginner book, is definitely in D minor.

    Participant
    Biagio on #252953

    Not to be picky but let’s recognize that in principal major and minor keys are simply two of the seven recognized modes and even determining those are sometimes problematic. Looking at the key signature might suggest that it is in G but it may in fact be pentatonic or a harmonic minor, or some other. As Charles says, playing the piece an examining the chord progressions is a more reliable guide.

    Participant
    Nancy Edwards on #252958

    Thank you everyone for the very helpful responses. I have learned a lot from them and understand (some of it) much better. I knew I would get some answers from people here!

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